Greenpeace is 50 years old: A worldwide movement for ecosystems

A review of the work of Greenpeace by Sally Campbell. All photo credits Greenpeace.

When governments and companies threaten the natural world – Greenpeace supporters are there to confront them, and have been for 50 years. Greenpeace in September celebrated 50 years of striving to protect the planet and its many types of ecosystems often by harm due to us, the now dominant powerful species in the world’s ecosystems, whether in the oceans, on land or in the air.

Reflecting on these 50 years: Over the past five decades, Greenpeace has grown from a handful of people setting sail to stop a nuclear test to the present day, an unstoppable worldwide movement of millions. The name came from the first time the words “green peace” were said together in Vancouver in 1970 (after the decision was made to confront US nuclear weapons testing), together Greenpeace have confronted countless governments and corporations. An apt description is an ecology movement. One of Greenpeace’s founders talks about what gives him hope, and what he has learned from 50 years of campaigning. “As we commemorate, and celebrate, 50 years since the Greenpeace set sail, we are painfully aware of the gathering storm wrought so often by inequity, greed and corruption, of accelerating habitat destruction and the deepening climate emergency. We look to the past for learnings on how to face the future. We celebrate the passion and commitment of all who make Greenpeace possible.”

The string of victories stretch across the planet from North to South and as far back as the founding campaigns. Together, the Antarctic was kept safe from mining, a global ban on nuclear testing was achieved and we stopped commercial whaling. Greenpeace protected the ozone layer with Greenfreeze technology, and is now protecting areas of the Amazon with the Soy Moratorium and vitally, kept multinational oil companies out of the Arctic. There is much more to be done in this time of climate change, the “entitlement” culture of multinationals and individuals to do “what they want,” regardless of cost to our natural ecosystems. We each have a responsibility to consider our own carbon footprint, our consumerist tendencies, our communities.

Greenpeace’s vision is of a greener, healthier and more peaceful planet – one that can sustain life for generations to come. It is powered not by governments but by individual donations, dedicated volunteers and millions of supporters; the campaigns combine cutting-edge science, investigative journalism, political lobbying, mass mobilisation and creative peaceful protests. And the iconic Greenpeace ships allow Greenpeace to protect the most remote and precious environments on Earth. Some of these successes are listed below– nearly always won in alliance with grassroots groups and other organisations, and show a glimpse of what has been possible.

1972: US abandons nuclear testing grounds at Amchitka Island, Alaska
In 1971, a small group of activists set sail to Amchitka island off Alaska in an old fishing boat called The Greenpeace. Their mission: to stop a US nuclear weapons test. Although the voyage was racked with personal conflict, and failed to stop the test itself, it sparked a storm of publicity that ultimately turned the tide. Five months after the group’s mission, the US stopped the entire Amchitka nuclear test programme. The island was later declared a bird sanctuary.

1974: France ends Pacific nuclear testing
In the 1970s and 80s, Greenpeace campaigned for a ban on nuclear testing. In 1974, Canadian activist David McTaggart took the French government to court. He won: In 1974 France announced that they would end their atmospheric nuclear testing program. This was just the beginning of a long, long campaign so finally in 1996…

1996: A global ban on nuclear testing
After decades of campaigning by Greenpeace and other groups, a global nuclear weapons testing ban was finally passed in 1996. From 1994–96, the world’s nations came together to negotiate the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits all nuclear test explosions.

1978: Confronting seal slaughter in Scotland
Through the 1960s and 1970s, the government permitted mass killing of seals around the Orkneys and Western Isles because they ‘interfered’ with commercial fishing”. But in 1978, Greenpeace intervened. The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior trailed the seal hunters’ vessel for two weeks, preventing the start of the cull and sparking a public outcry against the killing. Eventually, the planned cull was massively reduced, and in 2020, shooting seals was completely banned in Scotland.


1982: Commercial whaling banned worldwide
Whaling for meat, oil, or whalebone devastated the world’s biggest whale species in the first half of the 20th century, pushing some of them to the very brink of extinction. Greenpeace’s early whaling campaign showed the public images of whales being killed, which sparked a popular movement against whaling. After over a decade of committed campaigning, the ‘Save the Whales’ movement triumphed in 1982, when the International Whaling Commission voted to ban commercial whaling.

1991: Antarctic Treaty protects the continent from mining
In 1958 the Antarctic Treaty was signed by eighteen countries with an interest in the continent, protecting it for 30 years. But by the early 1980s the threat of commercial exploitation loomed large. There was oil under the ice and the Antarctic Treaty Nations were disputing a proposal from New Zealand that the continent should be designated a protected World Park. Greenpeace set up a base in Antarctica and campaigned for seven years against Antarctic mining and oil exploration.

