Review of Frank Zelko's "Make It a Green Peace!: The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism"

tags: book review, Frank Zelco, Make It a Green Peace

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

The rapidly growing field of environmental history owes its emergence to the outstanding work of scholars such as Donald Worster, Carolyn Merchant, William Cronon, and Roderick Nash as well as a sense of crisis due to concerns regarding the impact of human activity upon global warming. An important new contribution to this scholarship is Frank Zelko’s, an associate professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont, history of the interventionist environmental organization, Greenpeace. Some critics of Greenpeace assert that the direct action tactics endorsed by its leaders discredited the environmental movement through association with hippie mysticism rather than solid scientific research. In fact, these detractors suggest that the lack of respect in some quarters given to environmentalists and scientists making the case for climate change is a product of negative stereotypes from the 1960s and 1970s fostered by Greenpeace activists. While acknowledging the countercultural origins of Greenpeace, Zelko refuses to accept such arguments; asserting that the organization engaged in civic politics challenging nation-states and corporations and “created a new and potent method for confronting powerful institutions engaged in environmentally irresponsible activities” (322).

The book draws upon the archives of the rather decentralized, at least for much of its early life, protest organization as well as extensive interviews with key founders of Greenpeace such as Dorothy Stowe, Ben Metcalfe, Jim and Marie Bohlen, Bob Hunter, David McTaggart, Patrick Moore, Paul Watson, and Rod Marining. Thus, Zelko ’s history comes off as somewhat of an insider account in which the diverse personalities and world views of Greenpeace founders are developed in considerable detail. While maintaining a degree of detachment that allows for criticism of these leaders, Zelko treats them and their assorted perceptions with respect. Although their arguments were often contradictory and reflected dueling egos, Zelko appreciates their courage and sincere desire to improve the planet. Although the organization did include female members, extolled the ecological contributions of indigenous people, and made some effort to understand the impact of environmental reforms upon working-class people, Greenpeace founders were predominantly male, white, and from a more privileged background—reflecting the narrow social background of many 1960s counterculture groups. The implications of race, gender, and class for Greenpeace as an organization could use further analysis by Zelko .

According to Zelko , Greenpeace owes its origins to the antiwar and antinuclear Quaker activism that attracted American leftists such as Irving and Dorothy Stowe and Jim and Marie Bohlen in the 1950s and early 1960s. Frustrated in their efforts to bring about political change within the United States, the Stowe and Bohlen families migrated to Vancouver, Canada where they sought refuge from American militarism. In Vancouver, the American exiles formed an alliance with journalist Bob Hunter, a member of the counterculture who wanted to change public consciousness through employing the communication theories of Marshall McLuhan. This was a strange political alliance, but Zelko observes that “all reflected a deep suspicion of notions of progress, growth, and security that mainstream society took for granted” (52).

The issue which first brought these activists together was underground nuclear testing by the United States in the Aleutian Islands. The Don’t Make a Wave Campaign was concerned with the environmental impact of this testing upon the quality of life in Canada, and a decision was made to take direct action by outfitting a ship and confronting the Americans by sailing into the restricted testing area; a form of protest that fit well with the Quaker tradition of bearing witness. In the final analysis, the Greenpeace ships were unable to prevent the testing, but the efforts of the insurgents gained the attention of the media and Canadian people; limiting further testing and forging an alliance between the peace and environmental movements.

The Greenpeace Foundation which replaced the Don’t Make a Wave Campaign was criticized for being anti-American, so under the brief leadership of the conspiratorial Ben Metcalfe, French atmospheric nuclear testing in the South Pacific was targeted for protest. Hoping that the French would not fully grasp the Greenpeace tactics, Metcalfe in 1972 commissioned American David McTaggart, then living in New Zealand, to sail into the testing area. As Zelko notes, McTaggart seemed an unusual choice as a failed American businessman with little background in environmental issues. McTaggart was apparently motivated by the challenge of the expedition, but when he was captured and beaten by the French, the issue became a personal one. He spent years in litigation with the French government, and angered that Greenpeace failed to cover his expenses, McTaggart eventually succeeded in taking over the organization. When the French abandoned atmospheric testing, Greenpeace claimed a great victory, although Zelko concludes that it is impossible to prove that the French action was in response to Greenpeace protests.

Meanwhile in 1973, Hunter led Greenpeace in a new direction, moving from antinuclear activity into a campaign to save the world’s whale population. This concentration upon a broader environmental cause led antinuclear activists such as the Stowe and Bohlen families to drop out of the organization. Hunter was impressed with the work of scientists Paul Spong and John Lilly that suggested whales were a superior species who did not merit the indiscriminate slaughter by whaling vessels. Zelko observes that there was a degree of inconsistency in the approach of Greenpeace to whaling with the group sometimes emphasizing that whales were a threatened species while at other times insisting that killing cetaceans was simply immoral. By portraying whales as creatures that had evolved into a state of ecological harmony, Hunter perceived them as “exemplars of the deep ecological ethic that humans needed to adapt if they were to survive on the planet” (173). Efforts to place Greenpeace activists between the whales and the harpoons of Soviet whaling vessels captured the world’s imagination, but did not necessarily abolish whaling.

Greenpeace also took on the crusade of saving baby harp seals on the ice floes of eastern Canada. Again demonstrating some confusion in their reasoning, activists claimed both that the harp seal was endangered and that it was simply wrong to kill and skin the baby seals for their fur. The attention of the world’s media was gained through what Hunter called well placed “mind bomb” photographs of Greenpeace volunteers attempting to rescue baby seals from slaughter. But this time there was also public sympathy for poor Newfoundlanders who depended upon the harp seal harvest to eke out a living. Efforts by Hunter to forge a compromise on the issue eventually led Paul Watson to leave the organization; insisting that the harp seal pups were being murdered and it was, therefore, necessary to abandon the traditional nonviolent line pursued by Greenpeace.

In the late 1970s, Zelko writes that Greenpeace was going through an organizational struggle in which the Vancouver founders attempted to place greater corporate control and professionalization over the many international groups employing the Greenpeace brand, but these efforts were resisted by the large San Francisco chapter as well as the European affiliates under the direction of McTaggart, who always believed that the Vancouver group was dominated by hippies for whom he had little respect. The end result was that the Greenpeace tribes were eventually merged into a European-dominated, more hierarchical organization under the leadership of McTaggart. Zelko concludes, “While the goal of consciousness revolution has never been achieved—at least, not to the extent that Hunter and his colleagues had hoped—there seemed little doubt that McTaggart’s professional and hierarchical organization has been a valuable contribution to the field of world civic politics” (314). Zelko ’s Make It a Green Peace! Is an important contribution to the growing field of environmental history, documenting how the peace movement and counterculture combined to create one of the environmental movement’s most influential organizations—once again suggesting that the legacy of the 1960s protest and counterculture is complex and should not simply be dismissed with hippie stereotypes.    

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