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Review

The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey

Making Waves: The Origins and Future of Greenpeace

By Jim Bohlen

Shadow Warrior: The Autobiography of David McTaggart, Founder of Greenpeace International

By David McTaggart

November 4, 2013

Review By Arn Keeling

GOOGLE “GREENPEACE” and you get a snapshot of the global scope of environmental activism undertaken by that organization. On any given day, group members can be found saving jaguars in Argentina, blockading logging in Alaska, opposing drag-line fisheries off New Zealand, sailing to confront fish farms in British Columbia’s Broughton Archipelago, protesting mining developments in the Urals, or testing human hair for traces of mercury in Pittsburgh. 

Greenpeace, to the delight of many and to the chagrin of some activists, has become the international brand-name for environmentalism. Its origins in Vancouver and its growth into a global entity are swathed in myth and not a little controversy. The four books reviewed here offer quixotic views of the founding of Greenpeace from those involved in the front lines of the group’s early campaigns. They resound with interpersonal rivalries, clashing egos, and personal agendas. While offering interesting accounts of famous environmental encounters, these memoirs are by and large as unreflective as their authors seem to be, and insights into the significance of the rise of Greenpeace remain largely hidden between the lines. 

Bob Hunter’s journal of the inaugural Greenpeace direct action campaign in 1971 remained buried for thirty years prior to its recent publication as The Greenpeace to Amchitka. The rambling narrative was initially rejected by publishers, although portions surfaced in a 1972 photo-essay and a later Hunter book about Greenpeace, Warriors of the Rainbow (1974). Its re-emergence provides an engaging and imaginative – if at times bizarre – account of the voyage that established the radical reputation of a new brand of eco-warriors. In 1971 Hunter, then a columnist for the Vancouver Sun, and eleven others chartered a halibut packer (renamed the Greenpeace) from Vancouver to interfere with American nuclear testing in the North Pacific. While failing to stop the test, the journey attracted international attention and sowed the seeds for the formation of the Greenpeace Foundation. The crew included many who would go on to shape Greenpeace in its critical early years, including activist-ecologist Patrick Moore, itinerant journalist Ben Metcalfe, and anti-nuclear activist Jim Bohlen. 

Hunter’s account sparkles with hippie-era imagery and detailed personal observations reflecting the spirit – and tribulations – of that first voyage. His inimitable prose includes repeated references to the Lord of the Rings books, with the (mostly) Canadian crew cast as Hobbits sailing towards an American Mordor. Crammed aboard the converted fishing boat was an uneasy alliance of “mystics” and “mechanics”; the motivations and methods of the former were shaped by the counterculture and sixties-era radicalism, while the latter, including the older members of the crew, possessed a “straighter” vision of the trip’s purpose and tactics. Hunter traces the emerging schism within the ranks, one deepened by confrontations with the US Coast Guard and by the repeated delays of the test, which, ultimately, forced the Greenpeace to return to Vancouver. At the time, Hunter agonized over what he regarded as the mechanics’ failure of nerve, though in a retrospective note at the end of the book he acknowledges that they were probably wise to turn back when they did. 

Chief among the mechanics was Jim Bohlen, a Sierra Club member and anti-nuclear activist who co-founded the Don’t Make a Wave Committee (the precursor to Greenpeace) to oppose the Amchitka test. As he notes in his memoir, Making Waves, the New York-born Bohlen moved to Vancouver in 1967 to protect his sons from military service. In his recent study of Greenpeace, Frank Zelko has documented how Bohlen, along with fellow expatriates Irving and Dorothy Stowe, brought a significant American influence to the Canadian activist community.1 Early Greenpeace actions were thus steeped in the Quaker activist tradition of “bearing witness” and were infused with American pacifist and anti-nuclear ideals. Bohlen’s version of the Amchitka voyage, however, offers little reflection on his role or his relationships with other crew members. 

Bohlen is most notable as a representative of the technophilic tradition within environmentalism. A research engineer by trade, he became increasingly fascinated with “appropriate technology.” From geodesic domes (Bohlen was an acquaintance of dome guru Buckminster Fuller) to energy-efficient wood stoves to organic farming, the appropriate technology and back-to-the-land movements stressed human-scale and earth-friendly technology and self-sufficiency as an antidote to environmental crisis. Bohlen, who retired to a Greenpeace demonstration farm on Denman Island, became a leading Canadian proponent of alternative technology and a Green Party activist. He returned to Greenpeace leadership in the 1980s as a member of the Greenpeace Canada board of directors and spearheaded the group’s attempts to net the US cruise missile being tested in northern Canada in 1985. While its final chapter offers some reflections on the contemporary ecological challenges facing the planet, the book fails to assess the historical importance and meaning of Greenpeace and environmentalism. 

