David McTaggart, Greenpeace Leader, Born (1932)

The name Greenpeace is today synonymous with the environmental movement.  It evolved from a small organization to an international powerhouse largely because of one man, David McTaggart, through what we might call the perfect storm.

David McTaggart in 1981 (photo by Antonisse, Marcel/Anefo)

            David McTaggart was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on June 24, 1932 (died 2001).  He was a talented athlete, spending his youth skiing, golfing and playing racquet sports.  He excelled especially at badminton, winning the Canadian national championship three times.  He quit high school to begin a construction business that became highly successful first in Canada, then in the U.S.  However, when an accident on one of his construction sites caused an employee’s serious injury, McTaggart despaired of his role in the matter; he abandoned his business life, sacrificed much of his wealth to compensate for the accident, and left his family to “find out about himself”—the first phase of the perfect storm.

            The storm continued building as he was roaming the South Pacific in his sailboat during 1972.  He answered an ad seeking volunteers to protest French above-ground nuclear tests at the uninhabited atoll, Mururoa.  He was mad, not so much because of the tests themselves, but because of the audacity of the government to declare a portion of the ocean off-limits.  McTaggart renamed his boat the Greenpeace III, after the group that placed the ad, and headed to Mururoa.  He anchored in the path of the expected test plume.  In response, the French navy rammed his boat and towed him to harbor, claiming they had rescued him. The next year, he was back, and the French were more aggressive, boarding his boat and beating him badly.  The government again claimed rescue, but a smuggled film of the altercation added to the storm when it was broadcast. McTaggart successfully sued France, and in 1974, the embarrassed French government halted above-ground testing (and eventually stopped all nuclear testing).

Greenpeace has become an environmental giant, partially because of its aggressive publlicity tactics (photo by Jonathan Happ)

            McTaggart was energized and began building Greenpeace.  Although the organization had several offices in Europe and the U.S., it operated as a loose collection of local groups.  McTaggart united the individual branches into Greenpeace International and led its expansion throughout Europe and North America.  In 1979, he became its president and CEO, roles he retained until retiring in 1991. 

            Under his leadership, Greenpeace became an international juggernaut of environmental action.  He led efforts to protect whales, both through direct confrontations with Japanese whaling vessels, for which Greenpeace has become famous (or perhaps infamous) and through negotiations with the International Whaling Commission, leading to the creation of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in 1994.  He also led Greenpeace in successful campaigns to establish Antarctic treaties prohibiting mining and to reduce ocean pollution (especially of nuclear wastes).

            McTaggart’s personality and methods did not suit everyone.  He was intensely private as an individual, but intensely confrontational as an environmentalist.  He understood the value of publicity and made sure that all Greenpeace’s actions were filmed and widely shared.  When the organization he had nurtured became too large and staid for his style, Greenpeace and McTaggart went separate ways.

            He moved to the small town of Paciano in central Italy, to farm organic olives.  He created a new organization, the 3rd Millennium Foundation, where he continued his environmental work on a smaller scale, emphasizing local improvements and projects in the Caribbean.  An automobile accident ended his life in 2001.


3rd Millennium Foundation.  About Us—Our History.  Available at:  http://www.3mf.org/about_us/index.html.  Accessed March 3, 2020.

Brown, Paul.  2001.  David McTaggart, Campaigner who led from the front in making Greenpeace a worldwide organization.  The Guardian, 25 Mar 2001.  Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/mar/26/guardianobituaries.paulbrown. Accessed March 3, 2020.

Greenpeace.  David McTaggart 1932-2001.  Available at:  https://wayback.archive-it.org/9650/20191112213722/http://p3-raw.greenpeace.org/international/en/about/history/founders/david-mctaggart/. Accessed March 3, 2020.

Lewis, Paul.  2001.  David McTaggart, a Builder of Greenpeace, Dies at 69.  The New York Times, March 24, 2001.  Available at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/24/world/david-mctaggart-a-builder-of-greenpeace-dies-at-69.html. Accessed March 3, 2020.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
Spencer Fullerton Baird, First U.S. Fish Commissioner, Born (1823)
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Ugalde, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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