By Miranda Schiller @
How to Change the World looks back on the early days of Greenpeace, when the organisation was a small, motley crew of environmental activists from Vancouver. With a keen eye for opportunities to generate media attention, they brought a common cause to the emerging environmental movement: thousands of people joined the call to “save the whales”. But the original group itself fell apart to give way to what would become the global organisation that Greenpeace is today. Based largely on a wealth of archive video and in-depth interviews with everyone involved, even those who don’t talk to each other any more, it gives detailed and balanced insight into what could be called the birth of the modern environmental movement.
Greenpeace’s first stunts, shipborne protests against nuclear tests and factory whaling, were already well thought-through media events. Unlikely as it seems watching the group of likeable dreamers board their ship in psychedelic shirts and scraggy beards, consulting the I Ching for difficult decisions, they knew how to play the media. They dedicate a lot of thought to capturing iconic images of their campaign, and stay very much in touch with their representation on the news even when miles away from land. In the words of the late Bob Hunter, leader of the early campaigns, they want to plant a mind bomb – achieve what we might call “going viral” today, albeit in a much more innocently optimistic and idealist way than we are used to in today’s world of myriad competitors for the short attention spans of the media.
However, the revolution inevitably devours its children. Despite their obvious media skills, they were not quite prepared for the scale of their success. The name Greenpeace became first an umbrella term for local environmental groups all over North America, Europe and Australia, then an international charity. By that time, most of its founders had quit, unable to console their desire for a non-hierarchical organisation with their goal of maximum outreach and effect. Not to mention the stress and tension of being stuck in a confined space with each other, egos competing, ideals clashing.
The film makes a welcome effort to include all the divergent opinions on the divisive issues of the time, such as Paul Watson’s solo decision to sabotage seal hunting and confront the local population who saw their livelihood threatened, and the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of non-violent “bearing witness” vs the destruction of property as part of direct action. But it remains stuck firmly in the past. It fails to challenge assumptions from a contemporary perspective, such as the questionable habit of a bunch of white Canadian men to publicly speak “in the name of the children of Africa and of South America” or the casual appropriation of Native American symbolism. It dwells on a nostalgic reminiscence for a time when it was easier to gain and retain media attention, when it was easier to make an impact and ends up having to implicitly admit that it has no clue “how to change the world” these days.
It does not even spend any time on the founding members’ view of what Greenpeace has become today – although especially Paul Watson is known for elaborately voicing his views of the organisation’s alleged ineffectiveness and money-collecting and has chosen the more radical route of sinking whaling ships with his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which he founded after leaving Greenpeace. Patrick Moore, the third of the leading trio, has turned around and is a prominent climate change denier and corporate consultant – while clearly not uncritical of his stance, the film respectfully listens to his side of the story and leaves it to the viewer to judge.
The film’s indecisiveness however makes it seem like a documentation of a historic event more than the manifesto for change its title and narrative style suggests it would like to be. Albeit a very well-presented one. The archive video reveals the excitement and the upheaval of the time, the visual and editorial quality is impressive and it conveys both the specific atmosphere of these ventures and the universal theme of human collaboration ending in personal tragedies in a captivating way.
Although a lost opportunity to connect the history to current challenges, How to Change the World is an inspiring reminder of what dedication and commitment to a cause can achieve in terms of actually changing the world.
How to Change the World is out now.