Bob Hunter had many public personas, and the one you might be familiar with depends greatly on your age.
If you’re a baby boomer, you will likely remember him as a swashbuckling founder of Greenpeace who steered his zodiac between a Russian whaler and a humpback only to have a harpoon fired right over his head.
But if your parents are the ones with greying ponytails, you might recall Hunter as the old guy in a bathrobe on Breakfast Television in the 1990s and early 2000s, breaking down the day’s news in “Papercuts,” an off-the-cuff media analysis segment.
Because much of Hunter’s career predates the rise of the Internet, few traces of his historic life are found online: none of his columns or television reports, no mention of his Governor General’s Award, not even YouTube clips of him saving seals, sailing into nuclear blast areas or animating a conversation on Citytv’s short-lived Hunter’s Gatherings.
Now, a decade after Hunter’s death in 2005 at age 63, one Toronto scholar has set out to introduce the man to a new generation, not as an environmental activist or a media-savvy commentator, but as a philosopher — perhaps the most important eco-theorist this country has produced.
Thomas Hart, a professor of philosophy at Ryerson University, gained exclusive access to the archive of Hunter’s personal papers and spent much of the past year painstakingly cataloguing the unpublished manuscripts, private correspondence and personal musings collected over more than three decades — material, he says, that shows Hunter had remarkably consistent clarity of thought through the many chapters of his life.
“I realized that I was dealing with someone who was forced by society to specialize as a ‘journalist’ and an ‘activist,’ but in fact was a true public intellectual,” Hart said. “Someone who should have a place in the pantheon of great thinkers.”
Hart describes Hunter’s thinking as a synthesis of politics, sociology, spirituality and ethics that can be found in the comic books he drew in his teens (humans must abandon a poisoned Earth and aliens reject their pleas for help), the novel he published in his 20s (slaughterhouse workers anesthetize themselves to the horrors they must inflict) and his two works of media theory from the 1970s (a Marshall McLuhan-inspired media “mind bomb” can awaken mass consciousness). But it’s also there in action when Hunter co-founded Greenpeace, which would grow into the world’s biggest environmental organization, and his journalism of the ’80s and ’90s, when he recognized early on the threat of climate change and did his utmost to sound the alarm.
“Every time I delve into it, the consistency of thought is there,” Hart said. “He recognized what we do, how it must be changed, and why.”
Hart devoted decades to studying Friedrich Nietzsche, another thinker who was dead long before his importance was recognized, and says the two thinkers share an “anti-specialist” theme.
“It’s about getting past the solipsism, past the fundamental isolation in modern western culture,” he said.
This means not only breaking down the divisions between people through media, but also breaking down the mental barriers between civilization and nature. Hart calls it “the unisolated notion” — the idea, simply, that we are not alone.
“Drop the ego” is how Hunter would have phrased it in his long-haired, mustachioed days. Only then can we bring about a “revolution in consciousness.”
This isn’t an academic exercise, said Hart. It’s really about finding a new way to understand our place in the world — essential if we are to face the existential crisis of climate change.
“Bob is no longer with us. His actions are no longer part of the calculation. What we do have is his words. And I have 100 boxes of them. I want to see if we can use his words to ensure our actions are judged positively.”
The many phases of Bob Hunter
Precocious high schooler:
Born in 1941 in Manitoba, Hunter knew he wanted to be a writer by the time he was in his teens, drawing comic books and writing science fiction short stories. Before graduating from high school, he received an art school scholarship, but instead of attending, he ripped it up and set out for Vancouver. There he wrote his first novel, Erebus, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award.
Hunter told everyone he got his first newspaper job by walking into the Winnipeg Tribune newsroom and telling an editor that he would consent to lending the paper his talents. Later he would be the only hippie at the Vancouver Sun, growing his hair long and wearing bell bottoms. The paper formalized his role as a “counterculture” reporter just as the anti-nuclear movement was taking off. When he proposed accompanying protesters on a ship that was to sail to a nuclear test blast area in Alaska, he had a world exclusive on the genesis of Greenpeace.
