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Greenpeace: The Fight To Save The Earth

April 02nd, 2008

Gandhi be praised. The fantastical, life affirming, death defying, heart-stoppingly erratic and distinctly British Columbian story of flawed heroes, the power of belief and ballsy propaganda, all for a good cause, has been gathered responsibly and well, into one reliable volume, as Greenpeace (Raincoast $39.95), by Rex Weyler, to go alongside Robert Hunter’s original version of events, The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey (Arsenal Pulp $24.95), with photographs by Robert Keziere.

If Greenpeace could be made into a movie, it could only be directed by Peter Jackson as a trilogy. In the early ‘70s, the environmental protest movement was Tolkien for real.Even at the time, Hunter referred to Vancouver as the Shire and he dubbed their crusty-but-trusty Captain John Cormack ‘Lord of the Piston Rings’. It all started when a bunch of boys went on a quest on a converted halibut seiner. Amid the pot smoke and rhetoric, the depths of Mordor were somewhere in the Aleutian Islands.

Ben Metcalfe (the ‘Alpha Intellectual’) manipulated the world media and Bob Hunter launched his ‘mind bombs.’ It was Hunter who coined the slogan Don’t Make A Wave to galvanize global fears that a tidal wave might ensue if the U.S. succeeded in detonating a 5.2 megaton hydrogen bomb in Alaska as planned.

Single women weren’t allowed on the first protest voyage to Amchitka simply because the old fashioned skipper of the Phyllis Cormack (named after his wife Phyllis Cormack) owned the goddam boat and he was implacable. Hunter dubbed the crew ‘Captain Cormack’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. At first the boys happily debated the merits of Herbert Marcuse while listening to Moody Blues and Beethoven, but they were soon perplexed because somebody on board was stealing chocolate. Frequently seasick, they worried that one of their kind was a CIA operative. For two days they escaped detection by the US Coast Guard simply because they had steered too far in the wrong direction. The captain terrorized them. The crew became divided. Mechanics vs. mystics. Canadians vs. Americans.

Jeez, did all that stuff really happen? Yes, Virginia, a bunch of guys really did get into an old fishboat in 1971 and sail towards the Bering Sea to prevent the evil Richard Nixon and the U.S. military from detonating an experimental blast 400 times greater than the one that levelled Hiroshima.

Few people recall there was a second Greenpeace vessel, the Greenpeace Too, that made it into the danger zone of Amchitka, only to have the bomb explode anyway. Just as Steve Fonyo outran Terry Fox, succeeding in crossing the country on one leg, the contributions of that second (more courageous? more foolhardy?) crew are barely mentioned in Weyler’s account, or elsewhere.

The U.S. Atom Energy Commission had already detonated two previous explosions in Alaska in 1965 and 1969. Nixon eventually won the Amchitka battle of wills but he lost the propaganda war of beliefs. The largest man-made explosion in history occurred on November 6, 1971 but from those deadly ashes there arose Greenpeace, an environmental success story so charming and persuasive that even the likes of W.A.C. Bennett jumped onto the bandwagon.

It all started accidentally on purpose. Once upon a very different time—when the word ecology was new—some 1950s-style disarmament types in Vancouver, led by Jewish Quakers Irving & Dorothy Stowe and their fellow American transplants Jim & Marie Bohlen, melded with 1960s style environmental activists who were inspired by headstrong journalists Ben Metcalfe (CBC Radio), Bob Hunter (Vancouver Sun) and Bob Cummings (Georgia Straight)—the Huey, Duey and Luey of Left Coast idealism—and, literally in their wake, a save-the-planet movement called Greenpeace was born.

Along the way these visionaries were aided and abetted by Joni Mitchell, Pierre Berton & Gordon Lightfoot, a homegrown ecologist named Patrick Moore, a gutsy activist named Paul Watson (later Moore’s nemesis), Brigitte Bardot, a heroic and stubborn sailor named David McTaggart (who dismissed Metcalfe as a fraud), a whale named Skana, Quixotic aquarium director Paul Spong, agitprop comic Wavy Gravy, the Pope, Jean-Paul Sarte, Dan McLeod, Yippie founder Paul Krassner and…. well, there are too many to mention them all.

Weyler’s composite history Greenpeace reads like a hip James Michener novel, replete with fabricated snippets of conversation and scientific asides. It owes much to the records and opinions of the late Ben Metcalfe and Bob Hunter, both of whom are writers who have left a trail of quotes and opinions. Hunter’s Warriors of the Rainbow appears to be the main source for Weyler’s version of that remarkable first voyage.

Weyler’s diplomatic attempt to make a definitive volume probably pulls more than a few punches, but he gives credit to the importance of some lesser-known activists such as Walrus Oakenbough and hippie Rod Warining, founder of the Rocky Rococo Theatre Company. Warining led an important (and successful) camp-in protest against plans for a hotel complex at the entrance to Stanley Park and he was the first Greenpeace victim of police brutality when he was beaten in Paris, having chained himself inside Notre Dame Cathedral. The Straight’s key correspondent Bob Cummings is given short shrift, perhaps because Weyler arrived in Vancouver as a draft evader in June of 1972 and he wasn’t here to appreciate the extent to which Georgia Straight created the zeitgeist. Bob Cummings committed suicide in 1987, unheralded.

Similarly, Weyler’s coverage of the 1970 benefit concert omits reference to the bizarre moment when Phil Ochs, the most potent American protest singer of his era, stepped onto the stage at Pacific Coliseum and acknowledged Canada’s newly implemented War Measures Act. “Geez, I’ve never played in a police state before,” Ochs quipped, only to be booed by his audience. They came for entertainment, not politics.

But by the time Hunter/Frodo, Wyler and the stalwart Moore gather in an Amsterdam bar and accept the dissolution of the Greenpeace Foundation in 1979, toasting Captain Cormack in the process, we feel we’ve been taken on a long, magical journey, grateful for the experience. All that’s really missing is a soundtrack.

Essay Date: 2004

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