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In the age of George W. Bush and Al Qaeda, it’s easy to lose sight of what is ultimately the most important conflict of all: the battle to save the environment.

Book Review: Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World

In the firestorm of mass-scale terrorism, bitter politics and controversial war engulfing the world in the age of George W. Bush and Al Qaeda, it’s easy to lose sight of what is ultimately the most important conflict of all: the battle to save the environment. The newspapers report rising temperatures and water levels, but one suspects it will take more than a few cancer clusters or yet another disastrous flood in Bangladesh to wake up the governments of the world’s most populous nations to the ecological disasters in progress.

It’s heartening, therefore, and instructive to read Rex Weyler’s insider’s history of the first decade of the ubiquitous environmental group Greenpeace, starting with the subtitle itself: “How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World.” Citing journalists is telling. The author himself joined Greenpeace as a fledgling photojournalist, and his stress on the importance of documentary reporting, especially pictures, is entirely appropriate and correct. Weyler’s narrative makes it abundantly clear that without ample and vivid documentation, Greenpeace’s early, revolutionary campaigns would have meant little.

The organization took form during the Vietnam War era in Vancouver, Canada, where local environmentalists and peaceniks joined forces with American pacifists and draft resisters. Nuclear fallout from weapons tests had begun to nudge the ecology (“green”) and antiwar (“peace”) movements towards a merger. But what makes the story interesting is the way Greenpeace’s several founding influences were focussed through the magnifying glass of specific personalities.

The Jewish-American expatriates Irving and Dorothy Stowe, committed Quakers and pacifists inspired by Gandhi and Dorothy Day, embodied the Quaker philosophy of “bearing witness.” As “[c]itizens became pacifists, and pacifists became activists,” Irving Stowe became the group’s eminence grise.

Reporter and TV producer Ben Metcalfe, a Canadian WWII vet and environmentalist, contributed public relations savvy and access to the airwaves, crucial in raising public awareness of the booming region’s most blatant environmental evils and lifting the profile of the ever more outspoken local activists. Also important to Greenpeace’s acceptance in the wider culture was Metcalfe’s image: older, “squarer,” he didn’t dress or act like a hippie. But in 1969 he spent $4,000 to post billboards (‘Ecology? Look it up! You’re involved.’) around the city. “‘If you can promote companies and products,’ he told his friends, ‘you can promote ideas.’”

The ecology movement certainly didn’t begin with Greenpeace, and the group didn’t invent all of the tactics for which it became famous. But, as Weyler puts it, “A fundamental difference between the Greenpeace and earlier protest boats like the Golden Rule was the sophisticated media campaign. As Metcalfe said, ‘Whoever gets the best headlines and photographs wins.’”

The young Beatnik-inspired writer Bob Hunter contributed his related notion of the “mindbomb,” an image so powerful it would explode into public consciousness. Radioing on-the-scene reports to home base, getting the documentary evidence, and perhaps most of all, generating the publicity at just the right time (e.g. during a relevant international conference) were crucial. Hunter’s ability to conceive mindbombs, along with his passion for the cause, his skill with words, and his ability to mediate among warring philosophies within the early Greenpeace, propelled him into the leadership role he held throughout the group’s first decade, up until it became fully international in 1979.

Weyler’s story includes a few other colorful personalities, notably John Cormack, the Quint-like fishing captain hired to pilot the activists on their early campaigns; the entrepreneur and adventurer David McTaggart, whose bravery was matched only by his orneriness as he battled the others over control and focus; and the ultra-radical Paul Watson, who split with the group over his advocacy of tactics too confrontational for the Greenpeacers and their dangerous but essentially peaceful methods of harassment.

Alas, the story’s vivid personalities sometimes get lost in the narrative, especially as the group’s success attracts more and more members and supporters who are introduced with little or no description. Perhaps in his zeal to give everyone his or her due, Weyler overloads us with people we don’t have the time to get to know. All those names sometimes make the brain fog up. The minutiae of political wrangling, both within the group and in its dealings with the military and commercial powers-that-be, can also be a little tedious to follow.

It’s worth sticking it out, though. First of all, Weyler’s careful analysis and sympathetic presentation of the multiple points of view within the environmental movement serves to convince the reader that he is a trustworthy guide to this history, and that’s essential for a narrator who is also a participant and a partisan. Also, though this isn’t one of those histories that reads like a novel, Weyler’s plainspoken writing flows nicely, and the story has plenty of drama.

Indeed, many stretches are gripping. David McTaggart getting beaten up, and having his small sailing vessel rammed by a French warship as he “bears witness” to nuclear testing in the South Pacific; scientist Paul Spong’s dawning awareness of the powerful intelligence of whales, and his passionate spreading of the gospel to the rest of the group; intrepid Greenpeacers following trails of blood across the ice to the seal killing fields, risking death in winter storms; even the author’s prevailing upon a concert promoter to put together a huge benefit show in an impossibly short period of time, or an activist smuggling a roll of film past the French military in her vagina; these and other episodes get the reader’s root-for-the-underdog blood flowing and, not incidentally, spark his sympathy for the cause.

