Greenpeace hacked into world consciousness with a cosmic ecology

How to Change the World documents early years of environmental organization

"In Vancouver, in 1971, we have the biggest concentration of tree huggers, draft dodgers, shit disturbing unionists, radical students, garbage dump stoppers, freeway fighters, pot smokers, vegetarians, nudists, Buddhists, fish preservationists and back-to-the-landers on the planet. And we are all haunted by the spectre of a dead world. These are the people who will shape the next 10 years of my life.” - Robert Hunter, Warriors of the Rainbow (A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement, 1979) 

“Dispersion. Success. The king approaches his temple. It furthers one to cross the great water. Perseverance furthers.”  –  I Ching: 59 Huan

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Fog enveloping the Mendocino Ridge off the coast of northern California made the task at hand even harder.

Greenpeace had obtained information about where Soviet whaling ships might be operating in the Pacific Ocean in the late spring of 1975, but finding the fleet would still be extremely difficult.

The crew, made up of what Vancouver Sun columnist Bob Hunter described as “mystics and mechanics,” had only two days of fuel remaining and what little food they had was drenched in diesel after a spill inside the boat’s storage room. There was only one thing left to do – it was time to consult the I Ching for guidance.

“The question was were we going to run for San Francisco without an encounter with whalers or were we going to stay out and try and find them?” says Carlie Truman in How to Change the World, a new documentary about the early years of Greenpeace. Truman, 23 at the time and an experienced scuba diver, brought along her own Zodiac on the expedition. Definitely more of a “mechanic” than a “mystic,” she was having second thoughts about her involvement with the rest of the cosmic cowboys on the good ship Phyllis Cormack.

Seated around a table in the boat’s cabin, Hunter drew the I Ching’s 59th hexagram which suggested the group would meet success if they continued on. Patrick Moore and David Garrick (a.k.a. Walrus Oakenbough) came up with the same thing. Skeptic Truman was given a turn and she too was told to stay the course.

“There are four hexagrams out of the 64 that have that,” says Truman in the film. “I got the fourth one. We went out the next day and found the Russians.”

Filmmaker Jerry Rothwell’s documentary tells the story of early Greenpeace with archival footage of their direct action campaigns, first-person interviews and narration based on the writings of Hunter, a co-founder of the worldwide environmental organization who died in 2005.

The history of Greenpeace is chaotic to say the least. It’s amazing they could even agree on a name for the group, which came out of other groups such as the Don’t Make A Wave Committee and Project Ahab. The word “Greenpeace” was a throwaway line early member Bill Darnell coined one day after a meeting (“Let’s make it a greenpeace”) and it stuck, first as a title on the bow of a boat and then as the name of the entire organization.

Hunter, then a young columnist at the Sun, originally signed on as a media volunteer to cover the Amchitka expedition but soon found himself, to his horror, in charge of the whole shebang. Greenpeace would turn out to be the perfect medium for his “mind bombs” advocating social change and he would become the heart and soul of the environmental group in its first decade.

Greenpeace today is quite different from what it was like in the ’70s, even though in many respects it is still pursuing the same goal of environmental awareness through education and direct action campaigns. Rothwell’s How to Change the World charts expansion during the first decade as it established its name internationally from operations on the West Coast of Canada. Several core members of the original group were based on the North Shore with its very existence due in large part to a bank loan arranged by the North Shore News.

BEARING WITNESS

Rex Weyler began working at the North Shore News in early 1973 shortly after arriving in Vancouver as a draft resister. He’d heard through the grapevine that owner Peter Speck was hiring and he gave him a call.

“It wasn’t the North Shore News yet,” says Weyler over the phone. “It wasn’t even called the News – it was the North Shore Shopper. It was an advertising shopper and I think the reason that it worked is because Peter had this distribution network to get the paper to every door on the North Shore. People looked at it but he wanted to convert it into a newspaper. He needed a journalist, a reporter, somebody to come in and be the editor of the newspaper.”

Weyler met Speck and was hired the same day. “I was a photographer as well as a writer. I just wandered around the North Shore taking photographs and writing stories and for quite a while I was pretty much the editorial department. Other people came and went but there were times when really it was just me taking pictures and Peter was writing and we had a few other writers. I was writing all the little news stories, taking photographs and doing the editing and the photography in the darkroom and pasting everything up. It was a lot of work. That’s how I learned to be a journalist.”