Somewhere along the voyage, Hunter stopped reporting on and started leading the group, which called itself the Don’t Make a Wave Committee. Shortly afterward, the U.S. announced it would cease all nuclear testing in Alaska and Hunter became the founding president of Greenpeace, the first international ecological organization. In a move no one saw coming, he shifted Greenpeace’s goals and set out to save the whales, which were being hunted into extinction — a loss he believed represented man’s most gluttonous attack on nature.
The quiet years:
Greenpeace grew so rapidly that the organization became uncontrollable from its small Vancouver office. Internal power struggles saw Hunter bow out and retreat to a reclusive cabin on the North Shore with his wife, Bobbi, and two young children. Here, he drafted books and columns and paid the bills by writing scripts for The Beachcombers and later Danger Bay. Unable to steer completely clear of politics and the environment, he was hired by various First Nations bands to co-ordinate communications and fight for their treaty rights.
Discovering his roots:
Through his work with First Nations, he soon discovered he was himself part aboriginal. Along with Robert Calihoo, another “white person” who found out he was native, Hunter wrote Occupied Canada, which retold the history of Canada from an indigenous point of view. The book, which was published shortly after Quebec’s 1990 Oka crisis came to a head, rode a public wave of consciousness of aboriginal issues and won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction.
As seen on TV:
After winning a scriptwriting competition, Hunter moved his family to Toronto to attend film school, but was soon persuaded to drop out by Moses Znaimer, who invited him to become Citytv’s first “ecological reporter.” Hunter capitalized on City’s willingness to be experimental by blurring the line between journalist and activist, often participating in the environmental media stunts he was covering, including sending a delegation of aboriginals out to intercept the ships re-enacting Columbus’s discovery of America. Hunter would become best known for his daily news commentary on Breakfast Television, called Papercuts, in which he would dissect the morning papers while wearing a bathrobe in his basement.
A Hunter gatherer
There’s a warehouse in Downsview where the University of Toronto Media Commons keeps its archive. It includes shelf upon shelf, row upon row of old Betamax tapes, tins of 35-mm film and countless boxes of scripts, budgets and contracts collected by some of Canada’s greatest media figures.
Moses Znaimer, who revolutionized local television in the 1970s and ’80s, knows all about it because his archives are kept there. That’s why, in the last years of Bob Hunter’s life, Znaimer encouraged him to collect everything.
“He was a guy of prodigious productivity and I knew there were vast amount of materials mouldering away in boxes,” said Znaimer. “I knew him to be involved in a form of environmentalism which caught my imagination … He took physical risks … He was that classic case of an intellectual in action — that’s rare.”
Hunter donated the first 20 boxes and his wife, Bobbi, added 70 after his death in 2005. More material has since come in, but no one took the time to go through it all.
That was until early last year, when Hunter’s family was seeking someone to deliver the 10th annual Bob Hunter Memorial Lecture at the University of Toronto’s school of the environment.
“He was practically Nostradamus” on climate change, said Hunter’s son, Will. “He was treated like Chicken Little but the reality is that everything he was writing is happening now.”
Will wanted someone who could draw together the many facets of his father, and figured only a philosopher would suffice.
“Dad had a big philosophical basis to a lot of his beliefs. He might not have had a university education, but he was constantly talking about Carl Jung, Nietzsche and Gestalt theory and the collective unconscious,” he said.
Will wouldn’t have to look very far. His wife’s brother, Thomas Hart, is an award-winning philosophy professor who had just returned from years in Utrecht, Netherlands. Ryerson had given Hart a job teaching courses on ancient philosophy and Nietzsche, but teaching was starting to wear thin. So when Will called, asking him to give a lecture about Hunter, Hart seized the challenge.
Hart had never met Bob Hunter and knew little about his life. So he began by reading all his published books, from the 1968 novel Erebus and his history of Canada from an aboriginal point of view, Occupy Canada, to a posthumously published activist memoir, The Greenpeace to Amchitka.
“It was after reading The Storming of the Mind (a 1971 book) that I realized I had come across something that would change my life,” said Hart.
Hart’s lecture, delivered in a packed hall last April, focused on the connectedness Hunter felt with all things: whales and seals as well as whalers and sealers.
