How Greenpeace Changed the World Forever

Now A Global Monolith, The Vancouver-Born Activist Group Still Has Lessons For Would-Be Peaceniks And Revolutionaries

They were heady times--the early 1970s in a mill town with pretensions. Something happened here, and it really mattered. It was a surprise to almost everybody.

Vancouver was the last stop between there and nowhere, hardly the place you'd expect to find some of the most effective activism of the past 30-odd years. It was simply a haven on the edge of the world that attracted American draft resisters and Canadian Prairie refugees.

Winnipeg's Bob Hunter was from the latter camp, a guy who had spent a night in jail in Flin Flon for selling encyclopedias without a licence. Despite his evident hippiness, he became a columnist for the Vancouver Sun, writing about psychologist Carl Jung and Toronto media guru Marshall McLuhan. He also wrote about environmental issues when almost no one outside the nascent alternative press was bothering with the subject. How did that happen? "They didn't see me coming," Hunter recalls, on the phone from his home in Toronto. "I didn't see me coming."

Hunter also became the most important figure in the first eight years of Greenpeace, which was central to the emergence of environmental activism, one of the past century's most important social movements. Today, Greenpeace offers a textbook example of how activism can change the world.

In The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey, a manuscript that languished for 30 years in a Vancouver basement and is only now being published by Arsenal Pulp Press, Hunter chronicles the first voyage of a crew of bickering environmental activists to protest a 1971 underground nuclear-bomb test beneath Alaska's Amchitka Island. In his introduction to the original work, Hunter explains the complex confluence of people and events that gave birth to Greenpeace in Vancouver.

"Ninety percent of history is being there," he writes. "We had the biggest concentration of tree-huggers, radicalized students, garbage-dump stoppers, shit-disturbing unionists, freeway fighters, pot smokers and growers, aging Trotskyites, condo killers, farmland savers, fish preservationists, animal rights activists, back-to-the-landers, vegetarians, nudists, Buddhists, and anti-spraying, anti-pollution marchers and picketers in the country, per capita, in the world."

We also weren't American; we were outsiders on the edge of the United States, and Hunter argues that this gave us some peculiar advantages.

The Amchitka test galvanized disparate personalities in a common cause. Irving and Dorothy Stowe brought the Quaker tradition of bearing witness, and Marie Bohlen the idea of sending a boat to the nuclear test site, as Quakers had tried to do in the South Pacific in the late 1950s. In the fall of 1970, at the end of an antinuke strategy meeting of the Don't Make a Wave Committee at the Unitarian Church on Oak Street, Stowe said "Peace". Bill Darnell replied, "Make it a green peace."

"What we sorely needed was a coherent vision, a philosophy that could embrace them all," Hunter writes. "From the moment the word 'Greenpeace' was first uttered in public, we had it--or thought we did."

An old halibut trawler named the Phyllis Cormack was temporarily dubbed the Greenpeace, and everyone sailed off into history: the end of U.S. nuclear testing, the end of French atmospheric tests in the Pacific, a whaling moratorium, the cessation of the "whitecoat" infant-seal kill in Newfoundland.

Except beginnings and endings are never that simple. At the end of that first Greenpeace voyage, which didn't achieve its intended goal of floating in the stormy early winter seas off the shores of Amchitka on the day the bomb exploded, Hunter thought he and his fellow travellers had failed.

Rex Weyler, an American draft resister who participated in Greenpeace's first antiwhaling campaign in 1975, suggests the potential for another kind of failure in Greenpeace (Raincoast Books), his new book chronicling the organization from its inception as a protest group to the creation eight years later of a Europe-dominated international advocacy group. The book shows that some of Greenpeace's Vancouver progenitors feared the inspired, sometimes impulsive activism that they practised would be smothered by a global bureaucracy.

Today, some veterans of the original Greenpeace campaigns chip away at the Greenpeace international monolith, funded by an annual budget that now stands at about $243 million. Hard-nosed activist Paul Watson calls Greenpeacers the Fuller Brush salesmen of the environmental movement because of their reliance on door-to-door fundraising, and he decries their choice not to oppose the recent Makah whale hunts off the northwestern tip of Washington state. Patrick Moore attacks Greenpeace's objection to open-cage fish farms and has become an advocate for the B.C. forest industry.

