Terry Glavin harpoons some Greenpeace pieties
I recently had the pleasure of a meal of roasted minke whale with Bjorn Hugo Bendiksen, skipper of the whaleboat Trøndergut, and his kid brother Hallvard, skipper of the whaleboat Malnesfjord, in the village of Reine, on the island of Moskenesøy in the Lofoten Islands off Norway’s northwest coast.
The craggy Lofotens, mythical abode of trolls and Valkyries, rise dark and forbidding from the blue ocean, and the Norse people who stubbornly persist there have always lived from the sea. They have also always hunted whales. During the early Middle Ages, Norsemen killed minke whales with poison-tipped arrows. Up into the 19th century, Lofoteners routinely corralled and slaughtered them in shallow bays and coves, just as their Viking forefathers did, and just as their cousins on the Faroe Islands still do in their harvest of pilot whales.
Nowadays, Lofoteners hunt minke whales from fishboats with explosive harpoons. They take a few hundred every year from a population of more than 100,000 animals in a commercial hunt that conforms perfectly with the best principles of conservation and the sustainable use of wildlife. It is an eminently defensible pursuit, as is the Faroese pilot-whale kill, which involves taking a few hundred every year out of a population of more than 700,000 animals.
What’s important about this history, in the context of the mythology about Canadian West Coast environmentalism that informs two just-published books, is that although the Lofoteners and other Nordland peoples (and their distant Icelandic cousins) were whalers, they were also the first people on earth to directly confront the appalling practices of large-scale, high-seas industrial whaling. Such confrontations did not, in fact, begin with Greenpeace.
In the 1870s, when big-boat whalers first arrived on Norway’s north coast to hunt whales for corset stays, engine oil, soap, and buggy whips, the locals were not at all welcoming. Abundant whales were necessary to ensure healthy cod stocks, the northerners said. The whales were like shepherds, the locals insisted. They drove the cod towards the shore.
The whaling companies dismissed the locals’ claims, calling them silly backcountry superstitions, and by the early years of the 20th century the Nordlanders were rioting in the narrow streets of their northern fishing villages. Night after night, their fires burned. A whaling station was destroyed, and Norwegian army battalions were sent north to subdue the fishermen.
Norway ended up banning all large-scale whaling in northern waters in 1904. The ban lasted a decade, and was lifted only with strict rules prohibiting the killing of nordkapers (right whales), small blue whales, and whales with suckling calves. Due to similar protests, Iceland banned industrial-scale whaling in 1914, and limited large-scale commercial whaling was allowed to resume only in 1935.
Lofoten whalers are bold as bullocks and right saucy, but they’re honest enough to be clear about their own superstitions. A crow landing on a boat is a very bad thing. Seagulls are the souls of drowned men. Three flying in formation is an ill omen. You never use a clean harpoon line, and if it’s new you have to step all over it. There are certain kinds of cheese that you don’t allow on a whaleboat. You don’t even talk about cattle.
We’re all a bit strange in our ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s part of what it is to be human. It’s what culture is about. But if the cause of protecting the health of the planet’s vital ecosystem is used as a veil to impose our variously strange ideas about animals upon one another, then something quite different is going on.
Rex Weyler’s Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World and Bob Hunter’s The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey are texts that display, in wholly unintended ways, a North American equivalent of the old Norse myths about minke whales as cod shepherds and seagulls as drowned men. These are not simply books about protecting the planet’s ecosystems.
Hunter’s is a chronicle of his 1971 voyage to the Aleutian Islands aboard a chartered vessel that set out from Vancouver to protest the US government’s underground nuclear-bomb testing on Amchitka Island. It was the first Greenpeace media event. At the time, Winnipeg-born Hunter was a columnist for The Vancouver Sun. He would go on to become a Greenpeace president.
As an historical document, Hunter’s book has some value, not the least for its arcane argot. Upon finding near-unanimous support for their anti-bomb cause among the crew of a US coast-guard cutter, we get this: “The whole scene is so mind-blowing every day that it’s just … wow. … far out … I mean, either you can dig it, or you can’t. This’s a gas, man. Let’s all dig it.”
Presented with a 200-page, single-spaced manuscript of this kind of thing, without even the mercy of paragraph breaks, the great Canadian publisher Jack McClelland found that he didn’t especially dig it at all. McClelland asked Hunter to turn in a book with lots of photographs instead, and the less text, the better, so that’s what Hunter and photographer Robert Keziere gave him. More than 30 years later, Arsenal Pulp Press learned of the filed-away manuscript, and the result is a cleaned-up version of that unpublished book.
