How (not) to Change the World

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It was 1960s America. Kennedy had navigated America through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and China had just detonated her first atomic bomb. The War in Vietnam was escalating, casualty rates slowly rising. It was a decade of big political power plays, achieved through covert maneuvers and proxy wars. But while unspoken battles raged in the international arena, protest movements across the United States began to gain a sense of voice; advocating feminism, civil rights and environmental conservation.

Cold war diplomacy met the rising activist in the late 1960s, on the small and unpopulated island of Amchitka, Alaska. Under pressure to undertake nuclear testing, the United States government made plans to detonate an underwater nuclear weapon in Amchitka. Although the test was intended to go unnoticed, concerns about Amchitka’s tectonic instability sparked outrage among the (undeniably hippie) activist movement spanning the West Coast.

Protests rose from San Francisco to Vancouver bearing signs that read “Don’t Make a Wave” and “It’s Your Fault if Our Fault Goes”. Amongst the plethora of demonstrators, a small group of friends emerged that decided to protest the detonation with their lives. Idiotic or brave–no matter how it may be viewed–their powerful idealism spurred the environmental activism movement of the 1960s, and eventually led to the the creation of the world’s most influential environmental organization, Greenpeace.

How to Change the World, a documentary on the evolution of Greenpeace, premiered at Sundance Film Festival last week in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition. Directed by Jerry Rothwell, the documentary makes use of recently rediscovered footage of the crew’s first encounters in Amchitka as well as other protests, neatly juxtaposed with crisply shot present-day interviews of Greenpeace’s founding members. Guided by the writings of leading activist, Bob Hunter, the film captures the doubts, speculations and hurdles that characterize organized activism; all of which is framed within five rules.

1. Create a ‘Mind-Bomb’.

Lead by Bob Hunter, the motley crew of activists, ecologists, environmentalists and sailors set out to the nuclear test zone under a rainbow colored flag. Their ship, which they called ‘Greenpeace’ was rocky and unwieldy, yet cleverly licensed in Canada so that US government officials would not be able to board without committing piracy. The voyagers were characterized by long beards and bright attire, the voyage, a kaleidoscope of camaraderie, psychedelics and idealism.

To their dismay, however, ‘Greenpeace’ was stopped by US customs officials and forced to retreat from the area around Amchitka, meaning they were unable to reach the test zone in time to protest. As the bomb was detonated, resounding for miles around, it was clearly a failure of sorts. But when the boat returned to harbor, the beaches were lined with avid supporters. Another bomb had exploded—Bob Hunter’s self-proclaimed ‘mind-bomb’ that preached new ideals of environmental awareness and protection.

2. ‘Put your body where your mouth is’.

By the end of their first voyage, the crew had cultivated an immense following, enabling them to quickly broaden the scope of their activism. Amidst scenes of marches and organization, the film shows gruesome footage of protests against whaling reminiscent of the jarring documentary, Blackfish. The protesters face looming Russian whaling ships that appear exactly as one might expect; towering metal structures in need of repair, anchored in a sea of blood. Equally gut-wrenching are scenes of baby seals being beaten and skinned for their fur, the rest of their bodies discarded in bloody rows.

While the film portrays the sheer brutality of this animal violence, it does not fail to address the ethics of saving animals when human populations are dependent on these industries. Although Greenpeace could easily protest Russian whaling fleets — and were in fact given their coordinates by the US government — they were resisted in small Canadian towns in need of sealing revenue. Here, the cracks began to emerge as Hunter appeased the townspeople to save face, while Paul Watson (future founder of Sea Shepherd) silently brooded over his failed campaign. 

As easy as it is to repeat the maxim ‘put your body where your mouth is’, the need for physical activism is highly contextual–an issue that remains relevant today, even (or especially) in our community at Stanford. The protest blocking San Mateo-Hayward Bridge on January 19th is a direct example of how the intentions of protests are not always linked to their outcomes, and how these outcomes can threaten to eclipse their original message.

3. The Revolution will not be Organized.

An activist movement, though often defined by its ideals, is still dependent on the figures that embody them. In How to Change the World, neat juxtaposition of past footage and present day interviews makes you feel as if you are flicking through a family photo album; seeing the years weigh down youthful faces. Greenpeace’s founding members give the footage a commentary replete with regrets, retractions and humor.

By the halfway mark, the harmony of ideals slowly untangles into an array of dissonant voices and a fracturing leadership. In its conception, Bob Hunter proclaimed the organization as neither right or left wing, but environmental; and yet the leadership slowly disintegrated along these lines. Politics, is indeed, inevitable. Greenpeace leadership became a trifecta of perspectives on activism; Bob Hunter characterized by his unfailing charisma, Paul Watson by his anger and resentment towards the limits of activism, and Patrick More by his somewhat conniving conservatism.

In a diplomatic maneuver, How to Change the World allows both Watson and More equal screen time to explain their perspectives. This is jarring at first, as you feels as if you are watching old friends finally falling apart, yet is essentially successful in illustrating the general conflict between opposing ideas about activism. Bob Hunter managed to reconcile these differences for a period of time through sheer force of personal charisma — an unsustainable strategy that was to the detriment of his own mental health. At one point, Bob wrote, “How can we save the planet, if we can’t save ourselves?

4. Fear the Success.

Following the first exciting years of the organization, the initial leaders struggled to handle their debt, the decentralization of the organization, and who to appoint as leader once Bob retired. By not licensing the name ‘Greenpeace’, they could not ask for funds from any of their regional offices. The initial leaders floundered in attempts to apply the same rules and skillsets of small-scale activism to large-scale change; ultimately unable to convey their vision, while slowly losing their grip on the leadership.

In a Q&A at Sundance, Director Jerry Rothwell commented that the film could have been easily named ‘How Not to Change the World’, as it presents just as many failures as successes. The documentary conveys the nature of activism without the full-blown idealism that it is so often associated with, instead adding the often detested hint of pragmatism necessary in implementing change.

5. Let the Power Go.

How to Change the World is essentially a documentary of ideals; both those that can and should be retained, and those that must be discarded in order to see the pragmatic realization of the former. The narrative of Greenpeace can be described as a falling out, a growing up, or a letting go; a coming to terms with human limitations. To Rothwell’s list of titles, we could add a third, merely, ‘How to Change’; change being an honorable objective to pursue, but also a humbling inevitability. As Bob Hunter so succinctly summarized, “Keep an eye to the future, and ear to the past, and after thinking it over, notice nothing much lasts.”

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