Not surprisingly, Weyler’s most vivid writing is inspired by the actions in which he himself took part. The book climaxes with Greenpeace’s harrowing but spectacularly successful 1975 campaign to interfere with the Soviet whaling fleet. Weyler’s account of this voyage reads like a real-life Melville adventure yarn. Against the backdrop of political jockeying by the great powers – the U.S. government supporting Greenpeace because it wanted deep-sea oil rights, the Chinese approving of the “Canadian attempt to challenge the hegemony of Soviet revisionism in the North Pacific,” to name but two factors – a more-or-less hardy band of “mystics” inspired by Native American mythology, Buddhism and the I Ching, and “mechanics” who could navigate a boat, fix an engine, or build a radio from salvaged parts, took to the open ocean on a carefully timed mission of protest, with only very partial clues as to where they might find their quarry. Weyler’s descriptions are fascinating and evocative:

The next day, May 24, we reached the Dellwood Knolls, 60 miles west of Triangle Island, in the open Pacific… The tallest of these seamounts rise within 100 feet of the ocean surface and bear scars from the wind and waves that carved their shorelines during past ice ages… red and green algae grow on the terraces… Rockfish, halibut, cod, and sole feed in the slopes. Shark, octopus, and squid stalk the crab and fish. The giant squid hunts them all. And the sperm whale hunts the squid. Human whalers hunt the sperm whale, and here, over the Dellwood Knolls, we hunted the whalers.

On the evening of May 25, the sea turned dead calm, the sky filled with stars, and the nearly full moon lit up the ocean and the decks of the boat. In this environment, we imagined the first mariners who navigated by the heavenly bodies. In the rocking of the sea, we felt the slow twist of time. With the stars reflected in the mirror-like sea, the horizon vanished and we appeared to float free in space.

After weeks at sea, just as the Whaling Commission meetings are drawing to a close and our heroes’ opportunity to make worldwide waves is about to drain away, they catch up to the Russian whalers. And these are not Melville’s whalers, but a phalanx of fast boats armed with exploding harpoons circling a massive and gruesome “factory ship.” The “warriors of the rainbow” risk their lives zooming around in inflatable motorboats trying to literally block the harpoons. They watch whales butchered, manage to save a few, and most importantly, take dramatic photos and film footage.

Although we did not fully appreciate the fact at the time, the broadcast on the US evening news, and the subsequent media frenzy about whales, began the transformation of Greenpeace from an effective, but decidedly underground, international heckler into a global cultural celebrity. Already, however, the teeth of public scrutiny were grinding… “The problem is,” said Hunter, “we planned to find the whalers, but we didn’t plan what to do after that.”

Greenpeace never arrives at a complete solution to that problem, at least not by the time Weyler ends his tale. At the close of the 1970s, the original Greenpeace Foundation sadly, but with Zen-like acceptance, ceded control to a council of national Greenpeace groups. But, crucially, “Greenpeace had endowed ecology with a public mythology. Statistics and polemics could not have achieved this. Peaceful insurgents in rainbow ships: that was news. Saving the environment had become heroic.” And Greenpeace was by no means all mindbombs; it had many concrete successes in its first decade. Nuclear testing went underground. Entire nations gave up whaling, as “popular support had made ecology not only acceptable but also important to politicians in democratic nations.”

Unfortunately (and speaking of politicians in democratic nations), this trend has not blown into the full-on worldwide revolution the early Greenpeace mystics hoped for. Right-wing governments, notably that of George W. Bush, try their hardest to turn the clock back. Greenpeace (in its various incarnations throughout the world today) and other environmentalist groups, while not quite marginalized, don’t hold nearly as many cards as they need.

Still, the war declared 35 years ago from the “quiet backwater” of Vancouver by a ragtag band of hippies, draft dodgers, scientists and – most certainly not least – journalists continues today on many fronts. Much like Godzilla, who was also spawned by nuclear terror, Greenpeace continues to step on heads to get its way. As the ever-hopeful Weyler puts it,

The images of whales, and of people throwing themselves between leviathan and the harpoons, resonated with something fundamental in people, perhaps a fear of what we had done to the earth and a hope that we, humanity, could change.

This book is a well-told and important contribution to the literature of ecology. Without claiming to be a scholarly work, it does provide helpful notes and lists of recommended reading. Its index could be more complete, and a timeline would help in guiding the reader through the mass of detail. But even with its minor shortcomings, it is both a valuable history and a good introduction to the philosophical backbone and human forces behind a movement that matters to Earth’s every living inhabitant.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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