Photo courtesy of "How to Change the World" 

When asked to name the best-known global environmental organization, chances are most people would answer Greenpeace. With 28 offices in almost 50 countries, the high profile organization boasts consultative status to the UN, a staff of over 2,000 and nearly three million supporters.

Yet in the fall of 1971, when a group of eco-freaks, American draft dodgers and radicals came together around the visionary leader Bob Hunter to protest the proposed US nuclear bomb test off the coast of Alaska, the future success of Greenpeace was anything but assured.

“How to Change the World” is the engaging and often moving behind-the-scenes story of the group’s founding and growing pains. The film consists of present day interviews with the surviving main players interspersed with 16mm footage of the early days. The multiple perspectives — as Hunter says, “The thing is, everyone has their own view of what went down” — make the film all the more compelling.

Overlaying and unifying it all are the often-poetic words of the late Hunter, who died of cancer in 2005, rendered in voice over by an actor. Taken from Hunter’s writings, the commentary provides a unique glimpse into the mind of a man who sought nothing less than to create a cultural revolution but constantly found himself mired in conflicts over mission and tactics. We watch him deteriorate into disillusionment and prescription pills, at one point writing, ”I’ve born witness to the point of nausea. Yet nothing in the world has really changed … Thank God for the Valium.”

 Fearless — he once put his head into the mouth of a killer whale at the Vancouver Aquarium — Hunter possessed a prescient understanding of the power of images to tell an emotionally-charged story. Both these traits served him well when he led the group in protesting illegally operating Soviet whaling ships, insisting that the activists get their small boat between the whales and the harpoons. The seminal footage of the Greenpeace protestors being shot at with a harpoon wound up making the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, thereby launching the modern environmental movement.

Hunter spent much of his energy trying to keep peace between two co-founders of the organization, Paul Watson and Patrick Moore. The contemporary interviews reveal their feud lives on, with each getting in digs at the other and even at Greenpeace itself. Moore, whom Hunter would call an “eco-Judas” when he became a spokesperson trading on his green credentials, is seen testifying before the US Senate that climate change is not conclusively human-caused. In another scene he decries “this whole anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, anti-business orientation of the environmental movement.” While Moore tries to distance himself from his earlier allegiance — “Greenpeace has turned into something I’m regretful about” — Watson has taken the other tack in founding the hard line Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The direct action organization harkens back to the civil disobedience ethos of its progenitor. But for Watson, Greenpeace has strayed too far from its roots in becoming so big. “Greenpeace was more powerful when it had nothing.”

Whether you end up siding with Moore or Watson on the question of Greenpeace’s trajectory and current state, you’ll surely agree that this is a riveting film on the birth and early development of one of the world’s most influential environmental groups. 

Kelley Tish Baker is a freelance writer and editor living in Ottawa.

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