In 1969 thousands of students and anti-war activists closed the border
between the US and Canada for the first time since the war of 1812. The
roots of one of today's largest environmental organisations can be traced
to the days that followed this protest against the testing of nuclear weapons
in the Bering Sea. The Greenpeace to Amchitka tells the story of the episode
that gave Greenpeace its embryonic form and launched the modern environmental
Written by Robert Hunter, co-founder and first president of Greenpeace, the book has been published directly from its original format as a journal. In a style that encapsulates the hippy language of its time, it recounts the background and conditions under which a group of 12 peace activists, environmentalists, fishermen and journalists attempted to 'block' a US nuclear bomb test - codenamed Cannikin - on the island of Amchitka, off the Alaskan coast. In the stormy autumn of 1971 these activists chartered an ancient 80-foot fishing boat (Greenpeace) and set off into some of the most treacherous waters in the world. In an attempt at non-violent direct action that has become the hallmark of Greenpeace's exploits since, the aim was to place the boat and its crew as close as possible to Amchitka, to prevent the test from taking place or bear witness to its environmental consequences.
Hunter's hippy narrative took a little while to adjust to - references to The Lord of the Rings pepper the book - but once I got used to it I found this 'environmental odyssey' fascinating, entertaining and thought provoking. The book reads as a combination of travel journal, hippy philosophy, environmental politics and some of the best natural history writing I've read in ages - having spent weeks on trawlers myself, I have to say that his descriptions of horrible sea conditions and the trials that the human body is subjected to are also frighteningly accurate, as are the great photographs.
Through its journey outwards to their arrest and the retreat to Vancouver, Hunter describes the conditions, atmosphere and political debates that took place on the boat with painful honesty. I was left with a lasting impression that, although the Greenpeace failed to achieve its ultimate goal, the odyssey itself exposed the crew to unforgettable experiences and debates that are still relevant for us today. Indeed, although he presents much of the onboard debate over the integrity of their protest and whether they were there as revolutionaries or reformists as being a clash of egos, Hunter returns again and again to the wider picture.
From the moment that the Greenpeace left Vancouver the protests and demonstrations against the nuclear test grew to unprecedented levels in mainland Canada - at one point 10,000 schoolchildren left their classrooms to help close the border. The book draws clear connections between the experiences of the crew and the political implications of their actions, and the huge wave of demonstrations, petitions and strikes that took place against Cannikin.
In a hilarious scene at the point of their arrest on a US customs technicality, the influence of the wider anti-war movement is presented in sharp relief. While the commander of the US coastguard vessel Confidence is 'busting' the skipper of Greenpeace, his juniors are presenting the activists with a letter signed by the crew:
'Due to the situation we are in, we crew of the Confidence feel that what you are doing is for the good of all mankind. If our hands weren't tied by these military bonds, we would be in the same position you are in if it was at all possible. Good luck. We are behind you 100 percent.' Hunter concludes, 'Oh the American military machine is in a state of disarray.'
For me, this book reinforces our arguments for the centrality of the current anti-war movement. As with Vietnam, the movement is capable of unifying a wide range of groups and broadening our ability to rise to other challenges that capitalism throws at us, including environmental destruction. For the environmental movement that Hunter helped to trigger, there are lessons to be learned from The Greenpeace to Amchitka too. As Hunter concludes 'Greenpeace was a product of the Vietnam War as much as anything.'
Ian Rappel, "Socialist review", February 2005