When I considered doing an article on the iconic Greenpeace movement which started much of our environmental activism, I thought it would be an intellectual and historical project. But, my 92-year old Aunt Polly informed that my Green-ness runs in the family, that Greenpeace is just a cousin away and that includes one of the movement’s matriarchs.
Aunt Polly launched into an explanation of the family ties through her husband, my Uncle Erwin Strasmich. Uncle Erwin’s cousin, Irving Strasmich, was one of the founding members of Greenpeace. Aunt Polly described moving to Providence, Rhode Island, decades ago when she married Erwin. Irving Strasmich, a Yale-educated lawyer, was already an activist, well known in the city. Everyone knew Irving from government officials down to the janitors. There was a frequent confusing of Erwin and Irving. No doubt, that confusion was resolved when Irving changed his last name to Stowe and he and his wife, Dorothy, helped create Greenpeace.
Born into the Jewish community, Irving and his wife, Dorothy, set out on a different path than most. Originally, both were Jewish but they became Quakers in 1953. Dorothy and I chatted by phone about those early days. “My mother-in-law was president of the women’s auxiliary of the local congregation. My parents were more secular, although they observed the Jewish holidays,” explains Dorothy Stowe. Concerned about nuclear weapons and protecting their son from the draft during the Vietnam War, the Stowes moved to New Zealand and then to Vancouver, Canada. “We thought there might be a chance of survival if there was a holocaust in the northern hemisphere, and. . . we really didn’t want our children subjected to the terror of bomb drills.”
Irving Stowe passed away some years ago, but his widow and I talked about the early days of Greenpeace. Dorothy, 87 years old when we talked, and remains gracious and engaged. The whole thing started at my house with my husband and another couple who were also Quakers. Our house was a hub of political activity. We were involved in anti-war activity. Lots of meetings going on, a lot of different issues that affect people’s lives. Quakers believe that killing people never solved anything. Dorothy continues to entertain visiting Quakers and Greenpeace friends in her Vancouver home. “Last August, we had the 30 member crew of the Esperanza over. The Esperanza was the name of the original boat that sailed to the Aleutian Island of Amchitka which was the proposed testing site by the United States of a 1.2 megaton nuclear bomb. Not only was the 1.2 megaton nuclear bomb detonated, there was a later test of a 5-ton nuclear bomb at Amchitka.”
The Greenpeace movement was born and solidified in the protests that followed. Dorothy’s favorite memory is the Greenpeace Benefit Concert which raised $18,000 to charter the Esperanza to sail to Amchitka and protest. Joni Mitchell, Phil Oaks and James Taylor participated in the concert and they helped make the trip possible. Vancouver is the closest major city to Amchitka and I asked her if she had gone on the original trip to Amchitka in 1969. “Oh, no! The captain wouldn’t take women. He was an old fisherman and superstitious. He named the boat after a woman, but no women were allowed on it.”
Dorothy gave speeches while the Esperanza was away and helped raise money. ”We started fundraising by selling Greenpeace buttons for $2.00 on a street corner.” They only had enough money to buy about 100 buttons at a time. The whole family stood on the corner along with friends Jim and Marie Bolen. Reminiscing about that time, Dorothy described the scene, “There were 4 corners in downtown Vancouver intersection. Greenpeace had one corner and a second corner was taken up the by the Hari Krishnas. A third corner had a silent anti-war (Vietnam) rally.”
There is considerable documentation of Greenpeace both at the time and in retrospect. Irving Stowe himself wrote prolifically. Dorothy talked about his time at the underground newspaper called Georgia Straight which began as a hippy newspaper in the sixties in Vancouver. Georgia Straight still exists; they give away free copies on the street. Irving’s column, Greenpeace is Beautiful, was one of the first times the word ‘Greenpeace’ appeared in print.
After reading his work, I watched television with new eyes as a small ferry-like boat recently took on a whaling ship and a refueling tanker about 20 stories high. I was transfixed by the televised video of this small boat, the Esperanza, taking on a Japanese whaler. Stating a need to kill 1,000 whales for research, the Japanese government had sent out the largest ship in its whaling fleet. Greenpeace tracked it across the ocean. Running out of gas, the Esperanza prepared to head home while the Japanese ship gets to refuel from an approaching Japanese tanker. The Esperanza made a last ditch effort to hinder the whaling operation. The Esperanza looked like a tug boat next to these behemoth ships, and the maneuver got even trickier. Leaving the Esperanza for a large rubber raft, the Greenpeace folks positioned themselves between the tanker and whaling vessel. The two ships couldn’t refuel without crushing the raft. They bombarded the raft and its occupants with fire hoses, eventually shifting it out from between them. The Esperanza departed; leaving only a ship sent by the Australian government to continue the protest and prevent the slaughter.
I’m amazed at this risky intervention at sea. Having grown up on island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, my love, fear and awe of the sea are deeply embedded. I’ve seen marches, boycotts, picket lines and even riots and was even involved in a few despite the risks. This breathtaking disregard for life and limb at sea is completely alien to me. I’m mesmerized by the TV interviews the crew members about the experience.
An incredible passion fueled the movement that now reaches corporations, governments and universities. I’m determined to learn more. Dorothy Stowe suggested that there have been many stories about Greenpeace, but some don’t reflect all the facts. She referred me to Rex Wyler as the most accurate book on the movement’s beginnings. If readers have an interest in learning more about Greenpeace, its beginnings and its spread as an international movement, they can also read Rex Wyler’s excellent article on the web, “Waves of Compassion: The Founding of Greenpeace”. In the article, Wyler sites one of the early billboards we should all keep in mind, ‘Ecology. Look it up. You’re involved.’
(c) 2014… Deborah J. Levine