Starting out: how Teddy Goldsmith launched the Ecologist 40 years ago
26th July, 2010
Running a magazine on a shoestring budget; printing unpopular but groundbreaking analyses; fighting off lawsuits: the Ecologist has evolved over its 40 year history, but the passion present in 1970 is still here today...
The spur to getting the Ecologist off the ground was a 1969 article by Norman Lewis in the Sunday Times magazine, in which he described the terrible ethnocide of indigenous tribes taking place in the Brazilian Amazon.
It was the time of the Villas Boas brothers in Brazil, who searched for uncontacted tribes, such as the Akreena Krore, so as to protect them from unscrupulous colonisers. No longer could anthropologists dispassionately detach themselves from the objects of their studies; consequently, spear-headed by the Amazon explorer, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, Survival International - originally named the Primitive Peoples Fund - was established in offices on Craven Street, beside Charing Cross Station.
By then, Ecologist founder Teddy Goldsmith had written reams on what he believed to be the essential features and requirements of the stable society as embodied in the intimate relationship between tribal peoples and their immediate environment, and it was clear to him that a growth-besotted, industrialised, fragmented society had no long-term future; it was a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Teddy was there at the forming of Survival International, as was Robert Allen who became the secretary of the fledgling organisation, and already Teddy was looking for collaborators for his idea of a radical new magazine that would challenge the orthodoxy of conventional wisdom in relation to the natural world and society. Once it was clear that the Ecologist was going to happen, Robert didn’t need much persuading, and not only did he play an essential role in the launch of the magazine in July 1970, but a year later became one of the main authors of the Ecologist’s groundbreaking environmental manifesto, A Blueprint for Survival.
Meanwhile, Jean Liedloff, originally from New York, had settled in Primrose Hill, London. She had spent two years living with the Yanomami of Venezuela and subsequently wrote her book, The Continuum Concept, on childhood rearing as she had learnt it from her indigenous hosts.
Liedloff met Teddy in Craven Street, and suggested that Teddy and I should meet, as indeed we did shortly afterwards. That for me was the beginning of my 40 year plus association with the Ecologist.
We did ponder long as to what to call the magazine. Your Environment already existed and Teddy really wanted a name that would suggest we were going back to the fundamentals. What fitted the bill better than the Ecologist? The name was heresy, for at that time ecology was considered to be the exclusive domain of bona fide biologists, and when Teddy applied to join the British Ecological Society, his application was roundly rejected, a rejection which only bolstered Teddy in his opinion that contemporary ecologists, with rare exception, did not understand the nature of ecology.
From the very beginning the Ecologist set out to challenge the notion that the world had never had it so good and that economic growth resulting from that vague concept of development was a panacea for virtually every human condition, whether that be poverty, starvation, pollution, ill-health, wars and whatever else one wanted to throw in the pot. The first iconic issue of the magazine showed a man drowning in waste, and Teddy's opening editorial did not mince words in saying that our planet was unique in the solar system in its possession of ‘environmental conditions required to sustain complex forms of life’. The corollary was there for all to see: ‘screw up those conditions, for example, by tearing down forests, and life as we know it will become increasingly impossible,’ Teddy wrote, anticipating James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia by some 35 years.
As with many a magazine, trying to get the Ecologist published was an absolute nightmare. Teddy had no money and so had to persuade Jimmy, his brother, and his friend John Aspinall to help fund him, which they duly did, but barely enough for one issue, and that is how it continued down the years, the magazine never breaking even and always needing a top-up from somewhere.
From the beginning, Teddy had a very clear idea of what he wanted the Ecologist to be, and if an issue did not meet his expectations he preferred to pulp it and start again. That certainly happened on a number of occasions during the time we were all in Cornwall.
At one point, Teddy hired two guys from Fleet Street as editor and production manager. The duo, the ‘real professionals’, knew all about magazine publishing. They lasted barely a month before Teddy fired them, and their pay-off meant we had to start all over again looking for funding. I seem to remember Robert Allen rushing all over London to persuade Teddy´s friends from Oxford days that they should support us.
A fluid office
Initially, the first Ecologist office was in Craven Street, a floor above The Primitive Peoples’ Fund, but after the debacle with the Fleet Street guys, Teddy took the publishing of the magazine to his home in Kew. Then, in 1972, soon after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, we moved lock, stock and barrel, to Cornwall, to the Withiel Valley. ‘We’ was Teddy, Robert Allen, Mike Allaby and myself. Soon after the relocation, we engaged Penwells of Callington to print the Ecologist, a relationship which continued until the famous Monsanto issue of September 1998, when the Cornish printers took fright at the threat of being sued.
That first issue of July 1970 had an article by the biologist Aubrey Manning of Edinburgh University on population, with no mincing of words that the natural world simply could not support an ever-expanding population of humans. Teddy, meanwhile, had assigned to me the thorny issue of civilian nuclear power. At a time when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was promoting the notion that the atom was fine if used for peaceful purposes, my first article highlighted the risks of the world becoming ever more dependent on nuclear power as a key source of energy. This was an age, remember, when the US was talking of using a line-up of hydrogen bombs to excavate a new canal through the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, and denying any risks to life and limb from carrying out atmospheric tests over the Nevada desert. Meanwhile, the UK government was secretly engaged in swapping weapons-grade plutonium from our so-called civilian reactors in exchange for tritium produced from nuclear reactors in the United States so that we too could manufacture hydrogen bombs.
Reacting to the first issue, John Maddox, editor-in-chief of Nature, said that he considered the Ecologist to be dangerously wrong in its ‘limits to growth’ message. He, like economists in general, was convinced that science and technology would prevent scarcity from ever impeding the progress of mankind.
Teddy loved the idea that if the world ever came to its senses there would be no need for the Ecologist, but sadly the world is in a far more parlous state now than it was at the start of the 1970s. In fact, the Ecologist is needed more than ever to make us realise how just how right Teddy was in his perception that we humans have no future if we continue to destroy the fabric of our living planet.
Peter Bunyard is the Ecologist's science editor
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