In July, two Greenpeace founders – Jim Bohlen, 84, and Dorothy Stowe, 89 – passed away. Both lived full lives as agents of social change, that leave us much to ponder and to emulate.

Social change often ignites on the fringe, in hybrid cultures, where the status quo loses its grip on perception. This is the case with Greenpeace, which evolved from a grassroots peace and ecology movement in Vancouver, Canada between 1968 and 1972. The movement began innocently enough on the streets, in private kitchens, coffee shops, and pubs, where two distinct cultures and generations mixed.

War played a role in creating this hybrid culture. In the 1960s, over one million people  fled the United States in protest against nuclear weapons, militarism, and the Vietnam war.  Some 150,000 – including the Stowes, the Bohlens, and others in the Greenpeace movement – immigrated into Canada, the largest single political exodus in US history.

The U.S. immigrants brought ideas and progressive enthusiasm from civil rights and peace movements. Meanwhile, Canada possessed deeply seeded, broad-based peace and ecology movements, which influenced the new immigrants. Canada was naturally multicultural, with a grounded French community, and Asian and European communities that had retained their cultural roots. Canadians were more introspective than the Americans and tended to possess a more self-effacing sense of humour. Canadians could laugh at themselves. The mixture of these cultures gave Greenpeace an international quality from the very beginning.

Secondly, two distinct generations of activists merged to create Greenpeace. On the one hand, in the 1960s and 1970s, a creative youth culture emerged globally, linked by television and radio, with shared values (peace, ecology, natural living) and shared culture (rock and jazz music, film, activist art, and personal liberation). This radicalized youth culture influenced Greenpeace but was balanced by an older generation of committed peace activists represented by the Stowes and Bohlens.

The crew of the Phyllis Cormack - on the first Greenpeace voyage to protest nuclear testing near Amchitka Island

The young activists were willing to take risks, perform wild stunts, and get arrested, but the older activists – influenced by the Quakers and Gandhi – contributed experience, political awareness, thoughtful strategy, and a sense of calm. Looking back now, I believe this mix of generations and cultures helped make Greenpeace stronger in the beginning.

Another defining quality of Greenpeace at that time, was an awareness of social media, changing society by telling stories that would move on existing media networks. Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan – who introduced the idea of the “global village” and who warned that “Television does more educating than all the schools” -- influenced our perception of media's power to change society. Three experienced Canadian journalists – Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe and Bob Hunter – inculcated these media ideas within Greenpeace. All three had grown up in Winnipeg, on the Canadian prairies, worked at the Winnipeg Tribune, and had traveled in Europe as writers and correspondents. On the first Greenpeace campaign, Hunter and Ben Metcalf filed stories to the media from the boat and Dorothy Metcalfe converted her home into a radio room, relaying audio reports from the boat to the world media. It might seem like normal practice now, but in 1971, these media practices for activists were pioneering.

Ben Metcalfe passed away in 2003, Hunter in 2005, and we've lost Jim Bohlen and Dorothy Stowe this year. Many people contributed to the creation of Greenpeace, but four couples were consistently at the core of early Greenpeace actions: Dorothy and Irving Stowe, Marie and Jim Bohlen, Dorothy and Ben Metcalfe, and Bob and Zoe Hunter. Zoe was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in London, where she met Bob, and remains active today in Amnesty Interntional.

Others can be mentioned among the founders – noteabley Paul Cote, who served on the board of the original Don't Make a Wave committee that became Greenpeace; Bill Darnell, who coined the world “greenpeace” to add ecology to the original peace initiative; Rod Maringing, a creative street-theatre activist; Bobbi Hunter, who organized the first public office in Vancouver; Paul Spong, who introduced the whale campaign; and many others. Nevertheless, the four founding couples – the Stowes, Bohlens, Hunters, and Metcalfes – hold a special place in the history of Greenpeace.

Jim Bohlen, the engineer farmer

Jim Bohlen, who passed away on July 5, served in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, and witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima, which influenced his life-long commitment to pacifism. He met Marie at a Quaker peace march in Pennsylvania in 1958; they married and immigrated to Canada in 1967 to keep Marie's son Paul out of the Vietnam War.

'Don't Make a Wave Committee' members and Greenpeace founders (from left) Jim Bohlen, Paul Cote, and Irving Stowe.

