05 May 2012 Rainbow Warrior in Brazil

© Karla Gachet / Panos / Greenpeace

There's no point denying it: life on a Greenpeace ship is fun. Adventure, exotic places, a sense of shared purpose amongst an international crew - all these things combine to make the experience of sailing with the world's most famous environmental activism group an amazing experience, for those of us lucky enough to climb the gangway.

But it's now 40 years since the first ship set sail to confront nuclear testing and announce herself to an unexpecting world. Four decades since a rusty old fishing boat was commandeered by a motley band of hippies and dreamers, intent on sticking it to the man and breaking established conventions to save the earth. The first voyages were charmingly chaotic, characterized by idealistic infighting but a real sense of something new, a different tactic that was taking governments by surprise and winning the admiration of millions for its audacity and courage. Cutting edge video technology and savvy media distribution brought shocking new images into the newsrooms and living rooms that mattered. It was pioneering stuff, and it worked.

Fast forward to 2012, and the world has changed. Greenpeace ships have played an impressive role in guiding these changes, from the ban on dumping of toxic waste at sea to the huge reduction in industrial whaling that's occured since the 1980s. But the environmental challenges of our times have shifted too, as billions are drawn from the countryside to giant new cities, and the biggest threat of all - climate change - has landed on our already crowded plate. Of course our oceans are as threatened as ever, with overfishing and oil drilling affecting most of the world's open water. But is this where decisions are really made? Are we ignoring the power of boardrooms and seeing the world through a too narrow porthole?

Take the Rainbow Warrior's recent tour of the USA. While activists across the country fought tooth and nail to close down dirty, polluting coal stations, the jewel in the Greenpeace crown sat at anchor, a mile off the nation's coastline. It certainly gave those who climbed a chimney stack at Asheville, North Carolina a warm feeling to know the ship was near, but did it actually help them in their urban, inherently landlocked struggle?

05 May 2012 Children visiting the bridge of the Rainbow Warrior.

© Karla Gachet / Panos / Greenpeace

Well, perhaps it did. While our climbers chewed energy bars on top of the stack, over two thousand people waited patiently in line to board a shuttle out to the ship in North Carolina. And here in Belem - a small city at the mouth of the Amazon river - we're expecting an even greater number to come aboard tomorrow. Maybe it's not us activists but these young supporters, old hippies, and curious passers-by that are actually the most powerful part of Greenpeace. Maybe they always have been. To see thousands of eyes widen with wonder at the sheer absurdity of it all, the strangeness of a beautiful, powerful sailing ship that is owned not by a billionaire playboy but by all of us, together.. Well, maybe that's it.

It's probably not what the old guard had in mind when they set off for the Aleutian islands to stick it to the man and save the world. But then, they're not in charge now. You are.

So what do you think?