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. 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!

  2. 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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