Animal Protection > AR Interviews

Bob Hunter
Co-Founder, Greenpeace
Profiled by David Usborne,
The Independent
May 2005

Bob Hunter, the Canadian journalist who helped found Greenpeace and became its first president in 1973, died of cancer this week. David Usborne tells the extraordinary story of a man who helped to change the world.

It was in the early 1970s, when Bob Hunter was an iconoclastic columnist with the Vancouver Sun, that he found himself attending meetings with like-minded activists in a church basement in the city he had adopted and grown to love. The discussion at hand: how to put pressure on the United States, the rapacious neighbour to the south, to end its nuclear testing programme in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. It was the beginning of Greenpeace.

Hunter christened the group the "Don't Make a Wave Committee" a name that denoted the disturbance a nuclear blast would make in the oceans but had nothing to do with the media disturbances he would come to make over the ensuing years in crusades that, under the Greenpeace banner, ranged from halting nuclear testing to putting a stop to the hunting of whales and seals and the pollution of our seas.

It is the decision of that committee that will forever inscribe Hunter in the annals of environmental activism and which helped Time magazine place him in a recent top ten of the world's eco-heroes of the 20th century. They agreed that the best place to protest against the tests was where they were happening. Thus, on 15 September 1971, Hunter and 11 of his idealistic colleagues rented a rusting fishing vessel named the Phyllis Cormack and sailed it to waters just off Amchitka Island, Alaska, where the testing was based.

They gave the boat a new name the Greenpeace and thus was born an organisation that has since become a byword for environmental activism, with 2.5 million members in 40 countries.

At the time, Hunter famously underestimated the impact that the ship's voyage would have on him and his friends. "I thought I was going to be a reporter, taking notes," he said later. Indeed, he did write often hilarious dispatches for publication in the Sun from the ship on a voyage that lasted 45 days. And he did more than just scribble. "In reality, I wound up on first watch."

Those reports from the Alaskan waters were enough to send Washington into a tizzy of indecision. President Richard Nixon and the US Supreme Court came under instant pressure to suspend the tests and the ensuing row between Washington and Ottawa caused the closure of the US-Canadian border for the first time since 1812.

In the end, America tested the atomic bomb in the Aleutians. But two months after the Greenpeace returned to harbour in Vancouver, President Nixon announced the abandonment of the series of tests and declared Amchitka Island a wildlife refuge, which it remains today.

While Hunter was not alone in establishing Greenpeace, his zeal and his unique skill for media manipulation earned him the role of leader of the group. He will also be remembered for inventing another term: the labeling of the organisation's fast-growing band of activists as "rainbow warriors". (The name was inspired by a Canadian Indian book of native myths.) By 1973 he had been named the first president of Greenpeace and he remained there long enough to shepherd its transition into a global movement.

Rainbow Warrior, of course, was the name that was given to the much bigger ocean-going ship that Greenpeace was later to purchase as its own one-ship navy to fight its causes around the world. It took Hunter to the ice-floes of the Arctic, where he joined others in daubing the pelts of seal pups with paint to make their skins worthless to hunters, and confronted the harpoons of Russian whale hunters.

In what was arguably the most famous of all of Greenpeace's escapades, the first Rainbow Warrior was sunk by French agents in the South Pacific in 1985 as it tried again to halt nuclear testing, this time by France. Three years later, however, the organisation had a new ship, Rainbow Warrior II.

Hunter left Greenpeace in the late 1980s, to refocus on journalism. He wrote books and columns and in later years, after moving from Vancouver and Toronto, became a face on Canadian television, most famously hosting an early morning show called Paper Clips which saw him commenting, often caustically, on the offerings of the day, dressed in nothing more than a dressing gown. His most widely read book was the 1978 Warriors of the Rainbow, a chronicle of the efforts of Greenpeace that paid tribute to the bravery of its soldiers.

"We fought ... an unequal battle against American and French nuclear weapons makers; Russian, Japanese and Australian whalers; Norwegian and Canadian seal hunters; multinational oil consortiums and pesticide manufacturers; cynical politicians; angry workers and, again and again, ourselves," he wrote. "The people involved were men and women, young and old, not all of them brave or wise, who found themselves face-to-face with the fullest ecological horrors of the century ..."

