Peace signs and stink bombs: Paul Watson and his war

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As far as activism goes, Paul Watson could be considered an outlaw, especially after Greenpeace voted him off of their team in 1977. He has since been called the bad-boy of the Canadian environmental movement, a professional radical ecologist, and the ocean’s very own Rambo. Yet pacifists feel he is no more than a pirate of the high seas, an aggressive extremist who wages a belligerent war which he has fought since the early ‘70s. A war that is causing Ishmael to turn in his grave: a war to save the whales.

Film director Trish Dolman dubs Watson an “Eco-Pirate” in her most recent film of the same name, which documents his stormy battle to conquer the environmental front lines at sea. Gandhi would be appalled. But how exactly did a nature-loving-sea-worshipper pick up such a naughty rep? Being kicked out of Greenpeace by a vote of eleven to one (his own vote being the one) certainly helped.

“He was willing to do things that, as an absolutely non-violent organization, we weren’t prepared to do,” Rex Weyler, fellow co-founder of Greenpeace, said in the film.

In Dolman’s documentary, Watson himself had a lot to say about his controversial take on activism.  As a man who takes pride in making enemies (on behalf of the earth, mostly), Watson was not fazed by his divorce from the Greenie clan. He never agreed with their conscientious-objector-M.O. of taking pictures and hanging banners. “How is [protesting] stopping anything?” asks Watson in the film. “It can hardly be called non-violence. You are just allowing the violence to continue by doing nothing.”

Since starting his own eco-extremist vigilante organization, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Watson has brought what he calls the “environmental revolution” onto his own ship. Here, aggression and change fall hand-in-hand—and a bit outside the law—and signs and whistles are better left at the aquarium.

Watson has put his zodiac in the line of Russian harpoon fire, thrown rope beneath whalers’ boats to tangle their propellers, and catapulted stink bombs onto the decks of Japanese boats doing ‘scientific research,’ as he argues, “we all know you don’t need to kill whales to study them.” He has also intentionally chased after and rammed into various whaling vessels with his own ship—most notably, he sunk the Sierra, the infamous pirate whaling ship responsible for killing 25,000 whales. “There has never been any single social revolution achieved without violence,” says the enviro-renegade. “All revolutions are violent revolutions.” Even environmental ones.

Paul Watson continues to lead the eco-revolution as its most combative environmental patriot. He is the ocean’s savior, a sea-superhero who gallantly fights to protect a species from extinction. Extreme? Of course. But as Canada’s environmental elder David Suzuki says in the film, “If we don’t have such people with extreme positions, then we tend to be much more conservative with where we fall.”

Paul Watson may be an eco-pirate, but he makes environmentalism look cool. Perhaps his vigilantism is exactly what the earth demands in these times of green war.

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