Ben Stewart, who chronicled a Greenpeace protest against drilling oil in the Arctic in his book, "Don't Trust, Don't Fear, Don't Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30," will present a free talk on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, 2420 13th St.W.
Stewart's book was selected as the 2017 Common Read at Rocky Mountain College and his talk is sponsored by RMC.
Stewart manages the Greenpeace investigative journalism unit and lives in London. Here is what Stewart had to say about drilling in the Arctic and his efforts to help free the Arctic 30 after their 2013 protest led to imprisonment in Russia:
Q. What lessons can be learned from the Arctic 30’s story?
‘Never underestimate the human spirit.’ These people were locked up in appalling conditions and told they would spend at least 10 years in this Russian former mental asylum in the Arctic. But when you read their diaries and their letters and the newspaper they secretly produced and shared with each other, you see that they maintained a determination, a dignity and a sense of humor, even when we on the outside feared all was lost.
I also learned that campaigns work. Those of us trying to get them free were facing down the might of Putin’s Russia. It was like a chess game where we didn’t have any of the best pieces and the person across the board from you was a grandmaster. All we had was a campaign and some people ready to do whatever they could. We took a lot of advice about what could shift the needle in the Kremlin, what could make Putin change his mind, then we rolled out that advice across the world. It was the most extraordinary campaign I’ve ever worked on, the sheer energy and determination. We were getting in at 6 a.m. and leaving at midnight. It was our friends in that jail. But it worked.
Do you think things would be any different if the protest were to happen today?
I fear things might be very different. Back in 2013 there was still a way to influence the Kremlin. We weren’t yet in this new Cold War. Shortly after the Arctic 30 were released, Russia invaded Crimea and a low-level war began in eastern Ukraine. Relations are so broken now that I think if the Arctic 30 happened in 2017 it would be damn hard to get those people out of jail. Thirty protesters from 18 countries, including the USA, Britain and France. Does Putin see them as anything other than hostages?
Do you think there was some success from the Arctic 30’s protest? If so, what changed in a positive way because of their actions?
The purpose of protest is often to speed up the national conversation – to put issues on our TV and computer screens that are otherwise too easy to ignore. The first step to stopping something is to controversialize it. Back in 2013 there weren’t many people talking about Arctic oil drilling – despite the huge environmental risks and the threat to the climate from opening up new oil reserves. The Arctic 30 was the moment the world lifted its eyes and looked north and started really thinking about what the oil giants were planning for the Arctic. That protest and their incarceration sped up the international conversation, it got us all talking about something that had been ignored.
The campaign became supercharged. It was incredible. About a year later the big one fell — Shell had sunk more than $5 billion into its Arctic program but the company pulled out. The global campaign was a big factor in that, and the Arctic 30 was a key moment.
I think their story could well resonate for many years. There is a movie being made of the book I wrote. Lord David Puttnam, whose films have won ten Oscars and the Palm D’Or, is making it. I’m hoping this story will inspire many more people to campaign on climate change.
Even though you work for Greenpeace, I realize you tried to maintain your objectivity. How difficult was that? What would you like to say about the action today?
I did try to remain objective in the book. I don’t think it would have worked to just parrot a line. The fact is the protest was controversial, even within the organization. The Arctic 30 didn’t always agree with each other or get on, even in jail. They sometimes blamed each other for what happened, and some of the families blamed Greenpeace. Some aspects of this story were very complicated, very raw, and I wanted readers to get some of that.
Did you attempt to interview the Russians about the protest?
I wanted to. I really wanted to speak to the governor of the prison, and some of the commandos who stormed the Greenpeace ship, but a Russian friend of mine advised me not to bother. She said they would never speak to me. In retrospect I wish I’d tried harder. I tried to show the different sides to the story but it would have been so interesting to hear from the governor. He is quite a big figure in the story, his behavior was extraordinary, a really odd man. Sociopathic perhaps. A cruel man, I think. The Arctic 30 had a tough time with him.
6. How did you decide which characters to focus the most on in your book?
This was hard. I interviewed as many of them as I could, I had forty hours of recording from my conversations with them. I knew I would have to focus on four or five of them otherwise the story would become unfathomable. I needed to tell this tale through just a few people. When I came to write the book I disappeared to a French farmhouse for two weeks with a three inch block of paper - the transcribed interviews. I had a marker pen and marked up the best stories, and it turned out that a few of the thirty just jumped out at that point. Their descriptions were so vivid, and their motivations came through so strongly. They sort of selected themselves for focus.
What is your next writing project?
I’m helping a TV company develop a series. It’s about how we’re becoming so divided. The UK is a bit like America right now. We’ve got a culture war raging, we’re just screaming at each other, the two tribes despise each other. It’s so sad.
Have you been involved in a protest yourself?
I have indeed, though I’ve just had my first child so I think I need to focus on her right now. I guess I’ve done a lot of stuff. I led the first Greenpeace expedition to the Arctic when we hung off an oil rig off Greenland in 2010. I’ve climbed my fair share of things. I was one of the Kingsnorth 6 – we climbed the chimney at the Kingsnorth coal power plant and painted the side of it. The subsequent court case became a big deal after the NASA director James Hansen gave evidence for us from the witness box and the jury acquitted us. That verdict played a big part in ending coal burning in Britain, the home of the industrial revolution. Like I say, I think protest works.