Sending Out an S.O.S.: It's Time to Save Ourselves


By Peter Willcox

I've been a captain for Greenpeace for 35 years, fighting for our environment in every corner of the globe. I've confronted polluters, poachers, smugglers, terrorists, criminals—both private and corporate, armies, navies, vigilantes and you-name-it. I've been arrested, jailed, had my ships chased, shot at, boarded and attacked, and had French commandos bomb and sink my ship under my feet—killing a crew-mate in the process.

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior was an operation by the "action" branch of the French foreign intelligence services, carried out on July 10, 1985. During the operation, two operatives sank the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet in the port of Auckland, New Zealand on its way to a protest against a planned French nuclear test in Moruroa. Fernando Pereira, a photographer, drowned on the sinking ship.

Wherever I go, people ask me why I continue to take the risks that I take in defending the Earth. For me, the answer is simple: I care about what our planet will be like in the future. Not in the distant future, but the very-near-term-future in which my daughters Anita and Natasha (ages 24 and 20) will be living while raising their own children.

Many environmental activist organizations—like Greenpeace—are very much involved in stopping human suffering caused by pollution, slavery, nuclear radiation, toxic waste and climate change. In more than 400,000 miles of sailing for Greenpeace, I have seen the human cost of environmental destruction in every corner of the planet.

In 1985, I brought the Rainbow Warrior to Rongelap Atoll, in the Marshall Islands/South Pacific, to evacuate an entire town to another island because their home island had been poisoned by the fallout from a U.S. thermonuclear/hydrogen bomb. The U.S. knew the islanders were going to be in the fallout zone, and deliberately left them there as human guinea pigs to study the effects of radiation on real people.

A photo of one of the 350 or so Rongelapese villagers being brought aboard the Rainbow Warrior to be transported to a new island. The fallout from a U.S. hydrogen bomb that the island had been intentionally subjected to had caused the village to suffer for nearly three decades from radiation induced cancers, birth defects and deformities, and even still-born “jelly fish" babies with no spines. Greenpeace helped to move the entire village to a new island so they could rebuild their lives and culture. This was one of the last photos taken by Fernando Pereira before he was killed by French commandos when they blew up the ship in New Zealand a few months later. Photo credit: © Greenpeace / Fernando Pereira

For three decades these gentle people had suffered through birth defects, jelly-fish babies (born without spines or bones, and with strangely colored skin), cancer and just plain-old neglect. Greenpeace brought them to a clean island where they could rebuild their lives. Now, 30 years later, these same islands are being drowned—literally—by rising seas.

We think about saving endangered species—the snail darter, spotted owl, the blue whale—but what about the endangered people of Rongelap? All the other low-lying atolls in the Pacific? The millions of people around the world who's lives will be destroyed if the sea levels rise just a little bit more. Coastal zones around the world have three-times the population density compared to the rest, and almost one-quarter of the world's population in these near-coastal zones. That's more than a billion human beings.

These people are just as endangered in the same way birds and fish are. We are destroying their natural habitat and it's our natural habitat too. We don't live in a bubble that is separate from the environment (although if we keep fouling our air and water, things might come to that). We are destroying and using up our environment and we are, and will continue to be, affected by it. Most animal species avoid fouling their own nests. It's a primal instinct. But somehow humankind—supposedly the smartest of all Earth's species—has lost that instinct. We are destroying our own habitat.

Another human cost of environmental destruction is slavery. In the Amazon, thousands of slaves are being forced to deforest their own land for illegal grazing and logging. The pesticides used for farming on the cleared land flow into the rivers that are used for drinking and bathing for hundreds of miles downstream. Another instance of the human toll I've seen is Liberian stowaways hiding in shipments of illegally logged old-growth African forest, and heard eyewitness accounts of similar refugees who jumped off the ships with their hands tied behind their backs, committing suicide rather than be returned to the forced labor lumber camps.

This note was handed to our activists by through the porthole of a ship carrying illegally harvested timber from Liberia. They had been discovered while the ship was sailing toward Europe. The captain of the ship said that many captains threw stowaways overboard at sea rather than deal with the hassle and paperwork. We also heard stories of Liberian men who jumped off a ship while their hands tied behind their backs, preferring drowning to being returned home. Photo credit © Ken Lowyck

In the Philippines, I witnessed the suffering of hundreds of families being poisoned by the PCB's, dioxins, heavy metals, solvents and waste oil that the U.S. military had left behind on their old bases. One beautiful little six-year-old girl in Manila, Crizel Valencia, had terminal leukemia caused by the toxic materials. This creative and determined girl had painted many of the graphics that we used in the campaign to get the U.S. Military to acknowledge their responsibility and clean up the mess. (Sadly, this still has not happened). During her tour of the second Rainbow Warrior (the first was the ship blown up by the French government), Crizel died in the ship's infirmary, and I saw her mother carrying her off the ship in tears. Seeing that strengthened our resolve to carry on fighting for our environment.

