By coming here tonight, you are making possible a trip for life and for peace”, said Greenpeace co-founder Irving Stowe to the crowd of 10,000 gathered on the evening of October 16th, 1970 in Vancouver, British Columbia (Amchitka, 2009). The event was the Amchitka benefit concert, and not only was it the launching pad for Greenpeace as an environmental organization, but it also marked the beginning of the marriage between Greenpeace and musical activists.
Although Greenpeace was founded out of that concert, no one really knew the current name of the organization until almost a year later. The Amchitka concert was an effort by Stowe to raise money intended to fund a protest-by-sea against the U.S. nuclear testing facility on the Amchitka Island of the Aleutian chain, a part of Alaska. The three headliners of the show would have been a music lover’s dream at the time, and they were all in the prime of their careers: Joni Mitchell, her then boyfriend James Taylor and Phil Ochs. They all agreed to perform for free, and Mitchell and Taylor have continued to support Greenpeace to this day (Ochs having passed away in 1974) (Greenpeace, 2010) (Kurutz, 2009).
The Initial Mission
The concert ended up being a huge success, raising enough money to fund the initial activity of the boat that had been renamed the Greenpeace for the inaugurating voyage in September of 1971. The group of ragtag activists, hippies and lawyers on board had formed a loosely knit organization called “The Don’t Stop the Wave Committee” before the Amchitka concert, but after the voyage, they believed the only good thing to come out of the trip was that they had finally settled on the name Greenpeace, taken from their sailing vessel (Greenpeace, 2010).
The plan for the mission was to park the Greenpeace right in front of the nuclear facility on Amchitka Island, but the boat was lightly rammed and ordered to abort by a U.S. navy boat, albeit manned by sailors who were in fact sympathetic to the cause. This turnaround in the middle of the course was discouraging to the crew of the Greenpeace, and they thought the entire year to be a wasted effort until they arrived back in Vancouver and discovered that they had received unprecedented media attention from around the world. The particular nuclear test that they were protesting did happen, but many future tests did not, as Amchitka was shut down by the U.S. government five months later, and Greenpeace was officially in business (Greenpeace, 2010).
The Perfect Match
Greenpeace is now one of the most visible environmental organizations in the world. They are involved in a broad spectrum of environmental issues from climate change, ocean and forest preservation, anti-nuclear causes, promotion of a toxic free future, sustainable agriculture and visible protest activism. Greenpeace has long recognized their mission as being a perfect match for the passion and spirit of many artists and musicians, and they have pursued these artists as much as the artists have pursued them (Carothers, 1989).
At the beginning, the artists at the Amchitka concert and the founders of the organization would literally have hung out in very similar scenes, with both parties coming directly out of the 60’s counter-culture movement. “When I encountered the people at Greenpeace, and saw the work that they were doing, and they way they engaged this [environmental] problem, I felt a huge sense of relief that people were working on it” said James Taylor in 2009 upon the long-awaited public release of the recording of that landmark show. Both Taylor and Mitchell have agreed to donate all proceeds from the sale of the recording to Greenpeace (Amchitka, 2009).
Other artists that have done significant activism over the years for Greenpeace include U2, Annie Lenox, Sting, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, Public Enemy, Chrissie Hynde, Jerry Garcia, Sade, Green Day, Pink, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Bryan Adams, Jack Johnson, and many more who have supported the organization in principle (Greenpeace, 2010) (Carother, 1989).
The Personal Factor of U2
Growing up on the music of U2, Greenpeace was literally the first environmental organization I’d heard of. Since then, I’ve always had respect for Greenpeace, in large part due to that initial visibility provided by U2. There was a period of time in the late 80’s/early 90’s when Greenpeace was the sole organization officially supported by the band (Flanagan, 1996). So, I can personally attest to the benefit Greenpeace sees in uniting with artists (especially those more politically, socially and sustainably inclined) to increase the awareness they’re trying to promote, as Greenpeace was effective in attracting me through this method.
