Greenpeace is arguably the founder of modern environmental activism. And as a documentary called How to Change the World, which premiered in January at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and recently won the Environment Award at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, illustrates, the organization’s rise to prominence was largely triggered by its strategic use of "Mind Bombs" — visual images so arresting they provoke action.
Emily Hunter, daughter of Greenpeace founding member Bob Hunter and Digital Mobilizer for Greenpeace Canada, wrote in a blog post this week about the first official Greenpeace mission to stop nuclear testing on the Alaskan island of Amchitka in 1971 — now mirrored 44 years later with similar action on the west coast to disrupt Shell's imminent plans for drilling in the Arctic.
“Greenpeace was founded by dreamers,” she writes. “People who believed they could turn the tides of history against a great sense of impossibility. They had a vision for what could be, and sparked that same imagination in others. They did this through what my father called ‘Mind Bombs’ – an idea that our greatest tool for revolution is our own consciousness. If we can flip the switch mentally, society and the world at large can be moved.”
A student of Marshall McLuhan, Bob Hunter borrowed the idea of "media mind bombs" to inspire action, and on September 15, 1971, he and 11 other activists challenged Richard Nixon's nuclear test blast off the remote island of Amchitka. With the ensuing swell of public support (long before social networking), their actions closed the US-Canadian border for the first time since 1812, shutting down the test program and launching a new brand for environmental activism.
Shell is now poised to launch a "climate bomb" in the newly ice-free parts of the Alaskan Arctic. If there’s any question if mind bombs are still potent in today’s digital smorgasbord of images and photos and videos, take a look at these images) from just a few days ago.
“Last Wednesday I joined a team of Greenpeace and First Nations activists to confront Shell's oil rig, the Polar Pioneer as it headed north to Alaska,” the younger Hunter notes in her post. “We felt small and tiny on our inflatable boats compared to the 300-foot-tall drilling rig attached to two massive tug boats. But the power of the moment was overwhelming, as Indigenous artists Audrey Siegl stood boldly and firmly face-to-face with Shell's machinery. Meanwhile, two swimmers, Victor Acton Pickering (from Fiji) and Mark Worthing (Canadian), swam directly in the path of the oncoming vessels. This was a #MindBomb moment.”
I asked Molly Dorozenski, Media Director at Greenpeace New York, about the power and continued potential of mind bombs.
Do you see other examples of the effective use of mind bombs today?
MD: They're definitely still happening today. I think the Yes Men do an amazing job of creating mind bombs — recently they were in the streets of New York handing out snow cones that were supposedly from the last-ever chunk of Arctic ice. I think an event like that can be effective because you're reaching people in a space where they are — they're out having fun and enjoying a snow cone — and then you help them to think about the Arctic and the world in a different way. It's not lecturing. It's entertaining.
What do you think have been Greenpeace’s top three areas of impact?
MD: I do think our work on whaling made a tremendous impact and led to a ban on commercial whaling. We've had a series of really tremendous forest victories in both the Amazon and Indonesia, which makes a big difference for climate change, including getting big companies like Nestlé (in Indonesia) and McDonald’s (in the Amazon) to pressure their suppliers to stop deforesting rainforest. Finally, our work in Antarctica in the late ‘80s led to the continent being preserved for scientific and research purposes, and prevented it from being exploited for resources.
How has social media helped in Greenpeace’s efforts?
MD: Social media has been really tremendous for Greenpeace. Not only are traditional news stories shared and spread on social media, but we produce a lot of content specifically for social media that travels really well. We had a [recent] video that showed a protest in Seattle where people from all over the city went out onto the water in kayaks to prevent Shell's rig from leaving for the Arctic — on social media alone, we reached around 800,000 people. Being able to tell our stories the way we want to tell them and find our own audience is so important. And even more so, it lets us see in real time what Greenpeacers around the world are interested in, and engage with our membership.