Not long after he started working at the News, Weyler met up with Bob Hunter at the Press Club across from the Vancouver Sun on Granville Street. “I just phoned him out of the blue,” says Weyler. “Bob was a really open guy. I said, ‘I’d really like to meet you’ and he said, ‘well what are you doing this afternoon? Come on over, we’ll have a drink.’

The two got together later that day and talked until closing time. “Right away I realized what a smart person he was,” says Weyler. “Self-educated. He was really keen on knowing and learning. He was just genuinely a curious person about the world and he knew a lot.”

In those days ecology wasn’t a household word. There was no environmental movement to speak of and it wasn’t a topic that people generally discussed. Both Hunter and Weyler found common ground through journalism and their keen interest in ecology as a vehicle for social change.

“The peace movement was important of course,” says Weyler. “And so was the civil rights movement and the women’s movement but even if we solved all of our social justice issues in the world we could still destroy the world with our consumption and waste. We ended up sitting in the pub until midnight. Time melted away and we had this great long conversation and we were friends ever since.”

By the time Weyler became involved with Greenpeace the group had already performed one direct action campaign in 1971. Even though the Phyllis Cormack (renamed Greenpeace for the trip) never reached Amchitka Island off the southwest coast of Alaska to protest American nuclear testing, their herculean efforts raised global awareness and ultimately forced the U.S. to stop testing bombs. For their second campaign in 1975, the Vancouver-based contingent decided to go after Soviet whaling ships operating in the north Pacific Ocean.

Hunter first came across the devastation of whaling culture while travelling north to Amchitka. A few years later on Oct. 18, 1974, neuroscientist/cetologist Paul Spong introduced Hunter to a live “killer whale,” Skana, at the Vancouver Aquarium. In How to Change the World, Spong says, “At one point she opened her jaws wide with a clear invitation for him to put his head inside. And he did that.” Hunter wrote in Warriors of the Rainbow: “She takes my whole head in her jaws and holds me like a crystal goblet in a vice. I could not move a fraction of an inch. I can feel her teeth making the slightest indentation in the back of my neck. Terror explodes in my chest. She could snap my head like an eggshell but chooses not to. Suddenly I get it. She’s showing me exactly where my courage ends and my fear begins. Then as though satisfied she lets go and sinks away with a handful of my hair snagged around two huge teeth.”

Skana, the orca/killer whale, planted her own mind bomb, which led Greenpeace to start working for the whales. Among the crew on the Phyllis Cormack for the second ocean campaign were scientists like Spong, a Maplewood Mudflats resident and Weyler, whose main job was to photograph all the group’s exploits on the high seas.

“What I was doing on the campaigns primarily was taking photos and filing stories at the North Shore News and a couple of other places,” says Weyler.  “We used to conspire about the images because Bob’s idea of the ‘mind bomb’ completely resonated with me. I understood that concept. He had been reading Marshall McLuhan and we shared that understanding of how you used the media to create social change.”

At one point in the documentary Hunter asks Weyler how many Russian ships he can count on the horizon. There were nine. “That was an exciting day,” says Weyler. “I wouldn’t say we’d given up. We hadn’t given up but we were feeling great despair. We were running out of food, we were running out of fuel, we only had a couple more days of chasing them around and then we would have had to give up. It was our worst nightmare that we would have spent our whole summer up there with all that effort and all that money and not find them. But we found them.”

From the second campaign on, Greenpeace employed Zodiacs, a vessel of choice they picked up from observing the French navy at work. Zodiacs were fast and flexible, enabling the activists to move in on the ships and get between the harpoons and the whale pods.

“It was very intense,” says Weyler. “When you got out there they were killing whales and the harpoon boats were big enough but the factory ship was a monster. The harpoon boats would haul the dead whales up to the back of the factory ship and load them – hook them on this crank and drag them up the stern slip of the factory ship and there was blood all over the place. There was a pipe coming out of a hole in the boat and blood is just pouring out. The stench is just horrendous. The giant crane’s ripping giant sides of flesh off the whale. It was pretty brutal. When we were in those scenes it was very intense and emotional and people were pretty wound up.”

Weyler shot still images while Ron Precious and Fred Easton were working with film cameras (16 mm Bolex and later Arriflex)to document the action. In the pre-digital era everything they shot had to be processed back on land at a lab.