Weyler is an American draft dodger from Colorado who arrived in Vancouver in 1972 and quickly emerged as a Greenpeace stalwart and official photographer. He went on to co-found a fabulously successful New Age retreat centre, Hollyhock Farm on Cortes Island. Weyler’s book makes a lively contribution to the Greenpeace mythology; it is, how to put it, scripturally sound. The first 130 of its 600-plus pages are to Hunter’s chronicle what the Gospel of Matthew is to the Gospel of Mark.
Weyler’s book works very well as a diary of Vancouver’s “counterculture,” and its American expatriate community, during the 1970s. His story begins and ends in that especially embarrassing decade, and there are far too many detailed accounts of people reading the I Ching. But there are good stories here, too.
One of my favorites involves hippie lawyer and one-time Greenpeace president
Hamish Bruce. He had to be surreptitiously injected with the sedative stelazine
and hauled off the first Greenpeace anti-whaling boat because he was painting
his face green and staring into the horizon for hours on end
like a zombie, scaring the hell out of everybody. I especially like Bruce because he was the free lawyer the Salvation Army found for me when I was 15 and I’d been busted for stealing food out of boxcars in the rail yards behind Kelly Douglas on Kingsway in Burnaby. He got me a suspended sentence. How can I not like him?
There were many decent and honourable people involved in Greenpeace back then, and the myth that’s grown up around them is stirring: A group of young Vancouverites rise up against “the establishment” and challenge the world order; they head out into unknown seas to save whales from extinction; they sail into blast zones and bring nuclear-bomb tests to an end; and, of course, they change the world.
It’s a lovely story, but it doesn’t withstand much scrutiny.
Even back then, Greenpeace was championing the “establishment” view on the Amchitka tests, which was shared by the United Church, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, then-BC premier W.A.C. Bennett, and the Vancouver Real Estate Board. Greenpeace had little or no role in bringing Amchitka-type nuclear tests to an end. The US State Department, meanwhile, was quietly mobilizing world opinion against Soviet whaling long before Greenpeace arrived on the scene, and most high-seas whaling had been halted long before Greenpeace discovered that whaling was still going on.
To give them credit, the Greenpeace founders managed to reduce a whole range of ideas that were fast gaining ground into a single, wildly effectively brand name. They also displayed an uncanny talent for sound bites and front-page publicity, and they were masters at the art of constructing imagery suitable for television news. For his purposes, Weyler divides the early Greenpeace activists between “mystics and mechanics.”
But if there is any truth in the seminal observation of their own guru, media theorist Marshall McLuhan, that the medium is the message, then the mystics were really just mechanics after all. That might absolve them from the responsibilities of rigorous thought, planning, and the consideration of consequences. But it doesn’t allow the rest of us to ignore what actually happened in the real world.
Ill-advised animal-rights crusades spawned by early Greenpeace activism unnecessarily ruined indigenous economies, based on fur trapping, throughout the world’s boreal forests. Through the 1970s, Greenpeace vilified and demonized Newfoundlanders for engaging in a seal hunt that was, though ideal for gruesome television imagery, perfectly sustainable. We should forgive youthful indulgences, but long after we had all grown up, when the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island’s west coast were so impudent as to suggest in treaty negotiations that they might like to revive their whaling traditions, Hunter wrote this in a Georgia Straight article in 1999: “If the price of the Nuu-chah-nulth in achieving self-determination, for instance, is the enshrinement of their right to kill whales, then fuck ’em.”
Setting aside the strange comparisons Hunter made between whale-killing and throwing virgins off cliffs or burning people at the stake, his reasoning was upside down. If the price of ecological integrity is the submission of the world’s peoples to what is, by another name, cultural imperialism, then it’s the planet that’s going to get fucked. And it’s not just about whales, as officials with the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) know only too well.
The Greenpeace founders were astonishingly successful in marshalling media imagery to entrench cetacean fetishism among European and American cultures—among precisely those nation states, incidentally, that drove whales to the brink of extinction in the first place. Owing to the economic power of the US and the UK, CITES was forced to list perfectly healthy species of whales (over the objections of its secretariat), along with legitimately endangered species, on its banned list. This has severely eroded CITES’ credibility, especially in the world’s developing countries, where hundreds of animal species are mortally endangered.