In Vancouver, Jim helped form the Committee to Aid War Objectors. When I arrived in Vancouver in 1972, as a draft resister from the U.S., my wife and I slept in a shelter provided by this group. Jim and Marie Bohlen attended an End the Arms Race rally in Vancouver, where they first met Irving and Dorothy Stowe.  

After the U.S. announced a series of nuclear tests on Amchitka Island in Alaska, the Bohlen's and Stowes wanted to do something to stop these tests. Meanwhile, Bob Hunter wrote in his newspaper column that the underground nuclear tests could cause a tsunami. For a demonstration at the U.S. embassy, Hunter made a placard that read: “Don't Make a Wave,” in reference to the tsunami threat. The Bohlen's and Stowes used this image to name their new organization “The Don't Make a Wave Committee.”

Jim Bohlen told Marie that he felt frustrated because the group had no plan to disrupt the bomb tests, and Marie, borrowing an idea from the Quakers, said, “Why not sail a boat up there?” By happenstance, a reporter phoned that day and asked what the group might be planning, and Jim Bohlen said, “We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka Island.” The story ran the next day, although the group had no boat and no money to charter one. The momentum of the idea, however, would not be stopped, and  a year later, the group launched the first “Greenpeace” campaign, a seagoing voyage that set the tone for later Greenpeace campagins.

Dorothy Stowe: A pillar of courage

Dorothy Stowe passed away on July 23,  at the age of 89. She was born Dorothy Anne Rabinowitz in Providence, Rhode Island on December 22, 1920, from Jewish immigrant parents from Russia and Galicia. She fondly recalled that her father Jacob “cared about justice not only for Jewish people, but for everyone.” Dorothy's mother, Rebecca Miller, taught Hebrew and inspired Dorothy to pursue an education.  

Dorothy became a psychiatric social worker, and served as the first president of her local civic employees union. During the repressive McCarthy era in the U.S., when she threated a strike, the state governor called her a “communist,” but Dorothy was not intimidated. She stood up to the bullies and won a pay raise for her union.

In 1953 Dorothy married civil rights lawyer Irving Strasmich. They celebrated their wedding dinner at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the organization that launched the U.S. civil rights movement.

They changed their family name to Stowe in honour of Harriet Beecher Stowe – pioneering feminist and abolitionist, who helped end slavery in the U.S. The Stowes had two children, Robert, born in 1955 and Barbara in 1956, both now living in Vancouver.

In the 1950s, Dorothy and Irving Stowe began campaigning against nuclear weapons, adopting the Quaker ideas of “bearing witness” to wrong-doing and “speaking truth to power.” In 1961, to avoid supporting the Vietnam War with their taxes, Dorothy and Irving immigrated to New Zealand. However, when New Zealand sent troops to Vietnam in 1965, the Stowes moved their family to Canada.

In Vancouver, Dorothy worked as a family therapist, supporting Irving's full time peace activism. When the Stowes formed the “Don't Make a Wave Committee,” Dorothy Stowe recruited social workers and women's groups to boycott US products until the nuclear tests were cancelled.

While the men – Ben Metcalfe, Bob Hunter, Jim Bohlen, and Irving Stowe – made headlines, Dorothy Stowe quietly worked behind the scenes, supporting her family, hosting meetings in her home, answering correspondence, keeping the files, and creating a broad coalition with churches, unions, feminist groups, and other activists.

Over the years since, Dorothy has hosted hundreds of of young activists, who made the pilgrimage to her home for inspiration. When the band U2 visited Vancouver in 2005, singer Bono made a special effort to meet Dorothy Stowe. Dorothy never rested on past success or stopped working for social change.

A month before she passed away, Dorothy hosted a brunch for new Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo. This was her last public act, and she summoned every ounce of energy to host the Greenpeace contingent in her home where many of the first Greenpeace meetings were held forty years ago. She was thrilled that Kumi, with a background in civil rights, had taken this leadership role in Greenpeace.

The most fitting memorial for Dorothy Stowe, Jim Bohlen, and the others who have passed away, is that we simply get up each morning and go back to work in the service of peace, justice, and the living Earth. This is all they would have asked of us.

--Rex Weyler, July 2010

Deep Green is Rex Weyler's monthly column, reflecting on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.