How Greenpeace Works

You'll see Greenpeace in the places you'd least want to be. The crews of Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) face down whaling ships in the North Sea, perch atop abandoned oil rigs and float through the forbidden zones of nuclear test areas. Gre­en­peace ­uses sensational, nonviolent confrontations to expose governments and corporations that abuse environmental laws. Such bold tactics create journalistic buzz, get the public's attention and frequently influence national and international environmental and conservation policies.

Greenpeace members
Andre Durand/AFP/Getty Images
French police arrest Greenpeace members
protesting a movement of plutonium.


Learn More

No organization embodies daring environmentalism quite like Greenpeace, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving endangered species, protecting the environment and educating the public. However, Greenpeace is more than just a group of radicals on RIBs willing to put themselves in harm's way. Greenpeace International (properly Stichting Greenpeace Council) is a large International Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) with national and regional chapters in 40 countries. It has 2.8 million supporters worldwide who donate money and volunteer time. Greenpeace cultivates a large support base because it does not accept donations from governments, corporations, political parties or multinational bodies like the United Nations or the European Union.

Although some environmental groups criticize Greenpeace for its tactics and argue that such organizations should focus solely on research and lobbying, Greenpeace has had marked success in its more than three decades of protesting. In this article, we'll learn about Greenpeace's mission, its history, its victories and its fleet of ships.

In the next section, we'll learn about Greenp­eace's mission and goals.


Greenpeace Objectives

Greenpeace began in 1971 with the uncomplicated goal of preventing a United States nuclear test on Amchitka Island off the coast of Alaska. Greenpeace initially focused on similar ecological peace protests, like entering the forbidden zones of nuclear test sites to attract the public's attention. Over the decades, Greenpeace has expanded its agenda and now defines its purpose through six primary objectives.

  • Halt climate change. Greenpeace, like most environmental organizations, places fighting global warming at the top of its list. Greenpeace takes a fairly hard line on alternative energy -- it deems nuclear power and clean coal technology, often popular alternatives to traditional fossil fuels, unnecessary or dangerous. Instead, it champions wind power, solar power and biofuels. Greenpeace also suggests governments reduce emissions through carbon trading and carbon taxes.
  • Protect oceans. Greenpeace is perhaps best known for its campaigns to protect whales and other large aquatic animals from hunters and trappers. Greenpeace programs target multiple areas of ocean defense, centering primarily on pollution and unfair or abusive fishing practices.

    Rainbow Warrior II
    Eric Estrade/AFP/Getty Images
    Tuna fishing vessels circle the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II to prevent it from docking.

  • Save ancient forests. Logging and clear-cutting of ancient forests drive species of plants and animals toward extinction and threaten the lives of people whose survival depends on the forest's resources. Greenpeace protects forests by educating the public about the origin of tropical woods, holding governments accountable for clear-cutting and even by camping in trees to stave off loggers.
  • Achieve disarmament and peace. The world maintains an armory of 30,000 nuclear weapons, and several countries actively pursue the technology to develop even more. Greenpeace's first mission protested nuclear testing, and the organization continues its advocacy of peace and disarmament today. Public opinion polls conducted by Greenpeace show a hearty disapproval of nuclear weapons in armed and unarmed nations, and the organization leverages these statistics to gain way in the disarmament battle.
  • Reduce toxic materials in products. Many electronics and other products contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals that are difficult to dispose of and impossible to recycle. Greenpeace studies the effects of these chemicals on water, air and the human body and advocates substituting safer alternatives for dangerous materials.
  • Encourage sustainable agriculture. Greenpeace believes genetically modified crops decrease biodiversity and pose a threat to the food supply. The organization suggests labeling all genetically engineered (GE) ingredients and segregating GE crops to avoid unplanned hybrids.

In the next section, we'll learn about Greenpeace's origins and some notable events in its history.


Greenpeace History

Canadians joke that if you walk into any Vancouver bar, you're sure to meet a Greenpeace founder. But while many early members shaped Greenpeace into the NGO it is today, the organization had seven primary founders. The original group began its protests in 1971 when the United States announced a plan to detonate a nuclear test bomb on Amchitka Island, off the coast of Alaska. Canadians opposed the idea not only because the five megaton bomb would contaminate the island and harm the otters, bald eagles and peregrine falcons that lived there, but also because the explosion had the potential to create a tidal wave. In reference to the impending threat of a tidal wave, the Vancouver group called itself the Don't Make a Wave Committee.

The group soon gained the support of the Sierra Club and made plans to charter a boat, power it into the test site's forbidden zone and force the United States to stall the detonation. As the Committee broke after a meeting, flashing peace signs in parting, one member suggested that they "make it a green peace" [Weyler]. The name stuck, and although the mission to Amchitka Island did not prevent the bomb's detonation, Greenpeace made headlines and raised the public's awareness of nuclear testing and its hazards.

