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A dramatic evolution

In October PN met up with former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler while he was in Britain promoting his new history of the international campaign organisation. Tensions in tactics, the need to put the "peace" back into organisation's campaigns focus, and the importance of learning from our own histories, all got an airing.

PN: So, tell us a little bit about this book... how it came about, why you decided to do it now

Rex: I wanted to leave a good record of what happened cos I felt that the existing record was spotty and not particularly correct historically... I just wanted to leave a better record.

Myself, I'm a journalist, throughout my career in Greenpeace in the 1970s, I was also a journalist. I'm still a journalist and - I approached the story as I would approach it as a journalist and as an historian. Even though I lived through it - I had my own notes, I had my own notebooks - I also went back and interviewed everybody, Bob Hunter, Paul Watson, all these characters who'd been involved.

Here I should mention a little bit about GP & PN, because of course in the early seventies the two organisations worked together and on similar projects. As far as I know, I think PN was the first publication outside of Canada to publish anything about GP - there might have been a few things in the States, but certainly the first publication in Europe to publish anything about GP during the first campaign in 1971.

That first GP campaign was to stop nuclear testing on Amchitka Island. I should say of course that GP was entirely inspired by the existing peace movement at the time, especially CND from here in London. I don't think in the early years GP knew that much about PN, but certainly it was inspired by some of the Quaker boats that had gone out - the Phoenix and the Everyman and so forth. So we had our mentors - it's not like we made it up ourselves.

With the second campaign in 1972 GP went after the French in the South Pacific about the atmospheric testing and that's when Rod Marining came to London. I don't know if it was Albert Beale that he met [it was Howard Clark!] - he probably met him and some of the other people from PN at the time. Rod's version of that story is that they traded buttons and agreed to work together and so forth.

Then of course GP evolved in its direction and [the group around] PN evolved in its direction and the years went by. I know there were conflicts too at that time between the PN group & GP - typical movement differences about philosophy and approach and tactics. Anyway that's an interesting piece of the history.

But essentially I wrote this history to leave a good record of the movement at that time, the thinking, the philosophy behind it, our mentors, also the social pressures and political factors that influenced GP in the early years.

PN: On a personal level, how do you feel that GP has evolved? It's a fairly large enterprise now - that doesn't mean it's a bad thing - but it's obviously a big difference from being 20 or 30 activists running around trying to do something at a particular moment, to having lots of international offices, lots of staff and all the stuff that goes with that.

Rex: GP is a huge international organisation - they've got offices in 30 or 40 countries and of course they have a huge bureaucracy to deal with all that. My assessment of it today is that it gives GP certain strengths and also certain challenges.

Because of GP's size sometimes, they do have the ability to force negotiations... they were able to negotiate with Coca-Cola to reduce HFCs in their refrigerators and that kind of thing. They've been able to cut deals in Canada on the Boreal Forest and on the coastal forests. So kinda because of their strength and prestige, they can force the governments and companies to sit down with them, which of course we couldn't do in the seventies. In the seventies, in Vancouver, our office was about this big [as the tiny PN office]. I say office, but we didn't even have an office until 1974, [before that] we met in the pubs and that's how GP started.

So we were quicker, we could respond quickly, we could make it up on the spot, we could move fast, we were lean and GP doesn't necessarily have that now. But, I encourage them to use the resources they do have. I also encourage them - because when you do get big it is possible you bog yourself down - and when I talk to GP groups I encourage them to get some of the good activist ideas to the action as fast as possible - try and cut through their own bureaucracy as much as possible.

PN: Are you popular? One view of GP is that professonalised activists kinda sweep in and try and do stuff and the local groups are left with a rather narrow remit of what is acceptable/successful. Are you popular bringing such messages of autonomy?

Rex: Certainly all these things have been discussed within GP and there's people on all sides of the issue. The bureaucracy required to run this sort of international organisation is huge and it's not the kind of activism that I was involved with at the beginning, but at the same time, they do have a pretty good record of actually achieving some victories.

Stopping the nuclear dumping in the ocean is huge, [challenging] the international trade in toxics has enabled a slow-down and in some places stop... these are big victories and they count. So GP can use its muscle effectively and appropriately in these ways, I think that's good.

Could they be more effective? Probably. Could they be more efficient? Of course they could. Any large organisation struggles with that. But there are a lot of good people within GP and I meet them all the time, and they're thinking about all these things and working towards being more effective and more efficient. But I think there's probably a lot of evolution still to go. Sometimes it's like fame and fortune work against you as well as for you. With the whale campaigns and the seal campaigns in the seventies GP became famous and fame is not always your friend.

PN: In some ways it was very pioneering sort of activism, although it was building on the foundations very much of previous incarnations and modes of organising. Still, in the seventies seeing these people bombing around in RIBs hassling the big ships - the whalers or dumpers or whatever - it was like “wow that's really cool!” It's definitely very iconic. It seemed quite different to how a lot of other groups were operating at the time.

Rex: It was innovative at the time, though of course we were inspired by lots of people - Gandhi and MLK in the civil rights movement - but we drew the line at violence. We were always absolutely nonviolent, we believed in that. But at the same time, many of us were involved with the American Indian Movement struggles and you can see the difference, it's one thing to be working for peace and ecology say for example in London or Vancouver, it's quite another thing to be in Indonesia or to be an American Indian on the plains fighting the FBI and vigilantes coming up your driveway with M16s - it's a very different set of social circumstances. You can't apply the strategies and the policies and the ideas of one set of circumstances to the other, because they just don't apply.

GP was always absolutely and strictly nonviolent and we thought that that was the best way to be effective in the long term.