The Antarctic Treaty Nations were eventually persuaded. In 1991, they agreed to adopt new environmental rules, including a minimum 50-year ban on mineral exploitation.

1998: Ban on dumping in the North Sea and beyond
The historic OSPAR (Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. Named OSPAR after Conventions in OSlo and PARis) makes it illegal to dump toxic waste, scrapped oil rigs and other industrial equipment at sea in the north-east Atlantic. Greenpeace’s anti-dumping campaign mixed high-level political pressure with dramatic direct action, including the occupation of Shell’s notorious Brent Spar platform. Brent Spar was eventually towed to a breakers yard and recycled.

2004: Working with the Deni to protect their Amazon homeland
The Deni are an Indigenous group living in a very remote part of the Brazilian Amazon, whose land was illegally sold to a logging company without their knowledge. After waiting for more than 10 years for the government to recognise their traditional territory, the Deni asked Greenpeace to help. We sent a team to live with the Deni and train them to use GPS and other instruments to formally record the boundaries of their lands. This spurred the government into action, and soon afterwards, Brazil’s president officially recognised the Deni as owners and stewards of over 1.6 million hectares of Amazon forest.

2006: Great Bear Rainforest protected from logging
After a ten-year campaign alongside First Nations groups, Greenpeace secured protection for over two million hectares of Canada’s stunning Great Bear Rainforest. Seen as one of the greatest environmental victories in Canadian history, the campaign saw activists arrested, sued and beaten as they resisted the logging interests that threatened the forest, and piled pressure on the British Columbia government to act.


2015: Shell drops plans for Arctic drilling
In October 2015, Shell announced that it was giving up plans to drill for oil in the Alaskan Arctic. This followed years of Greenpeace protests all across the world, building a movement of millions of people that Shell couldn’t ignore. Shell blamed the decision on low oil prices and high costs, but the company also admitted that the protests had a bigger impact than they expected, and damaged Shell’s reputation.

2018: Plastic microbeads banned in the UK
After two years of campaigning from Greenpeace and many others, the UK government banned plastic microbeads in January 2018. Products like toothpastes, shower gels and facial scrubs with plastic microbeads can no longer be sold in the UK. This was an important first step to protect ocean life, and to stop plastic getting into the food chain.

2020: Denmark ends North Sea oil drilling
The Danish Parliament announced that it will not allow any new oil drilling in the Danish sector of the North Sea, and will end existing production by 2050. They also allocated money to help impacted workers make the transition into greener industries. As a major oil producing country in the EU, Denmark’s announcement is major step towards phasing out fossil fuels.

2021: Why Greenpeace left half a tonne of plastic on Boris Johnson’s doorstep
Huge exports. The UK exported 688,000 tons of plastic in 2020. That’s 625kg every 30 seconds. Activists left 625 kilos of plastic waste outside Downing Street – the same amount that the UK is sending overseas every 30 seconds.

September 2021: Greenpeace is uniting with local fishermen to bring an emergency message right to the government’s doorstep. “No fish, no future” – supporting sustainable, small-scale fishermen who sailed up the Thames with a fleet of fishing boats. Immediate and urgent action is required to protect UK inshore waters along the South and East Coast from huge trawlers and nets.


That initial fusing of peace and ecology – Greenpeace – had a persuasive effect, growing to encompass countless campaigns for a safer, fairer, future. Greenpeace organisations can now be found in 57 countries, and counting, with thousands of staff, tens of thousands of volunteers and many tens of millions of supporters.

All are bound by a common mission and values to ensure the ability of the earth to nurture life in all its diversity. “We take personal responsibility and act peacefully. We are independent of those we seek to change, taking no money from governments or corporations. We seek to promote solutions to the problems we oppose and expose”.

Happy Birthday Greenpeace. You have conducted some adventurous, amazing, occasionally foolhardy, creative, ground breaking expeditions and lots of technical scientific research under difficult conditions, backed up by your excellent labs in Exeter. Results over these 50 years have been law changing, supportive of indigenous communities in their fights with big business interests and above all, enhancing ecosystem survival be that on land, in the sea, and in the air, all around this planet. Your reports, and media presence continue in educating us all. Thank you!

“It is amazing, what a few people sitting around their kitchen table can achieve.”
– Dorothy Stowe, Greenpeace founding member


Sally Campbell
September 2021