Crizel Valenica was a creative and inspiring little 6 year old girl who was dying of leukemia caused by toxic waste left behind by the U.S. military in the Philippines. Crizel had created the artwork (see her illustration above) that Greenpeace was using to help raise awareness of the issue. Crizel passed away on our ship after a tour of the vessel—she had been waiting months for the chance to see it, and insisted on coming despite her frailty. Thousands of families in the Philippines have been effected by the waste, and the U.S. has done nothing but deny its responsibility. Photo credit: © Aimee Suzara

An analogy I like to use about our planet is that we're all on one boat, and with more than 7 billion people on it, it's actually a pretty small boat. As we drill holes into the bottom of the boat we're all living on, the water is rising. And yet we keep on drilling holes, faster and faster, ignoring the fact that the water is lapping at our knees. How much longer can we continue to ignore that what we are doing to our planet is affecting us all? Saving the whales, the forests and the atmosphere is great, no question. One of the main reasons that environmentalists and activists do what they do is that we are trying to save us from ourselves.

When boats are in mortal danger, they send out an S.O.S. call. Our ship, Planet Earth, and the passengers on it are in mortal danger so I'm sending out a different S.O.S. signal: “Save Our Selves." Only we can rescue us from ourselves so I hope we get the message.

Peter Willcox is the author of Greenpeace Captain: My Adventures in Protecting the Future of Our Planet with Ronald B. Weiss, published by Thomas Dunne Books. He has been a captain for Greenpeace for more than 30 years—the most experienced captain in the organization. He has led the most compelling and dangerous Greenpeace actions to bring international attention to the destruction of our environment.


Stephen Hawking: One Thing Threatens Us More Than Donald Trump … Climate Change

Follow the Money: Republican Attorneys General Attack on the Clean Power Plan

Granddaughter of Exxon Scientist Confronts CEO Over Funding Climate Denial

David Suzuki: How to Feed the World as the Planet Warms

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A dire new report issued by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found that the climate crisis is on a worrying trajectory as the crisis's hallmarks — sea level rise, ice loss and extreme weather — all increased over the last five years, which will end as the warmest five-year period on record.

Read More Show Less
Line of soldiers walking. Pexels

By Peter Gleick

War is a miserable thing. It kills and maims soldiers and civilians. It destroys infrastructure, cultures and communities. It worsens poverty and development challenges. And it damages and cripples vital ecological and environmental resources.

Read More Show Less
People take part in a ceremony to mark the 'death' of the Pizol glacier on Sept. 22. FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP / Getty Images

Hundreds of activists gathered in the Swiss Alps on Sunday to mourn the loss of Pizol, a glacier that has steadily retreated over the last decade as temperatures have warmed the mountain tops, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
Luis Alfonso de Alba Gongora, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for the climate summit speaks at The World Economic Forum holds the Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2018 in New York on Sept. 24, 2018. Ben Hider / World Economic Forum

By Howard LaFranchi

When United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decided to hold a high-level climate summit in conjunction with this year's General Assembly kicking off next week, he was well aware of the paradox of his initiative.

Read More Show Less
Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan meets with Guatemalan farmers on May 29 in Santa Rosa, Guatemala. John Moore / Getty Images

The Trump administration ignored its own evidence on how climate change is impacting migration and food security when setting new policies for cutting aid to Central America, NBC reports.

Read More Show Less
Mike Pence brought the first motorcade to Mackinac Island on Saturday. Cars have been banned on the island since 1898. 13 ON YOUR SIDE / YouTube screenshot

Vice President Mike Pence sparked outrage on social media Saturday when he traveled in the first-ever motorcade to drive down the streets of Michigan's car-free Mackinac Island, HuffPost reported.

Read More Show Less
Inhaling from an electronic cigarette. 6okean / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Shawn Radcliffe

  • As illnesses and deaths linked to vaping continue to rise, health officials urge people to stop using e-cigarettes.
  • Officials report 8 deaths have been linked to lung illnesses related to vaping.
  • Vitamin E acetate is one compound officials are investigating as a potential cause for the outbreak.
The number of vaping-related illnesses has grown to 530 cases in 38 states and 1 U.S. territory, federal health officials reported.
Read More Show Less
Activist Greta Thunberg leads the Youth Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019 in New York City. Roy Rochlin / WireImage / Getty Images

By Julia Conley

As organizers behind Friday's Global Climate Strike reported that four million children and adults attended marches and rallies all over the world — making it the biggest climate protest ever — they assured leaders who have been reticent to take bold climate action that the campaigners' work is far from over.

Read More Show Less