ISLESBORO — You can’t call what Peter Willcox does country club activism. In his 40 years of environmental work, he’s seen a colleague die at the hands of a foreign power, and—a year ago—spent weeks inside a Russian jail for his commitment to his causes.

In late July, Willcox, 61, was relaxing on the island with his wife, Maggy, enjoying a few weeks of down time before returning to his work with the international environmental activist group Greenpeace. Willcox captains Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior vessel.

A native of Norwalk, Conn., he found himself in 1973 with a draft number as high as they get—No. 1—as the Vietnam War and draft continued, meaning he would get called up in the next round. A registered conscientious objector, he signed on to work on the Clearwater, the famed sloop that raised awareness about pollution on the Hudson River. The late folksinger Pete Seeger often worked and sang on the boat.

Willcox and Maggy met on the Clearwater; he became captain in 1975 and she joined as cook. But it was only a few years ago that they married.

After six years of sailing up and down the river, he wanted a change and joined Greenpeace in 1981. Rainbow Warrior landed at a Russian oil platform in the Arctic on Sept. 19, 2013 and the crew climbed onto the rig and hung banners. Russian officials arrested them and charged them with piracy, holding them in jail for two months.

The Working Waterfront sat down with him in the couple’s cozy island home.

WW: It seems environmental activism isn’t a passing phase for you.

Willcox: Well, I came from a politically active family. My grandparents and my mother all spent time before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I remember when I was growing up, [thinking], if I didn’t get subpoenaed to testify that I wouldn’t have done very much with my life.

I attended a number of civil rights marches as a kid, including the last part of the Selma to Montgomery march. Which was a real eye-opener for me.

WW: Kind of a formative experience?

Willcox: Oh, yeah, it was an amazing experience. There was a sense of optimism involved with the civil rights movement. At least then, on that day, that I’ve almost never felt in the environmental movement.

WW: It seems that we’re on the cusp of, maybe, people finally “getting it” with climate change. The polar vortex in the Midwest, the severe storms, the drought in California, people finally may be starting to wake up to this”¦

Willcox: Well, maybe. We have now five times the amount of oil that we can burn before we push global warming up 2 degrees Centigrade. Bill McKibben’s article in the July 2012 Rolling Stone magazine is absolutely something everybody should read. That explains quite clearly what we’re up against. That the oil companies are the largest corporations the world has ever seen. They make the hugest profits, even when the rest of the world is tanking. ExxonMobil was making $100 million a day.

Those corporations are not going to all of a sudden decide, ‘Oh, Geez, the Greenies are right, we’re going to cook the planet.’ They’re going to keep on drilling for oil that we don’t need.

WW: Why does this drive you?

Willcox: I’ve got two children. I want to leave them a planet that they feel is safe enough to children on. That’s really the bottom line. I want my kids to have enough faith that there’ll be something here for the next 70 years so they can have children.

To me, it’s quite simple. We have got to change the way we generate energy so that we’re not polluting the earth past [its ability to let us] live on it.

It will be a huge battle. [With the recent Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate donations to political campaigns], the job got ten times harder.

I’m not giving up. I’d like to keep going another ten or 15 years.

I don’t want to go to jail in Russia any more, but I’m not willing to turn the planet over to the profits of oil companies.

WW: How do you justify that kind of law-breaking, or civil disobedience or whatever you want to call it?

Willcox: The lesser of two evils. Greenpeace has policies that 99 percent of the time keep us from getting charged with piracy, or really, anything. We do absolutely no property damage to the object of the action. Zero—you can’t scrape the paint. That’s why in the last 33 years of working for Greenpeace, before the Russia thing, I’d only spent one night in jail.

When we did this action in 2012, we put up our banners, took a few pictures, and left. The Russians watched us and said, “OK.” And this year, for whatever reason, they had gotten orders to not allow it, to ratchet it up several levels.

They started firing machine guns at us. You could see the bullets land in the water, you could hear it. You could see the markings in the water less than a meter from the inflatables. They were really violent with the climbers, going up the rigging.

How do I justify that? The Russians would like to drill for oil in the Arctic. I am so passionately opposed to that, I don’t begin to know where to start.

It’s got to be the most dangerous place to drill for oil there is. That rig has yet to drill through a winter. They think it can do it, but the Russians on a routine, day-to-day level, spill five times what BP spilled in the Gulf of Mexico every year. Every year!

Why are they going to be any different in the Arctic?

WW: What do you think are the top environmental threats?

Willcox: Global warming. If we don’t fix that one, nothing else we do is going to matter very much.

We’re involved in a number of issues—overfishing, toxic waste disposal, we’re observers at the Basel Convention, that theoretically prohibits first world countries from dumping their toxic waste on third world countries. I’ve been involved in a number of those campaigns. We’re involved with deforestation.

But the big one for Greenpeace right now has got to be global warming. That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. We have been involved with the “save the whale” campaigns in the southern oceans for many years. We’re not giving up on saving marine mammals [but] if we don’t fix global warming, they’re not going to survive anyway.

If ocean acidification gets much worse, and we change the entire food chains of the oceans, the whales aren’t going to live.

WW: The 1985 bombing—can you give me the short version of that?

Willcox: Sure. It only takes about three days (laughs). Nineteen eighty-five was our year of protesting nuclear testing in the Pacific. We’d first gone to the Marshall Islands, where the Rongelap islanders had been used as guinea pigs by the U.S. testing program to see what would happen if they were exposed to radioactive fall-out. Over the next 20 years, their health went farther and farther downhill. Women had multiple miscarriages, “jellyfish” babies, deformed children, premature aging in adults. Everybody on the island got thyroid cancer.

But the real damning fact was that the military program moved them back to the island after two or three years and watched their radiation levels go up again. It has now come to light that it was absolutely intentional.

When we got there, they had been, for five years, asking the U.S. government and their own government to move them off Rongelap because they were scared for the future of their own kids. That’s the sign they held up when we arrived. The bomb [dropped near Rongelap] was a thousand times more powerful than the bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So we moved them to New Zealand, and prepared to turn around to head to French Polynesia where there also had been testing. The French government were so alarmed by our plans that they sent a team of [agents], planted bombs on the boat, blew it up, killing our shipmate, Fernando Pereira.

I think we found out less than a week later that it had been the French. Their two agents got caught, red-handed, as it were.

It was just bizarre. We never had a clue that a bunch of hippies on an old trawler could scare the government of France, that they would kill us rather than let us carry out a peaceful protest.

WW: Was there any kind of international legal fall-out with that?

Willcox: I don’t know is “suing” is the right word, but we arbitrated with the French. They had to pay us quite a bit of money. They have never apologized, either to us or the Pereira family. I learned nine years ago when we were having the 20th reunion that the decision had been made by [then-French President] Mitterand to blow the boat up. He planned it.

WW: That’s crazy! What was the threat that they perceived? [Serious enough] to take human life?

Willcox: I don’t think they intended to take human life, but they didn’t care if they killed all of us. That’s my opinion. Because if the bomb had gone off a half-hour earlier—which it easily could have—it went off at ten to 12 at night; half an hour earlier there had been ten to 25 of us down in the hold having a meeting. We never would have gotten out alive.