A chat with the first Rainbow Warriors

Page - October 6, 2006
In Vancouver, on Canada's Pacific coast, Greenpeace set off on a voyage in 1972 which is still continuing. At "English Bay" the most successful environmental organization in the world was launched by just a dozen women and men. Their principles - non-violence and direct action - have been followed by Greenpeace the world over right up to the present day. And those pioneers from the early days -- Dorothy Stowe, widow of Irving Stowe, Dorothy Metcalfe, Jim Bohlen, and Bob Hunter were proud of what they achieved when they gathered, in 1996, to mark the 25-year anniversary of that first voyage. Here's how these first-generation Rainbow Warriors described those early days.

Bob:My goodness, Jim. I last saw you five years ago, at the 20-year celebrations. Is it really you?

Jim:You'd better watch out! - may have got a lot older but I'm still the same old Jim.

Bob: Well, you didn't recognize me straight off either.

Jim: Right. I thought to myself, "Who is that guy!?"

Bob: Appearances change, but then your character gradually starts to form. Before we completely disappear we grow again to our greatest size. like a supernova.

Jim: Charming. After all it's better to look forward to the apocalypse than to slow decay. By the way, I'm just reading the book you're carrying in your pocket there, "Rogue Primate". From a vast number of possible books we have both chosen the same one. Once aligned and we're still transmitting on the same wavelength.

Bob: Not just aligned. Welded together, on the Greenpeace alias the Phyllis Cormack.

Jim: You mean you've got your armpit in my nose just like I've got yours? Even today I could recognize everyone on board by their smell - we lived that close together on board.

Dorothy Stowe: Of course you're talking about how it all began. Actually, it all started to happen in this house. I can still see Irving sitting on the bed with the telephone in his hand, and someone is telling him about the atomic tests about to be held on Amchitka. They're telling him that the Aleutian Islands are an important habitat for sea-otters, and that they are jeopardized by the tests because their eardrums are in danger of bursting as a result of the explosion. The very idea of this outraged Irving just as much as the atomic tests themselves. So he called Jim

Bob: "Jim, do something!"

Jim: The rest is history.

Dorothy Stowe: Not yet.

Jim: Irving called me because I was head of the "Sierra Club" of British Columbia. But our head office in San Francisco didn't want to run a campaign against the nuclear tests. So we - Paul Cote, Irving Stowe and myself, together with our wives - set up a splinter group, the "Don't Make a Wave-Committee", the germ of Greenpeace.

Dorothy Stowe: The Bohlens and the Stowes had already been active in the peace movement for a long time.

Jim: And Paul Cote had been present at the first atomic test protests in 1969 on the border between the USA and Canada as weil. Bob had reported on it and had been in contact with us since then. In spite of that we had to work hard on him to persuade him to come along to Amchitka.

Bob: Well, after all I had to write a column for the "Vancouver Sun" every day.

Jim: A hippie column. But Bob was very important for us as a media man. Out of a crew of twelve, half were journalists. We did a lot for the media from the very beginning, for example for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, CBC. We were almost out of port when their camera team showed up late. What did we do? We turned around and cast off again.

Dorothy Stowe: Irving wisely decided to stay at home. He already had cancer at that time, which nobody knew, and he died just three years later.

Jim: On shore he worked like crazy, collecting money and hanging on to every last cent.

Dorothy Stowe: He wrote everything down in detail. "Collection box : 6 dollars 41 cents". later we even found receipts from the post office for 37 cents.

Jim: We were really short of money at that time. We financed ourselves from donations, sold Greenpeace buttons on busy street corners for 25 cents each and Greenpeace T-shirts for three dollars.

Bob: Then Irving had the idea of a solidarity concert to finance the trip to Amchitka. Three dollars a ticket for a concert with Joni Mitchell.

Dorothy Stowe: That had its funny slde: a few days before the concert the phone rang. It's Jonl Mitchell on the line from Los Angeles. Suddenly Irving puts his hand over the mouthpiece and hisses across to us, "Anyone of you know who James Taylor is?". Nobody knew him. My daughter shouted to him, "God, dad. That's that black blues singer." She'd mixed him up with James Brown. Irving was still at a loss. "What am I going to do? She wants him to be at the concert with her. Is he good?", he asked Barbara. And James Taylor's new album was just at the top of the charts. We hadn't noticed any of this because we'd been so busy getting things ready for the trip.

Jim: We even haggled for every item on the list of provisions until a dealer gave us everything for free. We had ice-boxes full of steaks. Bob, do you remember how we later toyed with the idea of going on hunger strike?

Bob: You bet! As I recall, Captain John Cormack was very enthusiastic about the idea; if we all starved to death he would have more to eat.

Jim: That was a good reason not to go ahead with it.

