No stranger to the media, Greenpeace activist and counterculture journalist Robert Hunter had a canonic presence in Canada until his death. Decades later Ryerson professor of philosophy Thomas Hart is out to prove his imprint is even larger.
While his actions were fierce and at times dangerous, there was a complex philosophy underpinning all that he did — one that has been largely overlooked.
Hunter left behind over 100 boxes of unseen writing, fictional and theoretical, exploring the tug-of-war relationship between humanity and nature — at a time when climate change threats had not yet entered public discourse.
“(After reading) it just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe no one was talking about these books,” Hart says in his office at Ryerson.
Hunter’s writing is a fusion of politics, spirituality, psychology and ethics. He was concerned with Western societies and their ability to fabricate a mental barrier between their everyday life and the state of the environment — which was rapidly altering after the Industrial Revolution.
Hart says Hunter’s theories strike a level of unique philosophical depth that are consistent and way ahead of their time. He was reflecting on corporate greed and vanishing natural resources, back in 1968 and 1971.
“I guess my academic hat was still on (while reading), and I realized a ton of stuff was drawing on existentialism, phenomenology, gestalt theory…but Bob never went to university. Obviously he was just a voracious reader, particularly interested in the intellectual movement of ecology,” says Hart.
In his writing, he clearly articulates his philosophy of the environment, where we have gone wrong, and how we can initiate change on physical and cerebral levels, to live in harmony with nature.
Dropping one’s ego, getting past the solipsism, and reconnecting humanity to nature are fundamental ideas that lifted Greenpeace operations in the ’70s — except Hunter had penned it all three years before he co-founded it.
“He was simply a public intellectual, who already knew the direction he wanted to go in, but didn’t have a movement,” says Hart.
Although it isn’t unusual to discover the profundity of an individual until after their death, Hart explains this process is slowed when we live in a society that restricts us to one persona at a time.
“We lead these fragmented lives where we have multiple personalities; student, worker, parent, and it’s impossible to live consistently – our whole life is not an integrated whole. Work and play oppose each other. I want to get rid of this and amorphous Bob, expand him, to get people to realize that you can be a lot of things,” says Hart.
Hunter and his friends made caring for the environment “cool” back when the first mass fear of assault on nature began in 1969 with nuclear testing in Amchitka, an island in Alaska that would face 20 years of monitored radioactive leakage. The shock wave of the nuclear blast risked triggering an earthquake, Pacific tidal waves and extreme disruptions to surrounding wildlife.
Activists alike rallied with Greenpeace, forming a gang of charged eco-warriors and eco-cowboys; defenders of Mother Earth. They garnered a lot of media attention to the intentional and unstoppable destruction of the Canadian landscape.
The group did all it could do to sound the climate change alarm. Hunter even insisted on using the phrase “climate collapse,” instead of global warming or climate change, because he felt the urgency was diluted in delicate language.
Being Greenpeace president from 1973-77, he led many radical eco-missions, including the famous goose-chase on water to track down Russian whalers slaughtering sentient whales.
With only an inflatable raft, a zodiac map, and the I-Ching text, he tracked a pod of whales to protect them from shots being fired by the Russians. Irritated with the flailing speedboat, the whalers fired a harpoon right over his head, lodging it inside a whale calf that happened to be under legal hunting size. Hot blood oozed everywhere from the drifting mammal, and the camera was rolling. The footage aired on television in 1975 and prompted public distrust in big corporations. Hunter believed people could change the world more effectively with a camera than a gun.
Hart knew little about Hunter besides being a Greenpeacer – as he too participated in anti-nuclear protests in the mid-’80s.
After spending some time studying in Europe, Hart came home and attended a family backyard barbecue. His brother-in-law Will, son of Bob Hunter, asked if Hart would deliver the memorial speech that year for his father, since he is a practised lecturer.
For 10 years, the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto had hosted an annual memorial speech for Hunter. The crowd has been dwindling, and the family was beginning to worry that Hunter’s accomplishments would be left in the dust.
Hart’s sister married Will after Hunter died of prostate cancer in 2005, so they never actually met. In preparation for the speech, he read three of Hunter’s published books: Erebus (1968), Enemies of Anarchy (1970), and The Storming of the Mind (1971) — and couldn’t look back.
“I was starting to get consumed seeing through these lenses, and that’s when I realized I drank the Kool-Aid. I woke up one morning and I couldn’t go back to seeing the world the way I used to anymore,” says Hart.
After hearing him channel Bob’s voice, the Hunter family immediately encouraged Hart to undertake the work of the whole archive.
Over 100 boxes of scattered writing, collected over more than 30 years, sit in the Robarts Research Library. The archive includes several finished and unfinished manuscripts, correspondences, anthologies of essays and research, hard drives of footage and a fictional sci-fi trilogy.
