Confronting the Bear: An Interview with Greenpeace’s Captain Peter Willcox

peter wilcox greenpeace
Peter Willcox, the American captain of a Greenpeace ship, is seen at a court in Murmansk October 14, 2013. (c) REUTERS/Dmitri Sharomov/Greenpeace

On May 1st, Greenpeace activists were out in numbers in Rotterdam to “greet” the Sovcomflot-owned ice-class shuttle tanker Mikhail Ulyanov which had just arrived from the Pechora Sea after taking on a 67,000 tonnes cargo of crude oil from the Prirazlomnoye arctic oil production platform. 

The response from Sovcomflot, Gazprom and the master of the Mikail Ulyanov was sharp and immediate.   In an effort tell his side of the story and to provide a bit more insight into his organization, the Captain of the Rainbow Warrior, Peter Willcox reached out to gCaptain.

Tell me about your experience at Greenpeace over the years

I joined in June, 1981 after spending five years on the sloop Clearwater, which did and does environmental education on the Hudson River.  The Rainbow Warrior had just come to the U.S., and had advertised for mates and engineers in The National Fisherman.   I became captain in October and stayed on the boat till she was blown up by French military in Auckland in July 1985.

Why did you join Greenpeace initially?

I liked the non-violent direct action.  I like to sail, and being brought up in a politically active family made Greenpeace a perfect place for me.

How has the organization evolved over the years?

When I started there were about 200 employees.  Today there are over 4,000.  Today, the direct actions are about 20% of what we do.  We also lobby, research, help write laws, etc etc.

rainbow warrior sunk auckland
Image courtesy Greenpeace

The Rainbow Warrior incident… tell me how that changed things for you.

It was an affirmation.  If a bunch of kids on an old North Sea trawler had scared the government of France so badly that they would set out to kill us, we must be doing something right.

Why do you feel Russian security forces boarded the Arctic Sunrise and arrested you and your crew last year? 

Good question.  We (a mostly different crew) had done the same action a year before, with very little reaction.  But this time, as soon as we arrived, they started shooting.  But it was not for 35 hours that they arrested us.  I am not sure when / where the decision got made.

When you were in prison, how did they treat you?

At first, in Murmansk like any other prisoner.  After six weeks we were moved to St. Petersburg, to three different prisons.  The men in my prison (The Kresky, built in 1860, and is Europe’s oldest prison) were treated better.  The women were treated worse.

You clearly had a lot of time to reflect on things… what did you think about and how have you changed as a person? 

Two months in prison was a moderate deal.  Facing 10 to 15 years for piracy, which we did for the first five or six weeks, was a huge deal.  But I am absolutely convinced that the futures of my two daughters (and everyone else on the planet) is dependent on our changing the way we are living.  I am not nearly ready to give up.

Greenpeace cairn energy ocean rig
Greenpeace activists scale the 53,000 tonne Leiv Eiriksson drilling rig in 2012, image: Greenpeace

Why is the Arctic a focus area for Greenpeace right now?

Climate change.  You can save all the whales you want, but if you do not get a grip on global warming / climate change / ocean acidification, the whales will not live much longer anyway.

Whales, coral, and many other things will for sure be affected by increased levels of CO2 in the oceans, but is offshore oil and gas production itself the issue?  Or is it the way we use energy these days the bigger problem.

How responsible do you feel are operators like Gazprom in their mitigation of the risks?

Gazprom is part of the Russian oil industry that spills 1/2 of the BP Gulf oil spill EVERY MONTH.  Do they even know what mitigate means?  Gazprom has no plan for how to clean up an oil spill in ice.

Half of the BP Gulf oil spill every month represents a lot of oil spilling.  Can you be specific on where that is occurring?

Northern Siberia in the Komi region for a start.  On land, Russia spills upwards of 30 million barrels per year, a number which has been confirmed by the Russian government.

One of the criticisms of Greenpeace is that they wave their flag in protest, while they seemingly lack the technical understanding of the company or industry they are protesting about.  How would you respond to that?

According to James Hansen of NASA and Bill McKibben, we now have in hand, more than 5 times the oil we should burn before we push climate change up past the 2 degree centigrade mark.

It is not technically difficult to see that we should not be drilling for oil anyway, and certainly not in the Arctic.  I also would not classify Greenpeace as lacking in technical understanding.  We had a lab in England, and more PhDs on staff than I can count.

It would be great to not have to drill to meet the world’s needs energy needs however, that’s not the situation we’re in at the moment.  What does Greenpeace propose?

A much greater incentive to utilize green energy sources. We do not have one offshore wind farm in the US, and that is a crime.  As long as we allow oil companies to make huge profits selling oil and coal, the switch to wind and solar will be very slow.

Russia’s development of the Arctic will likely continue.  What do you feel can be done to influence positive change and promote responsible behavior in the arctic?

As much as I did not like it personally, I think our detention elevated the issue greatly.  As a result of our action in Rotterdam, the Dutch Parliament was set to debate allowing Arctic oil into Netherlands last week.  That in itself is a huge accomplishment.  If you consider, as I do, that drilling in the Arctic is completely unacceptable, then there is only one way for them to behave responsibly, and that is not to drill.

How do you feel about drilling in ultra-deepwater?

I think the BP spill was an accident waiting to happen, caused primarily by greedy oil companies cutting costs and a lack of proper government oversight.   In light of what Hansen and McKibben say about burning what oil we have,  I wonder why we are looking for more oil at all.  Well, McKibben explained why in the July 19th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

It explains it, but does not excuse it.

How does Greenpeace evolve to become a more influential organization going forward? 

I am afraid that as the effects of climate change become more and more obvious, our arguments will gain greater popularity and understanding.  It is so simple:  we now have five times the coal and oil we need to push global warming over the 2 degree centigrade figure, a figure James Hansen says is a recipe for disaster.  The faster we stop burning fossil fuels, the more we mitigate the damages caused by them.

But the biggest corporations in the world exist to make a profit from selling coal and oil.  It is going to be a battle.

How often does Greenpeace get confused with the Sea Shepherd folks?

By me, not much.  I admire Watson for starting his own organization.  But I am a strong believer in non-violence.  I do not believe threatening someone with bodily harm is going to make for a better planet.  I admire saving the whales, but it is not addressing the serious problems that are facing us.

What’s your personal opinion of those guys?

I admire anyone who acts for their beliefs, rather than for money.  We had a couple Sea Shepard crew over to dinner on the Warrior last year in Melborne, and I think we all enjoyed getting to know each other.  We have much more in common than not.

For those people who are interested in a career in activism, what wisdom would you like to share with them before they sign up?

Therapy is cheaper.  Actually, a British research paper done a few years ago, explained that people that act and take part in issues outside their own immediate concern are happier than those that do not.  Activism is a way to feel better about your place in the world.