Greenpeace: the story that wanted to come true

This is the (most­ly) true sto­ry of a sto­ry that want­ed to come true.

It was Feb­ru­ary 8th, 1970, and a guy named Jim Bohlen was hav­ing break­fast with his wife, Marie, and com­plain­ing about what a bunch of hip­pies he had to deal with. Jim was a mem­ber of the Sier­ra Club in Van­cou­ver.

He was born an Amer­i­can, but he’d moved to Canada to keep his son from being draft­ed into the Viet­nam War, and because of a cri­sis of con­science about his own job. He was an engi­neer with Boe­ing, and had helped design the Atlas Inter-Con­ti­nen­tal Bal­lis­tic Mis­sile, designed to deliv­er nuclear weapons to the Sovi­et Union. Like many of the time, he’d become hor­ri­fied at the prospect of nuclear war, and decid­ed he want­ed no part in it.

Van­cou­ver in those days was a hotbed of peacenikkery. And it was par­tic­u­lar­ly both­ered about a bomb which the US was going to test at Amchitka in the Aleu­tian Islands, which wasn’t very neigh­bourly.

Now this bomb was designed not to test the bomb, but to test the island. The US was try­ing to fig­ure out what the seis­mic sig­nal of nuclear weapons were, and how to dis­tin­guish a bomb sig­na­ture from an earth­quake sig­na­ture. So they’d cho­sen a place where they had seis­mic data on Earth­quakes, because in 1964 the area had expe­ri­enced the Great Alaska Earth­quake, the sec­ond largest earth­quake record­ed in the his­to­ry of the world at that time, 9.2 on the Richter scale. The Tsunami it set off trav­elled all the way across the Paci­fic, and did dam­age as far away as Hawaii and Japan. 133 peo­ple died, and Van­cou­ver suf­fered mil­lions of dol­lars in prop­er­ty dam­age.

So let’s say there was some con­cern about the idea of set­ting off a bomb 400 times more pow­er­ful than the one that destroyed Hiroshi­ma, drilled into the Earth over a major fault line, on an island, in order to test seis­mic reac­tions. You take that and you com­bine it with the fact that this is Richard Nixon test­ing a weapon of mass destruc­tion in the back­yard of the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of war resis­tors, peace activists, and hip­pies ever assem­bled in one place, and you get some idea of the scale of resis­tance the­se tests were fac­ing in Van­cou­ver.

But they’d done every­thing they thought a protest move­ment could do. They’d pick­et­ed the bor­der. They’d waved signs. They’d signed peti­tions. They’d asked Canada to offi­cial­ly com­plain. And the war machine ignored them.

And Jim and Marie had just been through a meet­ing the night before with a sub­com­mit­tee of the Sier­ra Club, The Don’t Make a Wave Com­mit­tee, that was sup­posed to come up with a respon­se. And the meet­ing I imag­ine had been one of those things that hap­pen in Hip­py Democ­ra­cy — some­thing I per­son­al­ly have some expe­ri­ence in — which means they all took turns chair­ing so every­one felt empow­ered, there was no agen­da because that was the tool of The Man, and dis­agree­ment and dif­fer­ing points of view were so wide­ly accept­ed and acco­mo­dat­ed that any­thing resem­bling a deci­sion was just about impos­si­ble. So they had no plan. They had no ideas. They had noth­ing.

And as Marie sipped her cof­fee and Jim stewed, she said “Why don’t we just take a boat up there, and sail it into the for­bid­den zone.”

And it was at that moment that a sto­ry that want­ed to be told awoke, and became a sto­ry that want­ed to become true. So the sto­ry arranged for the phone to ring. The sto­ry arranged for the caller to be a reporter from the Van­cou­ver Sun. The sto­ry arranged for him to ask a ques­tion: “What was Sier­ra Club plan­ning to do to stop the nuclear weapons test in Amchitka?”

Jim chuck­led and said some­thing like “Well, Marie and I were just talk­ing about tak­ing a boat up there to stop it.” Now Jim only intend­ed this as back­ground to a trust­ed reporter, chit chat, idle talk — an amus­ing idea in a vac­u­um. But the sto­ry knew bet­ter. The sto­ry had found a sto­ry­teller.

And so the sto­ry that want­ed to be told arranged for the Van­cou­ver Sun to head­line the next day with: “Sier­ra Club plans N-Blast block­ade.”

And that proved such a good sto­ry peo­ple want­ed to make it come true. Or most of them did. The Sier­ra Club kicked Jim out, as the first their San Fran­cis­co head­quar­ters heard about it was in the paper, and ille­gal action and civil dis­obe­di­ence weren’t things that Sier­ra Club did — a boat into a for­bid­den zone was going too far. The Don’t Make a Wave Com­mit­tee was now on their own.

But the sto­ry that want­ed to be told was busy, mean­while, arrang­ing to come true. The sto­ry was so good, peo­ple were flock­ing to the com­mit­tee. Some brought mon­ey, some brought ideas , some vol­un­teered to sail with them, some donat­ed food or cloth­ing or offered to help print T-shirts, what­ev­er it might take to make the sto­ry come true.

The com­mit­tee made plans in their church base­ment meet­ings. They found a boat, they named a crew, they held a con­cert with Joni Mitchell, James Tay­lor, and Phil Ochs and sold but­tons and t-shirts and raised enough mon­ey to make the sto­ry come true.

But the sto­ry was miss­ing one thing: a name. So the sto­ry arranged for some­one to walk out of the church base­ment meet­ing one night and flash the tra­di­tion­al two fin­ger hip­py farewell: “Peace.” To which a fel­low named Bill Dar­nell said “Let’s make that a green peace.” The sto­ry made sure there was a sto­ry­teller there to wit­ness and record this and tell and retell the sto­ry again and again. And, as Bob Hunter tells it, every­one went “Omm­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­m­mm”

And so it was that a sto­ry called Green­peace came true. A sto­ry about a boat that set out to stop a nuclear weapons test, a sto­ry about a small group of ordi­nary peo­ple doing an extra­or­di­nary thing, a sto­ry about stand­ing up again­st a dan­ger­ous sta­tus quo, a sto­ry about peo­ple with some sim­ple ideas about bet­ter ways to live on this tree-mast­ed space­ship called plan­et Earth.

I told this sto­ry to the staff of Green­peace Bei­jing on a recent trip there, par­tial­ly to intro­duce some of them to some organ­i­sa­tion­al his­to­ry, but also because I think there’s an impor­tant moral here for all of us work­ing for this move­ment that became an organ­i­sa­tion that became an insti­tu­tion: Green­peace was found­ed by peo­ple who went too far. And it was because they went too far, because they reject­ed the whole notion of “too far,” that their bold­ness and courage attract­ed the peo­ple pow­er their cause need­ed to suc­ceed. A spe­cial thanks here to my depart­ing boss Inge Wal­lage, for remind­ing all of us at Green­peace the impor­tance of sto­ry­telling — beyond enter­tain­ment, sto­ries change the way we think and act: they’re the ulti­mate change agents in the activist toolk­it, and Inge, bet­ter than any­one, under­stood this.

Thanks too to Rex Weyler, whose tour-de-force his­to­ry, “Green­peace: How a Group of Ecol­o­gists, Jour­nal­ists, and Vision­ar­ies Changed the World,” pro­vid­ed source mate­ri­al for this retelling.



43 thoughts on “Greenpeace: the story that wanted to come true”

  1. Thank you so much, Bri­an both for shar­ing this sto­ry as well as your thanks. I will miss work­ing close­ly with you, but look for­ward to stay­ing in touch! X

  2. Hey Bri­an,
    Nice sto­ry.… first time in all the­se years that I read this sto­ry this way. Keep on telling our sto­ry… it helps keep­ing us bold!

  3. Nice arti­cle. I have read the sto­ry of GP in two dif­fer­ent books and yet it was nice to realise that there are plen­ty of learn­ings to be nur­tured and be told again from GP’s his­to­ry.

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