Greenpeace’s new Rainbow Warrior III, the latest iteration of its eco-activism battleship, sails from Chelsea Piers this Friday on a muscle-flexing tour of the East Coast. The custom-built boat is a big upgrade to Greenpeace’s previous vessels, the first of which was a converted trawler sunk in 1985 by French secret-service agents. (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who tagged along on the maiden voyage in Europe, told the Telegraph, “This is not some hippie tugboat.”) The new Rainbow Warrior has cranes that can deploy smaller Zodiac boats within minutes, the better for buzzing whaling ships, but also space for conducting its own climate research. Aided by more than 100,000 in individual donations, Greenpeace raised $32 million to construct the ship, which arrives at a transformative moment for both the organization and the broader movement: The eco-vigilantes are growing up, even as mainstream greens realize that more-confrontational tactics may be their best recourse. The result is an aggressive yet image-conscious brand of environmentalism that pointedly fights for the planet without conceding the PR war.
Not so long ago, many environmentalists were content to install solar panels and purchase stock in green tech, trusting the Obama administration to pursue their agenda through domestic legislation and international treaties. But that was before cap-and-trade croaked and the Copenhagen conference flopped. As the fight over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline got heated last year, some activists were ready to try a less polite approach. One of those leading the shift was Middlebury professor and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, who’d drawn inspiration from the playbook of Martin Luther King Jr. while teaching a class on the civil-rights leader. “It got me thinking anew about how some of his tactics might play out in the environmental movement,” he says. In August, he organized a sit-in at the White House gates to protest Keystone XL, asking participants to come in a necktie or a dress. “We wanted very much to demonstrate that we weren’t radicals,” McKibben says, knowing that their chosen means might otherwise be viewed that way. At the close of two weeks, 1,253 protesters had been calmly handcuffed and temporarily jailed for trespassing. Their message was heard: On January 18, the president rejected the pipeline proposal, blocking the project, at least for now.
“I imagine we’ll see much more nonviolent direct action,” says McKibben. But with his successful Keystone XL showdown providing a model, he says, “I don’t think it will look particularly extreme.” And this is where Greenpeace is meeting McKibben’s business-casual demonstrators halfway, using its shiny new boat to soften its tempestuous reputation: The upcoming voyage of the Rainbow Warrior III will not be spent playing chicken with illegal tuna seiners but galvanizing public support for clean energy. “There is a profound worry about climate change,” says McKibben, “enough to cause people to do something very hard”—whether that’s getting arrested at the White House or opening wallets for Greenpeace’s boat.