Bronx-born activist helped launch world’s best known environmental organization
Jim Bohlen, a Canadian environmental activist who literally launched a movement that would eventually become the Greenpeace Foundation died on Monday in Comox, British Columbia of complications from Parkinson’s disease at the age of 84.
Bohlen was involved in the founding of the “Don’t Make a Wave Committee” which led the international protest against the testing of nuclear weapons on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian mountain range on the west coast of Alaska and B.C. in 1971. The committee had established local chapters on Pacific coast of the United States and Bohlen and others soon became involved in planning a protest against the testing, which took place on the San Andreas fault-line.
As the story goes, when a Vancouver journalist called to find out what they were planning, Bohlen apparently gave an impromptu reply that the group planned on sailing to Amchitka in a boat to head off the nuclear experiment. True to their “committee” moniker, Bohlen and his co-organizers felt they had to follow through on the announced itinerary. A concert to raise money was organized with James Taylor, Phil Ochs, the B.C. rock group, Chilliwack, and Joni Mitchell headlining the concert.
With the proceeds from the benefit, Bohlen and fellow activist Irving Stowe leased a fishing boat and changed its name to “Greenpeace.”
Born in the Bronx on Independence Day in 1926, Bohlen was not your stereotypical “environmental activist”. He served in the U.S. Navy during the second world war as a radio operator in the Aleutian Islands.
Bohlen returned to school in New York after the war and got a mechanical engineering degree from NYU in 1949. After graduation he worked in the trucking industry and later for U.S. defense contractor in New Jersey.
In the same year that heralded Expo 67, the Summer of Love, and the ramping up of anti-Vietnam war activity in the U.S., Bohlen and his family emigrated to B.C.
“Getting back to the land”
He and his first wife became active in the antiwar and burgeoning “environmental” movements. In the early 70s, the Bohlens relocated to an island community in the Georgia Strait and became involved in establishing a self-sufficient farming community housed in Buckminster Fuller’s still cutting-edge geodesic dome structures.
As a result of his experiences there Bohlen authored his first book entitled The New Pioneer’s Handbook,” published in 1975, the subtitle of which coined the expression “getting back to the land.”
In the later part of the 1970s, Bohlen quit Greenpeace but later returned and assumed an active part in the “refuse the Cruise” and Nuclear Free Seas campaigns. In 1984 and 1988 he ran for Member of Parliament in Vancouver, B.C. for the fledgling Green Party.
Bohlen remained a member and eventually became a director of Greenpeace until his retirement in 1993. His second book, a memoir and history of the organization, was published in 2000.
The Amchitka nuclear testing program attracted unprecedented world media attention for the most part as a result of the Greenpeace-led expedition. In 1964, the tiny community had barely survived a tidal wave resulting from an earthquake along the San Andreas Fault
The newly named Greenpeace set sail for Amchitka and arrived at Kodiak at the highest point on the archipelago on September 19th, 1971 to take on supplies and fuel. According to accounts of the voyage, “the crew was exhausted after a trip in bad winds and a new crewmember was to come on board.” The fishing waters of the area remain among the most dangerous on the planet and an average of 7 fishing vessels were lost every year with all hands aboard.
Direct action against the pre-Watergate Nixon
As the global protests against the Amchitka tests gathered momentum, the U.S. State Department of pre-Watergate president Richard Nixon, pulled out the heavy artillery and intercepted the Greenpeace before it ever reached its destination. The U.S. Coast Guard boarded the vessel and arrested its crew. In the result, the scheduled atomic blast was not conducted until two months later.
The composition of the current Greenpeace organization, which has expanded exponentially in size to more than 3 million members in over 40 countries, derives from the personalities of Bohlen and his sometimes rival, Paul Watson, who would later leave and form the more “radical” Sea Shepherd movement with its emphasis on “direct action” and confrontational interventions.
Rex Weyler, another seminal figure in the birth and development of Greenpeace told the Vancouver Sun last week that:
“Jim was the smart quiet older guy who was very serious. As much as Greenpeace had a kind of radical image, Jim Bohlen was almost the antithesis of that. He was very serious…He seemed like the element that wanted to be reasonable, rational, logical, calm. I think the fact that element existed in the early Greenpeace alongside the more radical element…was the hybrid quality that really made it more effective.”