The Parade of Imaginary Horribles

I once had a gruff college professor who spiced his lectures with the phrase “imaginary horribles.” I think of him whenever I read the latest far-fetched prediction of doom to befall the planet or the human race. Last week, for instance, the United Nations Population Division released a statistical projection claiming world population will leap from about 6 billion today to “134 trillion in 2300.” That's no misprint! This particular U.N. division has a long record of spreading alarmist talk. If there were a Nobel Prize Committee for imaginary horribles, it would have to give out a special medal for this nonsense. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Most imaginary horribles are not quite so over-the-top, but many environmental groups like Greenpeace come close to the U.N. standard. Currently, Greenpeace USA is defending itself in a <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Florida court against criminal charges filed last July by the U.S. Department of Justice. Greenpeace activists are accused of illegally boarding a cargo ship in April 2002 as it moved through Florida's coastal waters. The activists say it was their right to board the ship to protest logging practices in Brazil.


John Passacantando, Greenpeace USA's executive director, mobilizes a parade of imaginary horribles to scare the public about the government's action: “If protest actions on commercial ships are banned,” he wrote in an October news commentary, “what is next? Probably, protests in shopping malls, government and university buildings, hotel ballrooms, and public plazas.”


Just think of that. First you outlaw protest tactics worthy of Captain Hook, and pretty soon there will be no more protests inside “hotel ballrooms” and “shopping malls” — the first step to a police-state.


What I want to know is when was the last time you saw a protest inside a hotel ballroom? What were they protesting? Outrageous catering fees? Boring after-dinner speeches? Lousy wedding singers?  Seriously, you don't see protests in ballrooms or shopping malls — or cargo ships — because they are privately owned. Your right to protest on public property does not extend to my cousin Sheila's wedding reception at the Marriott.


But that hasn't stopped Greenpeace supporters who have circulated imaginary horribles around the world to publicize the case. In November, a British newspaper criticized the U.S. government's decision to prosecute Greenpeace. The paper said Greenpeace USA  could lose “its tax-exempt status, a major blow to an organization that relies on donations.” 


The suggestion that Greenpeace fund-raising will be hurt if donors can't deduct their contributions at income-tax time is not too far-fetched. Many people may not write Mr. Passacantando a check if they can't get a tax break for their contribution. But would Greenpeace USA go out of business? Probably not.


To understand why, just look up north to Canada. Greenpeace Canada lost its tax-exempt status in 1989 after the Canadian government decided it was a political organization, not a charity. But Canada's Greenpeace affiliate quickly recovered and it's more active than ever.


Ironically, Greenpeace Canada may be even more popular with environmentalists without a tax exemption. That's because it now claims to be an outsider group, completely unconstrained by any obligations to the government. Just look at its membership numbers. Greenpeace Canada has enrolled 100,000 members. While that's less than half the membership of Greenpeace USA, remember that Canada has only one-tenth the U.S. population. Signing up 100,000 Canadian Greenpeace members is no mean feat.


Greenpeace USA likes to claim it's in mortal danger should it lose its fight in the Florida courts. Certainly, this scenario is more credible than imagining there will be “no-more-protests-in-malls.” But activists who believe what Greenpeace activists believe don't make their decisions based on tax law. A world without Greenpeace? That's just another imaginary horrible for environmentalists.  For people tired of Greenpeace's hijinks, it would be a Christmas wish come true.