It is important to note that this analysis and perspective is not meant to be authoritative on, nor instructive towards the objectives, organization and operation of Agenda 21; those are always their own to determine, as they see fit. This is definitively an outsider’s perspective, gleaned from publicly available information, and is undoubtedly lacking insight in various ways. Apologies for such inadequacies.
*DGR SUPPORTS THE EFFORTS OF AGENDA 21 AND ALL MILITANT DIRECT DISMANTLING OF INDUSTRIAL INFRASTRUCTURE*
It doesn’t take much to sink a ship.
The physics of buoyancy are somewhat precarious; thousands of pounds of iron & steel, carefully shaped to stay balanced and afloat. The smallest rupture in the hull can drag all the sophisticated design and calculations to cold and watery depths. In some instances, one may not even need to create a rupture, so much as expand existing weak-points—like the salt water intake valve—to submerge a vessel.
That simple technique has become the calling card for a mysterious organization in Norway, which has been targeting the country’s whaling fleet since 1996. They’re called Agenda 21, the name being a reference to the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro, which proposed an international “sustainable development” program under the name Agenda 21. To date, they’ve claimed responsibility for the sinking of 6 commercial whaling ships.
The style has been more or less identical in each of the attacks: the group scouts a ship, boards at night, and opens the salt water intake valve in the engine room. They’ve been more successful in some instances than in others; in a 2010 attack, a ship alarm alerted the captain the ship was flooding, and the sabotage was discovered before the vessel had fully sunk. Nonetheless, they’ve been engaged in a campaign of underground direct action for close to two decades, and have maintained effective security; to the police who have investigated the actions, Agenda 21 is as mysterious today as it was when it emerged in 1996.
The story of Agenda 21 goes back to before the genesis of the group itself, to 1986, when the International Whaling Commission set a moratorium on commercial whaling around the world. Norway objected to the ban, and international politics being the absurdity that they are, suddenly the rule didn’t apply to the Scandinavian country. Paul Watson, of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, then threatened to sink any Norwegian vessel that violated the moratorium. The Sea Shepherds made good on their promise too: in 1992, they sank the whaler Nybraena, and two years later in 1994, they sank the Senet.
Agenda 21 (A21) is said to have taken over the effort in 1996, when they sank the Elin-Toril; it is unclear whether this was a coordinated take-over of the campaign by local Sea Shepherd supporters, or figurative language, but Watson and the Sea Shepherds say they don’t know anyone involved in A21.
The next attack came two years later, in 1998. The whaling ship Morild was scuttled, and A21 claimed responsibility, and was credited with the action.
There weren’t any subsequent attacks for a number of years, until August of 2007, when the group sunk the Willassen Senior in Svolvaer, causing more than £2,000,000 in damage, bankrupting the whaler.
Less than two years later, Agenda 21 struck again. In an effort to pre-empt the whalers, the group sunk the Skarbakk, a commercial whaling vessel docked in Henningsvaer in late April, shortly before the whaling season began in 2009. This action saw a marked increase in media coverage, especially foreign media, with reports, articles, and the group’s communique being published on alternative websites in the U.K. and the U.S. The Sea Shepherds also issued a press release praising the action and Agenda 21; Paul Watson compared the individuals involved to those who resisted Nazi occupation of Norway 60 years prior, and added, “The Agenda 21 team did an excellent job: no injuries, no evidence, no mistakes, and no more whaling. These are results that we can appreciate and admire.”
In A21’s own words, “We came to Henningsvaer. We saw the Skarbakk. We sank the bastard.”
The 2009 sinking of the Skarbakk began a string of more frequent attacks. Only a year after the action in Henningsvaer, A21 struck again; “Norway announced an increased quota of minke whales so we decided to increase our quota of sunken whalers.”
The target was the Sofie, docked in Svolvaer (only a “stone’s throw” from where the Willassen Senior had been when it fell prey to A21 in 2007). On the evening of April 2nd, members of Agenda 21 snuck on board the vessel, and (according to the communique issued afterwards) “[e]ntry was made through the wheelhouse. The engine room was accessed by removing the locked door from its frame using axe and crowbar. Two sea valves were opened fully submerging the engine and electrical systems.”
Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, an alarm alerted the ship’s owner who was asleep in his nearby home, and the fire department arrived before the vessel was entirely submerged. However, both the engine room and electrical equipment were put securely to rest under several feet of water. Apparently undeterred, the owner vowed to repair the damage and be hunting whales in less than a month, but whether or not he succeeded in his sadistic intentions is unconfirmed.
The repeated actions have certainly hurt the industry, and after the Sofie attack, the head of one whaling organization complained to the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, “It is outrageous that this can be done year after year without anyone being caught!”
