It Took a Village of Hippies: the Founding of Greenpeace

The Happy Lunatics. Photo courtesy of Michael Kidder.

A great deal has been written about the beginnings of Greenpeace. The running gag being that you can find a founder in every bar in Vancouver.  I would posit: that is not far from the truth.  Without the strength of the counterculture in Vancouver and the various communities of activists engaged in numerous causes coalescing around a common purpose that year; it might never have happened.

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  The San Francisco Diggers were wrong in 1967: the hippies were not dead; they had just vacated Haight Ashbury.  Bob Hunter put it thusly, “In Vancouver, in 1971, we have the biggest concentration of tree huggers, draft dodgers, shit disturbing unionists, radical students, garbage dump stoppers, freeway fighters, pot smokers, vegetarians, nudists, Buddhists, fish preservationists and back-to-the-landers on the planet. And we are all haunted by the specter of a dead world.”

There were pockets of hippies across the city and all over the province.  Kitsilano may have been the core community with its head shops and organic food stores; but it was just ‘downtown’.  Any city neighbourhood with cheapish rental housing was infested and parts of the interior like the Slocan Valley had been pretty much overrun.  Critically, there was a sufficient mass to create a sense of community.  And while there is always some risk that once any group of like-minded humans reaches that critical mass it may become dangerously insular; let’s face it, that sense that you are part of something much larger than yourself, “A cog in something turning” as Joni Mitchell had put it, is a potent elixir.

In 1971 Alvin Lee sang, “I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.”  Nor did we, so we just tried stuff.

Rod Marining led the charge to block an execrable development at the entrance to our beloved Stanley Park; and All Seasons Park was born.  Ken and Eric get the credit for organizing the Grasstown Smoke In, and the resulting infamous Gastown Riot was eventually officially declared police created.  There were regular protests against the Vietnam War and atomic weapons, and for civil rights.  A rapidly expanding awareness of ecological concerns led to a massive turnout for the first Earth Day in 1970, and even more showed up in 1971.  All of these issues were contentious and The Vancouver Police Department could not be considered, in any way, to be non-confrontational.  Many of us contributed a little blood to the revolution.

On the brighter side:  Musicians and dancers, artists in all disciplines, were exploding with creativity.  Paul Horn was playing his flute for the orcas; gatherings, in one form or another, were rampant. The Vancouver Parks Board looked the other way as we dragged flat-decks and gear into Stanely Park for the annual Easter Be-In.  There were rock and folk festivals, pleasure fairs and block parties.  The sheer joy of openly interacting with fellow travelers on the path to, what we thought to be, a more enlightened world was borderline orgasmic.

Cool Aid ran shelters and Feed Ins; there were food coops, the beginnings of recycling centers and free ‘hip’ medical clinics.  Ray did his lawyerly stuff.  The Window Project, ‘The United Way for Hippies’ directly supported all the above activities.  We filled in whatever gaps we could, wherever we could.  We had the advantage of including a few members of, The Company of Young Canadians, who were really good at getting government grants; ‘suckling at the great federal sugar tit,’ and were skilled community organizers.

We also offered medical services and ‘freak out’ counseling (No talking down; just up, around or through.) at concerts and events with The Now Bus, Lyle Thurston was our doctor of record.  Lyle, as a young medical student, had been involved in LSD experiments in the early fifties in Weyburn Saskatchewan.  At one point we figured out that, given the date, it was within the realm of possibility that he was tripping on the day of my birth.

The larger community had established Rainbow City Hall directly across the street from the offices of our wanna-be-fascist little shit of a mayor, Tom Campbell.  He, correctly, interpreted that as a large middle finger pointed in his direction and, not amused, tried to declare the War Measures Act, (a Canadian Federal Emergency provision for fighting armed insurrectionists), to smash the hippies he so reviled and feared.

None of these things occurred in a vacuum.  Rod was not alone at the park, supporters quickly appeared and made camp; Cool Aid supplied food which we delivered.  Ken and Eric didn’t face off against the VPD riot squad on their own in Gastown; thousands turned out to peacefully demonstrate for rational drug laws, and were attacked for their insolence.  None of us could do our work without the support of numerous other groups; we all relied on each other to facilitate progress.

Through it all Bob Hunter, the journalist, was a constant presence; he had been writing about the peace and ecological movements in The Vancouver Sun for some time.  It was only in the last year that he, somewhat reluctantly, had become the de facto spiritual leader of Greenpeace.  Even has he rose to fill that role, in later voyages his self-appointed task as Latrine Officer said a great deal about his attitude towards being considered The Man, and in charge.

When the idea of a benefit concert for Greenpeace came up, Bill Henderson of the band Chilliwack stepped up immediately.  Irving Stowe got hold of Joan Baez, she couldn’t make it, but she supplied a contact to Joni Mitchell, and her connections helped bring in Phil Ochs and James Taylor.  The sound company I had started working with volunteered to supply the gear.  It quickly became a community event; a common cause for a common good that encompassed pretty much all the movements’ various aspirations.  It was, even without the underlying reasons, a delightful and inspiring night of music.

Fifty years ago today, as I watched Bob and Lyle, Rod joined up later, and the rest of the band of happy lunatics climb aboard The Greenpeace to venture out to park themselves in an atomic bomb test zone in Amchitka; I swelled with something… love, pride, communion?

We were doing this.  The individuals aboard that somewhat ramshackle boat were not heroes, they were just people doing their part, with the skills they had, to confront one of the many wrongs in the world; as was their human duty.  Ultimately it was the collective efforts of many hearts and minds that put them there, and then sailed with them.

The Greenpeace never got to Amchitka but Bob’s ‘mind bomb’ worked pretty much as he thought it would.  A student of Marshall McLuhan’s writings he understood the power of the media and was prepared to shamelessly exploit it.  By exercising their right to futility, awareness of nuclear testing was raised globally; even Richard Nixon and the US Military were forced to acknowledge that their activities had an impact.  Further campaigns against the sealing and whaling industries, still based on the delightfully simple Quaker tactic: ‘bear witness and get in the way’ (and then add a modern twist; release the footage) garnered worldwide attention and support.  Greenpeace, the behemoth, was born.

But, on the pier that day, September 15th 1971
They also served who only stood and waved.
We, the hippies of Vancouver founded Greenpeace; all of us.

‘The Kid’.