Greenpeace at 40: The Influence of Marshall McLuhan


“By 1972, I had read everything published by media guru Marshall McLuhan, and his idea that “we think and live mythically” influenced our tactics. Although we employed good science, we understood that the facts don’t always win the public mind. When we launched the whale campaign in 1974, I had a clear image in my mind that I wanted to capture. At that time most people who thought about whaling still held a nineteenth-century image: small men in tiny boats hunting the huge leviathan. The reality of industrial whaling was the reverse: giant factory ships and exploding harpoons scouring the oceans with sonar for the last of the whales”. – Rex Weyler, photographer, journalist, co-founder. From

This year is the 40th anniversary of the founding of Greenpeace, which was founded in Vancouver, Canada in 1971. This is an opportune time to remember Marshall McLuhan’s influence on the early environmental movement…….AlexK

It began with a counter-culture movement of young journalists and Canadian ecologists calling themselves the Don’t Make a Wave Committee. In one of the last century’s more romantic acts, they hired a fishing boat with the modest intention of stopping an atomic bomb test in the Pacific and redefining man’s relationship with the Earth.

Forty tumultuous years later, including the sinking of its flagship and the murder of one of its activists by the French government, Greenpeace is a global brand with nearly 3 million members, turning over hundreds of millions of dollars a year and picking fights with almost everyone in power. On Thursday it announced it was planning to expand into developing countries but also warned that the battle against the “mindless exploitation” of Earth’s resources was in danger of being lost.

But the group that won’t accept donations from corporations and has always offended governments and its proxies is being wished both a happy and a very unhappy middle age. “It was very powerful. It had the passion. It was idealistic and courageous,” says Paul Watson membership no 007 and the youngest surviving co-founder who was expelled in 1977 for being too confrontational. Watson went on to found the rival Sea Shepherd organisation and famously call Greenpeace “the Avon ladies of the environment movement”.

“Many of the first group were journalists. We called ourselves [Marshall] McLuhan’s warriors. But it’s become a big bureaucracy. It’s not original any more. It should be concentrating on the issues it began with,” said Watson this week.  – John Vidal, The Guardian,


McLuhan’s Children: 
The Greenpeace Message and the Media

McLuhan’s Children: The Greenpeace Message and the Media
Stephen Dale   –   Between The Lines, 1996, 220pp, ISBN 1-896357-04-0
Reviewed by Kirsten Cowan

Stephen Dales’ McLuhan’s Children is not a chronicle of Greenpeace’s life as the world’s best known environmental activist group. Rather, it is an examination of how that success has been due to an uncanny ability to exploit the realities of the modern media. Greenpeace has achieved a unique symbiosis with the media, argues Dale, predicated on an understanding of the power of the visual image. Greenpeace has grown from a small group of idealists influenced by the spiritual traditions of First Nations peoples into a world-wide institution. This transformation did not take place without conflict. “[T]he Save the Seals campaign brought into sharp relief two key but inherently contradictory aspects of Greenpeace’s nature: the intense spiritual commitment of many of its members, and the organization’s alliance with the mass media – that fickle, superficial, unforgiving appendage of the consumer society that we all know and sometimes hate.” p. 93

That Greenpeace’s message has been so successful is a tribute to the organization’s intuitive understanding of Marshall McLuhan’s theories about modern communication. Rather than relying on the logic chain thinking of written communication, Greenpeace makes its mark with powerful images in the modern medium of television. Baby seals being clubbed, brave eco-warriors standing up to whaling ships — this instinctive understanding of the new visual currency has turned Greenpeace into an international force to be reckoned with. Rex Weyler, an American-Canadian journalist who sailed on the first boat to the Aleutian Islands, said: “[Greenpeace] adopted a form of civil disobedience – it did for the environment what the civil rights movement did for the dispossessed. We wanted to launch an ecology movement. There were civil rights, women’s and peace movements. What was lacking was a real sense of ecology. We set out not to create an international organisation and make Greenpeace famous. We were going to transform the world … it sort of worked, didn’t it?”.

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