There was a final attack, in October of 2011. The whaling boat Onsoyvaeringen was found on the morning of October 6th, with its bow in the air. The night before, Agenda 21 boarded the ship and opened repurposed one of the valves to let water into the ship, rather than keeping it out. In the communique issued after the action by A21, Onsoyvaeringen was said to have been the last whaling ship in Oslofjord. The statement also indicated the continued resolve of A21 to bring a permanent end to whaling in Norway by any means necessary and to continued escalation, reiterating that any vessels planning on whaling would be targets and that as Norway increases the Minke whale quota, A21 will step up its attacks.
Agenda 21 remains at large, as it has been for 16 years. It is difficult to talk about their organization and function, because they’ve done such an impeccable job of keeping any knowledge of themselves—other than their name and their actions—secret. However, there are still lessons to be learned and new insights to be gleaned in regards to strategic underground action.
To operate successfully for so long demonstrate an undeniable conviction as an organization, but also a careful patience, a keenness that ensures action is effective rather than simply self-actualizing and serves as a counterweight to the (often) blind urgency that strong conviction can fuel.
However, others have questioned whether Agenda 21 has been effective in the fight to end commercial whaling, or whether the organization has been just another group using glorified tactics but making little material difference. Critics point to reports that the numbers of whales killed in the summer season haven’t declined, or that there is a surplus of whaling ships and simply too few processing centers for the meat.
These are important considerations, and critical reflection on ourselves and the effectiveness of our particular strategies is absolutely vital if our movements are to be successful. This is true whether our goal is to end whaling in a particular region, restore grasslands, destroy institutional racism, or dismantle civilization.
A simple breakdown of Agenda 21’s strategy (as I interpret it based on their actions and their public statements) is that at the core, they are fighting a battle of attrition (this seems to be the unconsciously preferred strategy of most activists—liberals and radicals alike—and is a separate discussion in itself), in which they hope to wear down the ability of their enemy (the Norwegian commercial whaling fleet) to operate. In order to be successful in a war of attrition, one must damage and deplete the enemy’s resources quicker than the enemy can replace them. Eventually, this drawdown reaches a critical point, and the enemy loses the ability to function as a force. This leaves us with two important factors to consider: first, how A21 draws down the resources of the commercial fleet, and secondly, the speed with which the fleet is able to replace those resources.
Obviously, A21’s preferred tactic is sinking commercial whaling vessels. The technique which they use to do this is simple, and seems relatively simple and to cost them little (in terms of time, technical knowledge, money, etc.). However, there are some additional, smaller ways in which the sinking of these ships may sap the resources and capacity of the whaling fleet: the attacks have seriously raised insurance premiums for whaling boats, and may discourage investors from fronting the capital for new whaling ships. They’re both smaller, and perhaps less directly measurable effects, but they’re impacts A21 has mentioned explicitly in their communiques.
As for the fleet itself, the most important fact to note is that the entire Norwegian fleet consists of less than two dozen ships: in 2012, only 18 ships participated in the whale hunt, one less than last year. This small fleet-size makes the loss of a ship a significant blow for the industry, much more serious and detrimental than a smashed window or graffiti on a storefront would be, and creates a (rare) situation that lends itself to a strategy of attrition.
It’s not necessarily possible to draw a clear line on whether Agenda 21 is definitively effective or not. Given that the number of whales hunted hasn’t significantly declined or changed, it would be hard to say A21 is close to bringing commercial whaling in Norway to a close. But at the same time, we cannot deny that there are 7 fewer vessels hunting for whales each summer due to A21. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the A21 strategy has very real potential, and for Agenda 21 to ultimately be successful in winning their war of attrition against the whaling industry will require that they escalate the frequency of their actions to impose a fatal (for the industry) drawdown. If the reports of bottlenecks at the over-stressed processing facilities are true, they would represent another vulnerable node. If anything were to happen to those processing facilities resulting in their being temporarily or permanently shut down, the difficulties facing the industry wound undoubtedly be compounded, and the system as a whole would be further disrupted.
In any case, the story of Agenda 21 is a hopeful and promising one. And like all stories of resistance, it’s one that needs to be told. History is full of stories of people, even if only a few of them, organizing to find collective strength and shatter systems of abusive and destructive power that only months before seemed invincible. Those stories are taking place right now, around the world. We need to listen to them, learn from them, find our connection and meaning in them, and share them. We need to tell these stories of resistance, because resistance is a story; whether of mysterious folks scuttling ships on a spring evening so Minke whales can swim free, or Indian women training each other in self-defense and dealing retribution to abusers and batterers, or indigenous and Chicano neighborhoods marching on and scattering a Columbus Day march, or masked groups torching transmission substations to blackout the death culture of civilization: it’s a story larger than ourselves. We need to tell those stories, and then live them out.
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