Bob Hunter, October 13, 1941 – May 2, 2005
Bidisha Basu pays a tribute to Bob Hunter, journalist, author and founding member of Greenpeace and says he re-invented environmental activism.
Bob (Robert) Hunter had cheated death many times in his life… amidst the blue waves of the Pacific when a Russian whale hunter’s harpoon passed a feather’s touch away from his head…on the pack ice of Newfoundland trying to dye the white wool of baby seals. In his 63 years, Hunter lived his life like a storybook adventurer, a mythical hero. He did everything in proportions that were larger than life, saying what he had to say in full volume, underlined by a wry sense of humour. And if some of his actions were considered outrageous, controversial, or even downright crazy, he was all the more happy for the attention it drew to his cause. Journalist, author and founding member of Greenpeace, Hunter re-invented environmental activism, giving it a dynamic, in-your-face edge, that defined the image of an ‘eco-warrior’. It was a sad loss to the world, when on May 2, 2005, he finally succumbed to cancer after a six-year long struggle.
Born in 1941, Bob Hunter grew up in Winnipeg, Canada and started off reporting for the Winnipeg Tribune. He began writing a column for the Vancouver Sun in the late 60s. As a ‘hippie journalist’ in the city, Hunter had considerable freedom with what he wrote and he featured various environmental issues in his column. Around this time, he got involved with a group of activists who wanted to protest a US nuclear test blast at Amchitka, an island off the coast of Alaska. In a radical move, Hunter and his 11 comrades decided to sail into the test zone to prevent the blast. On September 15, 1971, they set off for Amchitka in a down-and-out fishing boat, which the media soon christened ‘Greenpeace’ after the colourful panels with the words ‘green’ and ‘peace’ that hung on the bridge. In the end, the boat never reached the site and the test went ahead. But the audacity of their effort drew a whirlwind of media attention and tremendous public outcry. Within a year, nuclear tests were banned at Amchitka and the island declared a bird sanctuary.
Soon after, Greenpeace, the organisation, was born in a rundown, rented office in Vancouver. Hunter quit his job to concentrate on hard-nosed environmental reporting and was Greenpeace’s first President, a position that he held from 1973 to 1977.
Bob Hunter was a storyteller, a wizard with words. And he tried to use some of this magic to convey his message of conservation and protection. Even though he shifted to a TV news career with Toronto’s Citytv in the late 80s, he contributed prolifically to newspapers and magazines as an environmental correspondent. He was the author of 13 critically appreciated books, one of which – Occupied Canada – won him the Governor General’s Award. His 1978 novel, Warriors of the Rainbow is part mythology, part chronicle, a masterful blend of Indian folklore and Greenpeace history, incorporating a legend, which became a symbolic metaphor for the eco-activism movement. His book about global warming, 2030: Confronting Thermageddon in our Lifetime, was written in the form of a letter to his grandson. In 2004, Hunter published The Greenpeace to Amchitka – An Environmental Odyssey, his own personal memoir of the genesis of the organisation.
All his life, in and out of Greenpeace, Hunter fought governments and corporations and communities wherever he saw ecological injustice. He always found a way to blaze into the media’s radar and stir up a hornet’s nest of public opinion. His methods were unpredictable. He dyed the white fur of baby seals to make them commercially worthless to save them from being hunted. He advocated a more hands-on kind of eco-activism believing that ‘mindbombs’ – images and words that jolted people’s minds – were necessary to awaken the public. Bob Hunter’s love for the great wilderness, “the power of the rapids, of the wind, of the stone,” the sense of balance, which he wanted us all to feel, is perhaps best expressed in his own words penned on the banks of the Bloodvein river, “It is the same physical world, although each part has died off and been replaced many, many times… we are remoulded into our ancestors’ mindset, and we are therefore re-humanised in the old sense of human, that is one among the many creatures, on a level playing field more or less. I think it is good for us.”
Today, it does not seem too far-fetched to hope that yet again, his spirit at least may have cheated death.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXV. No. 3. June 2005.