2004 : The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Feature story - December 24, 2004
It's that time for year for a look back at the last twelve months. So ladies and gentlemen here it is - our good, bad and ugly of 2004.

As the sun sets on 2004, we look back at the year that was.

While 2004 was hardly a landmark year for the environment there were enough victories, large and small, to help keep the faith. And yes we admit it, there was definitely the occasional "told you so" quietly uttered in Greenpeace offices. On the other hand, there were more than enough challenges to be faced down over the year.

The year started with our absolute least favourite man of 2004 - President Bush. In 2003 we highlighted the import of illegal timber to the US from Brazil. So obviously that made us the real criminals. We were slapped with a lawsuit under an obscure prostitution law (whoever thought that orange jumpsuits were so fetching?) that hadn't been used since the 1800s. In response we sent a clear message about the ridiculous case, but the legal machine rolled on.

Early 2004 also saw us demonstrating how dragging a huge net between two boats to catch a few fish off the coast of the UK and France is a really bad idea when a lot of dolphins also end up dead. We achieved some progress in the UK but continue to push for a European ban on this destructive fishing method.

In February a UN Treaty banning the 12 most polluting chemicals on the planet came into force after years of hard campaigning and fighting off sleep in late night negotiating sessions. In an uncharacteristic moment, the US Pentagon issued a report declaring that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism. What, the Pentagon agrees with us? Well not entirely - the Pentagon's only suggestion is giving it more cash for fighting the wars a warmer world will foster.

2004The Good: Samsung, Nokia, Sony, Puma, Wangari Maathai, Coke, Unilever, McDonald's (NZ), President PutinThe Bad: George Bush, John Ashcroft, Dow, Disney, Exxon, MonsantoThe Ugly:Mr SquidIn March Bayer withdrew GE maize from the UK bemoaning the fact that regulations wouldn't allow them to make heaps of profit. Awww, bring on the violins. Back in 1999 we were taking action against the GE maize that Bayer finally withdrew in 2004. Obviously not wanting to be left out of the trend, Monsanto dropped development of GE wheat in May.

In May it was time to face the music, and answer those charges about daring to protest against illegal timber imports to the US. The judge threw out the case because the Bush administration tried to claim we had broken obscure laws from 1872 designed to keep brothels from tempting sailors off ships. The law was patently irrelevant, so we concluded Mr Ashcroft must have been feeling nearly as desperate as those sea-bound sailors to think he could get away with it.

Corporations taking baby steps towards being a bit more green must have been contagious during May and June. In May, after Ronald McDonald sadly had to resign from his job in protest at McDonalds' use of GE-fed chickens, McDonalds went GE free in New Zealand, and along with Coke and Unilever ditched climate-wrecking refrigeration. Samsung announced a phase out of nasty chemicals and was later joined by Nokia, Sony and Puma during our campaign against toxic chemicals in consumer products.

Out on the high seas we were exposing the destruction of the underwater equivalent of rainforests - seamounts, through a ridiculously unsustainable fishing practice called (don't laugh now) bottom trawling. We collected a stunning array of bycatch which we beamed live to the UN meeting in June. "We don't like bare bottoms," we told them, and over 22,000 cyberactivists agreed with us. In fact, Mr Squid - the lurid purple face of the bottom trawling campaign - became an international celebrity and unauthorised versions of him popped up all over the web, and even in the New York Times! But even Mr Squid was seemingly no match for the countries who blocked any moves to temporarily ban bottom trawling. Never fear, they haven't escaped the tenacious tentacles of squiddy yet.

Talking of stupid destructive technologies, one of our favourites was trying to extract oil from rocks by using a huge amount of energy to squeeze, heat and process the rock, turning dirty oil into an even more polluting fuel - shale oil. After getting millions of dollars in subsidies and still failing to make money an Australian company pulled the plug. Pity it took US$275m and four years to discover that squeezing oil out of rocks is a mugs game.

In July the intrepid winners of the cyberactivist Iceland Whaling pledge set off on the Esperanza to protest Iceland's whaling policy. Soon after, the Icelandic government announced that plans to kill 250 whales this year were shelved in favour of a hunt of only 25 minke whales - a massive step backwards in the face of domestic resistance, absence of market, and international pressure - especially painful to their bewildered tourism industry. We'll be back in 2005 to make sure Iceland scraps whaling plans entirely. Help by taking the pledge.

In August Ford thought it could get away with scrapping its fleet of electric cars (ironically called Think cars, something Ford apparently wasn't doing) after demolishing legislation requiring it to produce alternatives to gas-guzzling, climate-trashing SUVs. Thousands of people wrote to the company and within two weeks Ford was forced to admit it wasn't the greatest publicity and it would sell the cars to Norway instead. Not that this changed the fact that Ford's current range of cars is less efficient than their 1920's model T ford! Three cheers for such corporate 'leadership' on the environment!

The big story of September was the 7000km shipment of US radioactive weapons grade plutonium from the US to France. The deadly shipment travelled across the Atlantic despite the threats of accident or terrorist attack. Amongst the protests, huge media coverage and rough treatment by French authorities of activists protesting the shipment a real glimpse of true sentiment emerged. A shipment guard asked in broken English for a Greenpeace t-shirt from our campaigner. Not having a spare, our campaigner literally offered him the shirt off his own back and the guard became the proud owner of one slightly used, sweaty "Stop Plutonium" t-shirt. (We assume it's for strictly out of office wear.)

After far too many years of putting off action, humanity took the first global step to tackle climate change when Russia finally ratified the Kyoto protocol (motivations aside) bringing it into force. It was vodka toasts all round in the Greenpeace office and raucous choruses of "From Russia with Love". At least half an hour went by before someone said "Ah but this is only the start of saving the world from climate change, now the real hard work starts". Who said environmentalists were killjoys? That's a whole 30 minutes of feeling happy with the world!

In October the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kenyan environmentalist and human rights campaigner Wangari Maathai. "The environment is very important in the aspects of peace because when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that," she said. We couldn't agree more, which is why November brought such bad news.

Bush got elected again and it's back to doom and gloom and dreading what damage will be wreaked on the planet in four more years of Bush's war-mongering, international treaty-trashing, big business rules policies. But running off to a Pacific island isn't really an option, as Bush policies will help flood many of those left unchecked anyway. Nope it's time, as our head honcho in the US said, to: "Spend some time being pissed off. Feeling shock. Mourning. Then we have to act. Our cause is just. We cannot afford to be defeated, or to be defeatist. Too much is at stake: our planet, our future and the legacy we leave to our children."

So are we better off than 12 months ago? Some big companies did the right thing on pollution and protecting forests while others like Dow, Disney and Exxon most definitely didn't. Huge protected areas were created in the Amazon while forests and their inhabitants like the great apes were being wiped out faster than ever in the Congo and Indonesia. In 2004 it seemed finally that the public debate on climate change moved on from 'is it a problem?' to 'how do we tackle the problem?'.

But again the world's politicians seemed behind the eight ball when they spent two weeks in December arguing (again) about climate change rather than resolving to do something. Unfortunately most politicians don't get the idea that tackling climate change is vital for the future of the planet. As one of our campaigners wryly remarked on the BBC: "Will our lifestyles have to change? If quality of life is measured by the size of the engine of the quasi-military assault vehicle the housewife drives to the shopping mall, then yes, but if we're talking about basic comforts, transport and general services, then no."

Will 2005 be any better for the planet? Who knows, but what is for sure is that we will be out there fighting for a better world and we're sure going to need a lot of help doing it. Here's hoping......

Help the planet in 2005: