A few years back, some bright spark in the Greenpeace International Human Resources department created an induction programme for new Greenpeace staff, and asked me to give a speech about “the old days.” I did, and because no good deed goes unpunished, ended up giving it again and again and again. I finally wrote it down… or rather, I wrote down one version which I would deliver if I could actually stick to a script. Enjoy.
Aha, I see a few of you cringing — but you’re in Greenpeace now, and they’ve wheeled me out as the honorary dinosaur. I’ve been asked to tell you a little bit about your past — about the organization’s past. I know a lot of you who have never known a world without the internet, DVDs, or Super Mario (and some of you look like you’ve never known a world without Facebook, which is profoundly scary) — you may think that Greenpeace is a multinational corporation born in the marketing department of some slick PR firm, or the result of dot com boom startup.
I’m here to tell you, kids, a hard truth: your parents were hippies.
And I hope you’re sitting down, because it’s genetic. Which means you’re hippies too.
I don’t have a PowerPoint presentation to induct you into Greenpeace. I don’t have any charts or visual aids. I’m here to tell you a story. And where I come from (which as you can tell from the fact that I speak English without an accent) , is North America. We don’t tell stories in modern open-plan offices that look like Ikea showrooms. We tell stories around the campfire. Since we don’t have a campfire, and lighting one here would get us arrested for the wrong reasons, I’m going to light a candle. You can accept it as a candle, you can imagine it to be a campfire, or you can go for the Hippy gold star and imagine it to be a roaring bonfire summoning the spirits of Greenpeace past.
That flame also represents the people who have gone before us, many of them far more worthy of standing here and inducting you into Greenpeace — people who risked their lives, their reputations, their careers, the understanding of their loved ones, to further this idea called Greenpeace. And despite the fact that in this day and age it’s used as a derogatory comment, many of those souls would be proud to be called hippies.
You know the score: history is told by the victorious. And that’s precisely why everything you’ve heard about Hippies is wrong. Hippies have been trashed by history and mass media because they were the ultimate threat to power and the status quo. They rejected money and consumerism and held other values in higher esteem. They rejected violence and embraced love. Hippies in the US stopped a war, brought down a president, died for what they believed in, and shook an entire culture to its roots, without much more than a couple crazy ideas, some creative communications in the form of art and music, the power of their idealism, and the naïveté with which they set out to accomplish absurdly impossible tasks.
That’s really what Greenpeace at its best is all about.
And when I say that, I’m talking about today – not the vanished past. This is not a story about the “good old days.” They’re are not that old, and they weren’t always that good. Steve Sawyer, another accentless dinosaur, says that he was hearing stories about the good old days back in 1978 — y’know, boys in boats sitting around chewing tofu and delcaring “arr it’s not the good old days when men were made of iron and ships were made of wood.”
What I’m going to tell you about is the organization that I joined, and you can make your own comparisons with the organization that you’ve joined.
This is the reason I joined Greenpeace: a book called Warriors of the Rainbow. It’s a fine book, by a fine man, who was called Bob Hunter. It tells the story of the founding of Greenpeace and its early days. It’s mostly nonfiction. This book was waiting for me in a cabin in the woods in New Hampshire which had no electricity and no running water, where I spent a winter writing poetry and communing with nature and all that hippy stuff. The cabin belonged to a doctor in Boston, whose daughter I’d known at university. It was a great middle-of-nowhere-Walden kind of experience that I’ll always value having done and if you tried to make me do it again I’d kill you.
I was snowed in for a better part of three months. During that time I read not only everything I’d brought with me, but I started in on the good doctor’s book collection, which included the memorable survival manual by Yuell Gibbons entitled “Have you ever eaten a pine tree?” and another book which had contributions by another Greenpeacer, Rex Weyler, which was called “chop wood, carry water.” Which has a really romantic sound to it unless you’re 20 something years old and already doing those two things endlessly every day out of necessity. “Right, thanks for the advice, Rex, but I don’t really have much choice about that…”
Also on that shelf was this book, and I lived in the story for the couple days that it took me to read, in between chopping wood and carrying water.
