Interview: Emily Hunter on the Modern Green Movement and How To Change The World

How did the green movement start and where is it headed? DeSmog UK previewed the new documentary How To Change The World, which depicts a group of idealistic hippies ready to take on the world. In this long-read we speak with Emily Hunter,  environmental activist and daughter of 'eco-hero' Robert Hunter, about today's environmental activism.

As Richard Nixon announced plans to test nuclear bombs in Alaskan waters in the midst of the Vietnam War, Bob Hunter stood on the steps of his high school, burning his college acceptance letter and choosing, instead, to “set off to change the world”.

So begins the film How To Change The World, which tells the story of the young activists who set sail from Vancouver, Canada in 1971 in an old fishing boat to stop the atomic bomb tests, and who would quickly evolve into a passionate and courageous group devoted to saving the whales.

This was the start of the modern environmental movement and the formation of a now global organisation known as Greenpeace.

Written and directed by Jerry Rothwell, the documentary is based on the late Bob Hunter’s writings and chronicles his journey as the leading force behind the group. Kodachrome footage from the time features throughout the film, interspersed with interviews with Greenpeace’s founding members, capturing the highs and lows of their early eco-activism: the struggles and rewards that come with creating a global movement.


Bob Hunter aboard the Greenpeace ship in the 1970s. Photo: Greenpeace


The group of young activists. Photo: Greenpeace

Hunter, who began as a journalist, understood the importance of images in awakening people’s consciousness to the issues facing our world. What we would now call ‘going viral’ Hunter coined as ‘mind bombs’ – messages that resonate around the world.

From Russian whaling harpoons flying over the activists floating in inflatable zodiacs to seal pups being clubbed to death in Newfoundland, the startling and sometimes graphic images give the audience a sense of what it means to ‘bear witness’.

Today, Greenpeace has returned to Alaska in an effort to stop Shell drilling for Arctic oil. Saving the whales is also on the agenda as the NGO seeks to raise awareness of the impacts of seismic testing for oil reserves on Arctic marine mammals.

Surely, though, we can't be right back where we began? Just as the group questioned how best to make a difference, as viewers, we’re left asking how the green movement has evolved since the 1970s and what difference it has made.

To answer these questions and more, DeSmog UK spoke with Emily Hunter, Bob’s daughter and environmental media activist, about the film and today’s modern environmental movement.

KM: As viewers watching the film, or young people trying to get involved, how do you hope this film speaks to them as we move towards the Paris climate conference which, many people are hoping, will put us on the path to ‘changing the world’?

EH: I feel this film is as relevant in the ‘60s and ‘70s as it is today and even more important because our generation needs an inspiring story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things for our planet, now more than ever.

We are facing multiple, multiple crises left, right, and centre. We are facing a political system that is, quite frankly, failing us, failing our generation and our climate future that, now, more than ever we need to be able to see inspiring examples of other young people… who went out there and did change the world. And, in my view, the story isn’t that different because it really just shows our human capacity for trying to effect change and that story is not unique to my father, it’s not unique to Greenpeace, it’s not unique to the ‘70s, it is happening repeatedly again and again today.

In many ways I think the circumstances are similar as what’s shown in the film. It was a young generation then, the youth culture of the ‘70s, that were up against huge, huge political, economic and military interests, for having a pro-arms race, for having nuclear arms in different countries, and facing the huge oppressive policies that were also [creating] this apocalyptic-like scenario for that generation; it seemed impossible, it seemed like an impossible feat to do anything about, but young people didn’t give up and they kept building a movement – and they built a movement, I think, more than just around protesting, it was about having these ‘mind-bomb moments’ as my father would say. Creating these moments that shifted people’s perspectives, that we weren’t just human dominators of the planet but we were human stewards of the planet, and that was the switch in people’s minds.

And today, we face similar circumstances with our climate crisis and again, quite frankly, oppressive policies that are continuing our fossil fuel regime. And again, we feel powerless against it, but I do think we are collectively building our movement, our generation’s movement and now more than ever we need our own mind-bombs to tell us we can still do it, and this is one of those mind-bombs.

KM: So we need more big and powerful mind-bombs to catalyse action?

EH: Absolutely, we need those, but I think those are happening. I think those stories are being told. We have a different medium of course, we’re telling them through digital media, but the stories are getting out there. For example, the 13 activists in Portland on St John’s bridge who hung off the bridge [in August] and were able to push back Shell’s ship [which] is part of their sensitive equipment needed for Arctic oil drilling. That was a mind-bomb moment to me, and that news went around the world.