Vancouver's Kalle Lasn, who calls his Adbusters magazine "the Greenpeace of the mental environment", says Greenpeace lacks passion. "It's reached the autumn of its existence."

Certainly Greenpeace does make compromises, to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of the governments and corporations it lobbies, to ensure its financial supporters aren't offended, to avoid lawsuits, and to balance competing national interests.

When Greenpeace's legacy is discussed, the talk usually turns to this conservatism. Yet the question of whether or not Greenpeace has lost touch with its roots often obscures both its ongoing success and the lessons it offers to other activist groups.

Greenpeace began with an issue that the public cared deeply about. And its activism delivered simple, forceful visual messages that the media devoured and the public understood.

Hunter, CBC Radio's Ben Metcalfe, and Georgia Straight stalwart Bob Cummings, who travelled on the Amchitka voyage, gave the nascent group a presence in the media. Stowe would eventually have a column in the Straight. Metcalfe, who died last year at age 83, his wife, Dorothy, and Hunter also had a keen sense of how to make the Greenpeace story front-page news across North America.

"We were our own journalists," Weyler recalls in the spartan living room of his West 10th Avenue home, adding that Greenpeace also made other journalists' jobs easy by providing them with the scientific and political background and, most importantly, the dramatic photos and film images that would put Greenpeace at the top of the news. "It was a McLuhan-type war, a war of icons," Hunter wrote after that first Greenpeace voyage.

"I'm not sure that Greenpeace would have been successful without Ben Metcalfe and Bob Hunter and all the people who understood media," says Charles Dobson, Vancouver author of The Troublemaker's Teaparty and The Citizens Handbook, and a keen observer of social movements.

"Greenpeace was really good at delivering succinct messages," says Weyler, a former North Shore News journalist who played a key role in Greenpeace's antiwhaling and -sealing campaigns. "A boat on a nuclear test site--that's a clear message. Ecologist in Zodiacs between whales and harpoons--that's a clear message."

Hunter called those messages "mind bombs"--effective salvos that provide a lasting image in the battle for public opinion. He soon realized how successful that first Amchitka voyage had been, and he tracked the success of Greenpeace's efforts less by a boat's place on the map or the mood of the crew and more by the number of mind bombs the group effectively delivered.

Weyler says trying to win the hearts of the public with facts rather than images is a losing proposition. Science is complicated and inexact, he explains, and the opposition will always try to sow doubt: "The numbers aren't declining as fast as we thought"; "There's no clear evidence that people will die."

Weyler is frustrated by some of today's most visible activism. He welcomes the idea that the massive anti-globalization demonstrations are trying to deliver--that citizens deserve a voice in how the world is going to be designed--but he thinks they're ineffective in getting their message across. "The world doesn't change on righteousness or wishful thinking," he says. "Being right doesn't really help you achieve victory.

"I think that today the challenge always is for activists you've got to get really clever at delivering the message. The public is inundated with more and more messages....If you don't find a way to deliver a different kind of message in an effective way, people won't pick it up. They don't have time. They look at their TV and they say, 'Oh, there's a WTO demonstration.' "

"The smart activists don't do street protests," Dobson says bluntly, in his Kitsilano kitchen. "They just don't."

In 1997, Dobson was asked to advise activists protesting the APEC leaders summit in Vancouver, but it was too late in the game for his taste. "The APEC protests are a classic example of what goes wrong with street protests." Dobson says the focus should have been what is wrong with APEC. "As a result of the protests, the focus became what is wrong with the way we police large events... the excessive use of force."

Weyler also believes that many activists don't pick their targets well. "They've got to be more specific about identifying the perpetrators. You want to identify who is benefiting from this so-called globalization, who is benefiting from this war in Iraq." Weyler points to the Ruckus Society as an example of effective activism. Disciples of the Oakland, California-based society, which was created in 1995 when Greenpeace stopped training activists from outside groups, have taken a page from Greenpeace's playbook by displaying huge banners next to prominent landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty. During the recent Republican convention in New York City, members hung a banner from the Plaza Hotel with two arrows pointing in opposite directions. One read "TRUTH"; the other read "BUSH." News broadcasts and papers such as USA Today brought the image into the heart of Middle America.

