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Bearing Witness to Greenpeace - Rachel Sarnoff

Bearing Witness to Greenpeace - Rachel Sarnoff

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Published by DisplayingActivism
This is a curatorial essay for the exhibition Activism: Methods for Achieving Equity at Brown University, on view from April 18 - May 31, 2011.
This is a curatorial essay for the exhibition Activism: Methods for Achieving Equity at Brown University, on view from April 18 - May 31, 2011.

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Published by: DisplayingActivism on Apr 22, 2011
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Rachel Sarnoff April 3
, 2011Displaying ActivismElena Gonzales
 Bearing Witness to
Does environmental destruction merit risking a human life to stop it? Greenpeacethinks so. Greenpeace, a noted environmental organization founded in the 1970s,emphasizes direct, nonviolent action as its key tactic in changing the current,environmentally unsustainable practices of our world. Greenpeace has infiltrated allcorners of the world (including Antarctica) to fight for environmental justice through itscampaigns against nuclear power, overfishing, ocean toxicity, and atmosphericdegradation. Greenpeace’s immediate desire, however, is not necessarily to changefederal policy or industrial practice. Rather, Greenpeace attempts to change the public’sapproach to environmental issues. Greenpeace hopes to heighten the viewer’s ecologicalsensibility by distributing images of often life-threatening stunts to perhaps save a pod of whales or prevent toxic discharge into the waterways. Perhaps as importantly,Greenpeace hopes to cause people to remember its name. However, the group offers littleguidance a viewer’s quest to
on the newfound sensibility. Greenpeace thus succeedstremendously in exposing environmental injustice to the public, but falls short in creatinglong-lasting change.Members of Greenpeace have emphasized shocking the public with injustice inthe realm of nuclear power, setting the stage for Greenpeace’s concern with other nichesof ecological concern. The origins of Greenpeace date back to October 1
1969, during acontroversial test of nuclear weapons.
The United States government chose AmchitkaIsland, a large rock formation at the tip of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, to test out somenuclear reactors, such as plutonium. Protesters, concerned about the possible tidal wavesor earthquake that could result from the test, held a demonstration on the Canadian-US border. Despite the protest, the test occurred, causing no earthquakes. However, stronger feelings against nuclear testing (particularly by the US) in general surfaced. A smallgroup of environmentalists and peace activists in Vancouver desired to cultivate andcentralize these feelings, precipitating in the formation of the “Don’t Make a WaveCommittee” (DMWC). To stop the four future scheduled tests, the DMWC had to devisea plan to halt the most powerful country in its tracks. Marie Bohlen, a member of thegroup, essentially defined the group’s ultimate mission when she suggested, “Why the
Paul Wapner,
 Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 44.
hell doesn’t somebody just sail a boat up there and park right next to the bomb? That’ssomething everybody can understand”
. Greenpeace has made a point of equatingecological well being with human life ever since.Self-sacrifice for environmental cause certainly shocks the observer; however,some environmentalists argue that the tactic is more dramatic than necessary. Critics likePatrick Moore (an ex-Greenpeacer) argue that thismotto of brash and risky behavior constitute “popenvironmentalism,”
which, like pop art, usesshock value and scare tactics rather thanintellectual reason to change opinions. Nevertheless, Bohlem’s idea certainly ensured thatDMWC would at least receive attention.Greenpeace brought Bohlem’s idea tofruition, but not without careful thought and planning. The first Greenpeace boat, the
, left Vancouver Harbor for Amchitka inSeptember 1971.
If the boat had departed from anAmerican dock, Greenpeace deliberated, it wouldhave created time-sensitive complications, becauseU.S. vehicles are vulnerable to arrests by U.S. officials. Thus, Greenpeace registered its boat as a
ship, so that as long as the boat remained in international waters, U.S.officials could not seize it (if they did, these officials would break international maritimelaw). What was once only national dissonance now emerged as international. Badweather prevented the ship from ever reaching Amchitka, but upon its return toVancouver, thousands of people congregated to greet the ship. Clearly, antinuclear feeling began to materialize: “Now the apocalypse had form.”
Greenpeace members,like Robert Hunter, now envisioned a dramatic change in humans’ approach to theenvironment.
Paul Wapner,
 Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics
Fareed Zakaria, “A Renegade Against Greenpeace,”
, April 12, 2008,http://www.newsweek.com/2008/04/12/a-renegade-against-greenpeace.html.
Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement 
, 96.

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