This film is another mind-bomb moment. I think Paris could potentially be a mind-bomb moment, but even more of a mind-bomb moment if we don’t just make it Paris alone. It has to be beyond Paris. It has to be a moment that continues to fuel our movement and build the transitions we need, not just one that is a make-it-or-break-it moment. We can’t put everything on just Paris alone.

KM: How has the environmental movement changed or stayed the same since it began in the ‘70s with your father?

EH: I think the movement has evolved quite a bit and it’s taken some hard hits, it’s had a couple identity crises along the way. Back in the day, you could galvanise on these singular issues, you could galvanise the populous and effect policy change. Today, I think the traditional tactics of lobbying, focusing on sound science, and some of these traditional tactics that won us the Montreal Protocol, and so forth, aren’t winning us the same fights.

When it comes to climate change we are at a cross-roads in our movement. This requires systemic change and systemic solutions. We can no longer continue on with the fossil fuel-based economy and think that we’re going to shift anything on this issue. So that really requires a massive overhaul, and one that frankly doesn’t benefit short-term politicians or the economic elite, and so that’s really where we need a ground-swell of people who are being the most affected, who are facing the greatest impacts, and actually rise up and start making some of these transitions.

I’m not asking for some massive anarchism. It may sound very leftist but I’m not talking about communism, I’m not talking about any of these things, I’m talking about the economic policies in place and that right now these economies are fundamentally insane and are only benefiting a few, trashing our future – so I do think there are switches that can be made in the short term and long term, such as getting off of dirty fossil fuels, such as switching on to renewables, but also starting to have an economy that isn’t based on fossil fuels and not having political leaders that are very much backing these fossil fuel industries like [Canada’s Prime Minister] Stephen Harper.


Greenpeace zodiac and whaling ships. Photo: Greenpeace

KM: What are the biggest challenges for today’s green movement when it comes to creating this systemic change?

EH: For one, we’re starting to see more and more economies that are going towards more co-operative models, we call that the sharing economy, you can look at it as sustainable growth rather than the infinite growth model. We’re seeing that in terms of, not just car sharing and Airbnb, those are the ones that get all the [attention] for sure, I’m talking about more co-operative living… you see food co-ops, you see housing co-ops, you see places where communities are sharing resources, reducing our impact on the planet and it’s not based on an infinite growth model. Those are part of the short-term [solutions] I see to get us off of fossil fuels and gets our economy running on people.

KM: When it comes to environmental issues, yes you have climate change, but there are many others which Greenpeace and other NGOs are working on, from the Arctic, oceans and forests to pesticides and wildlife. Does the green movement suffer from the fact there are so many things to address? Does it need more unity?

EH: Yeah, previously you could focus on these single issues and policy changes on them and that would effect change. Today, like climate change, I do think we have to have a more interconnected movement because if you look at it from a more macro, birds-eye view, it’s not just all these single issues… if you look at it from a larger perspective it’s the fact that people aren’t happy with where the world has gone, the fact that we do see all these costs, or externalities, of the economy that animals, forests, the air, people, are suffering…

We see all these issues and we’re concerned about all these issues, we’re aware, we’re working on them, we’re trying to find solutions but at the end of the day it is the system change [that’s needed] and we need to start working towards it and transitioning ourselves off of this system that isn’t working for us.

And for young people especially who have a lack of jobs, who are seeing a climate-doomed scenario approaching, who don’t believe in our political system, this system really is not working for us anymore. So I do think those kinds of transitions can be made, but they can be made in small ways. It doesn’t need to be taking on the entire system I’m talking about, it can be taking on smaller community projects.

KM: In the movie, it describes how they wanted to create a movement on the scale of the civil rights movement. Do you think the green movement has become that in itself or is it entirely different?

EH: I do think the environmental movement has become as big as the civil rights or feminism movements, and in some ways I’d say even bigger because it’s integrated into all of our lives, in many, many ways. It’s integrated in terms of our health, it’s integrated in terms of behaviour choices, how much energy we’re using, it’s on all of our minds one way or another, whether people think of themselves as environmentalists or activists or not, the reality is that it has affected almost every sector of society, whether people realise that or not.

