Greenpeace 40 Years Old This Week

A simple phone call about dead sea otters washing up on the shores of Alaska after US nuclear tests lead to the birth of environmental organization Greenpeace four decades ago.

Irving Stowe and his wife, Dorothy, were so outraged by the news that they launched a petition from their home in Vancouver, on the Canadian west coast, and set up a group called “Don’t Make A Wave.”

Their daughter, Barbara Stowe, recalled the early beginnings of the group which eventually blossomed and grew into the international environmental activist group, Greenpeace, which Thursday marks its 40th anniversary.

Her father had been told of “sea otters washing up on the shore, dead, their eardrums split by the explosions” after US nuclear tests on Amchitka Island, Alaska, she told AFP.

With a group of other activists, the Stowes, both Quakers and peace activists who moved from the US during the Vietnam War, launched the committee — named after concerns that the blasts would trigger a tsunami — and announced a plan to send a boat to Amchitka to witness the tests. Soon “people all around Canada and the world were sending money, $2 at a time,” said Stowe.

The boat, which they named “Greenpeace,” was launched from Vancouver in September 1971.

Although the US Coast Guard stopped Greenpeace before the boat reached Amchitka, it helped raise global awareness of the blasts, which the US cancelled the following year.

The Don’t Make a Wave Committee changed its name to Greenpeace, and in a few years the organization had outgrown the city of its birth.

Today its international headquarters is in Amsterdam, it has offices in dozens of countries, and even its Canadian headquarters is now in Toronto.

But officials and the founders say Vancouver, with its picturesque setting amid ocean, mountains and forest, and a diverse population, was key to the organization’s start.

“Greenpeace was a product of the times, but also of the place,” Bruce Cox, Greenpeace Canada head, told AFP. “There’s a much-heightened awareness of the natural environment.”

Vancouver, historically a hub of the West Coast’s rich aboriginal cultural, had been a commercial center for Western Canada’s resource economy since the 1800s.

But by the 1960s, it had become known for its multicultural population — and as a refuge for American draft dodgers and counter-culture hippies.

Anywhere else, Greenpeace might never have have taken off, said author Rex Weyler, one of the founders who sailed on Greenpeace after moving here from the US in the 1960s as a young journalist.

“I remember Japanese and Chinese communities then,” Weyler told AFP. “There was an international youth movement, there were Buddhist communities, Hindu communities, young hippies, back-to-the-landers, and an ecology community.”

“We wanted to launch an ecology movement. There were civil rights, women’s and peace movements. what was lacking was a real sense of ecology.

“That’s what we set out to do, not to create an international organization and make Greenpeace famous,” Weyler laughed. “We were going to transform world … it sort of worked, didn’t it.”

Greenpeace has had a tumultuous path, and been sharply criticized in past years for some of its more provocative tactics in its early campaign to stop seal hunting and high-seas confrontations with Japanese whaling boats.

But it has retained its fierce sense of independence, relying solely on personal donations instead of government, corporate and organizational funding. And it is strongly committed to rigorous science, which has earned it kudos.

“My impression is that (Greenpeace) remains one of the most powerful and respected environmental organizations and that those Vancouverites who are aware that the organization originated here are proud of the fact,” scientist William Rees, a University of British Columbia professor and co-inventor of the Ecological Footprint tool to measure environmental impact, told AFP.

This week Greenpeace officials from around the world converge on Vancouver to commemorate the organization’s 40th anniversary.

Barbara Stowe, whose parents are both now deceased, said the politicians and officials will see that Greenpeace also made its mark on Vancouver, today ranked as one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world.

“This place draws people who love nature,” said Tzeporah Berman, co- director of climate and energy campaigns for Greenpeace International, who recently moved back to Vancouver from Amsterdam. “It’s a city committed to becoming the greenest city in the world.”

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