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.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

Geographical Week

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

Subscribe Today


Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


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

  • REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades later,...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital has a green future, ...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...


NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

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...


For many living in the Outer Hebrides, the Gaelic language…


Meet the Greek islanders being trained by the RNLI, saving…


For most, taking a 53-day, 11,000-mile road trip through 18…


After nearly a year since being set alight, the raging…

I’m a Geographer

Liz Bonnin is a biochemist, wild animal biologist, and BBC…


Asia not only manufacturers most of the world’s electronic goods,…

I’m a Geographer

Peter Willcox is the captain of the Greenpeace campaign boat,…


As Uber shores up its African stronghold, how will urban…


British explorers on the Kyrgyz frontier – Neil Smith, Calum…


Expedition leader, Catherine Edsell, leads a team of ten women…

I’m a Geographer

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a veterinarian and founder of Conservation Through Public…


A lack of awareness is preventing adequate monitoring of destructive…


Following the route of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, Felicity…

I’m a Geographer

Duane Silverstein is the Executive Director of Seacology, a California-based…


Justine Curgenven swapped her usual cold climate for the hot,…


Explorer Henry Worsley passed away last January following in the…


A few years ago Ulaanbaatar was a sleepy backwater –…


In an increasingly health-conscious China, tourists are flocking to a…


After three months en route, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust conservationist…


New Zealand is a hiker’s dream with pristine beaches, mossy…