We’ve still got a long way to go. As one of my dad’s quotes says ‘it’s a 200-year mop-up operation’, there’s still certainly a long clean-up to go but I think even in the last one or two generations, depending how you look at it, from my parents’ time to my time there’s already been a huge shift in terms of it being on our minds, on our consciousness and [on] some of our behaviours.

Whereas before, in their time, the word 'ecology' didn’t even mean anything, nobody even understood what that meant, so that’s a huge shift. You first have to work at the consciousness shift and behaviour shift before we start to get to the larger things. But I do think we’re in a real period of transitioning. I may be idealistic, but I do think we’re at the beginning of a transition and we need to start working to reset consciousness.

KM: What’s the best way to deal with those opposing the movement, be it fossil fuel companies or climate deniers?

EH: In terms of climate denial, it has brought up a whole other level of psychology that I don’t think we’ve fully faced yet. Climate denial is, at its core, you’re really trying to shift people’s entire world-views, and that’s really not easy work to do. And I do think film and storytelling is a window into which we can start to do some of that work and shift people’s world views and consciousness. And it’s where it’s so essential because in the fight against climate change there are still so many, I mean, some of the politicians in the US are known climate deniers and for a country that still holds a lot of weight in these climate negotiations, that’s really, really dangerous for the rest of us.

That’s where I think there’s still a lot of work to be done, I don’t know if we’ve done all the work in shifting people’s world views as much as we have worked on policy and protesting, we haven’t done the piece of consciousness shifting, at least to our opponents. And that’s really hard work and something we’re struggling with and it’s about psychology.

KM: Greenpeace began in Canada, and as a Canadian you’re aware of the country’s climate track record. Canada is doing very little to tackle climate change, yet it can feel as though this isn't talked about as much as it maybe should be. Do you agree?

EH: Canada, and Australia, are huge pieces of the climate puzzle that are being ignored or given less attention to. When we talk about keeping fossil fuels in the ground, a big portion of that includes not just American coal but includes Australian coal… and most of the Canadian tar sands need to be kept in the ground if we have any chance of facing two degrees Celsius [of global warming].

So, as we keep negotiating these two degrees, the reality is we’re not putting force on these countries to ensure that that happens by keeping their fossil fuel reserves in the ground. They play such instrumental pieces of our climate future and the pressure needs to be put on at an international level right now; [these] two countries are acting like two climate enemies of humanity rather than the nature lovers that we still project them to be. I do live in Canada and we have a 10-year-old reputation as though we’re protecting the environment when we do anything but that. The world needs to know that.

KM: Canada’s federal election is coming up in October. What would you say to Canadians looking for change?

EH: A very easy step to take when it comes to our climate future is this next Canadian election in October. We have a real chance now, an opportunity to get one of the biggest enemies of the climate future, the Harper regime, out of politics. He has not only done huge damage to our environment, forced us into becoming a fossil fuel based economy, but he’s also done tremendous harm to our democracy and our civil liberties to even being an activist anymore and having certain freedoms of speech, having certain internet access. If he had his full way, it would look more like a dictatorship than it would a democracy, I know that sounds drastic but it’s true.

Honestly, we have a chance here. I don’t think voting is everything and all of our democratic participation, I do think we need to be involved much more than that, but we have a real shot here and it’s a very simple step to take as Canadians to actually be involved in this next election, if we care anything about our future.

KM: Finally, where do you see the green movement heading now, what’s the way forward?

EH: The way I see forward is, I see that the movement is becoming much more interconnected, we are connecting with the justice movement, we’re connecting the dots with the First Nations movement. And I think we are becoming a stronger force in the world and connecting our issues and seeing it’s much more systemic.

To me though, the missing piece that we’re still not feeling comfortable addressing is that economic piece. The reality is that these negotiations are not just politically driven, they’re economically driven. Until we really start tackling the economic system, that is the core issue to me in all of our fights, and frankly capitalism is at the core of a lot of this, and I know we’re beginning to talk about that more with Naomi Klein’s book and others, but we’re not really doing it in terms of our activism, even Occupy, most people talk about it very dismissively, and to me there was a core there of addressing our economic centre of all of our issues that I think we need to do more of. That, to me, is where we need to connect our movements to and begin to unravel and transition ourselves off of a capitalist state which frankly isn’t supporting us or the climate anymore.

How To Change The World premiered on September 9 and is currently playing in cinemas in the UK and US.

All photos credited to Greenpeace