Academic Probation
Inside the Trident Nuculear Submarine Base in Bangor, Washington, 1978. Weyler's photographs evoke a golden age of activism, the classical sense that a small group of determined individuals can change a faceless world.
photo courtesy Rex Weyler

Weyler and Me

Rex Weyler is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic. He was also a co-founder of the seminal ecological conservation group Greenpeace in the 1970s, and was the director of Greenpea

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Academic Probation: The first time I heard about Greenpeace was on TV shows like the Simpsons or Saturday Night Live, who were very interested in lampooning the organization. Do you feel like the media ever got what you guys were doing?

Rex Weyler: Oh yeah, the media got it, on the one hand, but anything that's successful is going to get mocked. Everything is going to get ridiculed, that's just the nature of the world. At the same time Greenpeace had become part of our culture, so it was fair game.

We were in the business of shining a light on social issues, and we did some fairly outrageous things in order to do that. Any time you confront the status quo, you're going to have opposition, so naturally there was opposition to Greenpeace, people who thought we were all wrong. Finding opposition is just a normal part of changing society.

AP: And you have changed society--the new movement in our culture is toward "green." In the end, do you feel that you guys got a fair shake?

RW: In the end we were successful somewhat, that's all that really counted. We weren't trying to promote Greenpeace, we were trying to promote the environment. It wasn't as if we were trying to earn any particular credit for ourselves, we just believed in what we were doing. In some places we get that credit, but who cares, really? We stopped French and American nuclear testing, we stopped the dumping of nuclear waste in the oceans, we won a moratorium on whale hunting, we helped push through the Antarctica treaty, and right now Greenpeace is working on saving millions of hectares of forest land in Canada and the Amazon. We've been successful, and that's what counts.

AP: Let's talk about the role of the actual activism Greenpeace has practiced in the past. What were your methods then and now?

RW: We always used the media to communicate our ideas. The way we used the media was to perform demonstrations, sending boats out into nuclear test zones, sailing boats in front of whaling ships. By taking cameras and the media with us, we could bring public scrutiny to these things that were wrong. What's amazing is how powerful that is--just by bringing attention to issues, we can solve them. If nobody's looking, people can get away with anything. But things have always been this way, throughout the entire history of social change. It's always been private citizens standing up to governments and corporations. Somebody has to stand up and say, "no, we're not going to take it anymore."

AP: A major activist group in the public eye right now is PETA--

RW: Yes, I'm familiar with them.

AP: Their methods are very radical, but similar to the ones you describe. Can we make comparisons between the PETA model and the Greenpeace model of activism?

RW: I don't critique one group as being too radical, or one group being not radical enough. Really, I believe that the only time things go too far is when violence and the destruction of property come into play.

A lot of the advertisements that PETA uses are very shocking, but the issues they raise are also shocking. If a group of citizens rises up and shows those images to the public, I don't blame them for that. I'll admit that sometimes it's not the best method to just shock people with disgusting images, but social change usually requires some sort of dramatic demonstration. It'd be great if you could just sit down and reason with people.

AP: So you wouldn't draw a parallel between the perceived radicalness of what PETA is doing right now, and what Greenpeace was doing when it started, in terms of the social impact?

RW: We were considered radical--very radical in the '70s. I mean, sailing a boat into a nuclear test zone is pretty radical. All new ideas, changes in society, seem radical at one time. At one point, it seemed crazy to propose outlawing slavery in Europe and North America. Or seemed crazy that women should have the same rights as men. Every change in our society has come from radical-looking citizens standing up--citizens whose ideas later seem common or acceptable. When you change society, you have to be prepared to be ridiculed.

AP: With the movement toward "green," do you feel that Greenpeace's job is done?

RW: Hardly, no. The world's environmental problems are increasing. Thirty years ago when Greenpeace started, we were just dealing with the Western world, a very small portion of the world that through the industrial approach to society was wrecking the planet. Now, you've got five billion people in the third world who all want to live the middle class lifestyle, with cars, televisions, all the things we have, but there aren't enough resources on the planet to supply all that--there's not enough oil in the ground to support China's plans for automobile use, for example. What's happening now is that all the developed countries, Europe and North America, are trying to tie up all the planet's resources. That's why you have the U.S. armies occupying the Middle East, for instance. So you have these armies in place to secure resources--that's what war is really about, unless you're naïve enough to think that America invaded Iraq to free its citizens.

AP: So now you're lobbying for more of a political change than a social one?

RW: No, I think the root of the problem still lies with human mentality. People have to understand on a mass scale that we can't just gobble up the world's resources forever. To those who think we can, I ask where all those resources are coming from. We'd have to have a hundred planets lined up, ready to mine, to sustain the growth and lifestyles we idolize. We have to learn to sustain ourselves on the planet, and to come into harmony with the Earth. This isn't an opinion or a political position, it's a fact. Politics is the last place I'd look to solve this problem. Politicians, after all, are primarily focused on maintaining their power, and those ones without power are focused on getting it. I wouldn't look to them to lead social change; instead, I would try to educate people about the issues at stake. That's a huge undertaking, and it's far from over.

AP: Along those same lines, I was at this music festival in the U.S. over the summer, and all the artists, all the bands before their sets loved to give a speech about how we should put a stop to [U.S. President George H.W.] Bush, to get him out of the White House and all that rhetoric. At the same time, I didn't feel like I was part of an organized group, with an organized message, but rather a collection of people that all shared the same nebulous values. Is there a problem with modern activism in that the message is harder to express now than it has been before?

RW: Focusing the message has always been a challenge for activists. There are a lot of cyber-activist groups, like the Ruckus Society and MoveOn.org, that have trouble focusing their messages. As well, a lot of the anti-WTO groups are on the right track--they're right that the World Trade Organization is trying to control the world--but the message to the public has to be clear. Just staging protests isn't a solution.

AP: So the new self-empowered face of activism isn't effective?

RW: I wouldn't say that. I think personal activism is one of the only things that is effective, but you still have to clear about what your message is, and it has to be delivered clearly. You often hear in the movement today about a "diversity of tactics", trying to do everything, but a diversity of effective tactics is what you want. You want to perform actions that actually change people's perceptions. That's harder to do than to say. Part of Greenpeace's success was that we were able to create actions that effectively communicated our message.

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Comments

The interviewer may have misunderstood me on this last point: I didn't say the Ruckus Societ or MoveOn.org have difficulty delivering their message; both those groups have been excellent at delivering clear messages, just for the record.

However, yes, some of the anti-WTO messages have been garbled and unclear, in my estimation.

rw.