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The Founders of Greenpeace

Background - 29 October, 2008
There's a joke that in any bar in Vancouver, Canada, you can sit down next to someone who claims to have founded Greenpeace. In fact, there was no single founder: name, idea, spirit and tactics can all be said to have separate lineages. Yet, some people clearly stand out. Here are four of them.

Don't Make a Wave Committee members and Greenpeace founders (from left) Jim Bohlen, Paul Cote, and Irving Stowe.

Bob Hunter


He was a relentless visionary and a mystic storyteller – the Canadian Bob Hunter infused the young Greenpeace with a magic that lasts to the present day.

From day one, the long-haired, beardy journalist, who introduced the Cree Indian myth of the “Warriors of the Rainbow”, forced those around him to think big – and then go one step further. For Hunter, the limits of the practical or the probable didn’t count: Nothing was ever impossible.

Combining creativity with strategic thinking and a hard-nosed journalistic sense for a good story, he helped to shape – perhaps like no other founding member – what would come be known, around the world, as a “Greenpeace action”.

Fascinated by media theory, the often audacious Hunter wanted to change the world with “media mindbombs” – consciousness-changing sounds and images that would blast around the world in the guise of news. The approach worked brilliantly. Greenpeace quickly became a media household name around the world.

Hunter’s spirit of courage, defiance and media-savviness continues to define Greenpeace up to the present day. The organisation he co-founded and shaped in a way few others have, will always be blessed with his spirit.

Bob Hunter died of prostate cancer on 2 May 2005, aged 63.

David McTaggart


He was pragmatic, driven and famously ruthless – David McTaggart took Greenpeace’s free-spirited founding ethos and translated it into an international organisation.

Responding to a newspaper ad placed by a newly-founded group called Greenpeace, the Canadian-born former entrepreneur promptly renamed his sailing boat “Greenpeace III” and set sail to confront a French nuclear weapon test.

It was what would become known as “classic Greenpeace” – a tiny boat challenged one of the greatest military forces on Earth.

McTaggart’s pragmatism and shamelessly entrepreneurial approach built the organisation Greenpeace. Soon after joining, he began drumming up new support throughout Europe, and in 1979 forged a new international alliance, uniting the organisation’s separate factions: Greenpeace International was born.

The founding ethos has been framed long before McTaggart came on board, but the relentless Canadian defined the growing movement’s structure and its methods like no other. By 1985 the organisation that started life on a small fishing boat had three ships and 50 campaigns around the world.

Today, Greenpeace’s integrated structure means that global problems can be addressed at a global level. The foundations for this were laid by the man who sailed off on a whim – only to end up dedicating his entire life to environmental issues.

David McTaggart died in a car accident on 23 March 2001 near his home in Italy.

Dorothy Stowe


Irving Stowe


As committed pacifists and life-long activists, Dorothy and Irving Stowe didn’t have to think twice when the idea came up to sail a boat into a nuclear test zone.

Their tolerance united the Don’t Make A Wave Committee that discussed the plan; their experience inspired it. Their peaceful, committed spirit became the group’s. And that group became Greenpeace.

“It is amazing,” Dorothy Stowe would later recall, “what a few people sitting around their kitchen table can achieve.” It was here that the disarmament movement got to know its nascent ecology counterpart – and it was the charismatic Quaker couple that hosted the meetings that held the loose, often disparate alliance of dreamers together.

The Stowes brought ideas to the table that would become an essential part of the Greenpeace founding ethos. “Bearing witness”, they explained to the group, was a sort of passive resistance: You go to the scene of an objectionable activity to register your opposition by your presence.

From the example of Gandhi, the Stowes believed that citizens acting with integrity and courage could defeat powerful forces. To this day, Greenpeace is “bearing witness” and “speaking truth to power”.

Irving Stowe died of pancreatic cancer on 28 October 1974, aged 59 – only two years after Greenpeace was founded. After a life dedicated to campaigning for civil rights, women’s rights and the environment, Dorothy passed away on 23 July 2010 in Vancouver, Canada, at the age of 89.

The Don't Make A Wave Committee

In 1970, the Don't Make A Wave Committee was established; its sole objective was to stop a second nuclear weapons test at Amchitka Island in the Aleutians.

The committee's founders were Dorothy and Irving Stowe, Marie and Jim Bohlen, Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe, and Bob Hunter. It's first directors were Stowe, Bohlen, and a student named Paul Cote.

Canadian ecologist Bill Darnell came up with the dynamic combination of words to bind together the group's concern for the planet and opposition to nuclear arms.  In the words of Bob Hunter, "Somebody flashed two fingers as we were leaving the church basement and said "Peace!" Bill said"Let's make it a Green Peace.  And we all went Ommmmmmmm." Jim Bohlen's son Paul, having trouble making the two words fit on a button, linked them together into the committee's new name: Greenpeace.

Marie Bohlen was the first to suggest taking a ship up to Amchtka to oppose the U.S. plans. The group organised a boat, the Phyllis Cormack, and set sail to Amchitka to "bear witness" (a Quaker tradition of silent protest) to the nuclear test. On board were:

Captain John Cormack, the boat's owner
Jim Bohlen, Greenpeace
Bill Darnell, Greenpeace
Patrick Moore, Greenpeace
Dr Lyle Thurston, medical practitioner
Dave Birmingham, engineer
Terry Simmons, cultural geographer
Richard Fineberg, political science teacher
Robert Hunter, journalist
Ben Metcalfe, journalist
Bob Cummings, journalist
Bob Keziere, photographer

Stowe, who suffered from sea-sickness, stayed on shore to coordinate political pressure. Cote stayed behind too, because he was about to represent Canada in an Olympic sailing race.

Bob Hunter would take the lessons of that first voyage forward and improvise upon them to the point that he, more than anyone else, invented Greenpeace's brand of individual activism.

The Amchitka voyage established the group's name in Canada. Greenpeace's next journey spread their reputation across the world.

Additional Reading:

For more information on the founders and the first ten years of Greenpeace we refer to the book "Greenpeace: The Inside Story: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World" by Rex Weyler.