Here’s something I read there:
“We fought… an unequal battle against American and French nuclear weapons makers; Russian, Japanese, and Australian whalers; Norwegian and Canadian sealhunters; multinational oil consortiums and pesticide manufactures; cynical
politicians; angry workers; and, again and again, ourselves. The people involved were men and women, young and old, not all of them brave or wise, who found themselves face-to-face with the fullest ecological horrors of the century…”
And what Bob describes in here are the amazing, almost miraculous victories that this group of hippies pulled off in the early days of Greenpeace, despite (or maybe because of) fuck ups like sailing in circles because somebody put the magnetic tape player on the compass so they could listen to the Grateful Dead, or sailing along the track of the moon or following a rainbow in search of the Russian whaling fleet, which against all odds they found by those methods.
I was an anti-nuclear activist in college, I had marched against nuclear power and volunteered with a campus disarmament group, but somehow walking down a street holding a banner and gathering signatures to petitions didn’t really feel like it was making a difference. But when I read Warriors of the Rainbow I was totally inspired by the zany, crazy, risk-taking of it all — how these people could have gone out in these rubber boats in front of harpoons, sailed into nuclear bomb test sites, and stopped sealing ships on the ice of Newfoundland just by standing in front of them.
Every one of those images just drew the battle lines in black and white, and forced you to make a choice: whose side are you on — the ones behind the harpoon, or the ones in the little boat?
This was powerful, heady stuff full of magic and mysticism and mission, and I closed it thinking “Greenpeace must have been a fine organization. Too bad they’re not around anymore.”
Now understand that in 1982 Greenpeace was not a household word. I had never heard the name before I picked up Hunter’s book, and I thought that the organization had closed up shop shortly after Bob left. This actually is a consistent pattern in many of the histories — at the point the author left the organization, it all went to hell or it lost its edge, and you close the book thinking Greenpeace closed shop…
Spring came and the snow melted and I was out of money so I headed down to Boston to get a job in a bookstore. And one day into this bookstore walks an old friend who was from the same town I was from in Upstate New York. Now that may not seem like much of a coincidence — to run into somebody you grew up with, except that the town I was from was so small (How small was it you ask?) that the guy who drove my school bus in the morning was also the milkman. And the Mayor. So it’s like, whoa! That’s weird, what are you doin, and she says, oh, I’m working for this group called Greenpeace. Ding aling aling fate starts doing that wink wink thing. Turned out she was canvassing for Greenpeace, and did I want to give it a try. So I showed up one day, February 11th, 1982, at 3pm in the afternoon and walked into this old, run down warehouse on the Boston waterfront, room about the size of this, where one hippy is painting a mural of whales on the wall, another hippy is playing some Grateful dead music out of some tiny cassette deck, another hippy is dribbling a basketball. There are beer cans all over the place, and this collection of environmentalists communists pacificists feminists this-ists and that-ists are running around loading up clipboards with leaflets and buttons and bumper stickers or having these really intense political arguments, man, about John Lennon’s latest album, or painting a banner that’s spread out in the middle of the room and getting ready to roll out into the streets of Boston and the suburbs spreading the word about whales, seals, dolphins, and nuclear weapons. And there is a buzz of optimism and energy in the room that can only be generated by inspired madness, by people who actually have the chutzpah to think they can change the world. It was a hippy dream and I was home.
So I became a canvasser, first one day a week, then two then three, then ultimitately I had to quit my day job because it was cutting into my volunteer time, and my action time. And it was in those days that I first saw the inside of a jail cell.
And while I wouldn’t wish a Boston jail cell on you, I do wish all of you could get a chance to canvass, it’s an extraordinaryexperience. We’d go out at night, hit 60 doors an evening. We were lucky if 3 had heard of Greenpeace. But the ones that had heard of us generally remembered what they’d seen or heard — those images of someone in front of a harpoon saving a whale’s life, or stopping a nuclear bomb just stuck with people. I got chased away at gunpoint, I had rednecks give me money because “You’re them guys goin after Rusky whalers (that’s Russians in Redneck) I hate those communisits c’mon in I’ll give you a check.” I had doors slammed in my face, one of them by an 85 year old guy who said “Greenpeace, no thank you, I’ve got my own religion,” and I had a 10 year old kid give me her piggy bank to save the whales.