The premature death of Hunter will cause the deepest mourning in his native Canada and perhaps especially in Vancouver, the cradle of his first endeavours and the birthplace of Greenpeace. It was serendipitous that the West Coast city is where he found himself at the end of the 1960s and the hippy era.

He once affectionately described his adopted town as having "the biggest concentration of tree-huggers, radicalised students, garbage-dump stoppers, shit-disturbing unionists, freeway fighters, pot smokers and growers, ageing Trotskyites, condo killers, farmland savers, fish preservationists, animal rights activists, back-to-the-landers, vegetarians, nudists, Buddhists, and anti-spraying, anti-pollution marchers and picketers in the country, per capita, in the world." And he, clearly, was one of them.

Colleagues from Greenpeace's nascent years were the first yesterday to pay their former co-founder tribute. "I felt like the first time I met him I had seen a unique genius. He seemed to see things that other people missed," former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler told the BBC's World Today programme. "I remember him saying things like, 'Ecology is going to be the biggest revolution in human history. It's going to change everything. It's not just a matter of cleaning up rivers and oil spills, but it's going to change science, politics and philosophy'. He was such a grand thinker. He saw this environmental movement in the 1970s when no such thing existed."

And there were tributes from the current leadership of Greenpeace. "Bob was a storyteller, a shaman, a word-magician, a Machiavellian mystic, and he dared to inject a sense of humour into the often shrill and sanctimonious job of changing the world," said executive director Gerd Leipold. "He was funny and brave and audacious, inspiring in his refusal to accept the limits of the practical or the probable. He revelled in life's ability to deliver little miracles in the form of impossibilities achieved, and Greenpeace will forever bear the mark of his crazy, super-optimistic faith in the wisdom of tilting at windmills."

"Bob was an inspiration storyteller," added John Doherty, chairman of Greenpeace Canada. "He was serious about saving the world while always maintaining a sense of humour".

In the years after he left Greenpeace, Hunter remained an advisor to its new leaders as well as its champion in his broadcasting and writing. He always admitted that, as a journalist, he was "a traitor ", making no bones about his determination to ditch objectivity in favour of ensuring that his message of ecological stewardship of the planet was conveyed bluntly to readers and viewers.

The key, he used to say, was injecting the message into what masqueraded as straight reporting. "The subjective stuff written by columnists was never picked up by wire services," he once observed. And if the words are not picked up, the audience will never be big enough.

Hunter's energies often flowed in unexpected directions. He founded what he considered a tongue-in-cheek Christian denomination called the Whole Earth Church,which again had the nurturing of the planet's natural resources as its first focus.

Among his works for television was a touching documentary about his long-fought battle with cancer called Men Don't Cry. He won several awards, including the coveted Governor General's Award in 1991 for his work Occupied Canada: a Young White Man Discovers his Unsuspected Past. "This was a man with a great loving heart, a brilliant mind and a massive spirit," commented Stephen Hurlbut, the vice president of news programming at Citytv in Toronto, the channel that carried his Paper Cuts show. Hunter also flirted briefly with the idea of political service, running unsucessfully for the governing Liberal Party in a byelection in Ontario only four years ago.

In his life, Hunter exasperated many, from Richard Nixon to Francois Mitterrand and anyone whom he confronted in the name of the planet. Even his erstwhile foes, however, would not question the impact of a man who, perhaps more than anyone else, gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Among those who cannot speak to his memory today are the creatures he helped save, the whales and the seal pups.

There were no stunts in his dying. Hunter succumbed quietly to prostate cancer in Toronto on Monday at the age of 62, with his wife, Bobbi, and four children - Will, Emily, Conan and Justine - at his bedside. Yet, to his disciples, his death is probably as big a "media mindbomb" as he ever engineered.

Hunter coined the phrase as a young man after moving from his native Winnipeg to Vancouver. Its meaning was clear: the staging of an event that would grab the media's attention in the pursuit of an important cause. For him that meant only one thing: saving the planet from the ravages of corporations, governments and, in short, the greed of mankind.