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Lessons in Activism from the New Greenpeace Documentary, 'How to Change the World'

We talked to the film's director, Jerry Rothwell, about founder Bob Hunter, how the group nearly got blown up by a nuclear bomb, and how Greenpeace's direct action impacts today.

Rex Weyler holds up a banner as their zodiac approaches a Russian whaler. Still from 'How to Change the World'

Activism often gets a bad rap these days. Whether it's through phrases like "hacktivism" that suggest the most radical thing to do is sit in front of a screen, or the endlessly maligned petitions that seem to result mainly in spam emails, sometimes it can be hard to imagine grassroots action resulting in real change.

A new documentary released this week with the ambitious—and slightly tongue-in-cheek—title How to Change the World tells the story of the radical individuals who started Greenpeace and asks what can we learn from their campaigns. Despite growing into the most well established environmental pressure group in the world, Greenpeace was born when a few "mystics and mechanics"—as they called themselves—chartered a fishing boat and tried to sail into the middle of a nuclear bomb test, almost tearing the group apart in the process.


One of the first people behind Greenpeace was Bob Hunter, a Canadian journalist and environmentalist, and a member of the Don't Make a Wave Committee, a small group opposed to nuclear testing. In 1971, President Richard Nixon was determined to go ahead with an underground nuclear test on the tiny Alaskan island of Amchitka, with a bomb 400 times more powerful than that dropped on Hiroshima. Hunter's group planned to take a small boat, the Phyllis Cormack, into the testing zone to prevent the test, and they called their expedition Greenpeace.

The group had to turn back before Amchitka due to US Navy intervention and bad weather, but they succeeded in delaying the test. When they tried to go back to the island, however, the government exploded the bomb with the group just a day away from Amchitka. It caused a shock that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale, and had a devastating effect on local wildlife. Thousands of sea otters died as a result of the explosion.

Even though Greenpeace couldn't stop the bomb, their little boat did at least grab the world's attention. This sparked a fire in Hunter and the rest of the group that would lead to them being shot at by Soviet whaling ships and nearly lynched by locals in Newfoundland over a seal hunt. Throughout the 1970s, Greenpeace launched direct action campaigns that would bring some of the biggest ecological and environmental injustices to light—and Hunter, ever the journalist, ensured that it was all captured on camera.


Image via Greenpeace

I asked Jerry Rothwell, the director of How to Change the World, how this tiny group had such a huge impact: "I think Hunter was really prescient, this was a time when media was changing, now you could shoot some footage and get it networked, around the world on network news within 24 hours, and that was a very new situation. I think Hunter saw the potential of, as he would have put it, 'changing people's consciousness' and this idea of the 'mind-bomb,' this image that will shift people's awareness of something and kind of lodge in their brain."

Throughout the campaigns Hunter was obsessed with documenting the group's actions—whether that was kneeling on a floating dead whale to show its scale or filming the exact moment a Russian whaling harpoon was fired over the protestors' heads and into the side of the vast creature. Rothwell compares this to the shocking images that can define a movement or issue today—the only difference is that in the 70s they spread on the evening news rather than online: "Whether it's the Syrian boy drowned on a beach or police in Ferguson, those images which sum up events have extraordinary power."

Read: We Watched Greenpeace Park a Gigantic Polar Bear Outside Shell's London HQ This Morning

Despite this, Rothwell is wary of oversimplifying issues through imagery: "I think it can also be problematic as well, because sometimes it obscures a broader issue." One campaign in particular was distorted by media coverage, contributing to the group's fallout, and highlighting the differences between many of the group's members. In 1976, following the success of the whaling campaign, Paul Watson—the group's most radical member—wanted to stop the clubbing of baby seals that took place in Newfoundland. Greenpeace planned to go out onto the ice and dye the seals' fur, so that it would be worthless to the fur trade. Unfortunately it wasn't just big businesses that were trying to get their hands on the seals. Locals who had been hunting for generations, and relied on the seal trade for their survival, felt threatened by Greenpeace, and in a tense standoff shown in the film, Bob Hunter is forced to give up the dye.


