LONDON – In its simplicity and boldness, the scaling of central London’s Shard skyscraper on July 11 must be the most appealing show ever staged by Greenpeace in all of that organization’s long history of grabbing public attention. No biohazard suits, no showing off, no David and Goliath stand-offs requiring David to shout through a megaphone — just six climbers, a sunny day and a great crowd of awed Londoners — and beyond that, countless followers online, doing no work.
This must have been the effect American illusionist and endurance artist, David Blaine, had hoped for in 2003, when he hung a plexiglass box nearby, and starved for 44 days. Instead, Londoners threw buns at him.
I wish I could have gone to the Shard and gawped too, as the women worked their way up the Qataris’ tower, and with absolutely no ado cut it down to size. But at least you could watch the action unfolding close up, in real time, unlike what is perhaps the most comparable adventure: Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.
After the destruction of the World Trade Center, James Marsh’s superb film, “Man on Wire,” dramatized the playful, life-enhancing energy of young Petit and his friends as they plotted how to fix a rope between the buildings, for no better reason than Petit had seen them in a magazine and been inspired. Marsh’s film is more moving for never laboring the intended meaning of Petit’s heroics. His collaborator, Jean-Louis Blondeau, says: “The important thing is that we did it.”
The World Trade Center was an urban renewal project owned by the Port Authority of New York. Before his story took on a different aspect, as the innocent foil to al-Qaida’s subsequent malignity, Petit’s creative response resembled a good-humored, if anarchic, compliment to the structures on which it depended.
In contrast, Renzo Piano’s Qatari-owned Shard, although this did not form part of the Greenpeace narrative, is a still largely empty, speculative office block. Its controversial construction, in a place where buildings were still predominantly low-rise, was a triumph for imported ambition over local interests. Until it gets overtaken, the Shard, as its proud owners never tire of boasting, is the tallest building in Western Europe.
Even when it is no longer the highest, this shining, empty spike will continue to flash at all London and, as foreseen by UNESCO and conservation body English Heritage to dwarf central London’s St. Paul’s and the Tower of London. Although the Shard is familiar now — how could it not be? — and admired by many, others still detest its massive incongruity or fear the destructive precedent it has set.
So, if you wanted to get pretentious, the scaling of this supremely hubristic building by a few cheerful idealists with ropes amounted to its symbolic humiliation.
Literally, anyway, it is no longer untouchable and pristine. Also, six visitors have now enjoyed the panorama from the top of the Qatari investment plan without paying the £25 entrance fee. Next time I see the Shard humbling St. Paul’s, what a pleasure to think of those climbers scrambling to the top, in under a day, of a building that took three years to put up.
And if the Qatari speculators are particularly vexed that the trespassers who cheeked their prong should all have been women: fabulous. All this ascent lacked, to be perfect, was a banner reading: Sorry to be such a dick, everybody — Renzo.
Instead: a modest yellow affair, saying Save the Arctic. It was a mercy for the aesthetics of the event, if annoying for Greenpeace, that the women never got to brand their achievement any further, and as planned, with a gigantic, cuddly polar bear, its anti-Arctic drilling mascot. Subtle, it ain’t. In Davos, during the last economic forum, a polar bear activist occupied a Shell garage. Another polar bear/protester floated down the Moskva in Moscow to protest against the Arctic plans of Norway’s Statoil and Russia’s state-owned Rosneft.
In London, the Shard venture was directed, again, at Greenpeace’s historic adversary, Shell. Campaigns aimed at exposing Shell’s pollution and its indifference toward the communities it trashes have resulted in, for example, exposure of outrages against the Ogoni in Nigeria and, less impressively, given it was based on unreliable evidence, the dismantling, rather than sinking, of the Brent Spar oil rig.
More recently, Greenpeace has campaigned against Shell’s Arctic plans, with exploits including the boarding of a Shell icebreaker in the Baltic, the shutting down of 74 Shell petrol stations and last year’s elaborate Internet hoax, featuring a spoof Shell webpage, and, within that, a display of satirical slogans supporting Arctic exploitation: “We’d drill a crippled orphan’s spine if there was some oil in it.”
Although exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic continues, Shell is thought to have suffered significant brand damage as a result of Greenpeace’s efforts. At the time of writing, the charity had attracted 70,710 signups to its Arctic campaign and scholars of social media, watching #iceclimb sweep across Twitter, have acclaimed a “new paradigm” in digital communications.
Where stunt paradigms are concerned, however, the episode is more familiar. It is its style, scale and all-female composition that differentiate the Shard climb from many, essentially similar Greenpeace exercises in getting up high to attract attention, including the ascents of Nelson’s Column (1988), Big Ben (2003), both in central London, Mount Rushmore (2010), and Kingsnorth power station (2007), southeast England, which aimed to raise the alarm about oil-fired coal stations — not, of course, that Greenpeace will consider nuclear as an alternative.
Maybe it’s a good thing, for publicity, that Greenpeace does not, like so many of its older members, suffer from advancing risk-aversion. The Shard climbers keep faith with the Greenpeace International co-founder Rex Weyler’s faith in “crazy stunts,” his appreciation of Marshall McLuhan.
“You’ve got to have characters,” he has explained, “and they’ve got to be doing stuff, it’s got to be dramatic and visually interesting and all of that.” On the other hand, and much as everyone appreciated the glorious scaling of the Shard, might the environmental movement be even more effective if Greenpeace grew up?
Commemorations of women’s suffrage have recalled this movement’s transition from violent militancy to calmer, possibly more effective, forms of activism that would win broader support. Greenpeace’s protests are peaceful, naturally, but its love affair with drama and simple, hair-raising imagery is apt to suggest, even to like-minded supporters, that the movement still has more in common with new groups such as Femen and Pussy Riot than is probably helpful if governments are ever to be made to address global warming.
Supposing the Shard episode results, as Greenpeace hopes, in a surge of new members, is their anxiety about the environment and political dereliction on climate change best served by functionaries who are already planning the next crazy stunt?
Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist