Eco-Leader Quits with a Blast:
'Pop Stars Won't Save the Planet'
By Tony Jupiter / Former director of Friends of the Earth/UK
February 12, 2008
LONDON (January 27, 2008) -- When I started working for Friends Of The Earth 18 years ago, I had no idea I would be obliged to take supermodels on trips to the rainforest or be held at gunpoint by panicking Swiss policemen. These days, however, everybody wants to be green: big companies, Prime Ministers and celebrities. Sometimes the famous and powerful help the cause; at other times they just provide a lot of hot air.
|Former Friends of the Earth/UK director Tony Juniper|
This year, I will be stepping down as Friends Of The Earth's director. I plan to continue with my life's work, but it will be someone else's job to front the organisation. To prop up the bar talking to pop stars, barrack American politicians or discuss climate change with Madonna over lunch. It has been a wonderful job, but I need a change.
One experience shaped my thinking more than any other. In 1990, I went to northeast Brazil, where my Brazilian colleagues and I discovered the last wild Spix's Macaw. Here was a bird doomed to extinction, its forest home destroyed by grazing goats, logging and soya farming. This was my epiphany. It became clear that protecting birds was part of a bigger picture: the world economy was impinging on this defenceless creature. If I was to make a difference, I had to tackle the underlying causes of its plight.
Just before I left for Brazil I had applied to work on Friends Of The Earth's rainforest campaign. Despite my lack of lobbying experience, I got the £10,000-a-year job.
Working among Friends
Friends Of The Earth was founded in Britain in 1971, inspired by the American environmental movement. My new office was exciting if a little anarchic, and a culture shock. I was a neatly dressed scientist with short hair. Friends Of The Earth's headquarters, then in a run-down part of North London, was populated by radical and politically savvy campaigners.
My desk was a plank on two filing cabinets. But we had an annual budget of £ 4million, 85 staff and a mission to change the system, reform capitalism and switch to a pure green lifestyle. Nothing too ambitious, then.
Eighteen years ago, the green movement was on the very fringes of mainstream politics. Although several decades old, environmentalism was still dismissed by many as all brown rice and tree-hugging. In fact, we meant business. I was dispatched with a colleague to Ghana to meet an official but secret organisation uncovering corruption between the Ghanaian government and British companies that were robbing the country of its forests. We came back with enough evidence to make a television documentary. Even then, however, I realised that celebrity could help persuade people better than demonstrations and placards.
In 1991, I had a call from Hello! magazine. Would I like to take supermodel Yasmin Le Bon on a trip to Malaysia to see the devastating effects of logging? I managed to convince myself of the merits of such a trip. But there was a hitch. Yasmin was six months pregnant.
By the mid-Nineties, we were starting to win arguments with campaigns such as the one against the Newbury bypass in Berkshire; steering a fine line between civil disobedience and quiet persuasion. The bypass was built in the end, but not without a fight, and one result of the campaign was to help end the Government's massive road-building programme. The battle against genetically modified crops was a clearer success. There is still no commercial GM farming in Britain.
Attack of the World-eating Fat Cats
In January 2001 we hatched a brilliant wheeze to make a point about the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, a yearly gathering of politicians, bankers and businessmen. Deals are done behind closed doors at this exclusive Swiss ski resort without considering global warming, biodiversity and poverty. We thought we'd try to put that right.
|Tony Jupiter and a co-conspirator masquerading as a couple of World-Easting Fat Cats.|
Three of us dressed up as fat-cat Davos delegates, decked out in voluminous padded suits, our corpulent appearance matching our apparent corporate greed.
So there we were, a comic sight queuing in the snow at the security gates accompanied by TV crews. Our fake ID gave our names as Yoshi Yen, Frank Suisse and Dave Dollar. On our cards, WEF stood for World-Eating Fatcats. At that point an armoured car, a water cannon and armed police rolled up.
We assumed the game was up. Given that we were handing out bright orange leaflets, it was obvious they would spot us. I feared the worst. But I was wrong: the police assumed we were real VIPs. They whisked us past the queues and into the venue, where we continued to hand out leaflets. I even gave one to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. We basked in our success for about ten minutes before the police realised something was wrong. An officer walked up to me and pointed a pistol.
"What do you think you're doing?" he asked. "Raising awareness about the planetary environmental crisis," I responded. He wasn't amused. We were marched out to a wood and stood in the snow surrounded by uniformed men barking German and pointing machine guns at us. We were then taken to a police station, where a stout officer asked us to remove our jackets, revealing our body padding. At first he thought we had explosives.
Then, thinking we were mocking fat people, he had a sense-of-humour failure. Eventually, we were let off. It was a questionable prank before September 11. I certainly wouldn't advise it now.
The Era of the Green Celebrity
Over the years, I have learned to be more pragmatic. I still want to change society and politics. But there isn't now time enough to alter the fundamentals. So, instead of trying to reform the system, I have led Friends Of The Earth towards trying to change the way we live within the system.
When I took over running the organisation in March 2003, the annual budget had risen to £11million and the 170 staff were professional, organised and focused. We had slightly more sophisticated furniture, too -- all from green sources, of course.