And past, present, and future — whenever I think this job’s too hard or it’s not worth the internal squabbles that we all have with each other, I think about the reasons a 10 year old kid would hand over her hard earned piggy bank to an idea like Greenpeace. And it comes down to youth, it comes down to the optimism of believing you can change the world and the creativity to convince others to follow you in that.
If you look back at Greenpeace campaigns to stop nuclear waste dumping in the ocean or save Antarctica from oil drilling, or stop nuclear weapons testing or save the whales — those all were impossible tasks when we took them on. And that’s something Bob said once about the nature of profound change:
It looks impossible when you start, and looks inevitable after you’ve finished.
None of those things were inevitable. They happened because a bunch of crazy hippies set out to change the world, and just didn’t know any better. They didn’t listen to the voices that said you’re stupid, you’ll look silly, you’re gonna get hurt. Every one of those actions was enabled by an individual choice, and Greenpeace is an engine and amplifier of those choices.
And that’s what Greenpeace and hippies were all about: that crazy notion that every one of us individually has the power to change the world. When you think about that, it’s more than a little crazy. It’s really nuts.
And if you, dear hippies, are going to make a difference in this organization, you’re going have to embrace that madness. You’re just gonna have to honor your hippy roots, find your inner mystic, and believe in the magic of making impossible things happen.
Now Bob used to say that Greenpeace was driven by two forces: the mystics and the mechanics. And the mechanics were the hard nosed pragmatists. They want procedures, they want measureables, they want predictability. And I suppose if there’s been a major shift in the organization over the years it’s been in the balance between those two forces. Today, we ARE a multinational organization with a 42 million dollar budget and we need those things that the mechanics bring. We need that order and accountability: they’re essential to keeping the organization alive.
But the mysticism, that spiritual belief that we’re all here because we believe that this is the right thing to do — that’s what gives the organization a REASON for living. That’s what makes us different from something born in the marketing department of a PR firm – or working in a bank.
Now I suppose if I’ve seen a change in the organisation over the years, it’s been a rise in the mechanics and an erosion of the mystics. Not many people walk around talking about this global institution being the fulfilment of a Cree prophesy that a group of warriors would arrive on a rainbow when the Earth is sick.
But like all myth, there’s a kernal of essential truth in that story, and it’s about purpose, and committment, and destiny — and the things that make us feel that we are compelled, by forces bigger than all of us, to do something because it’s right. It’s important to keep that alive, to know that this is a part of what brought us to where we are today, and I hope it will be part of what carries us into the future.
If there’s a common thread between the hippies, Greenpeace, and that 10 year old girl, it’s that we all believe the impossible can be achieved, and we all believe that our individual choices can help.
So, welcome Hippies. If I have a piece of advice it’s this: no matter what your job don’t ever let Greenpeace become predictable or safe. One of our great strengths is how we’ve changed, how we’ve grown over the years to use science and politics, to dialogue with business, to figure out new ways to use new communications tools for new campaigns. Part of what makes us strong is that we find new ways to invent confrontation, we find new ways to make individual choice make a difference, we find new ways to turn technology into a force for the good.
Don’t let the organisation lose the spirit and the optimism that she was born with. Crank it up a notch, work it a little harder, make it a little riskier, be a part of the actions we’re doing and get other people to be a part of those actions. Make those individual choices that we ask others to make every day. Get on an action, get on a boat if you can: there’s no place more magical or powerful, and it will change your life, if it hasn’t already. And even if you can’t get out in the field or out in a boat, you can take the online actions we ask our supporters to take. You can get involved, you can make a difference.
We make things happen that change history, and everyone who gives their time to the organization is part of that: from the donor who gives enough to buy a sparkplug to the activist who risks their life to drive a tiny boat in front of a harpoon, to all of us in between.
And most importantly, hold on to your hippy heart, and the part of you that believes in the sanctity of attempting the impossible.
Because that story I told you about the girl handing over her piggy bank is not unique. Many, many canvassers I’ve spoken to over the years tell exactly the same story.
And that means that right now, somewhere out there, somebody is handing over their piggy bank, and expecting results.