Music Plays A Vital Role In Greenpeace Activism

Page - September 24, 2010
When rock music came to prominence in the 60s, it was accompanied by a strong sense of optimism, a belief that rock-n-roll could change the world. This same belief in the ability of a small group of dedicated, creative, and passionate people to make the world a better place has always driven Greenpeace.

Whether or not any form of pop music can change the world is perhaps still up for debate. What’s certain, though, is that music can and always has inspired the people who actually do change the world. That’s definitely true of Greenpeace’s founders, and is still true of the activists who get involved with Greenpeace campaigns today.

In fact, music has meant much more than just inspiration to Greenpeace throughout the years. From a valuable fund-raising tool that helped get the organization off the ground to a means of organizing and an opportunity for activism in and of itself, music has always played a vital role in the work Greenpeace does.

Amchitka: The concert that launched Greenpeace

Greenpeace: Amchitka concert picture of Joni Mitchell and James TaylorGreenpeace was founded by several brave souls who climbed on board an old 80-foot halibut seiner on September 15, 1970 and attempted to sail into the United States’ nuclear test range at the island of Amchitka, off of Alaska’s west coast, to prevent a test blast from occurring. Greenpeace founding father Bob Hunter was on that ship and has written about the founding voyage quite movingly.

The voyage might not have ever happened, however, had it not been for a benefit concert by folk musicians Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs, along with their surprise guest James Taylor, on October 16, 1970. These luminaries of the folk scene waived their typical fees to support a cause they believed in, not only providing badly needed funds but also helping to bring the cause to the public’s attention. The test range was shut down by the U.S. government shortly after (though they did, sadly, carry out that particular test blast).

Thanks to a sound engineer who thought to record the whole thing, you can get your very own copy of "Amchitka: The 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace."

Country Joe McDonald and Jerry Garcia Help the Whales

A few years later, when the Greenpeace mission had expanded from protesting nuclear proliferation to also include stopping commercial whaling, Country Joe McDonald not only played at a send-off concert for a Greenpeace ship in Vancouver in 1976, but he also dedicated his hit single "Save the Whales" to Greenpeace.

Greenpeace image: Country Joe McDonald at a Greenpeace benefit concert

The next year, the Greenpeace ship James Bay was docked in San Francisco and had no means to get back out on the high seas to continue chasing the whaling fleets. They needed supplies and fuel, and no money to buy them with. So a group of Greenpeacers went to see Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who was playing with the Jerry Garcia Band in Berkeley.

Greenpeace image: Jerry Garcia plays a benefit concert for Greenpeace in San FranciscoWhen the Greenpeacers laid out their dilemma to Jerry — they needed $10,000 to fuel up the ship and buy provisions — he was immediately open to the idea of doing a benefit concert. Five days later, on August 12th, 1977, the Jerry Garcia Band stood right there on San Francisco’s Pier 31, in front of the James Bay, and played to a sold-out crowd. The concert raised $20,000, and the James Bay sailed out of port on August 19, headed back out to save the whales.

Music has played a much larger role in Greenpeace’s core mission of building a green and peaceful future than just helping raise funds, though. For instance, one of our ships was once outfitted with speakers pointing down into the ocean, so they could play music for the whales. (It turns out most whales greatly prefer classical music to rock or pop.) This allowed the crews on the ships to establish a close connection to the majestic creatures they were helping to protect. One crewman even serenaded the whales with his flute.

Sending a Message to World Leaders

Greenpeace image: Rock in Rio flyerGreenpeace has also used concerts as an opportunity for mass activism. We decided to use the Rock in Rio concert held in Lisbon, Portugal on May 29, 2008 to send a very loud message to world leaders. Because our politicians didn’t seem to be offering any inspired responses to the climate crisis, we thought we’d provide them with some musical inspiration.

We asked attendees of the concert to go home and record the first few minutes of Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony — which research has shown to actually improve brain functions and promote creativity — on any instrument they had available. Then we played an amalgamation of the best submissions for the leaders when they met for the G8 summit in Toyako, Japan later that year.

It's obviously impossible to quantify what impact this might have had on world leaders' decisions at the G8, but it sent a loud and clear message: the people demand solutions to global warming.

Musicians as Activists and Organizers

Of course, musicians have frequently served as some of our best advocates and organizers, as well. For instance, punk rock band Greenday has helped out with our MusicWood campaign, which seeks to convert the guitar industry to sustainably-sourced wood and has been met with considerable success.

In the summer of 2009, our solar panel-equipped, biodiesel-fueled truck, the Rolling Sunlight, went on the Warped Tour and powered the tour’s non-profit booths with clean, green solar energy. Punk/activist heroes Anti-Flag stopped by our booth to play a few shows from time to time, and even sported our t-shirts on stage. This helped get thousands of young concertgoers to sign up to work with Greenpeace and urge President Obama to be a leader on climate change policy.

Greenpeace image: Anti-Flag at the Greenpeace booth, Warped Tour 2009

As you can see, rock-n-roll may not necessarily have changed the world, but it has certainly done its part. So rock on!