U2 was involved in one of the most visible Greenpeace events in history with the Sellafield concert and subsequent protest action in June of 1992. U2 and Public Enemy headlined the concert, which was held near the Sellafield nuclear facility on the coast of England bordering the Irish Sea. Sellafield had been dumping radioactive waste into the Irish Sea for some time, causing increased cancer rates around the site, but the final straw for Greenpeace and the bands was when Sellafield decided to open a second facility to take on the radioactive waste of other countries. This was too much, and the fact that Ireland, Wales and Scotland were seeing some of the worst of the effects only angered the band that much further, especially considering that Sellafield was directly owned by the British Government (Flanagan, 1996).
Sellafield had obtained an injunction prohibiting U2 from setting foot anywhere near the actual facility, but no matter. The thought was that if they entered by sea the injunction couldn’t be enforced. So, the members of the band sailed in rubber rafts with three drums of radioactive sand from the beaches of the UK, and deposited them at the front gate of Sellafield (which was basically right on the Irish Sea anyway). Overall, the project was a success in the sense that it brought awareness to a facility that was previously unknown to the masses (Flanagan, 1996).
In researching this topic, I initially approached it from the vantage point of why artists were particularly attracted to Greenpeace. It was only through research that I discovered the attraction actually went both ways. Still, I have wondered what is it about environmental organizations or any socially conscious causes that seems to draw artists; at least more so than other types of people.
I discovered a quote from Annie Lenox that I think is illuminating to this question: “Music is the language of the soul articulated,” she says. “The inner world is very potent for me – I don’t ascribe to any God or Jesus or Buddha – I just have a sense of it and revere it along with the natural world and human consciousness” (Drakakis, 2010). I think all artists, like Annie, have a sense of the unity, the one great force that is the universe, even if they don’t acknowledge it.
Having been around and interviewed many artists during my radio career, they all seem to recognize something bigger than themselves that gives them their creative inspiration. Most can’t explain where it comes from, but they sense something, and they have that unique passion that drives them to purpose. I feel that same passion, and it is a uniting feeling. It causes one to question the world around them, and when questioning starts, the questions inevitably lead to “how can we do this better; make this world better?” These questions can be equally applied to the artist’s music, or their environmental consciousness, and striving to answer this question has been Greenpeace’s mission as well.
I think the efforts that Greenpeace has taken over the years to engage artists is exemplary, is unique, and is to be commended. They have not altered their message to attract these artists, they’ve not had to. The original crew of the Greenpeace sailed with the theme of “bear witness” which they took from the Quaker pacifist tradition (Greenpeace, 2010). Continuing to honor this practice will keep the actions of Greenpeace and our own actions in line with the grain of the universe, and that grain is hope, love and unity. When we practice the genuine good in life, everything else falls into step. May we all continue to question how to make this world a better place to live.
Amchitka. (2010). Retrieved from Amchitka Concert Web site: http://www.amchitka-concert.com/
Carothers, A. (1989, November 1). Can rock 'n' roll save the world?: music's mission to moscow and beyond. Retrieved from @U2: http://www.atu2.com/news/can-rock-n-roll-save-the-world.html
Drakakis, H. (2010, November 29). Annie lenox: Music icon and Woman of the Year on drug-taking, adopting children in Africa and redefining feminism. Retrieved from The Big Issue in Soctland Web site: http://www.bigissuescotland.com/features/view/423
Flanagan, B. (1996). U2: at the end of the world. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
Greenpeace. (2010). Retrieved from Greenpeace Web site: http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/
Kurutz, S. (2009, November 22). Speakeasy: Lost 1970 Amchitka Concert Featuring Joni Mitchell and James Taylor Surfaces. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal Blogs Web site: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2009/11/22/a-long-lost-1970-benefit-concert-featuring-joni-mitchell-and-james-taylor-surfaces/