Savior of humanity or predatory particular pursuits? – Are you finished with that?

I analyze energy economics and related public policy issues.

On Friday, the Moscow Times announced the closure of Greenpeace Russia after government authorities decided to label it “undesirable,” a designation that renders all of its activities illegal. The Prosecutor General’s Office claimed that the group “interferes in the internal affairs of Russia”, provides financial support to “foreign agents” and that its activities “pose a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system and the security of the Russian Federation”. It also said that after the start of the war in Ukraine, “Greenpeace activists engaged in anti-Russian propaganda, calling for further economic isolation of our country and tightening of sanctions imposed on Moscow.”

In response, Greenpeace Russia said: “By destroying Greenpeace for its criticism of environmental issues, the country is losing one of its leading experts in solving environmental problems.” to raise awareness of myriad environmental issues in the country, from illegal logging to lake and river pollution to waste management and recycling and so on. The organization argued, “We are doing everything possible to ensure that the people of our country live in favorable environmental conditions… Can protecting the country’s nature be contrary to its interests?”

It is no surprise that the green, chattering classes of the West see this event as yet another example of Putin’s autocratic government trampling on an organization that works for the common people of Russia. Wouldn’t that be so easy?

The Indian experience with Greenpeace

In 2015, the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi cut foreign funding to an estimated 10,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for “non-compliance with tax regulations”. The ban on Greenpeace India caused a great deal of excitement in the western press (here and here). The Western mainstream media saw the government’s actions as an expression of the BJP party’s “intolerant nationalism”. Still, it has done little to counter allegations by the country’s intelligence agency that Greenpeace posed a threat to the country’s economic security and led protests against nuclear and coal-fired power plants, mining projects and genetically modified food. According to the FBI report, Greenpeace alone led a “massive effort to shut down India’s coal-fired power plants and coal mines.” According to Reuters, which saw an excerpt of the report, the cancellation, pause or delay of various development projects had dampened gross domestic product growth by 2 to 3 percent a year.

Greenpeace India defended itself against the allegations, claiming it stands for “sustainable development”. It said: “We have the legitimate right to express our views in the largest democracy in the world.” We believe this report aims to muzzle and silence civil society who speak out against injustices against people and the environment by asking uncomfortable questions about the current growth model.”

A good example of Greenpeace’s vision of “sustainable development” is the case of the village of Dharnai in India’s poorest state (Bihar), which has no access to electricity. Greenpeace activists set up a solar-powered microgrid for the village in 2014 to great fanfare. Problems with solar grid loading immediately arose when households began plugging in appliances such as televisions, electric water heaters, irons and air conditioners. At the official opening of the solar power plant, villagers protested with banners that read: “We want real electricity, not fake electricity.” “Real” meant electricity from the central grid, which was largely generated from coal. “Fake” referred to intermittent and diluted solar energy. It is ironic that the embarrassed state officials who faced the press at the opening ceremony of the Greenpeace-sponsored solar showcase project ensured that the village was soon connected to the coal-fired power grid.

According to a report released last week, state-owned Coal India Ltd has developed 52 coal mining projects, including 13 new coal blocks, in a bid to meet its one billion tonne coal production target by fiscal 2025/26. Due to the aggressive development of coal mining in recent years, India has been able to maintain relatively stable electricity prices despite the surge in global energy prices after the Ukraine war. Greenpeace would have wanted it otherwise, even though it claimed to represent the interests of India’s disempowered citizens.

Western funded environmental NGOs in the Third World

Greenpeace is headquartered in Amsterdam and has a large budget with contributions from wealthy foundations such as the Rockefeller Family Fund. It has enormous lobbying and litigation resources, often exceeding the public finances of many small developing countries. Well-funded NGOs like Greenpeace represent large bureaucracies interested in creating environmental scandals to maximize the income, salaries and perks of their employees and key executives. The classic example of Greenpeace raising money through false alerts relates to polar bears, which are said to be in danger of extinction.

Are Western-funded environmental NGOs like Greenpeace operating in the Global South the moral arbiters of environmental issues affecting the poor and marginalized? Are they the “global saviors” who help the “miserable of this earth”? Are they promoting “sustainable development” in the face of predatory capitalists and their state backers? As the late classical economist Deepak Lal asked in an op-ed piece on the ban on foreign-funded NGOs, “What are we to make of their local representatives who seek to influence their country’s public policies to fit the agenda of their foreign sponsors?”

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