An interview with the Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson on what it means to be a leader of change.
Recently I have been thinking about how I can actively make environmental change. It could be due to increasing restlessness as a result of being inside a lot more thanks to the seemingly never-ending pandemic. But this restlessness and desire to make change has been burning within long before I was stuck at home. No, this desire has always been within, however I have not always acted on it.
The past year or so have shown that if you want something done, it’s time to go do it. Now is the time that we need to be active, with many great examples of that. Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future being just one incredible example. These thoughts brought me to pose some questions to myself: what does it mean to be an active environmentalist? And how can I, Alex Goddard, one individual, become a leader of change?
In order to do so I began thinking of examples of leaders of environmental change, and people who I could base my working definition of “active environmentalism” on. To me, an active environmentalist is anyone who puts themselves on the frontline of making environmental change. This can be through various different ways such as protests, education, legal action and when necessary – direct, maybe even physical action.
When thinking of leaders of change in the environmental field, one of the first people I thought of was Paul Watson, founder of The Sea Shepherd. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was founded in 1977 with just one boat but has since turned into a global movement with thousands of volunteers and members around the world. The Sea Shepherd’s main goal has always been to expose and intercept illegal fishing operations and, fittingly on a very blue planet, the organization has a vast range around the world. The Sea Shepherd’s efforts were also shown to many people globally through the show Whale Wars on Discovery Channel.
I began doing research on Captain Watson and was extremely inspired by the way just one individual was able to start what is now a global movement. In my mind, Captain Watson was the exact person I should be basing my definition of an ‘active environmentalist’ off of and is a figurehead leader of environmental change.
With all of this in mind I reached out the Captain Watson and the Sea Shepherd to see if someone at the organization would have time for an interview about the topics of active environmentalism and leaders of change. A representative to the Sea Shepherd quickly responded and within a week I was in a Zoom call with Captain Watson for a very enjoyable and enlightening interview:
AG: In my mind I have my own definition for what an active environmentalist is, but to you, what is the definition?
PW: Well I don’t really believe in protesting, so I set Sea Shepherd up to be an interventionist group that’s now a movement. What we do is we oppose illegal activities to protect marine wildlife and we do so under a strategy I developed in the 70s called aggressive non-violence. This means that we’re aggressive, but we don’t hurt anybody, we’ve never caused a single injury in our 42-year history, but we document, intervene, block, harass and do everything we can to shut down these illegal operations and we’ve been quite successful at it.
AG: So, to you, would you say active environmentalists are not necessarily just people who go to protests, but people who actually are going out making some form of physical or visible change?
PW: Well to me protesting is somewhat submissive. It’s like hanging banners, taking pictures and holding up picket signs doesn’t really change much, I think you have to take a more aggressive stance. But then again that approach doesn’t have to be direct action, it could be litigation, education, it could be legislation. All of these things work towards the same goal. The point is to be physically doing something that is going to create change and not just protest it.
AG: What role would you say active environmentalism plays within shaping the future of our world in terms of conservation efforts, stopping global warming etc.?
"All social change comes through the passion, the imagination and the courage of individuals and groups of individuals." - Paul Watson
PW: All social change comes through the passion, the imagination and the courage of individuals and groups of individuals. We can’t depend on governments to bring about any of this change, governments never do that, governments cause the problems they don’t solve them. You look at the history of social movements be it slavery, civil rights or women rights, it wasn’t the governments that brought about change it was individuals or groups of individuals. That’s where change has to come from, from the ground up, from people who are passionate about seeing what they want to change done and go with it.
AG: That leads into my next question really nicely. When I think of leaders of environmental change, Sea Shepherd and the work your organisation has done is definitely one that came to mind immediately. What would you say it takes to become a good leader of environmental change and how can other organisations who want to follow in your footsteps do so?
PW: To be a good leader in this movement you have to first of all have the passion for what you’re doing and have the courage to go forward with that and be undeterred by criticism and have confidence in your goals and what you want to achieve. And understand that each and every individual has the power to create significant change. Because of Dian Fossey we still have mountain gorillas in Rwanda, David Wingate by himself prevented the extinction of the Bermuda Storm Petrel and there’s so many cases like that. And we’re seeing more and more – Greta Thunberg has done more work to communicate the issue of climate change than practically anyone I know. Again, it is all coming from passionate individuals.
AG: Greta Thunberg is definitely an example of a leader of environmental change, the work she’s done as an individual is crazy – the Friday’s for the Future and all that.
PW: And she had the confidence to not be put off by criticisms even from world leaders.
AG: Yeah, some of the tweets you see about her and comments she gets from grown adults is crazy. That touches on what my follow up question was going to be. I mentioned organisations and how they can follow in your footsteps, but what do you think is the most effective way to get individual people passionate about the environment and inspire individual action?
