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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Pioneers Profile # 24: The "Don't Make a Wave Committee" Were the Founders of Greenpeace

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth producer George Homsy details the maiden voyage in 1971 and the founders of what has come to be known worldwide as the environmental protection and antiwar pressure group Greenpeace. This is the penultimate of our 25 profiles series.


CURWOOD: In the fall of 1971, a group of Canadian activists decided to protest a US nuclear bomb test in the far reaches of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Two of the groups' leaders were Quakers who believed in bearing witness for peace. And they decided to send a boat to the test site. They hoped to be able to disrupt and perhaps stall the test. They called themselves the Don't Make A Wave Committee, the name based on the fear that the atomic blast would create a giant tidal wave that could swamp West Coast cities. The protest failed; the bomb was eventually detonated. But the group lived to fight another day, and before long it blossomed into the global research and direct action organization Greenpeace. This year, Greenpeace marks its 25th anniversary as one of the world's most widely-known and controversial environmental organizations. The Don't Make A Wave Committee wanted to make that first voyage more than just another isolated anti-nuclear vigil. So, Bob Hunter, a Canadian columnist who joined the crew, said the group decided to document the event for all the world to see.

HUNTER: The idea was to take cameras out there and make everybody bear witness, and presumably that would have the same effect on other people as it was on the person who was just seeing it for themselves.

CURWOOD: But first the committee had to find a boat. After weeks of searching, they charted the Phyllis Cormack: 80 feet long and, it seemed, 100 years old. In a documentary he produced for Canadian radio, Ben Metcalf describes the vessel.

METCALF: The only one we could find was a beat-up old halibut boat displacing 99 tons with crew space for 12 men. And we were able to charter that vessel only because her skipper and engineer were freaky enough to go along with our cause.

(Fog horns sound. Man: "Well, what do you say we all break open a bottle of cold duck?" Man 2: "That's a good idea." Man 3: "Wow." Sea gulls call.)

CURWOOD: On September 15, 1971, 12 activists celebrated as their boat slipped out of Vancouver Harbor on an unseasonably warm fall day. The crew nicknamed the boat the Greenpeace to note the dual ecological and antiwar nature of their mission. On the second day, the Greenpeace broke down.

(Mechanical boat sounds)

CURWOOD: Mechanical problems were only the start. As Ben Metcalf noted in his audio journal, the rough autumn seas of the North Pacific took a toll on the unseasoned crew.

METCALF: The weather, although John Cormack described it in his log as "a calm chop," it is really rolling. The Greenpeace is pitching and rolling. Some of the boys are still pretty sick.

(Howling winds)

CURWOOD: A storm sent the Greenpeace scurrying for cover at Acutan, an island partway up the Aleutian chain. Crew member Bob Hunter says the unplanned landfall was a pivotal event for the group. The crew stumbled upon an abandoned whaling station.

HUNTER: It was like a scene from The Killing Fields, only it was, these bones were all giant bones, like a race of giants had been slaughtered there. You know, you had the feeling that you'd come too late, and it was sort of like after an apocalypse. It was actually very instrumental in getting us very turned onto the idea, later on, of saving the whales.

CURWOOD: The encounter at Acutan had another fateful resonance as well. The island is part of Alaska. The Greenpeace crew was Canadian, and they had landed on American soil without clearing customs. As Ben Metcalf recorded, they were boarded by sailors from the US Coast Guard cutter, Confidence.

(Voice on bullhorn: "District Director of Customs asked the Coast Guard to notify Master of Phyllis Cormack that he has incurred penalty within, with US Customs failure to report on the Tariff Act of 1930...")

CURWOOD: As the Coast Guard commander charged the captain of the Greenpeace with customs violations, the Coast Guard crew slipped the protesters a note.

(Man 1: "Wow!" Man 2: "Read it out, to that mike. Listen, you guys." Man 1: " 'Due to the situation we are in, we the crew of the Confidence feel that what you are doing is for the good of all mankind. If our hands weren't tied by these military bonds, we would be in the same position you are in if it were at all possible. Good luck. We are behind you 100%.' Jesus." Man 3: "Hey, that's really great!" Applause follows.)

CURWOOD: Greenpeace crew member Patrick Moore remembers the show of support as an important victory.

MOORE: We cheered a lot, but of course the first reaction by Ben Metcalf and the other people who were in charge of our communications and media side was to get on the radio telephone and let the world know that this had happened.

CURWOOD: Soon after their run-in with the Coast Guard, the Greenpeace crew received word that the US had delayed the test. As winter approached, the already rough waters of the North Pacific would get worse. As Ben Metcalf recalled in his documentary, supplies and money were also running out.

METCALF: They were pulling the bomb away from us and smothering us in red tape. And we were suddenly conscious of sailing on the far edge of the ridiculous. The only possible way for us to carry out our mission would be to sit off the 3-mile limit of Amchitka in our leaky loser of a boat for an indefinite period, through those 100-mile-an-hour winds. In other words, no way.

CURWOOD: The beleaguered crew voted to return home to Vancouver. But the trip and the publicity it generated set the tone for future campaigns. In fact, the story of Greenpeace, from sailing ships into nuclear test sites, to confronting whaling vessels on the high seas, to members chaining themselves to trees and smokestacks, is a lesson in direct action to attract media attention. Twenty-five years later Greenpeace has a $200 million budget, a cadre of lawyers and hundreds of staff in 30 countries. Still, the group's sensational and confrontational tactics are just as controversial as ever. Even among the crew of that original voyage. Crew member Patrick Moore went on to become director of Greenpeace Canada before leaving the organization. Today he consults for the timber industry in British Columbia. He says the environmental group he helped found has lost its focus.

MOORE: A lot of the issues have been dealt with that can be most effectively dealt with by the direct action tactics. I mean, they've stopped dumping nuclear waste in the sea, so you can't go out and fight against that any more. They've basically stopped killing whales. And so, as each of these campaigns is won, the situation becomes more diffuse and you start having to deal with what really are the larger issues of the human species relationship with the environment. Issues like fisheries and forestry and agriculture and urban development.

CURWOOD: But Patrick Moore's crewmate, Bob Hunter, believes the legacy of Greenpeace still resonates today. Mr. Hunter took over the Canadian organization when Patrick Moore resigned. Today he covers environmental issues for a Toronto television station.

HUNTER: I'm an old armchair warrior who has disagreements on tactics here and there. But on balance, as I look at it, the planet is slightly better off that there is an organization doing this kind of work full time.

(Waves slapping)

CURWOOD: As the disappointed crew of the first Greenpeace trip headed home, the Don't Make A Wave Committee was busy. Capitalizing on the publicity generated by the trip, they raised money to charter another, faster ship. The Greenpeace II was about 700 miles from the test site when the US detonated its nuclear bomb. The feared tidal wave never materialized, but the energy generated by the effort to stop the explosion did blow a new and powerful environmental group onto the world scene.



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