In contrast with Bohlen’s straight-ahead style, the memoirs of Greenpeace activists David McTaggart and Paul Watson bristle with self-aggrandizement and mythologizing. Co-founders of Greenpeace International in 1979, McTaggart and Watson became larger-than-life figures within the environmental movement, both for their swashbuckling confrontations with environmental evil-doers and for their egocentric personalities (characteristics amply displayed in these volumes). 

McTaggart’s Shadow Warrior was published shortly after his fatal car accident near his olive farm in Italy. McTaggart’s personal story is fascinating, and he unapologetically recounts his privileged upbringing in Vancouver, his wild youth, and his repeated personal crises. His involvement with Greenpeace stemmed more from his desire for adventure and risk than from a deep commitment to environmental causes. Yet his take-no-prisoners style helped define the organization’s direct action tactics, beginning with his maritime disruption of French atmospheric nuclear tests in the South Pacific in 1972 and 1973. The difficult voyages and his confrontations with French officials confirmed McTaggart’s – and Greenpeace’s – reputation for fearless, dramatic exploits. 

Egocentric and a self-confessed manipulator, McTaggart at times resembles a ruthless corporate CEO more than an environmentalist. He appears to have treated relationships, both personal and professional, as means to an end, whether that end be the success of Greenpeace actions or the satisfaction of his own desires. In the memoir he expends considerable effort to position himself as the driving force behind Greenpeace International (which he headed for nearly twelve years) and its successful early campaigns against whaling and nuclear testing. Written much as McTaggart lived – in a blaze of action with few pauses for reflection – this memoir, like Bohlen’s, will appeal most to movement insiders and those who study environmentalism. 

Anti-sealing activist Paul Watson shares much with McTaggart. Watson also subordinates all relationships to his ongoing personal crusade: ending the international seal hunt. Seal Wars recounts Watson’s efforts to halt sealing in the North Atlantic, including his many confrontations with Newfoundlanders and French-Canadian sealers (who are largely portrayed as semi-literate savages). People are divided into heroes (Watson, of course, and fellow activist Walrus Oakenbough [David Garrick]) and villains (Greenpeace rival Patrick Moore, federal fisheries officials). Much of the dialogue sounds contrived, and entire sections appear to be reproductions of Hunter’s Warriors of the Rainbow and Watson’s own Ocean Warrior (1994). As such, Seal Wars contributes little insight into either Greenpeace or the environmental movement, except as they affected Watson’s own struggle. 

Whatever one thinks of sealing or Watson’s campaigns, the book contains remarkable narratives of high-seas derring-do, bloody battles on the North Atlantic ice, and Watson’s (dare I say?) heroic attempts to save doe-eyed seal pups from slaughter. The politics and science of seal hunting and protection remain obscure. Watson, like Bohlen, is perhaps most notable as an avatar of a particular strain of environmentalism – the animal rights movement. He is a true believer in the value of animals (well, seals at least) as individuals and rejects anthropocentric arguments defending the hunt. 

Read together, the memoirs of Hunter, Watson, and McTaggart, in particular, offer a vista into the ideology of “first-wave” environmental activism. These “muscular” environmentalists believed their radical actions could change the world, and they saw Greenpeace as their vehicle. They evaluated other people and events in relation to their revolutionary goals. This is particularly evident in their relationships with women. The masculinist world of high-stakes environmental activism had little place for women as anything other than helpmates or sexual partners. Watson and McTaggart especially appeared to see women as activist accessories: Watson, for instance, dismisses an early lover by noting, “she chose people and I chose Earth” (84), and McTaggart was a serial philanderer who left behind abandoned children and ruined relationships in his environmentalist zeal. While women occasionally participate in these male-dominated campaigns, rarely do they penetrate the inner circle of male activists. 

None of these books by itself provides much information for those interested in the growth of Greenpeace as an organization or in the social phenomenon of environmentalism. For these questions, readers would do well to consult Frank Zelko’s “Make It a Green Peace”2 or Rex Weyler’s recent book, also reviewed in this issue. These memoirs will, however, fuel the ongoing myth-making and controversy that surrounds the organization and its larger-than-life builders. 

[1] Frank Zelko, “‘Make it a Green Peace’: The History of an International Environmental Organization” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 2003). 

[2]Ibid.