A new award-winning documentary traces the founding and development of Greenpeace, arguably the most-famous and most-powerful ecological movement in the world. Featuring never-seen-before archive footage, “How To Change The World” not only depicts the birth of the group, but also one of the first examples of digital activism, and the raw power of viral media.
It’s 15 September, 1971, and a tiny fishing boat is sailing determinedly into US nuclear testing grounds, toward the Alaskan island of Amchitka. A small group of men from Canada are trying to stop an atomic bomb being detonated under the earth. It’s 12 men in a little boat versus the military forces of the USA. They’re unsuccessful, the bomb goes off, but nonetheless their achievement is huge. Someone on the boat had a camera, and by the time they get back home, images of their protest have been met with sympathy and support around the globe. And with that, the most famous ecological movement on the planet was born.
Their second big protest – against Russian whale hunters – got even more people talking. Forty-year-old, grainy footage shows three bearded men in cable-knit sweaters on a tiny speedboat, skidding over the waves, with a huge Russian whaling ship bearing down on them. Again, armed only with their cameras and their faith in the power of images, they desperately race across the water, placing themselves between the whale target and the giant Russian harpoon. The harpoon is fired, and flies through the air just above their heads. Again, the images go around the world.
Mindbombing the Masses
From the very beginning, before Greenpeace even had a name, they already possessed a very prescient understanding of the power of images. Their tactics were deliberate, the events almost theatrical, and often more important than the protest itself was the footage of it. Bob Hunter, one of the group’s key members, and central to the documentary, called these images “mindbombs”: they were intended to play in a certain way in people’s minds, and metaphorically “blow up”, sending out shockwaves and ultimately leading to action and environmental change.
These so-called mindbombs were the 1970s equivalent of the viral video, and they soon gained Greenpeace fame and notoriety. But in a modern world saturated with appalling images, where things like videos of live executions and photos of dead bodies are freely viewed and shared on social media by people over breakfast, the power of the mindbomb – while still a crucial tactic – has faded. Greenpeace has resorted to other means of raising awareness and inspiring people to action, channeling money into investigation budgets instead in an attempt to expose the truth behind the actions of companies and politicians.
While the environmental crisis is an even more pressing issue than it was back in 1971, in some parts of the world it is – paradoxically – being met with more apathy than ever before. And although Greenpeace is still much celebrated, it’s also demonised in equal measure. This film offers us a unique look at the story behind the world’s most famous ecological campaign group and a reminder that when it comes to making change in the world, a camera is more powerful than any weapon could ever be.
“How to Change The World” is released in the US and the UK today.