There’s an old joke that you can walk into any bar in Vancouver and find somebody claiming to be a Greenpeace founder. If that somebody had been Jim Bohlen, however, then this claim would have been absolutely true. It is with very deep sadness, then, that we have learned of Jim’s death on 5 July, 2010, at the age of 84.
Born in New York City in 1926, Jim trained as a US naval radio operator. After US navy service, he obtained an engineering degree and took a job with a defence contractor on Long Island, where he met famed engineer R. Buckminster Fuller. Jim moved to Vancouver in the late 1960s when his second wife Marie’s son became eligible for the military draft; as Quakers, they were strongly opposed to US involvement in Vietnam.
One Saturday morning in the spring of 1968, the Bohlens attended an anti-war demonstration on the lawn of the Provincial Court House. Knowing almost nobody there, they looked for fellow Quakers among the maze of protestors, and introduced themselves to Irving and Dorothy Stowe. The four soon became devoted friends, and were charter members of a new British Columbia chapter of the Sierra Club.
In 1969, the US began testing nuclear weapons at Amchitka Island, Alaska. The “Cannikin” test was scheduled for September 1971. Although some in the Sierra Club got cold feet about campaigning against the tests, Jim, Irving and law student Paul Cote formed the “Don’t Make a Wave Committee” in November 1969. The Committee met at the Stowes’ house to plan their protest against the Amchitka test, but the consensus process of the committee could often result in long debates and slow resolutions.
Jim was explaining his frustrations with this slow process to Marie one morning, when she casually asked why they didn’t simply sail a boat there. At the same time, they received a telephone call from the Vancouver Sun, asking what campaigns they might be planning. Caught off-guard, Jim said, “We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka to confront the bomb.” The newspaper ran the story the following day.
Although Marie’s idea and Jim’s “announcement” had bypassed the consensus process, nobody opposed the plan. The Committee unanimously ratified the action, although at that time they had neither a boat nor the money to charter one. Stowe organised a concert – which would feature Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs and Chilliwack – to raise funds for a boat; Bohlen, in the meantime, stumbled across one Captain John C. Cormack, skipper of the halibut seiner Phyllis Cormack.
Jim’s naval experience was one of the many reasons he was a leader aboard the Phyllis Cormack when it sailed towards Amchitka, ahead of the testing. In a protest inspired by the Quaker movements practice of ‘bearing witness’ the political furore caused by the group – which had now renamed itself Greenpeace – caused the test to be delayed. The US would ultimately abandon its programme.
Jim continued to work with Greenpeace for several years, leaving when the organisation shifted its campaign focus to other issues. When the 1980s saw a resurgence of Greenpeace campaigning against nuclear weapons he was involved once again, leading direct actions against cruise missile testing and participating in the Nuclear Free Seas campaign against nuclear weapons being brought into port cities aboard the warships of nuclear navies. Jim retired to his home on Denman Island in 1987. A passionate ‘green’ and ‘peacenik,’ he continued to advocate renewable energy and agitate against nuclear power and nuclear weapons as a Green Party activist, standing as a candidate in the federal election of 1988.
Jim is survived by his wife Marie, a stepson, a son and daughter by his first wife Anna, and a global environmental organisation. The simple but serendipitous enthusiasm of Jim and Marie on the morning they told the Vancouver Sun they would be taking a boat to Amchitka was, arguably, the moment that Greenpeace was born.