“I processed full rolls of film on the boat but it was pretty difficult,” says Weyler. “Essentially everything came back. We either had to come back into shore somewhere or send the film back. We usually sent it to Vancouver. Some stuff went to the North Shore News and some went to the Vancouver Sun to process and then it was distributed to all the media.

“We would either have locals or people coming down from Vancouver meet us at various ports. Rod Marining was the media person in Vancouver who would pick up the film, look at all the pictures and decide what was going to go out. In those days going out meant putting it on the wire and so usually that was done at the Vancouver Sun because they had the photo wire. And then when we came into San Francisco on the whale campaign it was all done right there in San Francisco because when we came in the story was already big news – this was in ’75 – we got picked up by UPI and taken over to the lab where they had a dark room. The film was processed and the images were put out within hours.”

The anti-whaling campaign drew worldwide coverage and helped establish Greenpeace as a global environmental presence. The crew returned to Vancouver with thousands welcoming them on shore as they triumphantly landed in their signature Zodiacs. Weyler came in on a boat with Hunter and Moore and hopped out on crutches.  

“On the way back I had fallen from the mast and actually broke my foot which was painful to say the least,” he recalls. “We were coming south down Johnstone Strait and I fell from the mast and broke my foot. I got a float plane and flew into Campbell River Hospital and got my foot set. They wanted to fly me down to Vancouver hospital and I said, ‘No way, I’m going back on the boat.’ I wanted to come in with everybody on the crew. I went back to the boat and popped painkillers for two days while we came down through Georgia Strait into Vancouver.”

Despite their success, Greenpeace had spent $120,000, three times their budget, on the anti-whaling campaign and they returned to Vancouver heavily in debt. Their money troubles weighed on them as they returned to their day jobs.

After work on Thursday nights, the “Thursday Night Band” would take out their instruments and jam at the North Shore News offices on the second floor at 1139 Lonsdale Ave. in North Vancouver. Ellsworth Dickson, responsible for the Inquiring Reporter column among other things, played guitar and sang, as did Rex Weyler. Accountant Bill Gannon played bass.

Within days of returning to work at the North Shore News, Weyler asked Gannon if he could help Greenpeace out of its financial woes.

 “I knew Bill very well,” says Weyler. “I knew that he knew his stuff and I knew he could help Greenpeace so he got involved and then maybe a year or two later Peter Speck joined the Greenpeace board.

"Peter had business experience and he had just good business instincts. He was smart and Bill was smart so they helped us a lot. It was like a family in those days.”

After the anti-whaling campaign Greenpeace was suddenly famous and offices were opening up all over the world. Paul Watson was pushing to do a similar campaign for seals on the East Coast, another whale campaign was in the planning stages and they wanted to continue their fight on the nuclear front.

“We had very little money and it was very chaotic,” says Weyler. “It was a case of an organization growing way faster than we could keep up with. I first asked Bill to get involved because we needed a good financial manager and so he started working with Greenpeace, I think just volunteering at first, getting the bookkeeping organized and doing our financial statements. Bill was the one who helped us get a loan from the Royal Bank. We were seriously in debt but we had all this support so we could project huge success for the organization but we needed cash. We got a loan from the Royal Bank based on a cash flow projection that Bill and Bob and Bob’s wife Bobbi and myself all worked on. We put together this huge handmade spreadsheet cash flow projection, took it into the Royal Bank and got a loan – $75,000, I think. Little known history: the Royal Bank financed the development of Greenpeace.”

STRICTLY PERSONAL

Rothwell’s documentary, How to Change the World, coincides with the years that Hunter was leader of Greenpeace. During his tenure the organization waged anti-nuclear, whaling and seal campaigns that documented illegal, unethical and inhuman practices on a global scale. Greenpeace hacked into world consciousness and planted mind bombs of another green world where everything was connected.

In early 1977 Hunter resigned after a power struggle split the group into different factions, pitting the San Francisco office against the Vancouver office and creating a Greenpeace International. For many years afterwards, mention of the “G” word was discouraged in the Hunter household.

In the late ’70s and 1980s Hunter wrote three “Strictly Personal” columns per week (Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays) in the North Shore News. In a column published May 25, 1984, “On writings and wrongs,” he wrote about a stash of his clippings his mother had been saving in scrapbooks and turned over to him. “I’ve had roughly two and a half million words published: 352 newspaper stories, 87 magazine articles, 1,200 columns and seven books....” In another column written the same week, “Proud papa Bob,” he hoped that the child his wife Bobbi was expecting was a girl. He got his wish.