Hart plans to make the archive digitally accessible for everyone online, and has been busy cataloguing everything in chronological and thematic order. He hopes to expand on Hunter’s work with the memories of others, and place it back on the map, in what Hart believes is a time of ferocious need for accountable environmental change.
“My hope is that people see that there was something far more substantive than Greenpeace Bob Hunter,” says Hart, “and that Bob’s view of how we need to change, in order to survive, will be acknowledged.”
He says he spends one day a week at the library freaking out, and walks back to Ryerson campus with his head full of stuff, feeling completely elated.
Since the release of How to Change the World in 2015 — a documentary of unearthed basement footage of Greenpeace missions — a lot of people have been wondering what’s next for the resurgence of Hunter’s legacy.
Hart says he’s received emails from people in Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco and Washington D.C., thanking him. He’s been contacted by almost all the original Greenpeacers with questions and gratitude.
“I even got an email message from the guy who took care of Bob’s kids while he was away writing in his cabin, saying he’s just desperate to have more of what Bob wrote for 15 years. Some people will flat out say, ‘Bob Hunter was the inspiration of my life,’” says Hart.
Unlike other ecologists, who focus on measuring the limits of our planet’s sustainability, Hunter advised that we’ve exceeded these limits and must reconsider our standard of living.
“Hunter would say that the problem is not that we are running out of fossil fuels, but in our massive amounts of consumption, which require burning fossil fuel,” says Hart. “It’s not about how many gigatonnes of carbon dioxide are in the air, but that we use so much that it produces this kind of effect. Consumption is the underlying problem that we are not dealing with.”
Since capitalism is a system that prioritizes profit motives over earthly initiatives explains Hart, moving life onto another planet seems to be a more widely recognized environmental solution.
Hunter recognizes the lack of political, corporate and public will to confront the issue of man-made pollutants. He argues that the solution lies in a consciousness revolution — a mass awakening to what is really going on.
“It sounds sort of hippy-ish in certain parts the way he puts, but it makes a whole lot of sense,” says Hart. “Most of us, when we are not part of the consumer reality, agree that we need forests, soil, clean air, and clean water but, we lose the plot because everything in society, including the media, is designed precisely to keep us from thinking about any of that.”
Hunter’s convictions lie in the hands of corporations who he called anarchists by definition – entities that acknowledge no authority above them, whose sole concern is their own self-preservation.
“Anarchists are the corporations, and the enemies of anarchy are the rest of us. And the whole idea is that we haven’t yet awakened to the fact that they are extra-governmental, anti-legislation and anti-social justice,” says Hart.
According to Hunter, we are oblivious to this because we are distracted by a barrage of ‘mind bullets’ — ideas that keep us from recognizing that we are part of an interconnected whole, with harmful habits.
Hart explains that television programs, commercials and advertisements are mind bullets that anesthetize people to what is really going on.
“Every day you’re hit with about a thousand (mind bullets), and they convince you that there is only one legitimate version of life,” says Hart, “by the time a child turns 17 their consciousness would be altered having watched 23,000 hours of television.”
Mind bombs, a term Hunter coined for Greenpeace, counteract these bullets. They are described as logical and dramatic mass media messages that are capable of entering the consciousness of a million people, at the same time.
“It comes down to shutting your brain off to the mind bullets, and being more aware of the mind bombs,” says Hart. “He used militaristic language because he saw it as a revolution that was unique, because it had to do with the elimination of violence.”
Hart claims that real change depends on individual decisions that start to build a mass. The recent issue of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is an example of a modern day mind bomb that succeeded in reaching critical mass, says Hart.
At one point an encampment of 7,000 people protested the pipeline, which intended to transport as much as 550,000 barrels of oil a day to a terminal in Illinois. Many protesters have vowed to hold out through the winter.
“Now, it’s no longer a Standing Rock issue against the pipeline, but the government versus the corporation,” says Hart. “This corporation, now acting like the anarchist, is flat out saying the sovereignty of the people of the state of North Dakota are meaningless to us. This is the public view now and divestment is happening.”
Hart is hopeful that Hunter’s idea of an ecological revolution can happen, even if Canada doesn’t become a socialist nation overnight.
“We’re getting to the ultimate tipping point I think, where people are starting to recognize that the profit motive is so extreme, and a capitalist based economy is not subject to change,” says Hart.
Written decades ago, his philosophies can be applied today, as we navigate an atmosphere that has reached its tipping point.
While scientists are brooding over new technologies to fight climate collapse; building satellite fleets to cast shade over the planet, or launching bullets of frozen ozone into the stratosphere, Hunter long argued that the technology is already here, but the will is not.
Hart says the project will take eight or nine years to complete, and he is considering it a second PhD.
“First it was Nietzsche on the philosophy of education, and now it’s Bob Hunter on the philosophy of the environment,” says Hart.
He has just signed a book deal to author Hunters first academic biography, focusing on his intellectual contributions.
Join him on his journey: bobhunter.org.