Steve Sawyer, 1956–2019

Steve Sawyer want­ed to write his own obit­u­ary, and he would have done a bet­ter job of it, but time got away from him. I say he would have done a bet­ter job at it because he did a bet­ter job than most of us at just about every­thing he put his hand to.

After hours, when he wasn’t a dri­ving force in the glob­al strug­gle to address the cli­mate emer­gen­cy, or tak­ing a fledg­ling organ­i­sa­tion called Green­peace out of its tumul­tuous ado­les­cence into pow­er­house adult­hood, he was an out­stand­ing blues gui­tarist, an envi­ably pre­cise writer, a proud par­ent of mag­i­cal­ly gift­ed chil­dren, a sailor, a sci­ence fic­tion fan, and a con­nois­seur of wry irony.

In his part­ing instruc­tions, he point­ed his wife of more than 30 years, Kel­ly Rigg, to Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech as a mod­el for his obit­u­ary. It’s a short speech in which Lou says almost noth­ing about the bad break that will short­ly take his life, but speaks about the hon­our he had to live the life he did, and his appre­ci­a­tion of hav­ing shared it with the extra­or­di­nary peo­ple he shared it with.

Steve Sawyer in New Zealand. © Greenpeace / Nigel Marple

Steve Sawyer, a crew mem­ber of the orig­i­nal Rain­bow War­rior which was bombed by French secret ser­vice agents in 1985 in Auck­land, aboard the new Rain­bow War­rior dur­ing the ship’s first vis­it to New Zealand. © Green­peace / Nigel Marple

Steve Sawyer passed on 31 July, 2019 short­ly after he was diag­nosed with lung can­cer. He was the Senior Pol­i­cy Advi­sor at the Glob­al Wind Ener­gy Coun­cil. For over 10 years as the organisation’s Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary, Steve tire­less­ly rep­re­sent­ed the wind indus­try and worked to con­vince gov­ern­ments to adopt wind as the solu­tion to grow­ing ener­gy demand and car­bon emis­sions. Dur­ing Steve’s tenure at the head of the Coun­cil, glob­al wind instal­la­tions grew from 74GW to 539GW and became one of the world’s most impor­tant ener­gy sources. He con­tribut­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the devel­op­ment of the wind indus­try in places such as India, Chi­na, Brazil and South Africa. He was a promi­nent speak­er in pub­lic and pri­vate forums, and wrote innu­mer­able arti­cles, blogs and posi­tion papers.

He pre­vi­ous­ly served in lead­er­ship posi­tions at Green­peace for near­ly three decades. At both the Glob­al Wind Ener­gy Coun­cil and at Green­peace, Sawyer was dri­ven by a fierce love of nature and the sea forged in his child­hood in New Eng­land, which he often described as most hap­pi­ly spent “mess­ing about with boats.”

He stud­ied phi­los­o­phy at Haver­ford Col­lege (fel­low alum Dave Bar­ry wagged that its mot­to was “We’ve nev­er heard of you either”) where he was steeped in the clas­sics. But his read­ing of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Car­son, Edward Abbey, and Saul Alin­sky pulled him toward the ris­ing envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. From Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings he drew life­long inspi­ra­tion for seem­ing­ly hope­less caus­es, and the faith that a small group of prin­ci­pled and coura­geous under-dogs could, again­st all odds, change the world.

He was by his own admis­sion a card-car­ry­ing hip­py when a Green­peace can­vasser knocked on his door look­ing for a dona­tion. Steve vol­un­teered instead. He went door to door in the Boston area as a Green­peace can­vasser him­self, before join­ing the Green­peace ship Rain­bow War­rior in Jan­u­ary 1980 to cam­paign again­st the trans­port and dis­charge into the ocean of radioac­tive wastes.

Sawyer’s sto­ry and that of the Rain­bow War­rior would be entwined through­out Greenpeace’s ear­ly days. He lent his mar­itime knowl­edge to a refit in Ston­ing­ton, Maine, blast­ing rust and paint­ing, and lat­er to con­vert­ing her to sail to pre­pare for a cross­ing of the Paci­fic Ocean. It was there that the ship took on a mer­cy mis­sion from which Steve would draw a life­long sense of pride, relo­cat­ing the inhab­i­tants of the Ron­ge­lap atoll, poi­soned by fall­out from US atmos­pher­ic nuclear weapons tests. Steve and the crew relo­cat­ed the entire com­mu­ni­ty and all their world­ly belong­ings, whose requests for relo­ca­tion had been denied by the US Gov­ern­ment, despite ris­ing inci­dences of can­cer and birth defects. The event was seared into Sawyer’s heart and imag­i­na­tion.

