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Review

Greenpeace

By Rex Weyler

November 4, 2013

Review By Michael M'Gonigle

VANCOUVER IN THE EARLY 1970S Was a far different place from the “world class” cosmopolis it is today. Home to “draft dodgers” and a Kitsilano counterculture, it was an open space for environmental action, like a green field before the grass got all trampled down. This is the setting for the birth of Greenpeace, recounted in Rex Weyler’s exciting new book entitled Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World. 

The book recounts how the now global organization got started – from the founding of the Greenpeace predecessor (the Don’t Make a Wave Committee) in 1969 and the initial campaign (in 1971) of the Greenpeace I to Amchitka Island to protest American nuclear testing, through campaigns to save the whales and seals, to the creation of Greenpeace International in 1979. It hosts an engrossing cast of characters, with early leading roles assigned to the American Quaker anti-nuclear movement (Jim and Marie Bohlen, Irving and Dorothy Stowe) and Canadian journalism (Ben Metcalfe and Bob Hunter). Throughout there is a chorus of characters from the Vancouver area, such as skipper John Cormack, ecologist Pat Moore, hard-core activist Paul Watson, inveterate organizer Rod Manning, and deal-maker David Mc-Taggart. 

Greenpeace is truly a rich achievement. It tells a great story that captures the spirit of a generation and a movement and that begins and ends with a lamentation on the birth of Greenpeace International. This provides the book with its purpose – to reclaim Greenpeace as a product of these amazing individuals in this special city at this historic time. 

The dust-jacket promotes the book as the “definitive” record of Greenpeace “portrayed by someone who helped make it happen.” To academics, this is a contradiction, of course. Such a work is necessarily “perspectival” rather than “definitive.” Indeed, rather than closing the book on Greenpeace, this story is an important contribution to an ongoing understanding of the organization and of the movement of which it was such a central part. 

Wyler was a war resister from Colorado who joined Greenpeace in 1973 as photographer and, later, became publisher of the magazine Greenpeace Chronicles. His methodology falls somewhere between that of an ethnographic study and that of a historical novel. Huge amounts of primary research (interviews, documents, notebooks) are translated into direct (constructed) dialogue. The story is recounted in present time, with hindsight mixed in. 

Under the influence of its founders, the brilliance of Greenpeace in the 1970s involved its strategy of (1) “bearing witness” (Quaker roots) through non-violent direct action and of (2) conveying the dramatic, derring-do images to the world through the visual media (journalistic roots). In Bob Hunter’s memorable term, the goal was to send out media “mindbombs.” With homage to Marshall McLuhan, Greenpeace recognized the constitutive role of “discourse” and harnessed its material power long before such awareness penetrated the academy. 

At the same time, Wyler does not contemplate the limitations of the mindbomb strategy in an already corporate-controlled media and an evolving culture of entertainment and consumption. The organization’s lack of interest in grinding, less glamorous political work is also eschewed: “Our job was not to resolve the nuance of ecology. Our job was to expose ecology by delivering images to people’s minds. ‘Let the scientists and politicians sort out what to do/ Hunter often said” (501). For example, although Greenpeace was represented at the International Whaling Commission after 1977, tnat story (which led to a pelagic moratorium in the summer of 1979) is not told. 

The book begins and ends within a perspective set by Greenpeace Vancouver. Those individuals and offices who challenged Vancouver’s continuing intellectual, financial, and legal hegemony are repeatedly criticized (McTaggart, John Frizell, Greenpeace in San Francisco and Europe) or given slight treatment (Allan Thornton). In contrast, the heavy-handed centralism of Greenpeace Vancouver’s president in the late 1970s, Pat Moore, is politely excused as insufficiently “diplomatic.” To move from a local movement to a global organization presented immense challenges. The conflict created by this shift is recounted, but a more nuanced and reflective treatment is still needed. It is needed in order to assess events in light of the changing characteristics of global civil society, the realpolitik of global political ecology, and the imperatives of transnational organization that began to emerge in this period. 

Those heretics who fought for a vision that might work in the 1980s and beyond – and who, it might be argued, saved Greenpeace from 1970s Vancouver – are neither acknowledged nor yet understood. Yet, notes Wyler, “our private fears about letting go would prove trifling … Over the ensuing decades, the mystical spirit and radial theatrics would survive a burgeoning bureaucracy required to operate the global organization” (571). 

If this statement runs counter to the book’s argument, then so much the better for researchers in future. None of it detracts from Wyler’s remarkable contribution to the understanding of BC history and of the global environmental movement.