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The New Climate Radicals | The Nation

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The New Climate Radicals

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When I told Ken that the action at Brayton Point reminded me of something Greenpeace might have done back in the day, he just smiled and said, “Yep.” 

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Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and climate activist, is at work on a book about climate justice to be...

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If you live in a toxic environment like this, surrounded by refineries, you’re probably not thinking about some future apocalypse. You’re living in one.

“Environmentalism” has failed. The planet now needs a movement far more radical.

In fact, if that image of a lobster boat blocking a coal freighter called anything to mind, it was this: in the Pacific waters off the coast of California in June 1975, a small band of committed souls in Zodiac inflatables positioned themselves in front of Russian whaling ships, between their harpoon guns and a fleeing pod of sperm whales. Those iconic images—small boats against a massive industrial force, courageous individuals putting their bodies on the line—exploded into popular consciousness like a “mind bomb,” to use the favorite phrase of counterculture journalist and Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter, who was one of those in the Zodiacs. 

That classic Greenpeace footage can be seen in the new feature documentary A Fierce Green Fire, a sweeping history of the environmental movement directed by Mark Kitchell. But those images of longhaired environmentalists saving whales can be somewhat misleading. When you look into the deeper origins of Greenpeace, as historian Frank Zelko points out in a fascinating new account, Make It a Green Peace!, the combination of “green” and “peace” in the group’s name was meant to carry real significance. Nevertheless, Zelko notes, just as we put the emphasis on the first syllable of the name, so the “peace” half tended to be overshadowed as Greenpeace went on to become the world’s most recognizable environmental organization. 

It didn’t start out that way; “peace” wasn’t always the junior partner. Quite the opposite. Some of those most instrumental in the formation of Greenpeace in the early 1970s in Vancouver, British Columbia, had been deeply involved in the US Quaker peace and antinuclear movements of the 1950s and early ’60s. Heavily influenced by the Quaker emphasis on “bearing witness” and the use of nonviolent direct action, inspired by Gandhian satyagraha, they left a lasting imprint. Indeed, the Quaker-inspired pacifist voyages of the Golden Rule and Phoenix, opposing US nuclear tests in the Pacific in the late 1950s, were forerunners of the early Greenpeace boats, which ventured into the Pacific nuclear testing zones between 1971 and 1974. 

Despite the media infatuation with the radical hippie ecology of Hunter and others, for these Quaker-influenced co-founders, saving humanity from itself was just as important as saving whales, seals or any other species. And whatever tendency there may have been toward a holistic mysticism among the counterculture greens, those elder peace-movement veterans viewed their antinuclear protests, rooted in both science and moral conviction, as sober and eminently rational affairs. 

Canadian journalist and Greenpeace co-founder Ben Metcalfe may have captured it best. “We do not consider ourselves to be radicals,” he wrote for a radio broadcast aboard the very first boat, called Greenpeace, in September 1971—on a voyage launched by the group’s immediate forerunner, the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, to protest a planned US nuclear test on the Aleutian island of Amchitka. “We are conservatives,” he declared, “who insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations of men. If there are radicals in this story it is the fanatical technocrats who believe they have the power to play with this world like an infinitely fascinating toy of their own.” 

“The world is our place,” Metcalfe explained, “and we insist on our basic human right to occupy it without danger from any power group.” Words the crew of the Henry David T. could have spoken. 

The week before their action at Brayton Point (though I didn’t know when, or exactly how, or even whether they would go through with it), I sat down separately with Ken and Jay for a long conversation. I came to realize that however much their protest reminded me of a classic Greenpeace-style direct action, they are not to be confused with the sort of save-the-whales environmentalism those iconic images might suggest. If anything, Ken and Jay are like the more human-centered, Quaker-inspired, antinuke Greenpeace founders (Jay after all, is a committed Quaker). Along with their many friends and supporters in the New England climate-justice community, they’re helping build a movement to save creation from humanity, and humanity from itself. 

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