Campaigner Steve Sawyer on Rongelap. © Greenpeace / Fernando Pereira

Cam­paign­er Steve Sawyer, is wel­comed by inhab­i­tants from Ron­ge­lap. The Rain­bow War­rior crew is evac­u­at­ing Ron­ge­lap Islanders to Meja­to. Ron­ge­lap suf­fered nuclear fall­out from US nuclear tests done from 1946 – 1958, mak­ing it a haz­ardous place to live. The health of many adults and chil­dren has suf­fered as a result. The Green­peace crew took adults, chil­dren and 100 ton­nes of belong­ings onboard. © Green­peace / Fer­nan­do Pereira

It was aboard that same ship that he and the crew were cel­e­brat­ing his 29th birth­day in New Zealand when two limpet mines, lat­er revealed to have been plant­ed by the French Secret Ser­vice, sent the ship to the bot­tom of the har­bour, tak­ing the life of pho­tog­ra­pher Fer­nan­do Pereira. It was an act of state ter­ror­ism in reac­tion to Green­peace protests again­st nuclear weapons test­ing in the Paci­fic, a cause that Sawyer had spear­head­ed. The attack back­fired bad­ly, pro­pelling the cause of the Paci­fic Islanders vic­timised by test­ing into the lime­light, and dri­ving mas­sive growth at Green­peace as dona­tions and expres­sions of sup­port poured in.

Sawyer’s han­dling of the after­math, and the suc­cess­ful suit of the French Gov­ern­ment for dam­ages, fur­ther pro­pelled his own rep­u­ta­tion as a lead­er and in 1988 he was named Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al.

Green­peace had some of its great­est tri­umphs in the years Sawyer was at the helm – from the dec­la­ra­tion of Antarc­ti­ca as off-lim­its to gas and oil explo­ration, to the Mon­tre­al Pro­to­col lim­it­ing ozone-deplet­ing gasses to an end to radioac­tive waste dump­ing at sea world­wide. He also led Green­peace to begin cam­paign­ing in earnest again­st cli­mate change long before most of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment under­stood the threat. Accord­ing to insid­ers, his tenure marked the com­ing of age of an organ­i­sa­tion that had once prid­ed itself on its rag-tag mys­tic hip­piedom.

Arthur Harbour, near Palmer Station (US). © Greenpeace / Robin Culley

Side view of MV Gond­wana, ice­berg behind the ship. Arthur Har­bour, near Palmer Sta­tion (US). © Green­peace / Robin Cul­ley

In 2001 Sawyer shift­ed his focus exclu­sive­ly to the exis­ten­tial threat of cli­mate change. Through his work at Green­peace and the Glob­al Wind Ener­gy Coun­cil he became a famil­iar fig­ure at the annu­al UN cli­mate talks and fought fierce­ly to awak­en gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions to the dan­gers of ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. He had a schol­ar­ly under­stand­ing of the sci­ence, an activist’s anger at inac­tion, and a strategist’s eye for where to apply pres­sure or intro­duce solu­tions.

To his col­leagues, Sawyer will be remem­bered for the qual­i­ties of his lead­er­ship: his stub­born courage, his abil­i­ty to inspire again­st over­whelm­ing odds, his absence of ego, and his faith in the pow­er of loy­al­ty, integri­ty, ratio­nal­i­ty, and com­mit­ment. He was Gan­dalf to a rag-tag fel­low­ship of under­dogs, remind­ing those around him, by his own exam­ple, in the face of one exis­ten­tial threat after anoth­er, that we can­not choose the time that we are born to, and that our most impor­tant task is to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

He is sur­vived by his wife Kel­ly, his daugh­ter, Lay­la, and his son, Sam.

Friends and col­leagues are invit­ed to post remem­brances at Steve’s memo­ri­al web­site.

By Bri­an Fitzger­ald

This piece orig­i­nal­ly appeared on the Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al web­site

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