Weyler points to the society's parody of the U.S. military's famous deck of cards featuring Iraq's most-wanted. "The Ruckus Society puts out a deck of cards with the 52 war profiteers. This is smart. Now the message is clear."

Weyler also cites Adbusters, which has relentlessly targeted the likes of Nike and its CEO, Phil Knight, as another example of activism that delivers a clear message. "You the reader, you the consumer of media information, are being swindled; you're being swindled by these phony ads, by this phony culture, and we're going to expose the whole thing."

On September 2, Adbusters began selling sneakers with a crude "Blackspot" anti-logo to target Nike's brand dominance. "We're trying to think outside the lefty box," Lasn says. "Instead of whining, you cut into the bastards' market share."

In 1991, Dobson and Ron Kozlowski, one of Dobson's students at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design, where he teaches creative problem-solving, developed Adbusters magazine's first Absolut Vodka ad parody, Absolut Nonsense. Although Dobson worries that Adbusters is sometimes too oblique, he knows how effective the magazine has been.

Adbusters was created in the wake of Lasn's efforts to parody a forest-industry "Forests Forever" ad, back in 1988. The CBC refused to air the ad, and the controversy made the effort a national news story. In 1993, Lasn's Powershift ad agency created an "Autosaurus" ad, featuring a dinosaur constructed of old cars, and bought time on CBC's consumer show The Driver's Seat. When it aired advertisers complained, and the ad was subsequently rejected because of its "advocacy". The Adbusters crew tried to force CBC's hand in the courts, to draw more attention to the fallacy that advertising is a forum for free speech. They lost the court battle but won the war for public opinion.

"If you're really going to do a campaign well, you need to offend people," Dobson says. "You need to upset someone." Dobson believes that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is an activist group that clearly understands that. An elegantly dressed British pop star holding a skinned animal carcass, with the phrase "Here's the rest of your fur coat," is a clear and indelible picture. A recent billboard campaign featuring images of a haggard-looking woman and a pig, with the slogan "Neither of us is meat", created national controversy. Prime Minister Paul Martin complained that the ad unduly offended the families of women murdered on the Downtown Eastside.

Nevertheless, Dobson says PETA is doing a better job of earning media attention than Greenpeace. "The other thing that they do well, that Greenpeace never does, is they realize that the media is addicted to celebrities." (Weyler's book shows that when Brigit Bardot arrived in Newfoundland in the mid-'70s to support in Greenpeace's antisealing campaign, the group's members were terribly conflicted. Yet her presence bolstered the campaign's profile, particularly in Europe.)

Dobson acknowledges that PETA-style ads are no longer possible for Greenpeace because they would damage its ability to pressure governments and corporations behind closed doors. But he believes that such conservatism isn't such a bad thing, because raising public awareness is only the first step in achieving changes in public policy. "Once you've raised public consciousness, you have to move to resolve the problem, which is where there's a lot of hard slogging."

This is where Greenpeace's current compromises on confrontational activism pay off. Today, Greenpeace is able to achieve change simply by walking into a head office and threatening a PR campaign, or by privately lobbying its corporate customers. That sort of work forced companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, and McDonald's to announce just before the 2000 Olympics steps toward environmentally friendly refrigeration equipment.

A lower-key approach also resulted in what Hunter describes as one of Greenpeace's greatest recent successes, a complex agreement reached during the past three years to protect vast tracts of land on B.C.'s central cost and develop new logging standards for much of the rest of it. Hunter says successful activism is "a grinding, bureaucratic thing for the most part".

"The mid-coast deal was a whole lot of meeting in boardrooms," says Dobson, who believes that too many activists don't understand the importance of following through with corporations and governments to effect real changes in policy.

That Greenpeace--working with First Nations, logging companies, the province, and other environmental groups--helped to achieved this in a part of British Columbia that few people have any attachment to is remarkable, and it depended in part on a low-key but savvy image. Rare white Kermode "spirit bears" inhabit the central coast, and the "Great Bear Rainforest" name, cooked up by environmentalists on a paper placemat in a San Francisco restaurant, put the safety of an exotic animal--rather than stands of isolated timber that few are likely to walk through--at the centre of the issue.