Dorothy Metcalfe: I was a kind of thirteenth crew member on shore. I supplied the media with news from on board the Greenpeace. At the height of the campaign I didn't leave the house for 15 days on end to make sure I didn't miss any radio messages.

Jim: If it hadn't been for you we would have been in serious difficulties. In those days you couldn't transmit from the ship direct. You were our relay station and did some fantastic work to make sure that our stories were sorted out and edited before they reached the media.

Dorothy Metcalfe: Well, we had to be absolutely reliable to make sure the press believed our reports. _

Jim: In spite of that some people claimed that the first trip was a failure.

Dorothy Metcalfe: If it had been, the Greenpeace that we know today would not exist.

Dorothy Stowe: Don't forget that seven tests had been planned for Amchitka and only three were actually carried out. The US Government had to admit that the others were canceled as a result of public pressure. Later they decared Amchitka a nature reserve.

Jim: For us it was a sign of hope that people can change things. And our action gave the entire ecology movement a new name: Green. that was better than ecology - a word hardly anyone understood.

Dorothy Stowe: I remember how we tried to think of a name for the ship. And then Bill Darnell came up with the combination of "Green" and "Peace".

Jim: We were aware that no-one would be interested in the fate of a Phyllis Cormack. Someone said that the word "Green" would have to appear in it somewhere. Irving said the word "Peace" was more important. In response to this, Bill, later our ship's cook on the Phyllis Cormack, threw in his famous suggestion. Then, when my son Paul designed the first button he had real problems trying to get the words Green and Peace on it as two words. So I said that he should write it as one word: GREENPEACE.

Dorothy Metcalfe: The secret of our success was being cheeky. Everyone was amazed: how dare they? Attacking governments and demanding the end of atomic tests. That was sensational - David versus Goliath. Only not everyone was on David's side: while you were on your trip I was a guest on various talk shows. And there people would call up to say they hoped that this bunch of hippies would all drown. That was hard to handle. Exactly at that time the ship was battling through a storm with waves ten meters high.

Jim: Apart from Cormack we all threw up. It wasn't an adventure - it was a serious undertaking in every respect. Everyone had had to take six weeks off work for the trip. They even wanted to fire me as I was working for the government.

Dorothy Stowe: Others put their own money into the project. Irving, for instance, completely gave up his job as a highly qualified lawyer specializing in marine law. I supported the family from my salary as a therapist.

Jim: Not enough people know just what an important part the women played in all this. Greenpeace would probably never have been so successful if Dorothy hadn't made it possible for Irving to devote all his energy to the cause. And without Irving's commitment a lot would have been left undone.

Dorothy Metcalfe: We were just a handful of people from different backgrounds, but on one thing we agreed - this planet is in danger.

Jim: I'm still surprised to day that we found a job for every talent - and a talent for every job.

Bob: Take Paul Spong, the well-known marine biologist. He approached us in order to use our good name for protecting whales. That's how we came to take up the subject of whales. And David McTaggart was another man in the right place at the right time.

Jim: Or Dorothy's ex-husband Ben Metcalfee, a television iournalist who joined in the first voyage of the-Greenpeace as a media observer. Like you, Bob, he "mutated" into an activist and became head of our press office. In 1972, when he was chairman of the association, he wanted to do something against French nuclear tests and was looking for people to join him in New Zealand. That's how we fell in with David McTaggart with his yacht, Vega. We were worried because nobody knew anything about the guy. Ben just said, "we'll give the man a radio transmitting set and a few hundred dollars and we've already got a campaign." We thought, " OK, what have we got to lose?"

Dorothy Metcalfe: In those days McTaggart was less bothered about the French testing atomic bombs on Moruroa than the fact that they were blocking off a huge area of sea although they were only entitled to the twelve-mile limit. He wasn't interested in environmental matters. But he was out for adventure and realized that Greenpeace offered a platform for getting something meaningful done.

Jim: It wasn't until later that he became a convinced environmentalist, after the French had given him such a bad beating. That was their mistake.

Bob: Yes, on the Vega's second voyage to Moruroa, the crew was really given a roughing up by the French. But David's girlfriend, Anne-Marie Horne, managed to take some photos of it. She smuggled the film off the ship in her vagina and took it to Vancouver, where we developed it and immediately realized what we had got hold of. At the time David was still in hospital.

Jim: We attacked the French for their orgy of violence. The government in Paris claimed that David had slipped up and got his bruises and eye injury from that.

Bob: Only then did we publish the photos. It was a complete knock-out.

Dorothy Metcalfe: After 1974 the direction Greenpeace took changed so much that many of the old campaigners no longer wanted to follow. Instead of fighting against the atomic threat they took up the cause of protecting seals and whales.

Dorothy Stowe: At that time Irving no longer had the energy to stand up against this development.

