When he sat down in the seat beside mine, all I could smell was death. He carried it inside him as surely as a body falling from a bridge. His liver must be in a state of cirrhosis so advanced that there is no coming back. Rock bottom was a long time ago.
* * *
As you likely already know, Russian authorities have impounded the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, and, after initial detention of the 30 international activists who were aboard, prosecutors have now officially charged them with…piracy.
The charge of piracy comes after two of the activists attempted to board the not-yet-operational off-shore Gazprom Prirazlomnaya gas drilling rig. This action prompted the Russians to storm the Arctic Sunrise, landing some species of special forces on the ship from helicopters in the process.
The Russian Investigative Committee immediately released a statement making it clear that they consider the Greenpeace action to have intended violence:
When a foreign ship stuffed with electronics of unidentified purpose and a group of people calling themselves activists of the environmental organization are trying to take by storm an oil rig, there are naturally doubts about their intentions.
Given that the activists in question were ‘armed’ with ropes and banners, it seems remarkable to suggest that the outcome of this would be any sense of ‘piracy’. Even the Russian President Vladimir Putin went on record suggesting that this was clearly not an act of piracy, though the prosecutors seem not to have paid attention to him.
According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 101, piracy is defined as
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed: (i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft; (ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State; (b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft
There is no question that no action undertaken by Greenpeace can be defined under this convention. But. The question that remains is where exactly the ship was operating when it was seized. According to Greenpeace, they were in international waters, but the Russians dispute this. Under Article 227 of the Russian Criminal Code, piracy is defined as an ‘assault on a sea-going ship or a river boat with the aim of capturing other people’s property, committed with the use of violence or with the threat of its use.’ Conviction of this offence is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
That the Prirazlomnaya platform is exactly that—a platform—seems to have been lost on Russian prosecutors, as has the lack of violence or the intention to capture anything.
So what is this all about?
* * *
Was there a point at which the drinking seemed manageable? When did he go from a pleasant drunk—with liver damage simply a part of the humour at the bar—to this diseased hulk? Did anyone try to stop him? Was there an intervention? They’ve become fashionable enough to make tv now, after all.
* * *
The captain of the Arctic Sunrise is Peter Willcox, formerly captain of the Rainbow Warrior when it was sunk by agents of the French DGSE in a 1985 operation appropriately called Operation Satanique.
Hoping to prevent Greenpeace’s protest of an upcoming nuclear test at Moruroa, the French team attached two limpet mines below the water line of the vessel. The detonation of the mines crippled the ship permanently, and killed photographer Fernando Pereira, who drowned while the ship sank.
These two events have much in common.
In both cases, Greenpeace, an organization founded for the purpose of advocating for environmental issues that the world as a whole is only just now willing to admit might have been a good idea on a larger scale some time ago, is peacefully protesting the use of our planet in a fashion that has the potential for substantial environmental harm. As this protest is perceived to be harmful to the interests of a government, the government is willing to utilize its state powers to criminalize or attack Greenpeace’s vessels.
In 1985, the French government used its foreign intelligence service to bomb a peaceful organization’s ocean-going vessel. In an era gripped with the world-wide terror inflicted on us by the proliferation of nuclear arms, the protest of this action amounted to an act of—had this been another nation’s vessel—outright war.
Today, the ever-dwindling ‘resource’ of fossil fuel is leading to increasingly damaging and dangerous drilling and mining strategies—an insult adding to the catastrophic injury that the burning of these fuels has already caused to a planet that is now undergoing global climate change as a result. Unsurprisingly, both those organizations that have long stood in opposition to such behaviour and many new ones are standing up against the practises—old and new—that surround the extraction of such resources and their use. The Greenpeace protest of the Prirazlomnaya platform is not only an acceptable response to planet-threatening activities perpetrated by governments and multi-national corporations, but a necessary one.
* * *
My mind imagines him younger, without the encrustation of white around his mouth. He was someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s lover. Only a perverse perspective can see this man as beautiful now.
I have important people in my life who owe their sobriety to the 12 Step process. I have come to understand that this process’s dependence on ‘surrender’ isn’t necessarily a process of submission. Seeing alcoholism or another addiction as a disease is a recognition that the recovery process is something that can’t be controlled, even if it requires active agency.
But I grew up with a recovering alcoholic, though this language only gained traction culturally long after he stopped drinking. He didn’t do the 12 steps, and I remember watching the story shift to this from the original version which was, quite simply, that he faced imminent death unless he stopped drinking immediately, so he stopped. Bleeding ulcers nearly claimed him as a relatively young man whose drinking—à la Mad Men—had wreaked havoc on his body. He stopped drinking over night.
I remember the first time that I heard him describe himself as a ‘recovering alcoholic’. When he used this term, he was no longer someone who faced a life and death situation by choosing life. He was a man who saw himself as a victim. Alcohol had happened to him. This wasn’t surrender, it was submission.
* * *
When I was a kid, Greenpeace was ‘Save the Whales’. It was the thing to believe in, and I did. But when the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) had its beginnings in the late 70s, breaking away from Greenpeace in favour of more violent direct action, it was difficult to understand the various news reports that filtered their way to me, or to differentiate the activities of an organization like Greenpeace from the sorts of direct action advocated and practised by the SSCS.
Environmentalism seemed like a purposeless activity on a planet bound for perdition, so I stopped caring until much later, when some Christians I knew suggested that it was important to take care of creation, given that it was God’s, after all. It was vaguely important to me as part of a larger complex, but still, at the back of any reasoning regarding conservation of our planetary environment was the firm sense that all of it would be made new anyways by God.
I no longer subscribe to this model—or any religious one—and recognize that thinking like this essentially neutered me as a political agent on any level until quite recently.
But now? Now I wish for the ability to hope. Now I’m staring a planet in the face with white encrustation around its mouth. I can smell the death emanating from our liver.
Is it too late? I’m not sure, but I do know that it is past time for change.
* * *
I’ve written about piracy here before. As I said then, ‘Networks are exponentially more vulnerable as they gain orders of magnitude in complexity. What arms can never guard, cultural logic will do a much better job to safeguard. Hang him at the crossroads. Show the masses the body. Let them gawk.’ The Arctic 30 are being hung at the crossroads. Their stink is meant to dissuade activists, and to demonstrate—in a fashion all-too-recognizable in contemporary Russia—that the state will gladly flex its muscle to protect its interests.
From what I can understand, ‘rock bottom’ is a difficult place to recognize, and it’s different for everyone who reaches such a point in their life. On at least one level, rock bottom isn’t an exact state as much as it’s a concept—a metaphor for a death that will come only too quickly if one does not recognize what its metaphoric version entails. Unfortunately, for many individuals, ‘rock bottom’ isn’t something that they recognize for themselves. Instead, family and friends attempt to show them the effect that their actions are having, and declare their love and support for the individual. Unfortunately, despite its pop culture prevalence, interventions rarely have the effect for which family and friends hope. Surrender is something that requires active agency.
So how do we deal with addiction on a planetary scale? The stench of the man on the bus—my dad looking imminent death in the face—these are only tiny ripples in a planetary inability to curb our own substance abuse.
We are, quite literally, killing ourselves.
An appeal to a higher power is not going to work in a passive sense. There is no coming redemption. The alcoholic here is not some third person—it’s all of us. As a species, we seem to have been incapable of responding to warning signs. The Greenpeace Arctic 30 are not pirates, but the decision to charge them as such is concomitant with the bile that others spew at loved ones whose only offence is to challenge their addictive, destructive behaviour. When the DGSE bombed the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, it was, no doubt, something that seemed like a viable response to Greenpeace’s opposition to the then-apparently-necessary testing of nuclear weapons. It seemed viable because Greenpeace’s opposition was a perceived threat.
I’ve watched people cut others from their lives when challenged with regard to their addictive behaviour and substance abuse. I’ve watched people sabotage relationships. I’ve watched people blame those around them for their own (self-)destructive decisions.
I’m watching the same thing unfold right now in Murmansk.
When will we finally recognize that we’ve hit rock bottom? And will it be in time to effect change?
We don’t need an intervention. And environmental action is not some third party telling an ‘other’ that they need to change. We are our own only hope. And we have the only voice that can stand up and say, ‘Hi, I’m _____, and I’m an addict.’ Recovery is going to hurt. We will have to change species-wide behaviour on a scale that mimics the changes we have wrought on this planet. It’s never going to be easy again. We can’t even imagine how different planetary life will be. But it will be life, and it will be beautiful.
I must give credit here to three individuals whose perspectives were fundamental to making this piece work. Jeni Fabian-Pearson, as always, is my best and most important reader. Mary Lovell, of Greenpeace Canada, has provided an important sounding board. Most especially, however, I must thank John Woods, whose willingness to provide perspective on the 12 Step process, has been invaluable.
The strengths in the piece—more than usual—are theirs, but I must take credit for any and all mis-steps.
(As I finally publish this piece, I have just heard the news that there is now talk of drug charges being brought against the crew—because the ship carried morphine, a component of all medical kits required to be carried according to maritime law, and kept in the captain’s safe. This behaviour on the part of the Russian authorities is entirely in keeping with the lashing out that has become only too familiar in this debacle.)