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McLuhan's Children:
The Greenpeace Message and the Media

McLuhan's Children: The Greenpeace Message and the Media
Stephen Dale
Between The Lines, 1996, 220pp, $19.95, ISBN 1-896357-04-0

Reviewed by Kirsten Cowan

Stephen Dales' McLuhan's Children is not a chronicle of Greenpeace's life as the world's best known environmental activist group. Rather, it is an examination of how that success has been due to an uncanny ability to exploit the realities of the modern media.

Greenpeace has achieved a unique symbiosis with the media, argues Dale, predicated on an understanding of the power of the visual image. Greenpeace has grown from a small group of idealists influenced by the spiritual traditions of First Nations peoples into a world-wide institution. This transformation did not take place without conflict.

"[T]he Save the Seals campaign brought into sharp relief two key but inherently contradictory aspects of Greenpeace's nature: the intense spiritual commitment of many of its members, and the organization's alliance with the mass media - that fickle, superficial, unforgiving appendage of the consumer society that we all know and sometimes hate." p. 93

That Greenpeace's message has been so successful is a tribute to the organization's intuitive understanding of Marshall McLuhan's theories about modern communication. Rather than relying on the logic chain thinking of written communication, Greenpeace makes its mark with powerful images in the modern medium of television. Baby seals being clubbed, brave eco-warriors standing up to whaling ships -- this instinctive understanding of the new visual currency has turned Greenpeace into an international force to be reckoned with.

Dale's book does an excellent job of revealing the complexities of both the issues involved in global environmental activism, and of the ethical quandaries posed to those who would make a difference in that field. Greenpeace has learned the hard way, argues Dale, of the dangerous oversimplifications spawned by the seductive, emotive, visual image. After the international boycott on seal pelts spelled devastation for many Native livelihoods, many in Greenpeace looked anew at the consequences of the uni-dimensional arguments put forward by sound-bite activism. How could the complexity of international environmental issues, linked in so many cases not by cuddly animals but by economic systems of domination and control, be expressed to a TV-viewing audience?

The image of today's Greenpeace which emerges from McLuhan's Children is of a two-sided organization. Greenpeace has struggled to integrate the lessons of three decades of both love-affair and betrayal in its alliance with modern media. On the one hand, it remains a media-savvy global organizer, fomenting public outrage through carefully controlled media placements, able to ride that tide of public opinion into the back rooms of international commissions and regulations councils. On the other hand is the unsung hero of both Greenpeace and the larger world of activism and grassroots organizing. The community-level co-operation and aid which Greenpeace provides are documented here by Dale, revealing an insight into a truth about the modern world. In order to make change, we operate in two worlds, the sleek, high-colour glow of television, where we passively absorb a simplified reality, and the daily, human interaction of community and connection, where we grapple with the contradictions and complexities of life.

I suspect that Stephen Dale's hypotheses about Greenpeace's relationship with McLuhan would be better understood by a student of communications than the lay reader such as myself. This is not a criticism of the book. McLuhan's Children is a fascinating, approachable and engaging read for environmentalists, community activists, journalists, history buffs, ethicists and communications theorists alike.

Kirsten Cowan is Promotions Co-ordinator for Sources.

Published in Sources, Number 42, Summer 1998.


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