Greenpeace gained international recognition a year later when the organization faced off against the French military at the Pacific's Moruroa Atoll nuclear test site. After the crew of Greenpeace's boat, Vega, refused to leave the test site's forbidden zone, a French minesweeper rammed the vessel and detained the crew.

The Rainbow Warrior after an attack
Ross White/AFP/Getty Images
The Rainbow Warrior after an attack by
the French secret service in 1985

The incident began a string of violence by the French government toward Greenpeace, culminating in the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior. While the ship was docked in Auckland, New Zealand, preparing for a trip to Moruroa, French secret service agents planted two bombs on board and exploded the ship. The bombing resulted in one fatality when a photographer, Fernando Pereira, drowned after the second blast. The French government initially denied responsibility for the bombing but eventually accepted blame. France's minister of defense resigned after New Zealand led an investigation into the events.

Despite the violence of its opponents, Greenpeace persevered. The organization launched a new Rainbow Warrior in 1989 and sent it back to Moruroa. The French finally ended their nuclear tests at Moruroa in 1996.

As the small Don't Make a Wave Committee grew into the large, successful Greenpeace, its national and regional chapters began to argue over projects and methods. The organization was fitfully expanding its mission to include environmental concerns beyond nuclear disarmament and peace. In the next section, we'll learn how Greenpeace grew into the international organization it is today.

The Greenpeace Fleet

Greenpeace makes its mark around the world with its fleet of RIBs and several large vessels. There are four ships that represent the organization.

  • Arctic Sunrise. The ship that eventually became the Arctic Sunrise began its career as a sealing vessel. Greenpeace even confronted the ship in its previous incarnation several times before buying it in 1996. The Arctic Sunrise took part in the Brent Spar victory and became the first ship to circumnavigate Antarctica's James Ross Island, a feat made possible by the effects of global warming.
  • Rainbow Warrior. Greenpeace's most famous ship is named for a North American Indian myth that prophesizes the rise of rainbow warriors who will defend the earth after man's greed has made her sick. The current Rainbow Warrior was launched in 1989 after a terrorist act undertaken by the French government destroyed the original ship. The Rainbow Warrior helped relieve populations harmed by the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia.
  • Esperanza. The Esperanza is Greenpeace's largest and most environmentally friendly ship. The organization uses it for research and long-range work.
  • Argus. Greenpeace uses the Argus, its smallest motor ship, primarily to protest the production, application and dumping of toxic chemicals. The vessel also has instruments on board to examine soil and water samples.


Greenpeace Governance

While Greenpeace's first protest at Amchitka Island had a clear, straightforward goal, its subsequent efforts lacked the same clarity. Members interpreted the organization's ecological goals differently. National and regional chapters disputed tactics and projects.

The brain scientist Dr. Paul Spong convinced some members of the Vancouver Greenpeace chapter to take up the cause of whales and defend them from hunters. Many volunteers were captivated by the mission that ultimately came to define Greenpeace, but others felt this pursuit was limiting and less important than protesting nuclear testing.

Such rifts between group members and between national and regional organizations threatened the solidity of Greenpeace. The organization needed an official governing body with an unambiguous mission and budget. David McTaggart, one of the Vega's Moruroa crew, founded Greenpeace International in 1979. This was the start of a unified mission and mindset for Greenpeace.

A Slick Victory
In 1995, Greenpeace achieved one of its most notable victories. Shell Oil had plans to scuttle a 14,500-ton oil storage facility called the Brent Spar in the North Sea. Activists scaled the Brent Spar and faced water cannon attacks by the United Kingdom government and Shell. Although the United Kingdom maintained Shell's right to sink the colossus, the oil company eventually bowed to public protests and boycotts across Europe and promised to recycle the facility. Ultimately, Greenpeace's action contributed to an international ban on the ocean disposal of oil rigs.

Brent Spar
David Sims/AFP/Getty Images
Activists atop the Brent Spar celebrate after the Shell Oil Company agreed to recycle the oil platform.

Greenpeace International (or Stichting Greenpeace Council) is based in Amsterdam. Its board of directors sets the organization's annual budget and elects and monitors the Greenpeace International Executive Director. The board members are chosen by representatives from national and regional offices, who are in turn chosen by national and regional boards elected by Greenpeace members. The council is dedicated to the aforementioned six primary objectives, and you can learn more about recent developments, whales and nuclear bombs by perusing the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Bob Hunter, 63, a Founder of Greenpeace, Is Dead."
    The New York Times. May 3, 2005.
  • "Greenpeace." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • Greenpeace International.
  • Greenpeace USA.
  • Lewis, Paul. "David McTaggart, a Builder of Greenpeace,
    Dies at 69." The New York Times. March 24, 2001.
  • Saxon, Wolfgang. "Ben Metcalfe, the Founder of Greenpeace,
    Is Dead at 83." The New York Times. October 18, 2003.
  • Weyler, Rex. author name "Waves of Compassion." UTNE Reader.