To take Greenpeace seriously, one really has to begin in the mid-1980s, when most of the “visionaries” in Weyler’s account had already gone on to other things. To its great credit, Greenpeace has made furtive attempts at peace with whalers like the Lofoteners, and refused to engage in the 1999 media escapades in Juan de Fuca Strait, when the Makah people of Washington decided to have a go at killing a grey whale in the tradition of their forefathers. But in its many and real worldwide successes over the past 20 years, Greenpeace has struggled to distance itself from the obscurantist, Ouija-board philosophies celebrated in both Hunter’s chronicle and Weyler’s diary.
It might be argued that if there was any new idea that the founders of Greenpeace gave us, it came from a fundamentally American strain of utopianism that held the apotheosis of whales as an article of faith. But whatever it was that began in Vancouver in 1971, it wasn’t a concern for the environment, or a struggle to save endangered species. People had been concerned about these things for a long time.
When we think about the extinction of the great auk, it’s not likely that we will recall that Newfoundlanders waged a heroic struggle in the late 1770s to force Britain to restrain the slaughter, or that some of the pluckier residents of St. John’s publicly flogged Yankees caught plundering the birds’ eggs on Funk Island.
Even the buffalo had its champions. The story of the American government’s deliberate extirpation of the buffalo, aimed in part at the subjugation of the Plains tribes, is fairly well known. What is not so well known is that, in 1874, the US Congress adopted a law to prevent the “useless slaughter” of the buffalo, but that it was blocked by then-president Ulysses S. Grant. Across the Canadian West, game-protection societies were being established in the late 1800s to conserve a wide variety of species. Idaho was passing laws to protect buffalo, deer, elk, antelope and other animals as early as 1864. When the buffalo’s extinction appeared imminent, Montana made the killing of buffalo a felony offense, punishable by a two-year prison term.
During the late 1880s, more than 50,000 North Americans—mainly children—signed pledges to refrain from killing wild birds, and the early conservation movement touched off the same kinds of social division, high drama and political intrigue that marked the great labour struggles of the 1930s and the civil-rights movement of the early 1960s.
Even the story of the passenger pigeon, which is so often told as a simple tale of barbaric stupidity, is not a story without its heroes: Hundreds of volunteers harried pigeon hunters during the 1880s, and the great H.B. Roney and his followers skirmished with roving gangs of hunters across the Midwest. After Audubon Society warden Guy Bradley was martyred protecting birds in Florida in 1905, North America’s conservation movement flowered, saving dozens of species from what would have been certain extinction.
But these things are part of a rather more panoramic view than we should reasonably expect of these two books. Hunter’s chronicle is just the story of one voyage, after all, and when Weyler steps outside his role of diarist-to-the-founding-Greenpeace-celebrities, he tends to make claims that are, at best, a bit dodgy.
For example, he refers to a certain John Lilly as a “legendary whale scientist,” without mentioning that Lilly, who was responsible for popularizing spurious notions about special cetacean intelligence that are still widely accepted, spent much of his career experimenting with LSD and sensory deprivation chambers to test his theories about out-of-body experiences and communication with extraterrestrials.
Weyler also reports, as fact, that in 1976, Soviet spies were found to have secretly planted a “nuclear warhead” in the waters of Boundary Bay, near Crescent Beach. One might have forgiven some hippie kid for believing this sort of thing back in the days when chemical hallucinogens were making everybody paranoid. But Weyler should know better.
I don’t mean to be uncharitable, but we can all protest that we are “citizens of the earth” as much as we want. The fact remains that we are products of our environment, our history, and our culture, and we would do well to be as clear about our superstitions as the Lofoten whalers are. We should be mindful about where our cultural eccentricities end, and the more important matter of what’s best for the planet begins. At the very least, we should be allowed to discern wanton slaughter from the sustainable harvest of animals, truth from propaganda, and history from hagiography.
It’s never easy to let go of the comfortable pieties that have sustained us since we were children. But we have to try. It’s what it means to be a grown-up. I didn’t like letting go of my own pieties about whales, but I can report that I found some consolation in the discovery that minke whale is lean and delicious, a bit like venison, a bit like filet mignon, and not at all fishy as I’d expected. During my stay on Moskenesøy, and later after I hitched a ride with Hallvard Bendiksen on the Malnesfjord to the more distant island of Skrova, I just couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
I tried it every way imaginable—roasted, fried and baked. In the end I decided I liked it best raw, with a little wasabi and soy sauce.
Copyright © Terry Glavin, 2004