Photo courtesy Rex Wyler.

Greenpeace raised street theater and protest tactics to a new level using global media. The effect, according to Greenpeace co-founder Robert Hunter, was a “mind bomb” – that is, an action that would create a dramatic new impression to replace an old cliché. 

By Bill Kovarik
Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication, 2009

Greenpeace, one of the largest environmental advocacy organizations, is best known for dramatic protests over marine environmental issues. From a small anti-war group formed in 1971 in Vancouver, Canada, the organization had grown by the early 21st century to an international organization with five ships, 2.8 million supporters, 27 national and regional offices, and a presence in 41 nations.

Among its thousands of dramatic protests, Greenpeace activists have infiltrated nuclear test sites, shielded whales from harpoons, protected fur seals from clubs and blocked ocean-going barges from dumping radioactive waste.

The strategy was inspired by a confrontational but non-violent philosophy rooted in the Quaker concept of bearing witness and also in the nonviolent interventions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The organization’s strict adherence to non-violence has led to breakaways by some who want more muscular activism, for example Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Society.

Greenpeace tactics were also influenced by political street theater and the work of Saul Alinsky, the Provos of  Amsterdam, and the Diggers of San Francisco.

Greenpeace raised street theater and protest tactics to a new level using global media. The effect, according to Greenpeace co-founder Robert Hunter, was a “mind bomb” – that is, an action that would create a dramatic new impression to replace an old cliché.  The most obvious example of a  “mind bomb” was to overturn the image of heroic whalers to that of heroic ecologists risking their lives to save the gentle giants of the sea.  This approach caught the world’s attention and dramatically changed the political terrain for commercial fishing and whaling operations after Greenpeace’s first whaling protests in June of 1975.

Even before that, Greenpeace organizers first noticed the power of dramatic protest in 1971 when they imagined a new kind of protest amid an intense international controversy over US nuclear weapons testing in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. They chartered a fishing trawler to sail into the test area in the expectation that the US government would have to call off the test.  The trawler originally had the name “Greenpeace,” while the group originally called itself the “Don’t Make a Wave” committee, the fear at the time being that nuclear weapons tests could create tidal waves. The trawler Greenpeace sailed from Vancouver on Sept. 15, 1971 but turned back after being arrested, delayed, and held back by winter storms.”

When the US detonated the bomb two months later, Greenpeace was ignored in the US but the Canadian media saw the protests as visionary and helpful.  French nuclear testing was also an early prominent target of Greenpeace protests. When a small Greenpeace sailboat that sailed into the French nuclear testing area of Moruroa in the summer of 1972 was seriously damaged in a collision with a French warship, the protest led to headline coverage around the world.

The Greenpeace anti-whaling campaign began in 1974 with training on zodiac inflatable boats using outboard motors. The summer campaign in 1975 was launched to confront whaling vessels on the high seas off the US and Canadian Pacific Coast.  When a Russian factory whaling ship fired a harpoon perilously close to one zodiac in late June, the incident touched off a media frenzy at a scientific meeting of the International Whaling Commission in London. The fight to save the whales changed that day, said Rex Weyler, a Greenpeace historian.

Along with drama, Greenpeace campaigners continued attacking the idea of a “scientific” group exterminating the last whales and presented evidence that even flimsy rules against taking young whales were being ignored.  Meanwhile, similar campaigns were mounted against radioactive waste dumping at sea and against killing seals for fur.

By the early 1980s, the combination of tactics – dramatic confrontations and impassioned arguments – led to bans on sealing by the European Union and a moratorium on most whaling by the International Whaling Commission.

It also led to financial success, and in 1978, Greenpeace was able to buy a 417-ton research ship Sir William Hardy and rename it the Rainbow Warrior, in honor of a  Cree Indian prophecy. According to the prophesy, when the earth was poisoned by humans, a group of people from all nations calling themselves Warriors of the Rainbow would band together to defend nature.

With success in Europe and the US, Greenpeace decided to protest French nuclear testing on Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The Rainbow Warrior was taking on provisions in Aukland, New Zealand on July 10, 1985 when explosions ripped through its hull, killing  crewman Fernando Pereira and sinking the ship. Two agents with the French Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) were arrested by late July and, by September 22, 1985, the French government conceded that its scuba-diving agents planted magnetic mines and sank the vessel. The French agents were jailed briefly, but released after France threatened to block New Zealand exports to the European Union.  The French  apologized and paid  seven million dollars to Greenpeace, but the nuclear tests continued and no one in the French government was held accountable.

Yet the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior underscored the prominence that Greenpeace had attainted in the fifteen years since its founding.  By the early 1990s it was considered the “green giant” of the environmental movement with protests of every conceivable environmental issue underway in every corner of the globe.  Usually the protests involved actions designed to highlight an issue in a dramatic or humorous way, such as dumping marbles in the Dept. of Interior lobby in Washington DC because the Secretary of Interior had “lost his marbles.”  Another imaginative tactic was to have children passing out asthma inhalers at coal industry conferences.

Greenpeace also fanned the flames of international outrage in 1995 when the Nigerian government executed environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had led a nonviolent campaign against Shell Oil Co.

Despite its popularity, Greenpeace was not always considered a serious environmental group and often excluded from coalitions working in legal or legislative arenas.  The organization was also criticized by other environmental groups in the 1990s as misrepresenting some issues, for example collecting money from sponsors for a weak program of dolphin protection.

One vocal Greenpeace critic, co-founder Patrick Moore, quit the organization  in 1986 and began working for forestry, nuclear power and chemical interests.  He criticized “scare tactics” within the environmental movement, saying in 2008 that Greenpeace was an organization that had lost its way due to “extremism and politically motivated agendas.” Others in the environmental movement have dismissed Moore’s criticism as self-interested.

Another criticism of Greenpeace has been that with so much general popular support for environmental reform, a dramatic media-targeted protest may seem like a cliché. This may be more accurate in the US and Europe, where, after a growth peak in the early 1990s, the organization went through a serious restructuring.

Yet Greenpeace continued growing on an international level in the early 21st century, helping regional and international activists mount protests involving a variety of issues such as toxic waste in Africa, illegal logging in the Amazon, undercover sale of whale meat in Japan, nuclear power in Asia, and drift-net fishing in the Pacific.

For all the controversy and drama it generates,  Greenpeace still manages to catch the imagination of the environmental community.

Further Reading

Michael Brown and John May, The Greenpeace Story. New York, Dorling Kindersley, 1991.

Peter Heller,  The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals, Free Press, 2007.

Rex Weyler, Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World,  Rodale Books, 2004.