Greenpeace Founder Jim Bohlen Dies at 84

by G
7 years ago

Even long-time supporters of Greenpeace often don't know how the now-huge environmental organization got started. I was one of those blithe supporters -- until today, when I learned Greenpeace began with a simple, off-the-cuff comment from Jim Bohlen.

L-R: Greenpeace founders Jim Bohlen, Paul Cote, and Irving Stowe (image courtesy Greenpeace)

It all began back in 1969, when a group of Sierra Club members -- including Jim Bohlen and his wife Marie -- formed the Don't Make a Wave Committee to oppose nuclear testing at Amchitka Island in the Aleutians. One morning, Jim Bohlen complained to his wife that the committee was moving too slowly. The rest is eco-history, according to Greenpeace:

Jim was explaining his frustrations with this slow process to Marie one morning, when she casually asked why they didn't simply sail a boat there. At the same time, they received a telephone call from the Vancouver Sun, asking what campaigns they might be planning. Caught off-guard, Jim said, "We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka to confront the bomb." The newspaper ran the story the following day.

Of course, Jim Bohlen and the other activists kept their word -- even organizing a concert featuring Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs and Chilliwack to fund the trip. In the end, this small group of activists helped prevent that nuclear testing program. According to the New York Times, "Although the boat was intercepted by the Coast Guard, public outcry caused a delay in the test. The program was later abandoned, and Amchitka Island was turned into a bird sanctuary."

The name Don't Make a Wave Committee too was abandoned in exchange for Greenpeace -- which now has more than three million members around the globe.

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Born in 1926 in the Bronx, Jim Bohlen was a radio operator during the Korean War and even worked as a aerospace defense contractor for a time -- before becoming a "peacenik," as Greenpeace puts it, and putting his efforts behind anti-war, anti-nuclear-weapons efforts. So that his stepson could avoid the draft, Bohlen and his family moved to Vancouver in 1967. Bohlen left Greenpeace for a few years when the nonprofit focused on other eco-issues, but returned in the 1980s when Greenpeace campaigned against nuclear weapons and served as a director until he retired in 1993.

Bohlen died Monday, July 5, in Comox, British Columbia, from complications of Parkinson's disease, but his legacy will live on, especially through Greenpeace. Bohlen also wrote a couple of books; his 1975 The New Pioneer’s Handbook: Getting Back to the Land in an Energy-Scarce World actually sounds like many of the green titles on urban homesteading and food independence in bookstores today.

Those curious about Bohlen's life can pick up his memoir, Making Waves: The Origins and Future of Greenpeace. For a few juicy tidbits from Making Waves, read Kieran Mulvaney's post about the memoir and about Bohlen himself at Discovery News.

BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel also blogs at

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