That oneness put Hunter ahead of his contemporary ecologists, who tended to see things in terms of good nature versus evil corporation, Hart said, and it allowed him to employ media as a language to translate between individual isolation and the connected universe.
He did so by deploying “mind bombs”: dramatic images that galvanize public opinion in a way no logical argument ever could.
This combination of metaphysical connectedness and tactical media strategy is what makes Hunter’s work so important, Hart said.
Under the fluorescent lights of a research room in Robarts Library last fall, Hart sat beside an aging book trolley, its metal shelf flexing under eight bankers’ boxes.
It was the third batch of boxes he’d gone through and there were 100 boxes to go. Inside each, dog-eared file folders, newsletters and correspondence are interspersed with musings: yellowed pages of stream-of-consciousness typing sandwiched with the newspaper or magazine article that spawned the thought.
“You get one chapter of a novel in one box and … there isn’t a period at the end of the last line. And you know that there is a chapter somewhere else.”
“Bob’s work isn’t done and he’s not around to do it anymore. But I’m in a position to bring that work to light, keeping it current and creating a foundation.”
Hunter’s widow, Bobbi, has given the project her blessing. After a long period of mourning, she’s found strength in a group forming around his legacy. British filmmaker Jerry Rothwell has made a documentary from footage discovered in the basement of the Greenpeace International office in the Netherlands, which premiered at TIFF last fall.
“I was afraid that he was going to be forgotten, lost in time,” said Bobbi. “But now I’m not so sure.”
She recounts a story from Hunter’s last months, when she returned home to find him sitting on a bench in the corner of their backyard. When she approached, the typically upbeat character was in such a morose mood that they sat silently.
“I don’t know if I’ve had any effect,” he finally said.
Bobbi didn’t know what to say, but finally formulated the only possible response.
“Bob, you’re never going to know. The only time that your impact is going to be known is after you’re gone.”
More than a decade later, she adds: “I said that thinking that I would know, and now I realize that I might die not knowing.”
“I think he’s going to be discovered as a great intellectual,” she said. “Sometimes it takes a couple of generations before they’re received as they should be.”
The letter that started it all:
Written in 1970, almost two years before the protest voyage that would give birth to Greenpeace, this letter announces the decision of a local committee of the Sierra Club of B.C. to launch a campaign against nuclear testing in Alaska. “These multi-megaton explosions threaten B.C. with tidal waves, earthquakes and radioactive pollution,” reads the letter, which contains the first known reference to the name “Don’t Make a Wave.”
During preparations for its protest trip, the Don’t Make a Wave Committee would end each meeting with the hippie-era salutation “peace.” After a church basement meeting, one member said, “Let’s make it a green peace,” and the organization’s new name was born. The small group of Vancouver radicals funded their first year of operations almost entirely through button sales. In 1971, they sold more than $20,000 worth of buttons, equivalent to about $125,000 today.
When Greenpeace turned its attention to saving whales in 1975, its biggest challenge was to simply find the Russian whalers in the millions of square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, they had a contact at the International Whaling Commission, who covertly communicated the position of the Russian ships to them, allowing the slower protest boats to intercept their targets.
On Oct. 18, 1981, Vancouver’s mayor, Mike Harcourt, declared a citywide “Greenpeace Day” to commemorate the group’s inaugural voyage 10 years earlier. “Whatever each of us may think of them, there is no question that Greenpeace has grown into one of the largest and most influential ecological organizations across Canada and around the world,” Harcourt said.
Childhood comic book:
Long before his activism, Hunter was a budding artist keenly interested in science fiction, and he drew apocalyptic comic books containing his visions of future environmental collapse. In 1971, with the help of a Canada Council grant, he published his first and only comic, Time of the Clockmen.
While there are still scores of boxes of Hunter’s archives to be explored, so far nine unpublished books have turned up. Three of them appear to be a trilogy of Canadiana fiction about the fading of French influence in western Canada and the rise of multicultural society, starting with the first novel, Long Way to the Horizon. Thomas Hart, who is organizing and cataloguing the archive, hopes to have the works published before writing a biography based on the material he has discovered.