In 30 years GP has stuck to that. But there were times, for example, we did have a split with Paul Watson over that issue, because Paul was always quite willing to push the edges of that [See PN2455 All at Sea for a recent article on Sea Shepherd]. There were different levels of support for Paul within GP. For example when he went off on his own and rammed the pirate whaler Sierra, internally within GP we supported him, we were happy he was doing that.

I say so in the book that we [personally] supported him, but as an organisation it's not something we would ever do. Now I will say too that I still believe that once you resort to violence you open up a whole can of worms and you also give the opposition the opportunity to come back at you in ways that otherwise they can't.

But I would still say that for me personally, I believe in nonviolence as a strategy, but none of us were sad to see the Sierra go down and we even ran his story in the Greenpeace Chronicle. At the same time that all this was going on there were also other factions within GP that were wanting GP to be more organised, more bureaucratic, to have more centralised policies and that kind of thing. In the beginning we let all the GP activists open up and do what they wanted. Now, that may have been nai”ve in one sense because when you have a lot of groups doing whatever they want under one name it can cause confusion. It almost would have been better to encourage people to have their own group, their own name and support them that way, because of course there were conflicts with the single name and multiple strategies and multiple philosophies.

PN: What do you think made GP different from other things that had come before? What do you think made GP so successful?

Rex: I think a lot of it had to do with our ability to use the media, the traditional media, establishment media, because a lot of us were journalists in the 1970s - we were actually working journalists. We knew that we could call people up on the telephone and we almost never put out press releases - we would just phone up our friends in the newspapers and the radio and tell them what was happening. So we had a much more intimate relationship with the media and I think that that helped us a lot - in the early years it was a big part of our strategy.

I think that the other thing was that when we began doing our environmental actions with the whales and seals, no one had quite done that yet. There'd been animal rights movements and certainly environmentalists before us, but it was a bit of a new twist actually, to take a boat out into the middle of the ocean and actually confront the whalers on the high seas - essentially taking the peace activists' tactics and the civil rights tactics and applying it to ecology - it was new at the time. So, it made an impression, made a splash and it was dramatic, obviously. And it was really after that first whale campaign in 1975 that things began to change in GP. Literally, as I said, our GP office at the time was no bigger than this - it was just like this. After 1975, things changed very quickly. Because of the notoriety of the whale campaign offices began to open in Seattle and Toronto and London and of course there Page 14 Peace News December 2004-February 2005 was this sort of nascent group in London all the time with the PN group [London Greenpeace]. But after `75 that all sort of exploded around the world.

PN: London Greenpeace is still based in this building - as an autonomous group. McLibel has been their main focus for a while, but they're still doing their thing.

Rex: They're sort of a shadow of GP in London. I don't know how GP officially feels about it but in a way it's sorta cool. It's like there's this little underground phenomenon going on. And that's the way social movements evolve... it's a little bit helter-skelter and it's ok.

PN: Looking at the particular campaigning areas that GP has been involved with - some tend to be more high profile than others. But there are also things people are working on that are relatively quiet. Do you feel they've got the campaigning priorities right or is there anything you wish they were doing a bit more of or a bit less of?

Rex: We've talked about that as I've travelled around to some of the GP offices. We talk about the campaign priorities and yes - I have my opinions and some of my opinions people agree with inside GP and there's also different opinions within GP. But, I think in general they're doing fine, but personally for me, I would like to see GP be more active within peace activism - especially now that we're back at war. Its no secret either that I feel that way - I've told that to people in GP - and there's a lot of people in GP that agree, it's not a particularly outrageous point of view and I think that there are debates within GP about what they can do and what they should do regarding peace and war. I try and emphasise the fact that peace is in our name so it is something that's been fundamental to GP from day one.

Beyond that, their environmental priorities: there are so many big environmental problems, it almost seems overwhelming - and I'm happy with what GP is doing - I know that they're working hard on the climate change issue. They've done fabulously well with forestry in North America. They've had some success in shining the light on illegal forestry in the Amazon as well as in Canada and elsewhere.

I've noticed that the US group now is working a lot better with the grassroots. I notice that in Oregon, for example, they were doing forestry actions, and GP was supporting the grassroots organisations that were leading them, and GP wasn't shoving themselves out in front with their name and I thought that was a good shift. It was a coalition of grassroots groups who were already doing the work anyway and I think this could be a good direction for GP because there are people on the ground, grassroots people doing this work anyway, so if GP can find ways to support those movements, I think it would be fantastic.

PN: So, is your book officially sanctioned by GP or is it completely independent?

Rex: No, not so much sanctioned by GP. It is an independent book. It's not a promotional piece for GP. I tell the real history. Some things that happened aren't particularly flattering to the individuals, myself included, or GP. I talked about the mistakes we made, the conflicts we had, the arguments we had, so it's not a puff piece to make GP to look good.

But I did make an agreement with GP in the beginning, and the agreement was essentially that I gave them the opportunity to read the manuscript and comment on it, which they did. But I also made it clear in the very beginning that I was writing history: I wasn't writing public relations.

But I must say GP has been very supportive. I didn't get any pressure from GP to spin a story one way or the other. They just seemed quite pleased that someone was gonna do a good detailed history of the organisation. I think it's all worked out fairly well and I think GP will be stronger for having its history properly told.

History is important. Of course we want to focus on the current issues and what's happening today, but we don't have to learn everything from scratch. Social movements have gone through a lot of transitions and learned a lot over the years and, just like me, learned from our mentors, our work becomes mentorian for the future. I think sometimes in our culture, our modern, hip, “now” culture, we forget our history. It's good to know what went before - there are a lot of lessons to be learned.

See p39 for a review of Rex's book Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World.

Greenpeace International, http://www.greenpeace.org/

 

Rex Weyler served as a director of Greenpeace between 1974 and 1982. During this period he also edited the Greenpeace Chronicles magazine, and became a co-founder of Greenpeace International.