Like Thatcher before them, leaders must understand their moral duty towards the environment
I joined Friends of the Earth as their Recycling Coordinator as a naïve 25 year old. The organization was run by the charismatic Jonathon Porritt and was based in a ramshackle building in Islington. When I got there I was told there were just two computers on my floor which was ‘shared’ by about five staff.
Unknown to any of us we were about to be hit by a massive ‘green surge’ which transformed the organization and the movement. The unlikely catalysts were Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles. Thatcher’s scientific background led her to understand the massive significance of the hole in the ozone layer. She declared conservatives were “not merely friends of the earth, but its guardians and trustees for generations to come’.
Quick on her heels was Prince Charles who used Friends of the Earth’s guide on aerosols to encourage Princess Diana not to use hair sprays containing CFCs. Friends of the Earth had hit upon a successful mix of linking global environmental issues with actions that people could take in their daily lives. The Good Wood Guide helping people avoid products linked to rainforest destruction and the Peat Free Gardening pamphlet quickly followed.
The organization was on a roll but it was to be short-lived. Jonathon moved onto other things and Friends of the Earth became more focused on Greenpeace style campaigning activities.
This left me with a personal dilemma. I had always been on the ‘practical’ side of the organization and it was becoming increasingly clear that this approach was being marginalized. I felt that the pressure groups had successfully opened the door making influential people and organizations understand the imperative of taking action on the environment. When the door is open I felt it would be best to stop kicking and try other approaches.
It was with this in mind that I left Friends of the Earth in 1993 and set up Global Action Plan. It was a grand sounding name from the organisation’s US routes but the reality in the UK was that I had £35,000 to spend and no office. However, unlike my beginning at Friends of the Earth I did have my own computer.
Global Action Plan approached the environmental challenge from a very different angle to the traditional pressure groups. Very much like Forum for the Future, established around the same time, we aimed to have a more solutions based approach. The question we set out to answer was how can you change the behaviour of individuals so that their lives have less environmental impact and yet still be fulfilling and rewarding?
We realized that to create change in any community you need to find the few brave souls who are willing to challenge the status quo and give them the support, information and encouragement they need to shift habits. We understood that change is more likely to happen in strong social groups where people can debate and test ideas. Finally we understood that people want to be thanked and rewarded for their efforts – an approach far removed from the doom and gloom scenarios of the darkest greens.
Over the past 19 years our model of behaviour change has not altered significantly – although it has become far more sophisticated. What has changed has been the organizations that have been at the forefront of environmental change.
Back in 1993, local authorities where leading the charge. The Earth Summit in Rio had created Agenda 21 and this lead to the development of many Local Agenda 21 initiatives throughout the UK. It was probably the first time that a concerted effort was made to engage communities on sustainability issues. The results were patchy as it was a completely new area for most local authorities and the level of investment they made varied considerably. However, many of sustainable community groups that are now thriving can trace their origins back to this initiative.
More recently the leaders on sustainability have been forward-thinking companies. Initially these companies were driven by enlightened CEOs who, like Margaret Thatcher before them, understood what science was telling us and felt they have a moral duty to respond.
Increasingly though businesses are starting to realize that sustainability is a business imperative. Many are looking at their supply chains and starting to wonder what the impact will be if water scarcity increases and the demand for rare earth minerals grows. Others are starting to realize that more extreme weather will make it harder for them to run their businesses effectively and cost efficiently. Businesses are also acutely aware that in order to recruit the highest quality talent and to retain their customers they have to operate to higher environmental standards.
I am also seeing an upsurge in interest from young people. Many of them are now rightly asking what their lives will look like in an economy which uses 80% less carbon. Nobody is involving them in this debate, explaining why it is important or giving them the skills to flourish in a very different world. It is likely that this lack of engagement will lead to increased frustration and anger.
What hasn’t change is national governments who, with a very few notable exceptions, are resolutely leading from the rear and often hinder the activities of the more progressive companies and communities. Perhaps it is this audience that my colleagues at Friends of the Earth should now be focused on.Tagged in: Agenda 21, carbon emissions, CFC, climate change, deforestation, environment, Friends of the Earth, green movement at 50, nature, Ozone later, pollution, recycling, sustainability, thatcher, The Earth Summit, whaling
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