Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Peter Willcox: environmental activist

Peter Willcox: environmental activist
13 Mar
Peter Willcox is the captain of the Greenpeace campaign boat, Rainbow Warrior. He has participated in environmental campaigns for Greenpeace across the world for over 30 years. His new book, Greenpeace Captain, is out now

I went to many civil rights demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s, culminating with the Selma to Montgomery march, a momentous occasion. It resonated with me. I grew up thinking, if I haven’t been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee then I haven’t amounted to very much. That was my bar.

It’s a deep seated desire in all of us to find a useful way to contribute to society. It’s an important element of overall happiness. When I was 19, I was number one in the draft lottery. I knew I wasn’t going to go to Vietnam, that was absolutely out of the question, so I got Conscientious Objector status and started sailing around on the Clearwater which had been declared Federally-approved CO duty.

I love to sail. When I come home from three months at sea, I often go out on my own little boat. My grandparents started the family off sailing. My aunts and uncles were all sailors, they grew up on the water in Staten Island. My dad was racing dinghies until a couple of years ago at the age of 95! People ask if I’m interested in racing them and I say ‘I’m not old enough!’

I came to Greenpeace through Bob Hunter’s book, Warriors of the Rainbow. I was so impressed with the non-violent, direct action. I knew from my experience with the civil rights movements that if you want to change people’s minds, it’s got to be through non-violent means. If you’re trying to win a war, then you kill people. But we’re not fighting a war. We’re in the game of trying to change people’s minds. You’re not going to do that by hitting them over the head or blowing up Shell tankers.

In a world of 15-year-old female suicide bombers, it’s hard to get the same ‘pop’ with the kind of actions that we did 20 years ago. I recognise that. I also recognise that the public isn’t quite as enamoured by our actions as they once were. I think that we’re going to be more selective about doing what I call ‘silly’ actions – like dressing up in penguin suits and things like that. Actions used for educating the public, for letting them know about situations, for making them aware and getting an issue into the public discourse. That’s their purpose. But they also inspire us, the people that are doing them. If you want to see an unhappy Greenpeace boat, go to one that hasn’t taken part in an action for a few months.

I have to say that if I look back at the last 40 years, I feel about as successful as a lead balloon. When I joined, I presumed that in five or ten years we’ll have written some good [anti-pollution] laws. At that time we felt like we were making some progress. In 1973, we found out about PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). People living along the Hudson River were suffering, the particles were washing up on the banks, becoming airborne and getting into everything. That’s when I thought, ‘This might be a little longer than five or ten years’. I never dreamed that we would be where we are today, where I feel like I’m fighting for the future of my kids. And losing the battle.

I feel as though we have to work as hard as we possibly can to mitigate the damage we’re creating. What we do now is one quarter of what we’ll have to do in five years time. It compounds every day. Some countries are doing a great job of changing, but now, in the ‘most powerful country in the world’, we’ve elected a president whose Secretary of State is going to be from ExxonMobil.

I was absolutely blown away when I heard that both Putin and Trump want to increase their nuclear stockpiles. If there’s something that is a complete waste of money – and a stupid thing to do – that’s it. We should be building windmills and solar farms, and they want to build nuclear bombs. Nobody can conceive of using them. We (the US) are the only nation that has used them. There are so many generals that have come out and said, ‘We don’t need more nukes, we’re not going to use them, they’re a terrible pain in the neck to maintain and they’re a waste of money.’ I have a little more faith in our generals than I do in our president.

There’s no question that a massive amount of spending and job creation for a green and sustainable energy future is the way to go. Business is moving there. Look at Denmark, Scotland, or Norway. They have fantastic wind farms. Some countries get it, they can see the future coming.

It’s a given that the poorer countries that didn’t create the problems will be the ones that suffer the most. We have a moral obligation to take care of our fellow men and women. I don’t think anyone can really debate that. We caused the problem, it’s on our hands: the US, China, the industrialised, first-world nations.



1953 Born in Vermont

1965 Attended the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march

1976 Captained the Clearwater on the Hudson River

1981 Joined Greenpeace as a volunteer, became captain of the Rainbow Warrior four months later

1985 Was on board Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand when it was blown up by French military

1993 Exposed Russian dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan

2000 Returned toxic waste to US embassy in Manila

2013 Arrested and imprisoned for two months by Russia for protests against oil drilling platforms in Arctic

This was published in the March 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

I’m a Geographer

With fellow student Tom Micklethwait, Charles is travelling the route…


As part of our monthly series of reports looking at…


Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number…


For British cave divers, Chris Jewell and Jim Warny, who…


Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that football…


A German recycling scheme is proving to be a source…


The Galápagos are often thought of as a unique natural…


China’s ban on plastic imports will displace more than 110…


If you think you can escape the ballyhoo of the…


As the world’s top footballers battle it out in Russia,…


The US meat industry is attempting to officially define ‘meat’…


After Michael Pugh quit his job as a law firm partner…


As the world prepares for the next FIFA tournament in…


Road collisions remain a leading cause of deaths and injuries…

I’m a Geographer

Lynne Corner is director of VOICE – Valuing Our Intellectual Capital and…


The biological wonders of Mozambique’s mountains have only recently been…

I’m a Geographer

Lloyd Figgins is founder of LFL Global Risk Mitigation consultancy,…


From plastic-eating enzymes and oil-sucking polymers to ‘deep learning’ robots…


Children on the summit of Aconcagua are a rare sight.…


A pioneering expedition in 2019 will search for the lost…