Pete Willcox: High-Seas Avenger
Credit: Will Rose / Greenpeace

The organization now known as Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver in the late Sixties, a ragtag collective of Canadian journalists, Sierra Club members, pacifist war vets, and hippie radicals. Inspired in part by the civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi and the Quakers, its goal was to raise awareness about the environment by making as much noise as possible. Ships were central to the strategy from the start, when 10 activists sailed a dilapidated trawler up to Alaska to interrupt an American nuclear test. Since then, the Marine Division (or, as Willcox affectionately calls it, the Moron Division) has been instrumental in some of the organization's biggest victories, from a global moratorium on whaling to a nuclear test ban.

Greenpeace's weapon of choice has always been its direct actions: spraying red dye onto harp seal pups or planting an inflatable between a whale and a harpoon gun. But as the organization has grown, it has expanded into lobbying and education. Since taking office in 2009, the executive director, Kumi Naidoo – a 49-year-old South African who cut his teeth organizing anti-apartheid protests in high school and worked for Nelson Mandela's ANC – has tried to bring actions back to the fore, restoring a more confrontational tone. Still, Naidoo says, actions account for no more than 20 percent of Greenpeace's work.

When Willcox joined the organization, in 1981, it had about 200 employees. Now there are more than 4,000, spread across 28 offices around the world. "When I started out, there was one campaigner on the boat, and half the time his job was to bring the recreational pharmaceuticals," Willcox says. "Now there's a campaigner, an assistant campaigner, a comms person, a second comms person, a webbie, photographer ... I remember saying in the early Eighties that we had to get as disciplined and organized as IBM or Exxon, or we weren't going to matter. And in a lot of ways we did, and it sucks. I'm still glad we did it. But now you're kind of just a cog in a wheel."

Willcox likes participating in actions: "To me, that's part of the fun." But since he's usually needed at the helm, it doesn't happen very often. There used to be exceptions, like the time he hopped two barbed-wire fences in Turkey and helped occupy a coal-fired power plant. "But those were the good old days. We don't do that much anymore."

As the group's methods have shifted, so has its focus. The organization made its name on the wildlife and peace campaigns of the Eighties. But in the past few years, climate change has emerged as its top priority. "If we don't get a handle on climate change, nothing else is going to matter," Willcox says. He points out that we already have five times the oil reserves to raise the global temperature by two degrees Celsius – the point at which experts predict the planet will become uninhabitable.

"When I first started out, our big worry was saving the whales," Willcox says, "Now our big worry is whether our kids will survive to have kids of their own. So, in that sense, we've been a total fucking failure." He isn't totally pessimistic "We made the problem, and we can solve it. Our mission is to put it in the public sphere, and, hopefully, people start to do the right thing."