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On Earth Day, remembering counterculture environmentalists

By Frank Zelko


Forty-three years have passed since Senator Gaylord Nelson’s teach-in first made its mark on America. Since then, Earth Day has become as regular a fixture on the US calendar as Labor Day and Halloween, albeit without the shopping and candy. As Adam Rome explains in his new book, The Genius of Earth Day, the original event in 1970 mobilized millions of students, teachers, and housewives and brought together a broad, bi-partisan coalition. It seemed that half the population had become environmental activists, at least for a day.

While Earth Day made waves around the US, a few miles across the Canadian border a different kind of environmental activism was taking shape. Its focus was on stopping a very real and potentially destructive wave, one that would emanate from a giant nuclear bomb that the US military was planning to explode on Amchitka, a small island in the North Pacific. In Vancouver, a group of self-exiled American peace activists and draft evaders had begun to mingle with younger Canadians who were part of the city’s burgeoning counterculture. Together they formed a protest group with the evocative, if somewhat cumbersome name, the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, and they started making plans to sail a protest boat to Amchitka the following year to bear witness to the insane ecological destructiveness of nuclear weapons testing.

One of the DMWC’s founders was Irving Stowe, a 54-year-old American lawyer who had become a full-time activist. As he was leaving one of the group’s meetings, Stowe flashed the two-fingered V-shaped hippie salute and mumbled “peace.” Bill Darnell, a young Canadian social worker, spontaneously replied, “Make it a green peace!” Stowe’s wife, Dorothy, recalled that those final two words “lit up the room,” and the group resolved to name their ship the Greenpeace.

Despite an epic attempt, the Greenpeace, an aging halibut seiner the DMWC hired from a local fisherman in Vancouver, never made it to Amchitka. Nevertheless, the campaign gained considerable coverage in Canada. As a result, Irving and Dorothy Stowe, Bill Darnell, and the other activists felt that the DMWC could become a vehicle for a unique new style of direct action protest against environmental destruction throughout the world, particularly in difficult to reach places such as remote nuclear testing sites. So in early 1972, they changed the DMWC’s name to the Greenpeace Foundation. Within a decade, it would become the most well-known environmental organization in the world, with multiple branches in numerous countries and a global headquarters in Amsterdam.

The older generation of American activists, such as Irving and Dorothy Stowe, imbued Greenpeace with the ideas and tactics of the American peace movement, particularly the style of nonviolent protest that Quakers had adapted from Gandhi’s program of civil disobedience against British rule in India. The Amchitka protest, for example, was directly inspired by similar campaigns that various Quaker organizations had mounted during the 1950s, all of which were based on the Quaker idea of “bearing witness” to the injustices perpetrated by the powerful against the weak.

The younger generation of predominantly Canadian activists was equally important in shaping Greenpeace’s values, tactics, and priorities. Chief among them was a chain-smoking, acid-dropping, I Ching-reading journalist named Bob Hunter. Hunter shared the ecological apocalypticism that characterized much of the environmentalism of the era. He fervently believed that the only way to save the world from destruction was to foment a consciousness revolution that would completely alter the way that humans viewed themselves in relation to other species on the planet. This new consciousness would reflect the holistic worldview of ecology—at least the kind of popular ecology with which Hunter was familiar—and would help humanity reach a stage of sustainable co-existence with the rest of nature.

Hunter felt that the North American counterculture, with its openness to alternative worldviews, its embrace of Native American spirituality and other forms of holistic thought, and its rejection of crass consumption, was already well on the way to achieving the new consciousness. But how could the values held by a relatively small minority reshape the entire world? The media—and particularly television—was the key. Hunter was a devotee of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications scholar who developed such enduring concepts and aphorisms as “the global village” and “the medium is the message.” By using the mass media as a vehicle for what Hunter called “mind bombing,” groups like Greenpeace could help fast-track the countercultural consciousness revolution throughout the world. While revolutionaries of the past had required armed struggle as a means of achieving their ends, the modern mass communications system provided a “delivery system” through which the agents of the new consciousness could “bomb” people’s minds, creating new archetypal images and reframing standard narratives of human progress. Television, Hunter argued, could be “targeted with complete accuracy to strike at a point precisely two inches behind the victim’s eyes. No bullet flies so fast, so far, with such unerring accuracy. Not even a hydrogen bomb can affect so many people at once.”

This combination of mind bombing and bearing witness was subsequently employed against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, Soviet and Japanese whaling, and numerous other environmentally destructive activities around the world. Greenpeace’s small cadre of professional environmental activists alerted millions of people to environmental problems that were often remote and hidden from public view. Eventually, they created a powerful international NGO with branches in over 40 countries. Subsequently, Greenpeace diversified its repertoire. Its activities now also include sponsoring scientific studies and environmentally-friendly technology, as well as political lobbying. When combined with the judicious use of mind bombing, Greenpeace’s environmental activism still exerts a degree of political influence, albeit at the cost of a more bloated administrative structure than Irving Stowe or Bob Hunter would have liked.

Earth Day and Greenpeace offered two very different models for raising environmental awareness. Earth Day was based around mass participation and focused on local issues in people’s communities. Its goal was to create an environment conducive to widespread political reform at all levels of government. The Greenpeace model, by contrast, relied on a small cadre of activists to carry out spectacular direct action protests, frequently in remote regions or against difficult targets, in the hope that the striking visual images would embarrass the perpetrators of environmental crimes, as well as generally altering people’s perception of humanity’s relationship to its environment.

Despite its global profile, Greenpeace has never really been a social movement. True, it has a substantial worldwide support base, but it is largely a checkbook membership. For most supporters, participation involves sending money to finance the activities of professionals. Thus the evolution of a more corporate structure, with its attendant hierarchy and managerialism, has in many ways strengthened Greenpeace’s ability to carry out its work. Hunter’s dream of a consciousness revolution has been diluted, but Greenpeace remains a reasonably effective NGO, particularly in Europe and Australasia, where its profile is higher than in the US.

Like Greenpeace, Earth Day is today also a global phenomenon. But is it a successful one? Rome argues that the subsequent professionalization of Earth Day, with its top-down directives, its governmental seals of approval, and emphasis on marketing at the expense of concrete participation, diluted its effectiveness. Unlike Greenpeace, Earth Day started as a broad social movement; it had little to gain from professionalization. Perhaps it’s time take Earth Day away from the politicians and marketers and give it back to teachers, students, and local communities.

Frank Zelko is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and History at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Make it a Green Peace!: The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism, which has just been published by OUP.

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  1. [...] On Earth Day, Remembering Countercultural Environmentalists By Frank Zelko, on Oxford University Press Blog. [...]

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