Greenpeace and Peaceful Protest

Page - July 29, 2010
Greenpeace has been around for almost four decades now, and in that time we have stuck to our core principles of bearing witness and using peaceful protest to achieve lasting protections for the environment.

History shows that peaceful protest — which can be an act of civil disobedience, a non-violent direct action (NVDA), direct communication, or a variety of other tactics — has been an effective method of instigating social change and prompting the repeal of unjust laws. While it often involves breaking the law, peaceful protest has also been responsible for many of the great social advances in modern historical times.

Various forms of peaceful protest were used to great success in the anti-slavery, civil rights, and women’s suffrage movements. In fact, the United States of America was born of a singular act of peaceful protest: the Boston Tea Party.

Greenpeace founded by a single, daring act of peaceful protest

Peaceful protest has played a major role in the many victories Greenpeace has won since 1971, the year twelve brave souls set sail from Vancouver, Canada for Amchitka, an island off of Alaska’s coast. Determined to prevent a nuclear test by the U.S. government, the activists set sail for the nuclear blast zone near the island in a ship they’d christened the Greenpeace.

The Greenpeace crew’s aims were twofold: To physically prevent the blast by being in the test zone, and to bear witness in the Quaker tradition. (Irving and Dorothy Stowe, two of Greenpeace’s founders and earliest members, were greatly influenced by the Quaker traditions of non-violence and bearing witness.)

Greenpeace: Crew of the Greenpeace 1971 The crew of the very first Greenpeace voyage, which departed Vancouver on September 15, 1971. Clockwise from top left: Bob Hunter, Patrick Moore, Bob Cummings, Ben Metcalfe, Dave Birmingham, John Cormack, Bill Darnell, Terry Simmons, Jim Bohlen, Dr. Lyle Thurston, Richard Fineberg. The aim of the trip was to halt nuclear tests in Amchitka Island by sailing into the restricted area. These are the pioneers of the green movement who formed the original group that became Greenpeace. © Greenpeace / Robert Keziere

The U.S. Coast Guard eventually forced these original Greenpeace activists to turn around before the ship reached its destination. But thanks to the political firestorm the activists ignited, the U.S. government ended nuclear tests at Amchitka in 1972.

Not to mention, a long history of Greenpeace activists using peaceful protest to achieve important and lasting victories for the environment was begun.

Greenpeace activism goes global

After that first voyage, Greenpeace activists took their mission of protecting the environment global, using creative direct actions to amazing success. In the first decade alone, Greenpeace activists would go on to:

  • Stop France from carrying out atmospheric tests of nuclear explosions by sailing into test zones (1975);
  • Halt the gray seal slaughter in the Orkney Islands of Scotland (1978);
  • Force the European Commission to ban the import of seal pup pelts after actions in Canada, including painting their pelts with a non-toxic dye that rendered them commercially useless (1982);

  • And pressure the International Whaling Commission to adopt a moratorium on commercial whaling by disrupting whale hunts at sea (1982).
Greenpeace image: World Park Antarctica
Greenpeace Antarctica Expedition 1991/92. © Greenpeace / Timothy A. Baker

Many other iconic victories for the environment would soon follow. In 1987, for instance, construction began on the “World Park Base” in Antarctica, a base of operations from which Greenpeace activists successfully ran a campaign to get Antarctica, perhaps the only truly pristine ecosystem left on the planet, preserved as a “World Park.” The activists monitored the environmental impact of the various bases established on the continent by Antarctica Treaty nations, and staged peaceful protests when necessary to stop the worst environmental abuses. The French government was forced to abandon construction of an airstrip after Greenpeace activists blocked the construction site, as just one example. (Read more: How Greenpeace saved Antarctica.)

Greenpeace: Brent Spar
A Shell supply vessel sprays water cannons on the disused oil installation BRENT SPAR to prevent Greenpeace from boarding and occupying the Spar during actions to prevent dumping at sea. © Greenpeace / Peter Thompson

In 1995 Greenpeace activists occupied Brent Spar, an oil storage facility in the North Sea owned by Shell, in order to stop plans to sink the 14,500-ton installation, which had reached the end of its useful life. The action was a part of a larger, ongoing campaign to stop ocean dumping, and pitted Greenpeace against the combined forces of the UK government and Shell, which was the largest oil company in the world at the time. Not only did Shell eventually reverse its decision and agree to dismantle and recycle the Brent Spar platform on land, but the campaign also helped establish a ban on the disposal at sea of such rigs by the international body that regulates ocean dumping.

Our use of confrontational but peaceful protest tactics have led to new and unprecedented protections for the natural world. Of course along the way they have also made Greenpeace some enemies. In 1985, perhaps the most tragic episode in Greenpeace history occurred when French operatives bombed the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior while it was in port in New Zealand, taking the life of the photographer onboard.

Greenpeace carries the proud tradition of peaceful protest into the digital age

In recent years, the Internet has come to play an increasingly important role in Greenpeace activism:

  • In 2003 when so-called Flag-of-Convenience nations attempted to have Greenpeace removed from the International Maritime Organization, the UN body that regulates shipping worldwide, Greenpeace cyberactivists fought back and prevented those nations from succeeding.
  • Also in 2003 thirteen Greenpeace volunteers helped the Deni, an indigenous people of the Amazon, mark their land as protected from logging using GPS technology and the web. This was the culmination of an 18-year campaign by the Deni people to protect their traditional lands in the Amazon rainforest.
  • In 2007 Apple announced a phase-out of the most toxic chemicals in its product line as a result of our Webby-award winning online campaign, Green My Apple. Thousands of Apple fans worldwide took action to demand the company make greener computers and electronic devices.
  • In 2009 we hung a banner hang on Mt. Rushmore to urge President Obama to "Be a Leader NOT a Politician." This courageous act of direct communication was meant to inspire President Obama to live up to his pledge of being a true leader on global warming, and it was beamed in real time to Greenpeace supporters around the world via live-streaming video.

Activists in countries the world over support and take part in Greenpeace’s efforts to protect our planet. Through peaceful direct actions and by utilizing the latest technological tactics and tools for effective activism, Greenpeace and its supporters will continue to stand up and win protections for the environment.