Movements, Memes, and Mindbombs

Feature story - 5 October, 2004
One of Greenpeace's founders, the photographer and journalist Rex Weyler, has just published a chronicle of the organisation's first decade entitled Greenpeace -- How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World. Rex is the author of the Native American history Blood of the Land, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and co-author of the bestseller Chop Wood, Carry Water. He wrote the following recollection of an early Greenpeace "test action" for

Cover of the book 'Greenpeace' by Rex Weyler. This is a record of an extraordinary journey, portrayed by someone who helped make it happen. Weyler introduces us to the characters and events that shaped an 'eco-navy' - from the first voyage into the Pacific to 'stop the bomb' to the risky mission to 'save the whales' to the struggles with money and ideology that accompanied success.

On January 21, 1981, after a decade of Greenpeace actions, we sat in the Vancouver office and read a news report that an oil consortium would bring a supertanker through Juan de Fuca Strait as a "test" to show they could safely navigate to a proposed oil port between Vancouver and Seattle. The next day, we announced that we would launch a "test blockade."

Testing, testing

On the following morning, January 23, we met the supertanker with a flotilla of sailboats, launched a single Zodiac, and brought the tanker to a halt. Media helicopters circled above. The US coastguard arrested two of us. As we walked up the wharf, handcuffed to each other, the television cameras closed in. "This is just a test," I assured the reporters. "The handcuffs work fine. We're going to test the food in the jails. The real protest will be later."

When we tested the fingerprinting system, we had the Washington State police laughing in the jail. They brought us dinner and said, "Here, test this." The next day, the Seattle and Vancouver newspapers ran pictures, and the test theme, on the front page. The protest took three days. The Georgia Strait oil terminal was cancelled.

This victory remained almost lost in Greenpeace lore, but it embodied much of what made Greenpeace work throughout the 1970s while confronting bombs, whalers, and sealing ships: quick actions, at the precise point of conflict, providing a storyline and images for the delivery system, the media. It borrowed from all our mentors, Saul Alinsky, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Marshall McLuhan.

Make them laugh

At the time, I was a fan of Chicago community organizer Alinksy who advised, "Move with the action ... use humor." And we all knew that Gandhi was not just about satyagraha; he created the right image at the right time, such as his famous march to the sea to make salt. Gandhi understood communication and media.

The "test blockade" idea was a spontaneous reaction that made us laugh, so we figured it would make others laugh. By 1981, Greenpeace Zodiacs were old news, but the "test" theme provided a storyline that was new. I remember laughing out loud as we sat around planning the tactics. I think this is always a good sign. Humor goes a long way toward easing the public's mind and disarming the media's natural skepticism.

By 1972, I had read everything published by media guru Marshall McLuhan, and his idea that "we think and live mythically" influenced our tactics. Although we employed good science, we understood that the facts don't always win the public mind. When we launched the whale campaign in 1974, I had a clear image in my mind that I wanted to capture. At that time most people who thought about whaling still held a nineteenth-century image: small men in tiny boats hunting the huge leviathan. The reality of industrial whaling was the reverse: giant factory ships and exploding harpoons scouring the oceans with sonar for the last of the whales.

Moving images

When we found the whalers off the coast of California in June 1975, we captured this new image. A photograph of dead sperm whale under an ominous exploding harpoon mounted on the bow of a towering, steel-hulled ship circulated the world. These images ultimately changed the public mind, and the public outcry led to a whaling moratorium by 1982.

The Internet is a tremendous tool, like the printing press and television before it, that democratizes knowledge and culture-making. Some of the cyber-activist messages I witness on the Internet today are brilliant, but the fundamentals of good storytelling haven't changed much in two thousand years. We still have to find those mythical images that touch the human emotions.

Read the discussion:

Rex hosted an open house discussion on Oct 11,12,13 at the Greenpeace Cybercentre. Rex is currently busy in London but will respond to the remaning posts this weekend.

More on the book:

As well as being a gripping read the book is printed on ancient forest friendly recycled paper bleached without toxic chlorine bleach. Rex is supporting our Book Campaign to change the publishing industry to use recycled paper rather than virgin (new wood) paper.

You can read reviews, extracts and photos from the book Greenpeace on Rex's website.

Buy the book:

You can buy the book online from the following sites and help show your support for books printed on ancient forest friendly paper - you might want to add a line about ancient forest friendly paper if you review the book on one of these sites!

You can also order the book at your local book store using these details.