How to change the world… The Greenpeace formula

Posted by on Feb 16, 2016 in Blog | 2 comments

I was flying back from the National Council Meeting of Christian Schools Australia on Friday, and after a full day of discussions, felt entitled to relax by watching a movie on my way home to Perth. The Qantas fare on offer was a tad disappointing, so it was with little enthusiasm that I clicked onto the Greeenpeace documentary, How to Change the World. Now truth to tell, even though I am about to write a post on this film, it is not going to go down as my favourite movie of the decade (or year, or month) – but it was interesting, and set me thinking about a raft of issues. Whatever you do or don’t think of Greenpeace as a movement, you can’t deny its impact. While I am not sure it has changed the world as dramatically as it would like, it has made a notable difference. Robert Hunter was the reluctant leader of the early movement, and his five rules of engagement provide a structure to the flow of the movie, and are the basis for this reflection.

For those who would like the details of the movie before a discussion of the script, it was released in 2015, was directed and written by Jerry Rothwell, and the stars are largely the original Greenpeace activists, both from archive footage and more recent interviews – thus Bill Darnell, David Garrick, Bobbi Hunter, Paul Watson, and via archival material, the late Robert Hunter, the driving force behind the founding of Greenpeace – plus many others. It has been nominated for several awards, and has won four, of which the most notable is probably from the Sundance Film Festival where it won the editing award ‘for its brilliant weaving of the past and present and skilfully layered storytelling.’ That font of all wisdom for all things about film Rotten Tomatoes says that 94% of viewers liked it, and their 305 ratings average out at 4/5. Those classified as Rotten Tomatoes top critics were a little more critical, awarding it 7.1/10 from a dozen reviews.

Enough of that… what is the movie about? To quote some of the official blurb: In 1971 a brave group of young activists set sail from Vancouver in an old fishing boat. Their mission: to stop Nixon’s atomic bomb tests in Amchitka, a tiny island off the west coast of Alaska. It was from these humble but courageous beginnings that the global organisation that we now know as Greenpeace was born. Chronicling the fascinating untold story behind the modern environmental movement, this gripping new film tells the story of eco-hero Robert Hunter and how he, alongside a group of like-minded and idealistic young friends in the ’70s, would be instrumental in altering the way we now look at the world and our place within it.

Let’s move onto Hunter’s five rules of engagement, around which the movie is structured.

Rule 1: Plant a mind bomb.

Here Hunter is describing the way that electronic media can be used as a tool for change. In Hunter’s thinking a mind bomb was a powerful image or video that would send shock waves around the world, helping to reshape public opinion on a matter. The Greenpeace pioneers went to extraordinary lengths to get evocative film footage of whales being slaughtered and the rape of the environment.  Given that Hunter was advocating this in the early 70’s, we can only respect his foresight. What was true then, remains true today. You need more than words. You need powerful images, albeit that in our media saturated era we now have so many that some of the impact  is numbed, even lost. For all that, the movie is filled with heart wrenching archival footage of encounters between the early activists and whalers, or of seal clubbing or a raft of other courageous encounters. I was sorry to be watching these on a tiny Qantas ipad. The impact would have been greatly magnified if it had been on a larger screen.

Those who are regular readers of my blog will realise that my motivation in writing these insights up is to assess their relevance to Christian leadership and mission. It strikes me that the Christian church has been dealt some bitter blows by ‘mind bomb’ images that portray the church in a negative light – headline after headline on clergy sexual abuse being an obvious example. Don’t misunderstand me – those negative images were earned (it is tragic to have to say that, but it is simply the truth). But it is also sad that the many really good ‘mind bomb’ images of the church in humane action around the world, have largely been absent – not because the actions have been absent, but because we have not been media savvy. We have failed to tell (or should that be show) our story. We have something to learn from Greenpeace here.

