When the first Greenpeace boat sailed across the Gulf of Alaska in 1971 toward the U.S. nuclear test site in the Aleutian Islands, the crew and their supporters in Canada had no idea that the campaign would launch a global organization. Irving Stowe, Quaker leader of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee that launched the campaign, belonged to a dozen such groups and believed that after a campaign the group should disband. His idea of keeping things simple and grassroots has merit, but as we know, that’s not how things turned out.

Dave Birmingham raises Greenpeace sail on Phyllis Cormack.

The Quaker boat Golden Rule invented the seagoing protest in 1958 when they attempted to enter the U.S. nuclear test site at Eniwetok Atoll. Captain Albert Bigelow and his crew were arrested and spent sixty days in a Honolulu jail, but the news stories reached Earle and Barbara Reynolds aboard their sailboat, Phoenix. They changed course for Eniwetok, reached the test zone, and were also arrested. By 1969, these protests had inspired the peace activists in Vancouver, loosely associated with the Quakers and Sierra Club. In 1972, the ad hoc Don’t Make a Wave Committee changed its name to “Greenpeace” and contemplated a more complex problem than simply stopping human warfare.

Ecology: A subversive idea

It is hard to imagine now, but ecology was not a common idea in the 1960s. Hippies growing organic food and living simple lives appeared fanatic. Nevertheless, a great ecological awaking had thrived underground for a century. German naturalist Ernst Haeckel coined the word “ökologie” in 1866 to describe his idea of a global “household” and a connected family of living beings. Almost simultaneously, Ellen Richards, the first woman admitted into MIT, proposed the radical idea that the environment impacted human health. As obvious as this appears to us now, Richards was ignored.

When Harvard M.D. Alice Hamilton discovered that General Motors intended to market leaded gasoline in 1923, she predicted massive public health calamities, identified alternatives, and called GM engineer Charles Kettering “a murderer” for allowing the plan to proceed. Auto industry executives ridiculed Hamilton. It took fifty years, until 1975, before leaded gasoline was banned in North America and Europe. The toxic fuel is still used today in the poorest regions of the world, in industrial China, and for aviation fuel.

Meanwhile, oil spills, toxic soil, and burning rivers made ecology more obvious. In the U.S., Barry Commoner discovered strontium-90 from nuclear bomb tests in the teeth of young children. In the journal Bioscience, in 1964, Paul Sears called ecology “the subversive subject,” because it was going to overthrow the presumptions of human society: health, economics, politics, everything. Humanity was waking up to the limits of consumption. These realizations shaped the early evolution of Greenpeace.

Look it up

In the early Greenpeace meetings – usually held at kitchen tables, in coffee shops, or pubs – we came to a sobering realization: even if we could stop nuclear bomb testing, we still faced the devastating momentum of industrial civilization itself. How do we save humanity from its own destructive habits? We could not just stand against war; we had to stand for something, for life itself. Ben Metcalf, a brilliant journalist and early Greenpeace media strategist, created the first Greenpeace “banner” by renting twelve billboards throughout Vancouver with this message: “Ecology? Look it up! You’re involved.”

Ben Metcalfe, Jim Bohlen and Dick Fineberg. On the first voyage to Amchitka 1971.

Looking back over almost 40 years of Greenpeace campaigns, we might wonder: Have we made progress? Greenpeace has certainly helped make ecology a household concern and political buzzword. Since the 1970s, humanity has cleaned up rivers and urban air, installed recycling systems, and protected some vanishing species. So, is human society ecologically more sound today that it was in 1971? The answer includes shades of “yes” and “no.”

After all these years

The most serious off-setting trend is the sheer growth of human population, about 3.7 billion in 1971, to 6.7 billion today, almost double, and counting. We add a net 75 million people to the planet every year, ten New York cities, most of them living in poverty on degraded landscapes. The pressure of human population on every ecosystem in the world grows with us.

Meanwhile, the rich get richer and consume more. Developing nations attempt to improve the lives of their citizens by growing their industrial economies, and we can hardly blame them. Currently, about 15 percent of humanity consumes 85 percent of the resources. We’re halfway through the peak forests and the cheap oil, and we’re as much as 90 percent through most popular fish species. We would need six more planets to provide the European/American lifestyle to the rest of the world, so something has to give.

We are still trying to save the whales after over twenty years of a moratorium. In 1973, Greenpeace selected the whales as our first ecological campaign not only because they were facing extinction, but because they represented all that is magnificent about nature. They are intelligent, social, creative beings that remind us of the inherent value of wild nature itself.

Gaining ground or blowing smoke?

Greenpeace achieved a ban on ocean dumping in the 1980s, but after the 2004 Tsunami, huge, four-meter drums of toxins washed up on the beaches of Somalia. Someone, likely from Europe, had been secretly dumping radioactive and toxic waste off the African coast for years. Every piece of environmental legislation ever passed faces continual assault by those who would overturn or simply ignore such laws.

Greenwash for the climate Using the media to tell the earth’s story has been a hallmark of Greenpeace since the beginning. However, we now face increasingly consolidated media ownership. The corporate owners have learned how to package their agenda as news, ignore the environment, and bury human rights. In some cases, the Internet has saved the peace and ecology movements from a complete media blackout.

Meanwhile, marketing hucksters have learned to attach “green” to their products as a new selling feature. We witness $100,000 electric sports cars and Walmart “green” sections, as humanity consumes the wild earth at an accelerating pace. The polluters have learned how to spin eco-speak while carrying on with business as usual. So we have to ask: Are we gaining ground or just blowing smoke?

Eternal vigilance

Finally, we now face global warming that may already rage beyond human control, while the industrial empires – primarily China and the U.S. – ignore the facts of climate science. Jean Baptiste Fourier described how the earth’s atmosphere traps heat in 1824. Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated global warming due to CO2 build-up in 1894, and American scientist Glen Thomas Trewartha coined the term “Greenhouse effect” seventy years ago.

A graph of the exponential growth of carbon in the atmosphere was taped to the wall of the Greenpeace Chronicle office in 1978. Through all of this, automobile and oil interests have attempted to keep the public confused. Society has inertia; it does not turn from its course without force.

Greenpeace is a key part of that force. Eternal vigilance is the duty of those who see, where others remain blind. This is why Greenpeace came into being, to stand up, bear witness to the truth, serve future generations, and preserve the wonder of the wild, living earth.

Rex Weyler