Inventing the Great Green Stunt: Interview with Rex Weyler, Co-Founder of Greenpeace International
Rex Weyler is one of the founding fathers of modern environmental activism. With his colleagues in Greenpeace, he helped pioneer a brand of green activism so prevalent today—the execution of high-profile stunts targeted at obtaining wide media coverage. Greenpeace was among the first activist orgs to utilize a highly developed media strategy to spread the word about green issues.
Its famous anti-whaling and anti-nuclear campaigns helped the group grow into the ubiquitous environmentalist force it is today. I sat down with Rex at the Social Change Institute, a conference that takes place on Cortes Island in Canada, where he currently lives. We discussed Greenpeace's legacy, the failure of green consumerism, and the challenges the environmental movement faces today.
Let's talk about Greenpeace.
Greenpeace more or less started in Vancouver. I came as a draft resistor to Canada, so I very quickly met the pacifist community in Vancouver. And I was interested in ecology; at the time ecology was not a common word, environment was not talked about much. Organizations like the Sierra Club were working on protecting the farmland and that kind of thing. But there was no real ecology movement. There were a few of us who were looking at what was going on in the world. There was a women's rights movement, a civil rights movement, and all of these things were good and important, but it became obvious to me, and to some of us, that we could achieve these human rights goals and still trash the planet. So with all of these human rights and civil rights goals, we needed an ecology movement.
Now that's been a big bite, you know, and with social movements there's always been a constituency; workers, women, minorities. WIth the environmental movement, the constituency isn't even human, necessarily. The constituency is more the people who've been dispossessed of their environments and who are starving. As Vandana Shiva said, 'the poor aren't poor because they've been left behind by industrialism, they're poor because they've been robbed.' 15% are using 85% of the resources. All these people here, all of us, things look fine, but we're using 85% of the resources for 15% of the people. Canada and the U.S. use 31% of the resources for 5% of the people. So there's always been this link between social justice and ecology, we knew that from the beginning. There's also been this link between peace and ecology, because warfare and warming is perhaps the biggest single environmental catastrophe on the planet.
So are these the kind of conversations you were having back in Vancouver in the 1970s?
Yes, this is exactly what we were talking about: 'Well, we need an ecology movement, and how are we going to have an ecology movement?' The women's movement could attract thousands of women on the street for a good cause, and so how do we get people to care about the environment? That was our big challenge. So we did a lot of little campaigns around Vancouver. We used to do campaigns on logging and the dumping of industrial waste. But we wanted to do something that would have an international, global bang.
At that time, the marine mammal species, the whales, the seals. and so forth had been reduced by about 95% from their peak herd. Some were already extinct. So we decided that the whales would be the perfect symbol for nature. People could relate to them: they lived in families, they were intelligent, they had huge brains, they were just magnificent creatures. And it was a serious campaign, because the whales were being hunted to extinction, and had we done nothing they probably would have been. You know, had Greenpeace not come along at that time, I'm guessing the bowhead whale, the blue whale might have just been hunted to extinction.
I mean, I remember one time, we were doing our fundraising in front of a supermarket, and this one guy said to us, 'Save the whales? Save them from what?' So, see, people just didn't have that consciousness; that other creatures had rights. And this was something we were talking about at that time was the rights of nature. That we're not just doing this for our benefit, we're not just doing this so that humans have whales to play with, and we're not just saving wilderness so that humans can go hiking and camping in the wilderness, we're saving this stuff for its own sake. And that was the radical part. And that's still the part that most of the environmental movement completely misses. Most of the enviro movement is still focused on human concerns. And its natural that people focus on their own concerns, but the really more radical statements we were trying to make in the 70s are still struggling to be heard in the world.