Rule 2: Put your body where your mouth is

No doubt that the early Greenpeace activists did this – the most surprising aspect being that the physical toll on them was not greater. They were certainly courageous. You watch them stand resolute in the ice as a ship ploughs towards them, or the way they cut off whaling ships by recklessly dangerous manoeuvres – well, you wouldn’t have wanted to be their insurers.  Whether Hunter learnt this principle from the early Christians, I don’t know – but this is certainly one that the church has been aware of from its earliest years. It is highly likely that 10 of the original 12 disciples were executed for their faith, whilst an 11th, John, was imprisoned. The 12th, Judas Iscariot, can also attribute his death to his participation in the ministry of Jesus, though the circumstances of that death were, of course, completely different. And the church grew because one Christian after another was willing to sacrifice for the sake of God’s work in the world. I think we need to hear Hunter speak to us about this again – put your body where your mouth is. It is simply a reminder of our history and heritage.

Rule 3: The revolution will not be organised

An interesting one this. Greenpeace started as a loose group of friends. They were based in Vancouver – but birthed a global movement. And the more global it became, the less it was possible to organise it or to remain in control of what happened. Revolution is not for control freaks. Original leaders were deposed – but overall the movement grew stronger. The church has learnt the same lesson over the centuries. While we might lament that we do not have one united church for the world, given the powerful and transforming ideas that undergird Christianity, it was always going to fracture at some points, with powerful movements highlighting and emphasising different aspects of faith. Fresh expressions of church in different cultures and countries are also not only inevitable, but desirable. The revolution will not be organised, but it is a revolution nonetheless. Perhaps we can be a little quicker to affirm expressions of faith that would never have originated with us, but might well be a sign of the Spirit at work.

Rule 4: Fear success

For Greenpeace, success meant mainstream respectability – even movies like this being shown on Qantas flights! Later adherents were not as committed as the original pioneers. It all sounds a little like the transition from the early church in the age of opposition and persecution to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine and the resultant birth of Christendom. While Christendom gave the church huge influence and power, it came at an enormous cost. The success we long for is to be feared – for it will change us and the things we stand for. No easy way forward on this one, but it is a ‘rule of engagement’ worth thinking about.

Rule 5: Let the power go

The early leaders of Greenpeace had to let the movement go for it to become a truly global movement. Any great idea cannot be held and owned by a few. In the end you have to let your power go and to trust in the power of the ideas behind the movement. To some extent even Jesus had to do this. I wonder how he felt on that Ascension Day before returning to the Father. He handed over the reigns to the disciples assuring them that they would receive power to be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Can you think of a single run that the disciples had scored up until this point? They had constantly misunderstood Jesus. Even their last question to him (Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel – Acts 1:6) showed that they had no comprehension of Jesus’ mission. Yet Jesus hands the power over to them and departs to His Father. True, He knew the Spirit would empower them for what lay ahead, but he released the mission of the church into their hands.

Well, what do you think of Hunter’s list? They are insights from the pioneering leader of a revolutionary force. They probably need to be rediscovered and claimed by the church, whose message remains even more radical – for indeed, it is a message that will ultimately change the world.

Nice chatting…



  1. Interesting. I have debated point one quite a lot in my own mind. Creating FUD (fear, uncertainty or disappointment) is pretty standard as a persuasive technique in advertising. I’ve never been totally convinced its good for the church to use. However, historically the church has often used fear to persuade. In fact, I think you could make a good case that biblically God uses fear to persuade. Even in the new testament. Hmmm, will have to think more…

    • I don’t think FUD is a good model for the church, though you are right that it has often been used. Personally I don’t think mind bombs have to focus on FUD categories ( though they often do). I wonder if the church couldn’t create some focused on wonder, hope, and worthy aspirations.


  1. Conheça a NL da Oficina, focada no ativismo e no desenvolvimento global - […] Hunter. O documentário Como Mudar o Mundo (2016) conta essa história, a partir da estrutura das Five Rules of…

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