How to Change the World

September 19, 2015
'How to Change the World' (2015). Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
'How to Change the World' (2015). Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

There are some big egos and life-changing traumas on display in How to Change the World, a documentary about the early years of Greenpeace, which focuses on the group’s first leader, the late Robert Hunter.

For the most part Jerry Rothwell’s film celebrates the idealism, and surprising successes, of a group of young people who took up the cause of militant environmentalism in the seventies. It is only as the movement matures, and becomes a casualty of its own success, that the personal tensions reach catastrophic proportions.

Because Greenpeace always understood publicity to be the main weapon in the fight against entrenched national and corporate interests, there is an abundance of film footage that documents every step of the journey. This is interspersed with new interviews with the first Greenpeace warriors, who all look depressingly old when compared with their hirsute seventies selves.

The story begins with Bob Hunter, a product of the Acquarian generation who burned his college admission letter and became a crusading journalist in Vancouver. In 1969 Hunter and a group of likeminded activists set sail on a leaky boat to try and prevent the Nixon administration from detonating an atomic bomb on the island of Amchitka, near Alaska. It was a ramshackle excursion that didn’t stop the blast, but generated huge international coverage. The group arrived back to a heroes’ welcome, and a movement was born. They had found a strategy for utilising the mass media that Hunter called “planting a mind bomb”.

“The boat is a mind bomb sailing across an electronic sea into the front rooms of the masses,” he wrote, in prose redolent of the psychedelic era.

Hunter had emerged as de facto leader, even though he never sought power. It was his idea that the next big Greenpeace project should be to save the whales, although most of his friends found this perplexing in a world still dealing with the threat of nuclear war.

The new voyage that saw the activists disrupt the activities of Russian whaling vessels off the coast of California, proved to be the making of Greenpeace. The stunts were death-defying and the publicity overwhelming. Hunter wrote: “We were transformed from flower children into a sea-going gang of ecological bikers.”

Greenpeace was launched into the big time, with branches and offices springing up all over the planet. This was the point where it all started to go haywire, as tensions emerged in the core group.

Although Hunter was universally accepted as the leader he was temperamentally unsuited for the role. Like a true hippy he distrusted the nature of power, and believed in Allen Ginsberg’s advice: “Let go of it before it freezes in your hand.”

His colleagues, notably Pat Moore and Paul Watson, had no such qualms. These men were bitter rivals, who both considered themselves Hunter’s second-in-charge. Watson believed in direct action, while Moore was a strategist. As his lieutenants’ clashes became more intractable, Hunter sank into deep depression, keeping himself afloat with valium, booze, pot and nicotine. When he quit the movement, mainly for reasons of his own health and sanity, Moore took over and made strenuous efforts to bring the movements’s international branches under one central umbrella.

Moore’s techniques were so abrasive the result was a series of insurrections and lawsuits. Watson had been expelled from the organisation, and would set up his own environmental action group. Eventually Hunter would return, to help thrash out a new global structure for Greenpeace before retiring again and dying of cancer.

The rivalries of those early days still cut deep, but every interviewee speaks with appreciation and nostalgia of Hunter’s visionary role. He was the vital catalyst for a movement that can honestly claim that it has helped change the world. In the jargon of the hippy era these achievements were hailed as harbingers of revolution, but today we can see they were merely the beginning of a long, slow war of attrition.

How to Change the World
Written & directed by Jerry Rothwell
Starring Robert Hunter, Patrick Moore, Paul Watson, David Garrick, Rex Weyler, Bobbi Hunter, Paul Spong, Rod Mannin
Canada/UK, rated ??, 110 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19th September, 2015.