“90 percent of history is being in the right place at the right time.” These words, spoken by journalist and activist Bob Hunter, typify the Greenpeace founder’s characteristic modesty. The man who once wore around his neck a toothbrush used for scrubbing the latrine of one of the organization’s ships never intended to start and lead a movement that would change the world—but that’s exactly what he did. A new documentary, fittingly titled How To Change The World, tells Hunter’s story and the story of Greenpeace’s Canadian roots.
In September of 1971, funded by the proceeds of a charity concert headlined by Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, and James Taylor, Hunter and a group of activists set sail from Vancouver for a small Alaskan island. Amchitka was to be the test site for the detonation of a nuclear weapon, part of an atomic energy program pushed forward by Richard Nixon. Huge numbers of Canadians and Americans alike opposed the test, especially those on the continent’s west coast. The newly formed Greenpeace planned on being there to, in activist Marie Bohlen’s words, “confront the bomb.”
Due to U.S. intervention, the crew never made it to Amchitka and the test went ahead, but the attention they brought to the issue created enough political pressure for Nixon to surreptitiously cancel further tests on the island. Hunter then set his sights on another cause: saving the whales.
Among the core group of Greenpeace activists, Hunter’s decision caused some dissent. Whales? They’d just stopped the future detonation of countless nuclear weapons. What did whales have to do with saving the world? But Hunter was a man with vision. He saw the whaling industry as emblematic of the way humans treat the planet—as one of many examples of our needless cruelty and wastefulness. It was then that he quit his job as a reporter with the Vancouver Sun to devote himself full-time to environmental activism.
In How To Change The World we see Hunter put himself between a Russian whaling ship’s harpoon gun and a pod of whales. (A harpoon is fired just 15 feet over his head.) He and Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson stand mere meters away from the working end of a Norwegian icebreaker ship to protest the Canadian seal hunt. (Watson would later handcuff himself to one only to be dunked over and over into freezing Arctic waters, an incident he barely survived.) The bravery and dedication of these people, combined with Hunter’s keen media savvy, brought the story of what they accomplished to the world, spurring on a global environmental movement that would see independent Greenpeace offices popping up across North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia.
Though egos and infighting, a product of Greenpeace’s rapid ascent, divided the activists and pushed Hunter to step back from the organization to resume his journalistic career, Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, the anti-whaling splinter group it spawned, remain a force for change in the world today. With offices in 40 countries, Greenpeace continues to campaign for renewable energy, clean oceans, and the protection of forests across the globe—and it all began here in Canada.
How to Change The World is directed by Jerry Rothwell (Deep Water, Donor Unknown) and it premieres on HBO December 3. Streaming begins on CraveTV on December 4. Watch the trailer above.