While most people are familiar with the Great Bear Rainforest campaign's "adopt-a-pet" image, the achievement that resulted isn't common knowledge. And Greenpeace has been involved in other recent environmental successes that aren't on the public's radar. In July 2001, Greenpeace divers and inflatables entered the "exclusion zone" offshore of California's Vandenberg Air Force Base and delayed the launch of a U.S. missile defence shield test. In Europe, Germany is winding down its nuclear power industry. In May, food giant Monsanto abandoned open-field trials of its "Roundup-ready" genetically engineered wheat. Last month in Argentina, Greenpeace protesters dressed as jaguars and riding on motorcycles interfered with bulldozers clearing forests to grow genetically modified soy, resulting in the arrest of nine people.

Yet media attention for these efforts is elusive, at least in North America. Hunter, who now works as a television host and commentator at Toronto's Citytv, says many news editors see Greenpeace's public activism simply as a commercial. And although he believes environmental coverage has moved up a rung on the mainstream-media ladder, "it's like a junior ministry in a provincial government. You rarely see stories about the raw politics of it, which is really what it's all about." Hunter also says Greenpeace has a higher profile in places like South America and Russia. "It's got some political pizzazz because they're not used to legitimate political activism."

TODAY, A SMALL Greenpeace office up a narrow flight of stairs on Commercial Drive has a staff of eight. Vancouver doesn't feel like it's on the frontline of anything, except perhaps the video-game industry, real-estate speculation, and its attendant overhyped Winter Olympics. Peace marches ain't what they used to be. The Clayoquot logging blockades seem a distant memory. Coal-fired power and offshore drilling in B.C. appear possible. Japan continues its substantial "scientific" whale hunt; the prospect of renewed commercial whaling is real.

For those nostalgic for Greenpeace's Vancouver heyday, it's easy to cast the sprawling organization as less relevant than it once was. As both Weyler's and Hunter's books reveal, though, that disguises another success of Vancouver Greenpeace activists. Both writers believe that Canadians' lack of nationalistic possessiveness allowed Greenpeace to become global in nature. After all, the problems it sought to confront are the world's problems.

Yet there's one issue where Greenpeace doesn't seem to be hitting its marks right now. Greenpeace began with a campaign against the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Today, antinuclear activism seems almost quaint, the signs that proclaim our city a nuclear-weapons-free zone an anomaly from the past. Canada's almost inevitable participation in George W. Bush's missile defence plan provokes more disappointment than outrage among those who might oppose it. Our country's central role in giving both India and Pakistan their nuclear weapons, which might well have been used had the two gone to war in 2002 and now puts them within reach of Osama bin Laden, is barely even noted.

On this issue more than any other, it seems we have failed. Israel recently admitted to its long-standing nuclear-weapons program. Many fear the U.S. will drive Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons to protect themselves against another unprovoked, trumped-up American invasion.

Call it "How we all learned to start worrying yet forgot the bomb."

Dobson recalls the words of a Vancouver Institute speaker who lectured on the hierarchy of crises a few years ago. "Everybody talks about crises, but there's only one real crisis, one really major crisis. The continuing acquisition of nuclear weapons, and that is still proceeding."

Yet Dobson, Weyler, and Hunter all agree that this is a very difficult issue to tackle right now because of rising world tension. Hunter points to the chilling effect of the U.S. Patriot Act. It's not likely that Greenpeace is going to consider trying to acquire plutonium, as it did in the mid-1970s, just to show that it can be done.

Instead, activists are targeting a key perpetrator, President George W. Bush. We will soon see if Internet organizers such as, activist-journalist Michael Moore, and stunt pullers like the Ruckus Society can create images that will result in his defeat. The result will likely depend on whether or not those images motivate more Americans to get out and vote.

Whatever the outcome of the election, it's worth remembering the old macro-micro conundrums that have been at the heart of so many Greenpeace arguments. "It's not a matter of how successful this specific campaign is going to be," Hunter says, holding to the long view and defending Greenpeace's current conservatism. "It's can we turn this sucker around by mid-century."

In writing about activism, Dobson pointed more toward the short view when he cited Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Greenpeace's success is proof enough of both.

Bob Hunter, Rex Weyler, and early Greenpeace stalwarts Dorothy Stowe and Paul Spong will join Jim Byrnes, Valdy, Chilliwack, and other bands of the era at the Commodore on September 21 in a benefit for the Greenpeace boreal forests campaign.