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Captain Paul Watson: Interview with a Pirate

By Lamya Essemlali with Paul Watson

November 13, 2013

Review By Stephanie Rutherford

Paul Watson is, without doubt, a controversial figure in green politics. Some name him the impassioned eco-warrior, who puts his life on the line to stop whaling. Others see him as the enfant terrible of the environmental movement, hurting the very struggle he aims to help. Interview with a Pirate, a series of interviews between Watson and Lamya Essemlali, the head of Sea Shepherd France, perhaps unsurprisingly sides with the former view. For those interested in hearing Watson speak with his own voice about a range of issues, the book will offer many interesting insights. However, if one is looking for an impartial history or scholarly account of Watson’s contributions to environmental politics, Interview with a Pirate is not for you.

As a compilation of interviews, this book does not have a stated objective. However, Interview with a Pirate works to elaborate the inner life and motivations of Watson as a controversial public figure. It covers his position on a range of issues, focusing on the importance of direct action, his supposed misanthropy, the idea of eco-terrorism, and his reflections on the roots of environmental crises. As one might expect, the interviews spend a lot of time dissecting Watson’s now controversial role in the founding of Greenpeace in Vancouver after 1969, as well as his eventual split with Greenpeace in 1977, a break that seems to have left an indelible wound on Watson. The sometimes vitriolic dispute between Greenpeace and Watson’s Sea Shepherd Conservation Society provides an interesting lens through which to consider different strategies and tactics in environmental activism, and the ways in which the left, (as the saying goes) can sometimes eat its own. This discussion of the schism might be of particular interest to readers of BC Studies as well as those interested in the rise of radical green activism in Vancouver, but certainly goes well beyond provincial borders.

Through the vignettes presented in the book, Interview with a Pirate presents a compelling articulation of someone who refuses to compromise in the defence of whales. The interviews presented are often interesting, allowing readers to gain an appreciation of Watson as a person who thinks deeply about environmental politics and who dedicates his life to the principles for which he stands.

However, it is clear that Essemlali views Watson as a champion, a “great man in history,” whose achievements have been undervalued and misunderstood. As such, the narrative of the book aims to vindicate Watson, eradicating the moniker of eco-terrorist and elevating him to the pantheon of other Canadian eco-luminaries like David Suzuki and Elizabeth May, or perhaps even to set him above them. As a result, the questions posed by Essamlali are both sympathetic and leading, and she does not follow up on Watson’s answers and press for elaboration to any significant degree. This is the major deficiency of the book. By crafting an account of straightforward valour, Essamlali misses the opportunity to explore Watson as a complex and potentially contradictory figure, one who is interesting not only because of his uncompromising commitment, but also because of his propensity towards posturing and self-aggrandizement.

In the end, Interview with a Pirate offers a noteworthy — if limited — conversation with a key figure in environmental politics.

Captain Paul Watson: Interview with a Pirate
By Lamya Essemlali with Paul Watson
Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books, 2013. 264 pp. $24.95 paper