By Joanna and Wolfgang Hafenmeyer
Part of the Future Makers series
Foreign aid worker, environmentalist, entrepreneur, change agent Thilo Bode held one of the world's most high-profile and highly-identifiable jobs – director of Greenpeace International. But what led to the role of heading the famous, and sometimes notorious, activist group? And what does life look like after that role?
From Foreign Aid to Enterprise
As a young man Thilo Bode of Berlin, Germany was fascinated by the origins of social injustice and possibilities for mitigating it. He founded a local group within the German Social Democratic Party and became head of a district. After he graduated with a PhD in 1975, he went into foreign aid.
What followed were 12 years of foreign aid work in many developing countries for the Credit Institution for Reconstruction, after which time Bode joined a mid-sized enterprise in metal processing. In his three years there, he developed respect for entrepreneurs and smaller organizations. “Anyone who plans on saving the world by working for an NGO would do well to work for a company for awhile as preparation,” said Bode.
Leading Greenpeace to Success
In 1989, Bode joined Greenpeace as director for Germany and a successful 12-year relationship began. Upon taking the job, he insisted on “reserving the right to make unpopular decisions.”
Looking back, Bode thinks that he simply was the right man at the right time in the right place to make the necessary changes at Greenpeace. He worked on a national level and later, as of 1995, on the international level after he became director of Greenpeace International.
When Bode first came to Greenpeace, the organization had seen a period of rapid growth. It had developed into an internationally-renowned environmental organization and gained much influence and popularity. However, there were flaws in both the group and in its leadership. Bode’s rich professional experience made an excellent contribution. As a politically-minded person with good economic expertise, he was able to lead Greenpeace into an era of success.
The Courage to Listen
At first, he wasn’t completely sure what he was letting himself in for:
I didn’t join Greenpeace with a fixed notion or vision of what people should be doing. Rather, I had the courage to listen to people. In the years that followed these discussions, a new direction and vision was born. Before you can change anything efficiently, you have to understand the weaknesses and abilities of an organization.
This process was not always easy, but it led to success. These were the years of the first major eco-political breakthroughs. The Montreal agreement on protection of the ozone layer, the convention on biodiversity conservation and the Kyoto protocol were all signed during that time. Greenpeace always played a part, and became the vanguard of the environmental lobby.
By 2001, despite the success he had achieved, Bode felt it was time to leave Greenpeace.
A time of reorientation followed. Bode was asked by a publisher whether or not he would like to write a book. He did not want to write about the internal life of Greenpeace—which was an obvious suggestion. But, “I came to the conclusion that we were currently experiencing an erosion of democracy in favor of strong interest groups and to the disadvantage of the common good,” he says.
In his book Democracy is Betraying Its Children he talks of how national and international politics, as well as economic conditions, are influenced by strong lobbies that can no longer be controlled by citizens. However, during his Greenpeace years, he repeatedly had the experience that people can exert a strong influence if they unite and follow a common goal. According to Bode, we have more influence than we think:
The masquerade of politics for status and interest quickly crumbles, if we organize. Consumers alone are powerless, but together they are a giant.
While working as an author, Bode also founded Foodwatch. The group’s aim is to represent the interests of consumers in the food sector and also to increase its democratic control. The politically independent organization is financed by membership fees and donations. Clear legislation and the consequential implementation of laws in the interest of consumers is part of Foodwatch’s mission.
Thilo Bode explained the connection to us:
It is not easy to explain to people, that there is a deficit of democracy in the food sector – there is hardly any transparency, no real freedom of choice and hardly any protection. Since the media is reporting less and less critically, there is little possibility to exert control. I see Foodwatch as a symbol for democracy. I want to make clear to people that they must actively unite to make change happen.
The organization has become well-established. It has launched several campaigns drawing public attention and has been invited for consultations by the press and politicians.
Bode wrapped up his experience as a professional “agent of change:”
Individuals tend to overestimate their own contributions; change only happens with the help of strong teams. In addition, contributions are only effective when the right moment, the right place and the right abilities come together.