The Founding of Greenpeace

Page - December 20, 2006
In 1971, motivated by their vision of a green and peaceful world, a small crew set sail from Vancouver, Canada, in an old fishing boat. These activists, the founders of Greenpeace, believed a few individuals could make a difference.

Dave Birmingham raises Greenpeace sail on Phyllis Cormack.

Until 1969 Amchitka, a tiny island off the West Coast of Alaska, was a peaceful haven for bald eagles, peregrine falcons and endangered sea otters.

Then on October 2 the United States of America set off a one mega-ton bomb 1,200 metres below the surface of the sea.

When the US announced their plans for another test blast five times bigger many people were concerned and angered. Among them was a group of Vancouver conservationists from the 'Don't Make a Wave Committee' who had led demonstrations against the first bomb.

They realised that something more drastic had to be done. Their idea was to send a protest vessel to Amchitka. Their mission was to 'bear witness,' and by their presence prevent the US from proceeding with the test.

During the planning of the voyage a number of people contributed to the conception of Greenpeace as we have come to know it, but it was Bill Darnell who came up with the dynamic combination of words to bind together the group's concern for the planet and opposition to nuclear arms.

In the words of Bob Hunter, "Somebody flashed two fingers as we were leaving the church basement and said "Peace!" Bill said "Let's make it a Green Peace. And we all went Ommmmmmmm."

Jim Bohlen's son Paul, having trouble making the two words fit on a button, linked them together into the committee's new name: Greenpeace.

The boat they chose to take them thousands of kilometres into the freezing Arctic waters was an aging 24 meter fishing vessel named the Phyllis Cormack.

On September 15, 1971, a sign with the Greenpeace name was hammered on to the bridge and the Phyllis Cormack, with crew of twelve, chugged out of the Vancouver harbour to stop the bomb.

Everyone on board was aware of the dangers ahead. They were worried about how the old boat would cope with the stormy seas and they were afraid of being contaminated by radiation from the bomb.

Next morning they sent a broadcast to the local radio network: "Our goal is a very simple, clear and direct one - to bring about a confrontation between the people of death and the people of life. We insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations".

The boat did not make it all the way to Amchitka. Two weeks out from Vancouver it was arrested by a Coastguard cutter, USS Confidence, and ordered to sail away from the area.

One of the sailors from the Confidence handed the protesters a note. Seventeen sailors had signed it and it read, "The crew of the Confidence feel that what you are doing is for the good of all. Good luck. We are behind you 100 percent."

Shortly after the Greenpeace boat returned to Vancouver the US detonated their bomb. It was the last bomb they exploded in the region. Public opinion had turned. The voice of Greenpeace had been heard. Nuclear testing on Amchitka ended that same year, and the island was later declared a bird sanctuary.

The Amchitka experience had fired the imaginations of people all over Canada and established the group's name there. In 1972 a yacht renamed Greenpeace III, sailed from New Zealand to Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia to protest against nuclear weapons testing.

This second journey spread Greenpeace's reputation across the world and the organisation was on its way to becoming an international household name.

The following years saw Greenpeace offices spread around the world. From protesting against nuclear testing in Alaska and the Pacific our work expanded to encompass a wide range of environmental issues. Today, Greenpeace is an international organisation that prioritises global environmental campaigns.

Based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Greenpeace has 2.8 million supporters worldwide, and national as well as regional offices in 41 countries.
The organisation's start also established our modus operandi of bearing witness and taking action to create change.

The Greenpeace story proves that individuals can win through -  even against enormous odds - when they really believe in what they're doing.

If you're keen to find out more, the following books are worth reading: