The man who put the green in Greenpeace

Environmental activist Bob Hunter, who died Monday, was ready to do almost anything to defend the rights of the planet.

Published May 4, 2005 3:20PM (EDT)

The all-black former trawler flaunting the skull and crossbones was steaming through a flat, calm sea past the Faroe Islands way north of the Shetlands. It was summer 2000 and through binoculars from the bridge of the M.V. Sea Shepherd it was clear that everybody ashore had turned out to watch this nautical specter sent to harass the islanders for their annual habit of slaughtering minke whales.

Even as a Danish navy frigate and a helicopter shadowed the ship's every movement, the young volunteer crew prepared their grease bombs, water cannons and booby traps to repel possible boarders. The radio crackled. "Sea Shepherd. You are not welcome. Repeat. You are not welcome. Turn around or you will be arrested as terrorists."

Up on the bridge, both with their feet up, both totally unexcited by the mayhem they were causing in Faroese and Danish government circles, were two men: Sea Shepherd's veteran vegan-warrior skipper, Captain Paul Watson, and his friend and mentor, an older, slighter man with a ponytail, a gas mask and a notebook. While it was clear that Captain Watson had effectively declared war on the Faroese, no one could see that Bob Hunter was wearing a bulletproof vest.

Hunter, who died on Monday at age 63, and Watson were two of many "co-founders" of Greenpeace, but together they probably best represented the group's early spirit of courage, defiance and media savvy. "There used to be an old Sioux Indian chief who would send his medicine men to the warriors before a battle. I was that medicine man; Paul Watson was the warrior," said Hunter that day in the North Atlantic.

Hunter (Greenpeace membership no. 000) and Watson (membership no. 007) went back almost 30 years to Vancouver, Canada, 1970. British Columbia was at that time the most environmentally conscious and certainly one of the most intellectually revolutionary states in North America, overflowing with radicals, draft dodgers, hippies, yippies, crazies and a new breed of people calling themselves ecologists.

The young journalist who leaned toward Buddhism and unformed, but radical counterculture politics, fell easily into the Vancouver mix. Hunter had spent a year in Paris trying to write his novel and developing his ideas about the media, and then several months in London, where he had joined the nascent British peace movement and had marched from Aldermaston. Returning to Canada, he had joined the Vancouver Sun, British Columbia's main newspaper, in the mid-'60s.

As possibly the world's first "ecology" columnist, Hunter was licensed to be both political and controversial, and in 1971 he warned readers that an imminent American nuclear test in the faraway Aleutian Islands off Alaska would cause tsunamis and earthquakes and probably devastate the Pacific West Coast. "The U.S. will [now] begin to play a game of roulette with a nuclear pistol pressed against the head of the world ... No one will know what the consequences will be," he wrote.

The test went ahead without any wave, but the consequence of his column was that 7,000 people demonstrated and a group of Vancouver peaceniks set up the "Don't Make a Wave Committee." After meeting occasionally for several months, they hit on the idea of taking a ship right into the next nuclear-testing zone. It had already been done a few years before by Quakers, but in Hunter's view, this was to be a media exercise to "wake up the world."

The problem was the boat. Without money or any nautical know-how, the group had found an old tub called the Phyllis Cormack, owned by a heavily indebted Vancouver fisherman who could not refuse their paltry offer. Hunter, no sailor, was appalled: "I was deeply shocked [when I saw it]. Paint peeling and damp, ropes like mossy vines from her rigging, she looked too dilapidated to start up, let alone get across the Gulf of Alaska. I concluded the whole thing must be a joke. When I got home I was laughing harshly: 'Forget it,' I told my wife. 'There isn't going to be any trip.'"

But the 10 protesters set off into a disaster zone mostly of their own making. The crew began bickering and then became mutinous. The captain got angry. The boat broke down and almost sank. The nuclear test was delayed and they got lost. Lifelong enemies were made, and as the boat chugged past glaciers and wild mountains, everything that could possibly go wrong seemed to go wrong. "Saving ourselves became far more important than saving the world," said Hunter of the epic 45-day voyage.

But out of that day in the Faroes, he said, came something more important that pointed to the way in which Greenpeace would define environmental politics over the next 30 years. On a personal level, he had crossed the journalistic line from being an observer to being a participant, and collectively something greater had emerged.

"We became a brotherhood. Right from the start we learned the power of the mass media to change political ideas, and also the power of activists using boats to shake the imagination."

Without knowing it, Hunter and the 10 disparate Canadians had laid the foundations for the future global organization called Greenpeace, which, within 20 years, had 2.5 million members in 40 countries, a turnover of more than 100 million pounds a year, a flotilla of boats and the reputation of being prepared to do anything to defend the Earth.

"We began to see it as a media war," Hunter was later to write. "We had all studied Marshall McLuhan [and his 'global village' theory of mass communication]. I had pretensions of being a media theorist in my own right. I had finished writing a book that suggested that a radically new consciousness had evolved in the postwar period, and this has taken as its task the goal of creating 'ecological awareness' in the mass mind. I had predicted the emergence of [what I called] the Green Panthers."

Hunter's theory was that the slightly crazed boat of "rainbow warriors" (a name he took from an Indian legend that he happened to be reading on the Aleutian trip and that he later gave to Greenpeace's flagship) was a "mind bomb" sailing across an electronic sea into the minds of the masses. "Madison Avenue and Hitler had changed the face of the world through image projection; and the nascent environmental movement could hardly attempt to do less," he said.

And when the Phyllis Cormack, chastened, returned, the world had, in a way, changed. No one had predicted the political shockwaves that their voyage had made, or how unprepared the Canadian and U.S. governments were to counter Hunter and others' passionate advocacy for something that the public immediately recognized as fundamental. Rachel Carson may have awakened an earlier interest in the environment, but the first truly global action group had been born.

Central to everything that followed were Hunter's views on the media. In the Faroes, even as he was filing copy to Canada, he said of that time: "We generated huge coverage. We realized that to make enough waves and political changes, we needed to actually be the media, too. Otherwise you were doing things in a vacuum. I lecture in journalism now, I take sides. There's room for advocacy. Ultimately, there is no real objectivity."

Hunter went on to leave the Vancouver Sun and help merge the peace and ecology movements, becoming Greenpeace's leading thinker. "My task was to put the 'green' into Greenpeace," he said. "This movement grew out of a flickering awareness that all our relationships are political, and that the crucial one is man's relation to the Earth itself."

Tuesday, Watson was distraught at his mentor's death. "Hunter was the best teacher I ever had. The fact is that if there had been no Robert Hunter, there would not today be a Greenpeace organization. It would simply be a footnote in the history books from the early '70s," he said in a statement.

He recalled how Hunter, who had persuaded Greenpeace to move on from bombs to whales and seals, had been prepared to die, if necessary. "In 1976 we stood together on the heaving ice floes off the coast of Labrador. A large sealing ship bore down on us. The ice cracked and split beneath our feet as I said to Bob, 'When it splits, I'll jump to the left and you to the right.' Bob looked straight ahead and calmly said, 'I'm not going anywhere.' And he meant it." Because he stayed, I stayed and we brought that seal-killing ship to a dead stop," he said. On another occasion, he was nearly killed by a Russian harpooner.

But above all, the ideas of Greenpeace, and particularly Hunter, flashed around the world, and Hunter was intoxicated by the almost messianic effect his ideas were having. On Watson's boat in the Faroes he read out a passage from his book, "The Greenpeace Chronicle": "It is like we are a seagoing gang of ecological bikers who have adopted the philosophy of Gandhi but who ride roaring machines across the waves. It felt as if we were reincarnated Indian warriors whooping and hollering as we surged down the hills towards the wagon train ... We had a breathtaking confidence in ourselves ... Night after night we sang at the top of our lungs."

Within a few years of returning, Hunter had become the first president of Greenpeace. There followed an extraordinary time when Greenpeace, under Hunter, built up its "navy" and found a worldwide audience. Its second great coup was being beaten up by the French navy when protesting against nuclear testing on Moruroa in 1972. The test went ahead, but the world was outraged.

And then, like almost everyone else, he had a falling out with Greenpeace. He loathed the administrative side, and hated the way it was becoming institutionalized and, he feared, less courageous. He left to write books and pursue journalism, to lecture and to become a respected environmental philosopher, not afraid of evoking the spiritual.

Above all, he respected Watson's fervor. "The time has arrived when we must begin to examine the realities of our relationship to all life around us. We need to move neither further to the left nor to the right -- rather we must begin to inquire into the rights of rabbits and turnips, the rights of soil and swamp, the atmosphere and ultimately the rights of the planet," he said.

And well before anyone had understood the potential of global warming to affect all life, he warned the world of what was at stake: "An eco-shitstorm is coming ... everything rests upon whether or not we come to terms with the politics of earth and sky, evolution and transformation. Otherwise, in our lifetimes, we shall suffer ... the fall of nature itself."

By John Vidal

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