Greenpeace has long-since established itself as the poster child for this way of thinking, embodying the defining words of Margaret Mead, and it’s an account tackled with great care and consideration in Jerry Rothwell’s racing eco-doc.
Splitting the film up into chapters by focusing on particular rules of resistance, such as creating a “mind bomb”, putting your body where your mouth is, not organising the revolution and so on, Rothwell takes us through the liberating but litigious history of Greenpeace. It all started when a group of hippies, “led” by the charismatic Bob Hunter, sailed towards Amchitka Island off the coast of Alaska in 1971 to disrupt the US government’s underground nuclear test series.
As Nixon deferred, eventually deciding to detonate in early November, the waters were too frozen for the group to access. Distraught and exhausted, they still returned as heroes, despite failing to prevent the test, and instead turned to whales and seals as emblems of a global ecology which humankind should protect and preserve.
How to Change the World relies on some truly stunning archival footage shot by the group itself as they squared up to Russian whaling vessels off the coast of California and stood in front of Norwegian barges which burst through the Alaskan ice in search of baby seals to club. The idea of bearing witness to something, in order to show the public what was going on in their own country, was something which divided the group.
Whilst some felt this idea was necessary for change, others felt it wasn’t enough; in fact, bearing witness arguably made you complicit in the crime. The varying intensities of direct action caused many arguments about how the organisation should be managed, drilled and financed – all of which have led to lawsuits and bitter disputes over the years.
Most staggering of all, however, is the footage, unparalleled to this day, as Greenpeace exposed the gruesome and oftentimes illegal horror of the whaling industry. How they managed to unite the peace and green movements was nothing short of miraculous and the cultural boom of the 60s which spilled into the 70s is blissful and alive in Rothwell’s film.
It’s a complex history, not least because of all the hours of footage and contesting voices about what Greenpeace actually is, but because of how one draws a line from the early 1970s to the present day, and Rothwell is careful not to become too wrapped up in the romance of it all.
It’s a warm but honest confrontation of Greenpeace’s lifespan, its demons and its disagreements, but ultimately a powerful and stirring testament to grassroots activism. Humour and a beautiful score bring the whole thing to life in ways that both inspire and instruct: if you want to change the world, pay close attention.