Jim: And I moved out into the country. Sold my house here in the city and built up a farm to do research into new ways of living self-sufficiently as far as energy was concerned. We called it the "Greenpeace Experimental Farm". Watching from the outside, I thought that the whole outfit would fold.

Bob: And there were a lot of fights: Ben and David hated each other. David felt that he had been left in the lurch by Greenpeace in his legal battle against France.

Bob: From 1975 onwards we had a few awful years - nothing but in-fighting.

Jim: In those days though there were some pretty strong characters rubbing each other up the wrong way. What was to be the future of the organization? Opinions on this differed widely. The direction Greenpeace should take has always been worth arguing about.

Bob: Did you know that for David McTaggart the history of Greenpeace doesn't start until Greenpeace International was founded in 1979?

Jim: The founders of Greenpeace are three people. Or the twelve who risked their asses on the first voyage in 1971. When David got a prize as the "Greenpeace Founder" in Mexico City I was absolutely fuming.

Bob: Sometimes I think it's a miracle that Greenpeace has survived all the fights.

Jim: So it's true what they say: "You can't sink a rainbow!" Whenever we were in a bad way and had no money left, some government would make a mistake and that would put us on our feet again. Ultimately the history of Greenpeace is based on a lot of coincidences.

Bob: Like in 1975. Everything was very much in the balance at that time. We were broke and urgently had to pay a whole load of invoices. We were completely desperate because someone had run off with 8000 dollars from a concert. Then I come into the office in the evening and there's this brown paper bag on the desk. A man with terminal cancer had given us a donation. A whole bag full of ten and five dollar bills. Only 50 dollars short of the exact amount we needed to pay off our debts. And this kind of thing didn't happen just once. We used to call it "cosmic accounting " .

Jim: A lot of people tended to depend too much on this kind of thing. Correct accounting or precise planning were alien to them.

Bob: I have always fought for us to have a certain amount of bureaucracy. Decision- making structures and suchlike. The hippie faction thought I was completely gaga. My answer was: if we carry on in this chaotic fashion one day we will be completely burnt out. But the government and multi-nationals' bureaucracies will last forever. That's why we have to create a bureaucratic machinery with enough strength and staying power to fight against the other big bureaucratic machines.

Jim: You have to fight fire with fire. Every step is history: in 1969 the small park on English Bay in Vancouver was to be paved over for a shore-side road. Jim, Bob and Irving Stowe got in the way - in front of the bulldozers.

Bob: For a time though, my biggest fear was that I would die in my boots at a Board meeting. But then you just can't get 30 countries co-ordinated just like that.

Jim: You can only combat the big multi-nationals internationally. And that's why in 25 years Greenpeace should have its own office in every country in the world.

Bob: Just think of China in 50 years. Greenpeace could play a major role in discussions on the environment there. Or in India.

Jim: It always seems to me like watching your own kid grow up. Greenpeace was and is our baby. And we have worked hard to bring it up.

Bob: But it really has got pretty big, hasn't it Jim?

Jim: But for its old folks a kid will always be a kid. When someone from Greenpeace calls me up today I react in the same way as with my real kids. The first thing I ask is, "Is everything OK?"

Bob: The emotional tie to this outfit is really strong. I experienced one of the finest moments in my life in 1976 in James Bay. We were standing on the bridge of our ship watching the Russian whaling fleet running away from us, and I though, "Wow. We've got you." A wonderful moment.

Jim: The best thing that has happened to me was meeting my second wife.

Bob: Good Lord! I forgot to mention my wife.

Jim: If she finds that out ...

Bob: The thought of being a co-founder of Greenpeace just goes beyond what my mind can handle. I was in the right place at -he right time. When my last hour comes, I'll be able to say to myself, "You didn't waste your life away meaninglessly."

Jim: For me at any rate, Greenpeace was the crowning achievement of my working life. Determining everything yourself, doing everything yourself - for yourself and for others. I only wonder why so few people listen to Greenpeace today. We talk about the dying planet, about the Greenhouse effect, the ozone hole - and nobody really listens. Only when it's too late do they say that we were right. In my spinion, Greenpeace has to become more militant. Not in the sense of sinking ships. We must be less willing to compromise on our demands.

Bob: While we're on the subject of criticism: I think that Greenpeace has always been too ashamed of its spiritual side. Anyone who has looked a whale in the eye knows just how much more Man should feel at one with nature. But anyway we did give the outfit its main tools - non-violent action and media work. It surprises even me just how important a eature of Greenpeace this still is today. And there is one benefit for me in all this. Dean, the barkeeper in my local bar, asks for one dollar from me instead of two and a half. for the rest of my life. Because he doesn't know anyone else who has founded a world- wide organization. That's something isn't it?

Interview by Michael Friedrich