PW: I find what gets people passionate is something that is directly impacting their life. Whether it’s health, or someone they love, or an ecosystem that’s been destroyed – whatever - it’s that kind of revelation that makes people passionate. What people have to be able to do is channel their abilities, skills, ideas in a way that is constructive. That depends on each individual person. I think that the strength of the environmental movement lies with literally hundreds of thousands of individuals addressing hundreds of thousands of issues and dealing with those. Strength lies in diversity just like strength lies in ecosystems with diversity and also with interdependence. So that is why it’s important to have a movement. I started Sea Shepherd as an organisation but today it’s a movement, I’m not in control of it, it’s in 45 different countries. All have separate national leaderships in various countries who all work towards the same goal. You can shut down an individual and you can shut down an organization but it’s pretty difficult to shut down a movement.
"You can shut down an individual and you can shut down an organization but it’s pretty difficult to shut down a movement. - Paul Watson"
AG: I find especially throughout my life that’s something I’ve noticed – that inspiring individuals comes from their personal experience. Myself for example, I was born and raised in Barbados – the whole reason I got into environmental science, doing my undergrad and master’s degree in it, and been passionate about the environment is because I watched (witnessed) reefs die. I really love snorkeling and watching a hotel get built that then washes cement and sand over a reef and kill it, knowing the construction is directly why. So, I think experiences like that are how you inspire individuals, but it’s more how do you get people who don’t have those experiences passionate about the environment. That I find is always my issue.
PW: Well the other problem we have is we live in an anthropocentric society and the solution is to be found in a biocentric approach. We have to understand that we’re part of everything. Unfortunately, society has this idea, this delusion, that everything revolves around humanity and until we learn to live in harmony with other species and in accordance with the basic laws of ecology, we’re not going to survive as a species. If we don’t realise that soon it’s going to be too late.
AG: Definitely – we need to be trying to live with nature rather than have the man-nature dominance that people tend to be so obsessed with. Once someone is inspired to take action – say they’ve seen something happen and want to make a difference, maybe someone like me, or one of my friends – how can individuals help organisations like the sea shepherd? I know donations really help and there’s also volunteer opportunities, but what is the most impactful way people can help?
PW: With Sea Shepherd people can volunteer to join the crew, or they can be on the shore support teams, or they can donate as a supporter. But really what is needed is for people to look around the communities and ecosystems they live in and recognize what the problems are and see what they can do to address those problems. People always say think globally act locally, but I say think globally and locally, act globally and locally. Get involved both in your community and internationally where you can. Again, for instance, people just have the confidence to know and understand that they can make a difference. Back in 1979 I had a crew member who said we’ve got to do something about protecting chimpanzees in laboratories and I said, “well this is Sea Shepherd Alex, we’re not going to go into a laboratory, why don’t you do something about it”. He said, “well what can I do?”, he was 18 years old. “Well use your imagination, think about it and see how you can get involved”. Well, anyway he went back to Maryland and got a job in one of those laboratories and documented everything surreptitiously and after a year he presented his documentation to the Washington post and to television and everything and ended up shutting that lab down. Then he went on to found his own organization which is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. So, individuals – that’s an 18-year-old kid asking, ‘what can I do’. I got a call from a kid in Scotland and he said, “they’re killing Grey Seals in the Orkney Islands, what are you going to do about it?” I said, “well I’m on the other side of the world and YOU’RE in Scotland, what are you going to do about it?” And he said, “what can I do?”. So, we talked to him and he ended up organising a Sea Shepherd group and we ended up going there to where they were killing the seals and it got really aggressive. They literally pulled the rifles out of the hands of the sealers, they all got arrested but it generated so much publicity that we raised enough money to buy that island and it’s now a seal sanctuary. So, I always throw the question of “What are you going to do” back at people, I always say well what are you gonna do?
AG: I think that’s a really good way of inspiring people especially. So many people are always asking, people like me for example I like to think that I do what I can to make a difference, but what am I REALLY going to do.
PW: Well we can’t do everything; strength is in diversity and strength is in numbers.
These were all of the questions I had for Captain Watson directly surrounding the ideas of environmental activism and being a leader of change. We had some extra time however, and I was curious about the effects of the ongoing pandemic with regards to conservation as I have read differing studies on the effects.
AG: Out of my own curiosity, when this whole pandemic started my immediate thought was that conservation efforts would be increased. I’ve seen a lot of articles saying that’s not been the case, however. The reason I thought that was because, I think I was naïve in thinking it, but because I thought people weren’t going to be able to go hunting as we’re not supposed to be going out, but obviously what they were doing is illegal in the first place so it’s not exactly stopping them if it’s a little bit more illegal. Have your efforts in conservation been affected at all during this pandemic time?
