The year was 1971. Three Dog Nights’ “Joy to the World” became RPM’s top chart hit alongside The Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman”. Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister and James Smith was Commissioner of the Yukon.
Smith was instrumental in creating the Kluane National Park and Reserves and designating the Chilkoot Trail as a National Historic Site of Canada. Smith also teamed up with Alaskan Governor Walter Joseph Hickel and NWT Commissioner Stuart Hodgson to create the Arctic Winter Games.
Also in that year, the tectonically unstable volcanic Alaskan island of Amchitka was chosen by the United States Atomic Energy Islands Campaign to be the site of the largest underground nuclear detonation (five megatons) ever conducted in North America.
Jerry Rotwell’s riveting new feature documentary, How to Change the World, tells the story of the ragtag crew of Canadian peaceniks who activated their revolutionary spirits, sailing out to meet the nuclear blast head-on in order to stop it. Their vessel’s name was Phyllis Cormack; their mission was called Green Peace.
The somewhat reluctant leader of this expedition was a Vancouver-based journalist and environmental activist named Bob Hunter, who had stood on the steps of his high school a few years earlier and burned his college acceptance letter, vowing instead to set out and change the world.
Hunter was joined by a 23-year-old PhD candidate, a 19-year-old sailor, a draft-dodging photographer and a handful of elder ‘eco-freaks’ who would guide them with their Quaker-influenced political wisdom.
Inspired by the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, this motley group of eco-minded activists channeled the energy and spirit of that previous decade into a vision of peace and love for the environment: Peace became green.
How to Change the World is less a history of Greenpeace (as it has since been named) than a powerful story about a small group of individuals who believed they could change the word – and then set out to do so.
The film brilliantly depicts how this group harnessed the power of images to draw international attention to their cause, predicting the rise of the viral meme with what Hunter dubbed “media mind bombs”.
The film skillfully intercuts present-day interviews with stunning archival footage, not only of early (and very dangerous) Greenpeace missions, but of the music, clothing, beards and revolutionary vibe of Vancouver during the early 1970s.
It’s sometimes hard to believe that a city now known primarily for its over-priced condos was once such a fertile ground for world-changing activism.
Along with the triumphs, the film also chronicles the sadly inevitable fracturing of this core group, as the unexpected rapid growth of the organization they launched strained the already fractious relationships among its founding members.
Ego and conflicting ideologies, combined with increasing international scrutiny of their efforts, led to infighting, a hostile takeover, and the creation of the more radical Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Nonetheless, Greenpeace lives on as an enormously influential international entity, arguably the most effective environmental organization ever.
Global behemoth that Greenpeace now is, this film reminds us that it all started with a bunch of idealistic freaks who wanted to make a difference. And they did.
How to Change the World screens during the Yukon Film Society’s Available Light Cinema on October 25 at the Yukon Arts Centre, beginning at 5:30 p.m.