Near the end of How to Change the World the next-generation of eco-activism is introduced with the appearance of Hunter’s daughter Emily, the youngest of his four children. Emily and her mother Bobbi worked closely with Rothwell while he was making the documentary.

Emily brings the story full circle as she now works for Greenpeace Canada out of Toronto. Born in Vancouver in 1984, she moved east with her family when she was five years old.

Hunter’s daughter began her own career as an eco-activist working with  Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd in 2004. “Paul and my father were best friends,” she says over the phone from Toronto. “In hippie terms we like to say they were the ying to each other’s yang. Very much warrior brothers with very different approaches and different personalities. Paul was actually a surrogate uncle of mine and still is.

"He was the first to arrive after I was born. I’ve known him my whole life. My dad had been on a number of Sea Shepherd campaigns reporting from the seas when he was doing his City TV gig in the ’90s and early millennia and it was a very natural transition for me to do my first campaign there.”

Bob bought Emily a one-way ticket to join the Sea Shepherd in the Galapagos Islands for her entry into activism. With Greenpeace Canada she is currently working on a campaign targeting Great Value and Chicken of the Sea products at Walmart stores. Greenpeace claims the supplier Thai Union exploits its workers and uses destructive fishing methods.

“My dad loved his career as a journalist both before and after Greenpeace and the North Shore News was one of the experiences I think he coveted most,” Emily says over the phone. “He was able to start some of his mind bombs and shape the public consciousness on environmental issues with his work at the North Shore News.”

Emily and her mother were integral in getting Rothwell access to information on early Greenpeace, researching and setting up interviews with some of the original members.

“I went through my father’s archives, which is an enormous collection of the early days in Greenpeace,” says Emily. “I was looking through a lot of the early videotapes, home movies and photos that you see in the film. My dad was constantly documenting both his life and the world around him from a very young age, from writing up science fiction comics of how he fantasized how the world would be to his early journalism right down to the very last article he was writing before he passed away. He was constantly documenting. It was a real treasure trove to be able to go through that.”

Rothwell spent 10 years making How to Change the World. He and his team went through 1,600 canisters of raw footage that had to be processed and digitized along with 500 hours of audio tape.

“It was a behemoth project to put that together,” says Emily. “It’s a two-hour long film, which might seem long to people but that really summarized the first seven years of that incredible history of Greenpeace through all that media that my dad and others documented.

“I don’t like to put words in his mouth but I really believe my dad would be thrilled with the film. The reason is because it is an honest and genuine portrayal of a human story of how to make change in the world.

“My dad would never have wanted to be put on a pedestal and turned into a mega-hero. He was much too humble for that. If anything, he wanted to show that anyone could do this. In a way he was an extraordinary person but he was also an ordinary person. Anybody could do this work and I think that’s what people bring away from the film. It takes a small, group of passionate, committed people to change the world. There is no mystery, it is just that.”

How to Change the World is nominated for a Grierson Award for Best Documentary on a Contemporary Theme. Winners will be announced in a ceremony on Nov. 7 in London, England (griersontrust.org).

 

Selected References:

Film:

How to Change the World (Director: Jerry Rothwell, UK/Canada 2015)

 

Books:

Greenpeace by Robert Keziere and Robert Hunter (McLelland and Stewart, 1972)

Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement by Robert Hunter (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979)

Greenpeace: The Inside Story (How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World) by Rex Weyler ( Raincoast Books, 2004)

Make it a Green Peace! The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism by Frank Zelko (Oxford University Press, 2013)

 

Audio:

Beethoven's Fifth (Decca Records, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1953)

Moody Blues: On the Threshold of a Dream (Deram Records, 1969)

(Two recordings Dr. Lyle Thurston played on cassette while on watch with Bob Hunter on the Phyllis Cormack in September 1971)

 

Brian Eno: Another Green World (Island Records, 1975)

Amchitka: The 1970 Concert that Launched Greenpeace with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs, Chilliwack (Maple Music, two discs, 2012)

Rex Weyler: Catch the Light (2014)

 

Online:

OrcaLab, founded in 1970 by Paul Spong:

http://orcalab.org/

Paul Watson on Bob Hunter:

https://www.seashepherd.org.au/news-and-commentary/commentary/one-day-on-the-water-with-bob-hunter.html

 

http://www.greenpeace.org/

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