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50 Years of the Impossible

How five decades of Greenpeace campaigns have brought us to the greatest fight yet

by Bill Richardson

September 14, 2021

The past 50 years have been preparing us for the next 10, which will involve our greatest and most urgent challenges yet

Photo: Greenpeace crew of board of the SV Phyllis Cormack during the Amchitka campaign in 1971. This is a photographic record by Robert Keziere of the very first Greenpeace voyage, which departed Vancouver on the 15th September 1971. The aim of the trip was to halt nuclear tests in Amchitka Island by sailing into the restricted area. Crew on-board the ship, are the pioneers of the green movement who formed the original group that became Greenpeace.

© Greenpeace / Robert Keziere

The Greenpeace story began 50 years ago. It started with an impossible quest to stop a U.S. nuclear test on Amchitka Island off the coast of Alaska. The plan was to sail an old weathered fishing boat into the test site, the crew putting their lives on the line to help bring about the change they wanted to see in the world.

The voyage was fraught with hurdles and difficulties every step of the way. Despite their best efforts, that first Greenpeace crew didn’t make it to the test site in time, and the test went off as planned. But the mere attempt inspired the world, and the U.S. government bowed to the wave of protests that were sparked by their actions. What was supposed to be a series of nuclear tests ended after that first one.

Amchitka became a bird sanctuary.

Greenpeace has been seeking – and achieving – the impossible ever since. Thanks to Greenpeace, there is now a global ban on driftnets. Antarctica is a world park, protected from all commercial mining and drilling. It is no longer legal to dump radioactive waste at sea. There is a ban on hazardous waste trade from industrialized countries to developing nations. Shell Oil withdrew its plans to drill in the Arctic. It’s illegal to incinerate toxic waste at sea.

Photo: Greenpeace Antarctica Expedition 1991/92. Banner to commemorate final removal of World Park Base.

Greenpeace Antarctica Expedition 1991/92. Banner to commemorate final removal of World Park Base.

And that names just a few of the landmark victories Greenpeace has helped forge over the last 50 years. What each one had in common is they seemed unsolvable and unattainable at the outset. In hindsight, they’re merely evidence of Greenpeace’s DNA, the end results of dreaming big, being bold, taking effective action on a global scale, and refusing to argue for our limitations.

My personal Greenpeace story began 33 years ago. I had just moved to Washington, DC, a wide-eyed young man from small-town North Carolina living in a big city for the first time. I walked into the Greenpeace office full of ambition and inspiration, ready to throw myself fully into its mission to save the world. I had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time. But what transpired since I walked through those doors has been some of the most magical moments of my life.

Photo: Greenpeace activists Nadine Bloch, left, John Sellers, Diana Tighe and Bill Richardson, right, scale the Sears Tower to unfold a banner calling for an end to Nuclear Power 50 years after the first nuclear power plant in Chicago.

Greenpeace activists Nadine Bloch, left, John Sellers, Diana Tighe and Bill Richardson, right, scale the Sears Tower to unfold a banner calling for an end to Nuclear Power 50 years after the first nuclear power plant in Chicago.

I’ve been fortunate to have had my share of classic Greenpeace experiences, from climbing buildings to spending time on our ships. And I’m grateful for every one of them. To this day I can close my eyes and see the Chicago skyline while suspended on the side of the Sears Tower on a cold December day, with snow blowing in sideways from the lake on a wind that whipped mercilessly at the banner we’d hung 300 feet off the ground. I can hear the terrifying hiss of the cooling tower we’d climbed in Monroe, Michigan to protest the nuclear age. I can see dolphins playing in the wake of our ship Esperanza (translation: Hope) in the western Pacific Ocean as we took to the high seas to stop illegal fishing. When I talk about these experiences with others, the stories are often met with comments along the lines of “Bill, you are so fortunate to have truly experienced the essence of Greenpeace”.

And while that is most certainly true, the context isn’t quite right. While these types of events are of course signature parts of the organization’s fabric and critical to our work, in addition to being experiences I hold near and dear, I’ve come to learn over the years that the true essence of Greenpeace is really about the people involved. I have indeed truly experienced the essence of Greenpeace. But it wasn’t in a climbing harness. It was working with people around the world towards a common vision of a green, just, and sustainable future.

Photo: Participants in the People's Climate March make their way through the streets of New York City. The march, two-days before the United Nations Climate Summit, is billed as the largest climate march in history. The People’s Climate March is a global weekend of action on climate change. More than 2000 events are planned over 6 continents, including huge rallies in New York and London. The summit, called by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, will be attended by more than 120 world leaders and will be the largest gathering of world leaders to discuss climate change since the Copenhagen Summit in 2009.

Participants in the People’s Climate March make their way through the streets of New York City.

Having just passed my own 33rd anniversary at Greenpeace – and as we reach the organization’s 50th – I look back at our history in part to celebrate what we’ve achieved on behalf of the planet. But more importantly, I see how heavily we lean on it to serve as the foundation for the work that lies ahead of us.

Photo: Bill Richardson of Greenpeace USA ride past the Greenpeace vessel 'MY Esperanza' on the Pacific Leg of the Greenpeace 'Defending Our Oceans' global expedition. Yellow Fin and Big Eye tuna stocks in the Central and Western Pacific are destined to be critically over-fished within three years if the relentless fishing of the two Tuna species continues at current rates. Greenpeace are calling for an immediate end to pirate fishing, a 50% reduction in the amount of Pacific tuna caught, and a global network of Marine Reserves.

Bill Richardson of Greenpeace USA ride past the Greenpeace vessel ‘MY Esperanza’ on the Pacific Leg of the Greenpeace ‘Defending Our Oceans’ global expedition.

Science tells us we have 10 years left to solve the climate crisis. We also have the next decade to resolve other urgent Nature emergencies like overfishing and deforestation that threaten life and biodiversity on land and at sea.

In many ways, the past 50 years have been preparing us for the next 10, which will involve our greatest and most urgent challenges yet.

But despite the challenges, I have every confidence that we are going to win. Why? Because Greenpeace is made up of some of the smartest, boldest, most talented, and passionate people I have ever known. We also have millions of people around the world who have raised their hands, decided to take action, and joined the greater movement to end the climate and Nature crises we so desperately need to solve.

Without question, the fight that lies ahead of us is an extremely difficult one. And the time we have left is short. But despite the difficulties, Greenpeace is ready to help lead the way. As we stand on the brink of our golden anniversary, we’ve come to realize that the past 50 years have been preparing us for the fight that lies ahead. We have a decade. And Greenpeace will be working hard every day with engaged people and communities from around the world, bringing every ounce of our experience to bear, to help us achieve our collective vision for a better tomorrow.

This essay is part of our Perspectives: Our Next Fifty Years series, in which we reflect briefly on our first fifty years, but more importantly, we lay out the future we are building together—collaborative, ambitious, and intersectional. The work ahead won’t be easy, but we’ve never shied away from hard work. We continue to push for policies that recognize the contributions and leadership of marginalized groups, and we amplify their voices, looking to their wisdom to show us the way. We hold corporations accountable, demanding real action that puts people ahead of profit. We work each day with our partners to co-create green, safe planet for all beings. We recognize that equality is not necessarily justice. We demand more from our leaders, from our colleagues, and from ourselves. A green and peaceful world isn’t just a slogan—it is our mission, and it takes each one of us to get there.

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