By Jon Crooks, published in The News Hub and on the 38 Degrees Manchester blog

Jerry Rothwell’s artfully put together chronicle of Greenpeace’s early history draws on a treasure trove of 70s video footage from the Greenpeace archives, combined with interviews with many of the original band of Vancouver radicals who came together to start what is now an iconic organisation – but who also gave birth to true environmental activism.

Starting with the group’s first voyage on a small fishing vessel known as the Phyllis Cormack, attempting to reach a US nuclear weapons test site on an island in the North Atlantic, the film really captures the spirit of the time.

Whilst their first campaign wasn’t exactly a success, it grabbed the attention of the world’s media and the general public. The later campaigns in the 70s to stop the seal hunts and to confront the Russian whaling ships are captured brilliantly.

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Greenpeace activist Robert Hunter on board the Phyllis Cormack, North Pacific Ocean, during the first Greenpeace anti-whaling campaign

But the film leaves a lot of the story of Greenpeace at that time to one side, preferring to focus on the story of Bob Hunter, which gives the film its core story line. His personal struggle, sometimes reluctantly, to lead the fledgling group is captivating. How To Change The World is a portrait of the group’s original members, but it also shines the spotlight on the subject of activism itself.

As an environmentalist, it’s easy to get caught up in the science and the politics of it all. You forget that people need engaging if you want them to hear your message. Bob Hunter understood this well. In fact, he was light years ahead of his time. He new that you needed a certain type of story or picture in order to capture the public mood and that it needed to spread fast. He termed it a ‘mindbomb’.

Chasing down a Russian Whaling ship on the first Greenpeace antil-whaling campaign in 1975

The idea was to capture something iconic that would go viral around the world’s news networks. This was the 1970s remember, long before the internet and when news coverage was only just starting to become global. But his theory holds just as true today. Just look at that picture of young Aylan being carried up the beach by a Turkish policeman. That was a mindbomb. One photo that instantly changed the whole public mood on the issue of Syrian refugees.

But what is the mindbomb to confront the environmental issue of our age – climate change? How do you capture the public mood on an issue that manifests itself over such a long period of time and in ways that are mostly indirect and not particularly visual? You can drive a zodiac between a Russian whaling fleet and a whale or stand in front of a ship on the Canadian ice flows and the photos are instantly marketable.

But fossil fuels are everywhere. They light up our buildings, warm our homes and fuel our cars. We use them everyday, but at the same time we know we must come off our addiction to them. Yet they are the enemy. The enemy within. They are the Russian or Japanese whaling fleets and we are the whales.

How do we paint this picture in a way that will ignite the public mood? Our climate change mindbomb needs an iconic image and a clear message. Is the refugee crisis our blood-soaked whale? The suffering is certainly visual and as I’ve argued previously, along with others, the refugee crisis will get much worse as climate change and extreme weather events continue to mix with political and economic factors, as has happened in Syria. But how do we make the fossil fuel industry our whaling fleet? And how do we put ourselves in harms way?

Bob Hunter would know what to do.


3 thoughts on “HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD: the new Greenpeace movie

  1. Jon, if you can find a way of harnessing the minds of the public on important matters that do not immediately affect them, you will be hailed as a guru. This has been a thorny issue since time immortal. Like minded people look for common issues on which they are agreed or more importantly, would like to debate. There are so many important issues and more will no doubt appear. I to not so convinced that apathy is the driver, more perhaps fatigue. I do not have any answers to offer other than to state the obvious, keep campaigning until we town on the light bulb!


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