We have green products green cars, green meetings green conferences, green everything. But none of the serious trends that we've been monitoring for 50 years are getting better, they're all getting worse. So we really have to ask ourselves are we completely fooling ourselves, with all this green economics? I would say yeah, we are, we're completely deluding ourselves. And we're trying to make ourselves feel better. But people don't understand, for example, that it takes more energy and more resources to build a Prius than it takes to build the car you already have, so you can replace the car you have with a Prius and it makes you feel better cause you're using less fuel while you're driving it. but the pries takes way more fuel and materials to make, and now the earth has to make two cars, your old one plus you're new one. You know, it's delusional to think we're going to save the earth by buying a Prius. I think it was Steve Jobs who had four Priuses. I hope he felt good about it.
So is the answer more mobilization? Campaigning? How do you get people to pay attention to the real problems?
In Greenpeace, we were all journalists. We understood how the media worked. We were all Marshall McLuhan devotees, and we had all these big ideas how we were going to use the media to change the way people thought about things, and we did. Part of the thing with using the media is that you've got to create stories. And we knew how stories worked. You've got to have characters and they've got to be doing stuff, it's got to be dramatic and visually interesting and all of that. So the idea of going out and blockading a whaling boat. We knew this. You don't go to a news editor and say, you know, there's only 5% of the whales left, and the news editor goes, 'oh, well, that's a shame," you know?
So you've got to create story and imagery and all that. So that's why we did those crazy stunts for a very specific purpose—to create context and story and dialogue around the issue. And of course, that works.
Now, the whale campaign surprised us all. we thought that oh, ok, we'll go out and get in front of the whaling boats in our little zodiacs, and we're going to take film and pictures of our selves with this stunt, we're gonna get media coverage, we knew that. But we weren't prepared for what happened. I mean it just went off the charts It was an instant overnight media success, and we hadn't prepared for that.
The green movement has had some trouble with climate change on that front, though, perhaps the biggest issue of our time.
This was one of the things we always said from day one—Greenpeace knew about global warming in the mid seventies because James Lovelock sent us his data. We're all looking at this and going, 'oh we're increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I wonder what effect that will have!'
We started going to the media with this, say the first we went to the media in 1979—nothing. I mean the media was just like, oh you guys, now you've gone too far. There's always been this resistance; as if you deny the data it will go away.
People ask me all the time if I'm optimistic or pessimistic. Optimism and pessimism—who cares? That's just an opinion about the future. I want realism. I just want to know what's really going on. I want to be able to read the data, and then have an intelligent, grown-up, mature conversation about it. I'm not worried about being hopeful. You know, hope is overrated. It's a great frame of mind, but it isn't a strategy.
Now, it's absolutely useless from now on to quibble and to try to soft sell any of this stuff. And try and compromise and make people feel okay. We have to just start saying what's actually going on.
There was just this study that came out from 21 scientists worldwide, have you seen that?
About ecological collapse?
Collapse! And these guys have no axe to grind, they're real scientists, and they study the trend lines, and they came to virtually the same conclusion that the Club of Rome came to in 1972, which is, all of the current trends are going towards environmental, ecological collapse. Which means the collapse of the human civilization.
And what you get from the political world and most of the media world, and unfortunately, a lot of the environmental groups, is a kind of shrug. And, 'well, maybe it's not that bad, and we have to be hopeful and positive.' It's helpful of course to be hopeful and positive. But that's not what's going to get us there. What's going to get us there is to be realistic. To realize that we're heading towards ecological biosphere collapse. And we have to fundamentally change.
And we have to apprentice ourselves to nature. As a society, we're fairly clueless about how nature actually works. We don't even know, on a large scale, what it is that survives in nature, what endures. It's not a thing or a species. What endures in nature are relationships. Patterns. Replicable patterns that can mutually reinforce each other and support each other. And there's this tradeoff going in nature all the time, of nutrients and energy and it's impeccable. Nature doesn't compromise, and it's very resilient. You can trash it and trash it and trash it, but eventually it all comes back. We know from studies of animals that overshoot their habitat that you can overshoot your habitat by 300%. By three times.
Humans are at 50% overshoot. Believe me, you don't want to get to 300% overshoot. If you get to 300% overshoot, you're done. You're toast.