Indeed, now every company and celebrity is vying to be the greenest in the land. That's fantastic, but goodwill needs to be translated into action if we are to avoid losing the meaning of being green.
Over the years, I have solicited the help of celebrities -- one can't underestimate the power they have in drawing attention to valuable causes. In 2005, I had lunch with Madonna to persuade her to take part in our Big Ask campaign for a tougher Climate Change Bill. Madonna was thoughtful and well-read. I thought I was making progress. On the way out we stopped at the cloakroom, her to collect her coat, me to pick up my folding pushbike. She was fascinated that I should go round London on a bike. Sadly, she has not yet joined our campaign -- nor have I seen her on a bike.
I used to dismiss all pop-star involvement in green campaigns as celebrities picking up on fashionable causes to win PR points. But one man in particular changed my mind. In 2006, I found myself propping up a bar with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Tory leader David Cameron and David Miliband, who had just been appointed Environment Secretary.
Thom had written them each a note inviting them to a gig organised by Friends Of The Earth at the Koko nightclub in North London. Thom was performing, along with fellow Radiohead man Jonny Greenwood. Thom was giving Miliband a piece of his mind about tackling global warming. Over that drink he helped convince Miliband to bring in a law to make it compulsory to reduce our carbon emissions. A Bill is in Parliament and will become an Act later this year.
Thom is one of the high-profile names committed and willing to understand the details of global warming. Others include Johnny Borrell from Razorlight, X-Files actress Gillian Anderson and Cold Feet's Helen Baxendale.
However, over the years I've seen celebrities adopt worthy causes purely for their own means. Naomi Campbell signed up for a People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals campaign against fashion's use of fur, only to be seen modeling fur on the Milan catwalk months later.
It's the same with companies such as Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Fuels with its biofuel that, it claims, is "needed" to power jumbo jets. Branson plans to use biofuels in his trains and aircraft, but has failed to see the limitations of these alternative fuels in combating global warming.
Downsides and Hopes for the Future
One of my biggest professional disappointments has been BP and its Beyond Petroleum campaign, which, ironically, I helped create. I remember standing on the top floor of BP's office looking over the City of London with the then-chief executive, Lord Browne. He had seen the light, and the light was green. He told me: "I'm convinced. We will bring in a new era at BP, we will be a sustainable business."
I was excited, but it didn't last. The rebranding looked persuasive, but it was just that -- rebranding. Most of BP's budget still goes into oil and gas exploration -- not solar or wind power. Like BP, Shell claims to have green credentials, but both companies are going deeper than ever into fossil fuels. In fact, they have recently reduced their involvement with renewable energy.
Then, of course, there's the Government. When Labour came to power in 1997, it promised bold initiatives. And there have been successes, although the Climate Change Bill was brought on to the agenda only by the great efforts of Friends Of The Earth.
The Government is terrified of saying anything that will upset business or the electorate. We can do a lot as individuals, but it is laws that will make a real difference -- and this Government is bigger on talk than it is on action.
In 2004, I asked Prime Minister Tony Blair why he could not do more to curb household energy waste. His answer made my blood boil. "We can't act on these things until there is a public demand," Blair said. I thought: What about the Iraq War? There was no public demand for that.
I respect the way he managed to get climate change on the agenda at international meetings such as G8. But he let himself down with his lack of leadership on practical action at home.
Gordon Brown sees the environment as even less pressing. One day he makes a powerful speech on global warming, the next he speaks in favour of a third runway at Heathrow airport. The expansion of aviation could easily cancel out the reductions in greenhouse gas emission the Government is committed to. Brown has yet to grasp the challenge of improving Britain's environment while profiting from it.
One thing has not changed in the past two decades. Prince Charles has been an absolute rock of the green movement. He's been told to stay out of politics, but he has done a huge amount to force big firms and politicians to take notice. He's a commanding figure: when he talks, people listen.
So, after 18 years with Friends Of The Earth, I am passing on the baton. I remain committed to the green cause, but it's time for a change. After a couple of decades, you find yourself making the same arguments too many times. It has been my pleasure and pain to lobby the last seven Environment Secretaries.
The green cause has enjoyed a great many small successes in my time, but there is much to do. We must explain how we can make our lives greener and still have jobs, eat well and go on holiday. Saving money, having warmer homes, safer streets and better health can all be part of a greener society.
Britain can be a leader in innovative green technology just as it was once at the forefront of abolishing slavery. There are parallels. Much the same arguments were advanced against banning slavery at the beginning of the 19th Century that are now made about curbing greenhouse gasses.
If we stopped trading in slaves, it was claimed, other nations would continue to profit from it. That didn't happen and we led the way for emancipation. Now sceptics say China and India will continue to pump out greenhouse gasses regardless of what we do. That need not be the case. British technology could set the pace in halting climate change, with British business reaping the rewards of being world leaders.
My children are now ten, 13 and 16. I hope that, in their lifetime, we will pull back from the brink of environmental disaster. It will take determination, sacrifice and sweat. It might be preferable, however, if it didn't require pregnant supermodels or body-padding.
Tony Jupiter is the author of How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take To Change A Planet? published by Quercus. For more information go to the Friends Of The Earth website, www.foe.co.uk, or www.off-grid.net. The full article is available at: here
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