PW: Poaching has increased because poachers always take advantage of things like this. There has been a reduction in legal fishing operations I think, but only 10% worldwide but it’s about 25% for the European fleets. It hasn’t really impacted us; we’re still getting the same amount of donations actually a slight increase and we still have volunteers and we’re still operating. Some of our ships have been quarantined and we’re waiting for the quarantines to be lifted but we have two ships operating in West Africa now going after poachers and we’re working on operation Milagro to protect the endangered Vaquita in the sea of Cortez and that’s going ahead. Poachers will take advantage of it. During the Ebola epidemic in Africa we certainly saw the poachers take advantage of that because enforcement agencies tend to slack off when those kinds of issues are arising. I was hoping that the pandemic would be a wakeup call, but I think I was having more enthusiasm about that happening than was possible. Because this COVID-19 is directly linked to species and habitat destruction and climate change, and there’s going to be more of it - there’s going to be more pandemics that’s just inevitable. In fact, I’ve been writing about it for 20 years about how this was going to happen and look what happened. People have to see the links between what we’re doing, and the viral epidemics or pathogens being released.
AG: I think when this all happened my immediate thought was that something good would come from it, like you said, people realise maybe we shouldn’t be eating some of these species, maybe we shouldn’t be killing them. I think the initial outpouring was nice to see, with people being supportive but now as time’s gone on, even in terms of emissions they’ve definitely started to increase again. It’s sad to see that we’re going back to the same normal.
PW: Humans are locked into a problem. An ability which used to serve us quite well is now going to be our downfall and that’s what I call adaptation to diminishment. Back 20-30,000 years ago when things changed or diminished you had to adapt to the resources. The problem is now we’re adapting to the diminishment and just moving on. So, a species gets removed we just move on and find something else – we forget how things were. If this were 1965 and I were to say you know in 40 years’ time, you’ll be buying water in plastic bottles and paying more for that water than the equivalent amount of gasoline you would’ve laughed at me. Nobody is going to do something that stupid yet here we are doing it without a second thought. We adapted to diminishment. We remove one species of fish because it’s been overfished and replace it with another one. For instance, divers who’ve gone to Cocos island will say it’s incredible what’s there, the wealth of life and I said you know, 30 years ago it was ten times better. You’re accepting what’s happening there now because you’re seeing now, but that’s not what it was. As beautiful as it might be now it was even more beautiful then, but they didn’t experience that so therefore they don’t feel it in the same way. At some point it’s going to sneak up and smack everyone on the back of the head, I think that this present situation is just a harbinger of more serious issues that are going to come. Covid-19 is nothing compared to what the real consequence is of climate change.
AG: I definitely consider this to be a bit of foreshadowing for the future, I think. It’s definitely not the worst that’s going to happen if we don’t change our ways. We’ll see what that brings, I always like to be a bit more optimistic, so I have hope.
PW: I’m always optimistic because there’s one thing you can learn from mass extinction events since the beginning of life on the planet. There’s been 5 mass extinction events, we’re now in the 6th, the Holocene. But what do they all have in common? I mean the Permian extinction wiped out 97% of everything. What they had in common was that it takes 18-20 million years, and after that time everything will be as beautiful as ever, but we just won’t be here.
AG: That’s the thing, I feel like people forget the Earth doesn’t need humans. Humans need the earth and I feel like that’s something that’s lost on a lot of people.
PW: One thing I say over and over again is that if the ocean dies, we all die. If phytoplankton disappear tomorrow, we die.
AG: I think the importance of nature because everything is so packaged, people don’t really live within it you know. They go to the supermarket and see meat in a Styrofoam tray, or they get their fish, but they don’t see where it’s coming from or the effects we really have on it and I think that’s something that a lot of people need to understand. That to me is how I want to spread the environmental message – I think people can become a lot more environmentally conscious by just knowing where the food we eat comes from, knowing where and how your actions impact ecosystems.
AG: As a final question – this was just supposed to be a bit more of a fun one! I know you’ve had a lot of time doing conservation efforts and you’ve helped conserve a lot of species – was there ever a favourite species of yours that you’ve saved?
PW: I don’t really have favourites because I think that it all, everything from phytoplankton to whales are equally important.
On that note, a lovely reminder to us that all species no matter how little or small is of the utmost importance, we concluded our conversation. I hope this was as inspiring to you, the reader, as it was to me. In the future I hope we all have the confidence and knowledge that we can be our own leaders of change, be it on a global or community scale, and that through active environmentalism, we may create a future in which we live within nature, and not just with it.
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