Watson saw any compromise as weakness, and tried to physically stop the seals being beaten. One scene sees Watson getting dragged into icy waters as he locks himself to the chains of a ship to stop it moving. He ended up with a broken arm, and risked frostbite, but the gruesome images of the baby seals being dragged away from their mothers didn't really portray the full complexity of industrial seal culls versus the traditions of Newfoundland's small town communities.

Bob Hunter stands on deck with a cigar in his mouth. Still from 'How to Change the World'

Just last week Greenpeace drew attention in the UK for placing a polar bear statue the size of a double decker bus outside Shell's London offices, in a protest against arctic drilling. One of the star attractions of this stunt was the actor Emma Thompson. Even in the 70s though, Greenpeace was bringing in celebrities to boost their image. In How to Change the World, the group used helicopters to get onto the ice with the seals, but the activists found the seats filling up with VIPs like Brigitte Bardot.

Rex Weyler, an original Greenpeace member who later became an author and ecologist, wrote an article in the Vancouver Sun in 2007 that, coincidentally, was also titled How to Change the World. In it he talks about how activists today can be "part of the solution," and encourages the practice of self-reflection: "The greatest failures among would-be reformers are ego mistakes. Individuals, groups, and social movements become their own worst enemy when they lack self-critique."


I asked Jerry Rothwell if Weyler was referring to the early days of Greenpeace when he wrote this. Rothwell thinks so: "I'm sure he'd be drawing on that experience when he said that. I think there's a danger, one of the things that happens in the film is that you see Greenpeace changing from a movement into an organization, and the question of the film I suppose is 'Is that an inevitable and necessary change?' As a movement grows it needs organization in order to be more effective, but… do the organizations start to exist only to sustain themselves?"

Considering how large and influential Greenpeace is today, How to Change the World ends on a surprisingly downbeat note. Legal and financial disputes tore the movement's leadership apart, and almost all the early activists went in separate directions. One of the original group, Patrick Moore, even went on to deny climate change and oppose much of what Greenpeace stands for. On its website, Greenpeace describes Moore as "a paid spokesman for a variety of polluting industries," and plays down his early role in the organization. Rothwell tells me that "Patrick has ended up as a big opponent of environmental organizations, or the way that a lot of environmental debate happens."

For Rothwell, the fact that Bob Hunter could unite such a disparate collection of individuals, and focus their efforts to create the most lasting environmental message of their generation, is testament to his character: "He's innately a kind of anarchist, the last person that wanted leadership. There's a point in the film where he says, 'My father left home when I was very young, and I hated all leaders, and becoming the group father myself was nauseating.' Sometimes the best leaders are the ones that don't want power." Hunter died in 2005, but How to Change the World is narrated by his writings. Just as he mediated between the radical and tempestuous characters that founded Greenpeace, he becomes a voice of reason in the film, passionate but always emphasizing pragmatism.


Rex Weyler, Paul Watson, and George Korotva on Greenpeace's early anti-whaling campaign. Still from 'How to Change the World'

The film is framed by five rules from Hunter's writing, and the last—"let the power go"—might be the most valuable for today's activists. While it's incredibly easy for a movement to build momentum in an era of instant communication, it's much more difficult to consolidate that power to serve your aims, and the founders of Greenpeace realized that they had to loosen the grip on their creation.

On Wednesday Greenpeace hired a team of investigative journalists to put real pressure on corporations and governments—a move that will no-doubt lead to more "mind-bombs" shaking the public's conscious. Even though it might seem that the organization has moved far away from it's upstart roots, there's obviously still some of Hunter's fire in Greenpeace. Rothwell sums up the legacy of the original founders with a warning: "Differences will emerge in any kind of human group. I think how you respond to the differences is kind of key to your longevity and your success. That has made Greenpeace a lasting, very solid organization for the last 30 years."

How to Change the World was released in theaters on Wednesday, September 9.

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