Pete Wilkinson Co-Founder of Greenpeace Talks About His Life
I imagine that nearly everyone has heard of Greenpeace. It is one of the most famous non-governmental organizations in the world and it is renowned for activist protests to protect the environment. I did not genuinely know much about the organisation until the other day a librarian at Edinburgh Central Library told me I should go along to the Edinburgh Reads event as one of the founders of Greenpeace was going to be talking.
Two reasons compelled me to go along. One – that our libraries are very special places and should be as well used as possible, lest we lose all of them in the cull happening across the country (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/12/library-campaigners-1000-closures-2016); the second is that I am concerned about our environment and it is always worth finding out more about how the organisations which occupy your landscape started.
Going along I scrambled into the main reference hall where a bustling room of people had gathered. Luckily I had managed to get an odd seat at the front and I brought along my Zoom H4N handycorder to record this podcast:
Pete Wilkinson started the story of how he was a lorry driver in Deptford who cared about the environment and how he had been attending Friends of the Earth but had met a glass ceiling there as it was very much an ‘old boys and girls network’. He wanted to be a bigger part of the organisational side of campaigning against environmental travesties but found that he was bizarrely lacking a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. This was his reason for joining a few people who were starting Greenpeace. Here is an excerpt from his book dealing with this ingroup/outgroup social phenomenon which has to be addressed if collective problems are to be successfully met:
“It was 1975. I had stuck with Friends of the Earth for five years. It had certainly been a period of steep learning for me and an education that would stand me in good stead for the future. Friends of the Earth had grown from a small band of four people, working out of a borrowed office in Covent Garden, to a well-established and respected environmental organisation running well-organised campaigns on issues as diverse as nuclear power to land use, working from a well-appointed but modest office in the middle of Soho. It was growing in stature and was attracting a broad range of experts who supported its aims and contributed to the intellectual mass. But it wasn’t for me.
The fact was that Friends of the Earth was a club for Oxbridge types, for those with clipped accents and/or aspirations of grander things. There was a marked absence of glottlestops around the office and the fact that I was a working class boy from Deptford left me at a disadvantage in that I was given no sustained campaign responsibilities and I felt that any natural talent I had for campaigning would never be given a chance to flourish and grow in this claustrophobic atmosphere. I think working at FoE forced me into a peculiar social niche, one from which I have never really escaped. While I was in genuine awe of people like Graham Searle, whose erudition and articulation I envied, I was also scathing of what I saw as the Oxbridge approach to the environmental issues we were addressing.
Graham could strip the wallpaper with a well-chosen volley in defence of a particular point of view, but he did this in the manner of an Oxford Debating Society evening (or what I imagined one of those was like): it was all very wordy and gentlemanly, even if the venom with which his argument was delivered had to be seen to be believed. At the same time, my ire was turned on the ‘working class’ society from where I came. I had changed during my time hanging around with the FoE academics. Now I was not at home with my working class peers – too narrow and limited in their horizons, not sympathetic at all to my campaigning zeal – but neither was I happy to identify with my FoE colleagues – too snooty and not grounded in the real world of labouring and lorry driving. It is a cleft stick from which I have never really escaped”
Wilkinson P. (2014). From deptford to antarctica : the long way home. Fledgling Press. Page 102
He has recently written a book so that he can pass on his life story to his children and others. It sounds like he has had a very interesting life being involved in the instrumental campaigns which challenged attitudes about things like nuclear testing in the pacific ocean, hunting of seal pups for fur, the pollution of the Antarctic, whale hunting and ‘one-trip-packaging’.
I am glad that I went along to hear him talk as it put in context how much intellectual work he and others put into each campaign, delivering not just criticism and obstruction to damaging practices but also offering packages of alternative practices. It brought into sharp relief the fearless lengths they were prepared to go to to make their points.
The famous boat ‘Rainbow Warrior’ was captained by Mike to lots of destinations to disrupt whaling vessels and disturb the program of nuclear detonations being let off under the oceans. At the time Greenpeace had become such a threat to the French government that they send out a team of French intelligence officers to sink the ship.
Interestingly this created more publicity than ever before and sympathy donations flooded in from across the world. The French government was then charged with piracy which led to them abandoning their nuclear testing program.
Wilkinson describes many of his victories in the field as Pyrrhic, but I wonder if they truly were. The work which he did has inspired countless numbers of people to think more and integrate environmental concerns into their lives. They have forced issues when they needed forced, and it seems that Pete Wilkinson has been appointed as the Director of Nuclear Information Service.
Considering the decimation that industry and our careless consumption habit has wrecked on the biosystems of the world, I feel that it has been all too easy to label such dedicated people like Mike as ‘radicals’, ‘loonies’, ‘anarchists’ – some of the idiotic labels I have seen used to marginalise environmental activists. Yes people like him have done things that are not entirely safe in regards to their own lives, but I wonder how it pans out when we see the sheer depth of the damage that is coming from careless money-grubbing.
The number of deaths which are caused by the pollution of cars and combustion engine vehicles is on the steady increase (http://www.nhs.uk/news/2012/04april/Pages/air-pollution-exhaust-death-estimates.aspx). It also causes people to develop asthma (http://www.environmental-protection.org.uk/committees/air-quality/about-air-pollution/air-pollution-and-health/). This is only the tip of the iceberg when we consider that this is only the attention paid to our own narcissistic welfare.
The development of roads is destroying so much of our countryside and effectively waterproofing the earth’s surface with tarmac. The environmental consequences of thoughtless consumption of transport – i.e. everyone owning a car – are harrowing and very, very obvious. Not only this but the motor vehicle is displacing human activities such as walking, meeting people, and play areas.
I am reminded of being told how environmental ‘radicals, loonies and anarchists’ have not thought things through by a guy who had developed diabetes from eating processed food and sitting in a chair all day every day. Im afraid he was a fat computer programmer who loved buying gadgets and spending money for mindless pleasure. To him, an urbanite who had near antipathy to anything that was not steam cleanable or submersible in antiseptic.
The point that I am trying to make is that the worrying characters are the people who do nothing – or even worse – the ones who pursue their confirmation bias and attack the idea of trying to make a positive difference so that our actions are less wasteful and polluting.
My feeling is that we desperately need people like Mike Wilkinson to shake us free from our 20th century malaise and start clawing back responsibility for our actions. Otherwise it is a situation where we are stealing from the futures of children – all of them – and inflict what amounts to genocide on countless number of species
[State of Nature report: www.nature.scot/sites/default/files/2019-10/State-of-nature-Report-2019-Scotland-full-report.pdf].
I asked him what can we do in our own lives ? Do we give up hot drinks ? What ? I mentioned giving up hot drinks because it creates so much energy to boil a kettle for one cup of tea or coffee; also it takes 20 tonnes of water to make a kilo of coffee… What he said was organise yourself; if you want to try and make a difference, think about your campaign, make a plan and act on it.
Alternatively, he said that one of the best things we can do is become vegetarian as breeding and eating animals such as we are is not sustainable for the planet. Very inspiring stuff. Now I need to think about the way I live to work out what I can change.