You would expect a man who has devoted 45 years to fighting for the environment to be optimistic about his life’s work. But Greenpeace icon Peter Willcox is a picture of pessimism. A celebrated Earth hero, the 65-year-old is one of the longest-serving captains for the flagship vessel, Rainbow Warrior.
His deep relationship with Greenpeace started in 1981 when he was 28 and the organisation only had 200 people. It took just three years on the job for his life to be threatened, a caveat that has become part and parcel of working as an environmental activist.
In 1985, he was on-board the Rainbow Warrior II in New Zealand, en-route to campaign against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, when the ship was bombed by French foreign intelligence services. The attack killed photographer Fernando Pereira who drowned in the sinking.
“To hell with (the French government),” Willcox says as he recalls the night of July 10. The memory of what happened to Pereira, his friend and the only crewmate with two children, is still particularly painful. “They got away with murder,” he adds.
He sounds furious that Pereira’s family has not found closure as the French agents have largely escaped prosecution in the last 33 years.
Despite this and a resume of other harrowing moments – in 2013, Willcox and 27 shipmates were arrested by the Russians on-board the Greenpeace MV Arctic Sunrise during a protest against Arctic oil drilling – he doesn’t show much emotion in his face. He looks serious and thoughtful, but his voice harbours both heartache and disappointment.
He has the countenance of a man who has been out at sea for so very long – his curly hair dishevelled by the salty winds, a full beard that’s grey and white, his body weathered and tanned by the sun, a pair of dolphins tattooed on his left arm, and a ring tattoo on his finger.
The Rainbow Warrior and the oceans have been his home for more than half his life, and it shows. When Willcox first meets us on-board his ship, he’s in a Greenpeace T-shirt and jeans. Once the official events are done, he back to walking around the cabin in shorts and bare feet.
On the Greenpeace fleet, he has witnessed some of the worst environmental abuses of the century, from killing seals in Canada and whaling in Peru to oil drilling in the Arctic and nuclear waste dumping in Japan.
Each disaster is a like a knife to his heart. In every conversation he makes with the press and the public, he never misses his chance to plead his case, that there is a desperate need for all of us to take care of our planet.
“Climate change is not a distance far problem our children have to deal with,” Willcox stresses. He cites proof of what he’s seen with his own eyes – overfishing, humankind’s addiction to plastics, the burning of fossil fuels and the poisoning of oceans.
The need to protect the world bears repeating, he says. “We’ve lost most of the great coral reefs in the world. We’re gonna lose the oceans. In five to 10 years, there is going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
But beneath his passionate exhortation is also a man frustrated and exhausted by a lifetime of seeming defeats. Despite Greenpeace’s successes – a moratorium on commercial whaling, a ban of nuclear waste dumping, an end to large-scale driftnet fishing on the high-seas – Earth’s health continues to worsen.
“Fish are dying by huge numbers from eating plastic. Birds are dying by the thousands from eating plastic. Whales are dying from eating plastic. And we’re still dumping more plastic into the ocean today,” he says.
“Earth is not in good shape. The ocean is not going to survive unless we quickly change what we are doing. And I don’t see the incentive to change.”
By his own admission, Willcox is surprised by his doom and gloom outlook. “I’m sorry to sound so emphatic about it, but I’ve been working at this for 45 years. I’ve never thought after that time that I’d get to the point now where I am so pessimistic about our chances as a species, but I am.”
His biggest regret is that Greenpeace has not won the war on climate change. “Greenpeace mission has failed because the planet is dying. We’ve lost just about every battle we ever fought, just about every battle. We’ve had our butts kicked all over the planet.”
Feelings of disappointment give way to an imminent anger simmering inside the American. Outrage at the lack of people’s willpower to change their habits. Fury at oil companies that continue to drill. Wrath at Donald Trump and his administration for denying the very real science of global warming and climate change.
So what does he continue to fight? “Because I want my children to have a planet to live on,” Willcox replies without hesitation.
It’s a Catch-22 for the captain. He’s battling to secure a living planet for his family, but his missions have taken him away from them. He rues not being there to see his kids grow up. “My being away has been something they regretted and miss,” he says with a palpable sadness.
Despite all these things that would bring anyone down, Willcox believes the glass is half-full. He sees the sinking of his ship in an act of state-sponsored terrorism as validation of Greenpeace’s clout. He also views his career, though it has made him an absent father, as an inspiration to his daughters.
His eldest is a mercury campaigner and his youngest is a botanist. Both are equally passionate activists as their father. Right now, the fuel that keeps the fire burning inside him is hope, something that he consciously chooses to believe in as a survival mechanism.
“I don’t really know if there is hope or not,” he says. “I know that I do hope, that’s the way I have to live my life. I have to live my life like we have a chance, I have to live my life like I’m going to save something for my children. That’s the way I want to live. I don’t want to give up and sit in the corner.”
He is painfully aware that the odds are stacked against him according to climate change science, but he’s holding on to hope. It’s what keeps him bearing witness to environmental destruction, and it continues to fuel his shouting match at people, at corporations and at governments to take responsibility.
Ultimately, however, Willcox says he has enough in him to continue his fight in this seemingly losing battle for another five years before he plants his feet permanently back on the ground for good.