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CASE STUDY: from campaign group to Westminster

Dixe Wills

20th March, 2009

From chasing endangered parrots to hunting for the environmental holy grail with Friends of the Earth, one of Britain's pre-eminent eco campaigners wants to take his quest for a better, greener world to the halls of Westminster.
Dixe Wills meets a man on a mission

Anyone who is filled with despair over the environment should spend half an hour with Tony Juniper. He is that rarity among green activists: an optimist. While others might proclaim that the end is nigh and there's not a thing we can do about it, Juniper points to the progress we've already made, the distance we've yet to go and, crucially, how we can get there.

'Ultimately it's about people,' he says. 'That's where we've got to have faith.'

After nearly two decades with Friends of the Earth, Juniper will soon have a rather different opportunity to demonstrate his faith in people (those living in Cambridge, at least) when he stands as a Green Party candidate at the next general election.

To discuss his leap from outsider activist to budding politician I headed for the backstreets of the light-blue university town where he has lived for the past 20 years. He shares his home with his wife, children, springer spaniel and black-and-white cat. Hens scratch contentedly around a coop at the bottom of the garden.

Birds, it turns out, have been a passion right from the start. It explains how Juniper found himself in the middle of the Caatinga—a vast, arid shrubland in north-eastern Brazil—chasing a rare blue parrot called the Spix’s macaw. An extremely rare parrot, in fact: ‘I discovered the world population was one—it was effectively extinct in the wild. For me that was a metaphor for what was going on across the continent, and still is.’

A force to be reckoned with

It was during his two years as Birdlife International’s parrot specialist that Juniper began to take a wider view of environmental problems. ‘I became very familiar with the bits of forest across the tropics that were about to be cleared away due to logging concessions being handed out by governments, World Bank projects, pipelines, roadbuilding schemes and the activities of western transnationals,’ he says. ‘It led me to a slightly different analysis. We needed to take a holistic view about the failure of the economic and politic circumstances that lay behind all of it.’

His desire to promote such a view led to a position with Friends of the Earth (FoE). His 18-year stint there split neatly into three equal parts: six years running tropical rainforest and biodiversity campaigns, six years as campaigns director, and six years as the organisation’s executive director.

‘That was an incredible period,’ he recalls. ‘Looking back it’s quite amazing how much ground that we, working with other NGOs, covered in terms of the issues we made tangible progress on. There was the Forest Stewardship Council labelling scheme [those FSC labels you now see on products from exercise books to toilet rolls]. Changing some of the regulations that govern so-called international development agencies like the World Bank. We changed the law governing the protection of wildlife habitats [the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000].’

In Juniper’s time, FoE was also part of a widespread movement to prevent the commercialisation of GM crops in the UK.

‘I remember a lot of people in very senior positions telling me that there was nothing we could do about it, but they were wrong and we were right. So they can get stuffed.’ He laughs. There’s nothing venomous in his delivery—just a sense of satisfaction at David triumphing over Goliath. He continues with stories of victories in roadbuilding, toxic pollution, recycling and—in his very first FoE campaign—deforestation and climate change.

‘The last thing I did at FoE was also on climate change,’ he says. The Big Ask, a campaign to which he recruited Radiohead front man Thom Yorke, received a big answer—the 2008 Climate Change Act. While there were other factors that led to the Act, the campaign was certainly a primary driver for the law. ‘There’s a nice circulatory to my time at FoE, with there being this focus on climate at the beginning and end and the circumstances prevailing those two moments being extremely different. It probably sums up the broader impact of the environmental movement in those years—taking the issues from the margins into the mainstream.’

If it was all going so well at FoE, why depart at all? ‘Eighteen years is a long time. There came a moment—in 2007, I believe—when I began to think, “Well, I’ve done everything I possibly can here. I’ve restructured it, we’ve rebranded it, we’ve won campaigns on just about every subject you can think of, we’ve developed a good national profile, we’re solvent—what more can I do? Maybe if I stick around I’ll start fiddling with it and do other things that reflect my need for novelty rather than anything FoE needs, so maybe it’s time to go.”’

Into the Ecological Age

So began his new role as a freelance green advisor. He’s come a long way from the nature-loving Oxford teenager inspired by reading On the Origin of Species. Among the many hats he now wears, Juniper is a senior associate at the Cambridge University Programme for Industry (helping make companies more sustainable) and works with the Prince’s Rainforest Project. And then, of course, there’s the small matter of acquiring a seat at Westminster. I ask him if he ever considered making the attempt with any other party. His answer is emphatic.

‘This is the problem: that consensus in the middle ground around economic growth, around 20th-century ideas of social progression. These are the barriers that have prevented us from getting into the Ecological Age, if you like—the kind of economy and society that can navigate these crunches of global warming and population pressure and resource depletion. None of the major political parties is geared up for that—it’s all a question of nuance with them. The only party that is geared up is the Green Party.’

I press him for his assessment of the relative merits of the big three parties. ‘Although the Lib Dem rank and file and some of their MPs get [the green agenda], the last three leaders haven’t done. The Prime Minister gets global warming, but then he asks OPEC to pump more oil. He sees an economic crisis and suddenly it’s a choice between economic growth and the environment.’ And the Tories? ‘They do have a leader who gets it—more than the other two—but he is in the position of having a party that doesn’t. It’s a mirror-image of the Lib Dems.’

Did he ever sit at his desk at FoE and wish he could wield political power? ‘No. I was very content with the influence we had. I think there is a qualitative difference between influence on the outside and influence on the inside.’

And how effective is that outside influence? ‘Huge. I think the modern environmental movement has been one of the most potent political forces of the past 30 years. Quite major swings in political priorities have taken place. If you think about the levels of awareness in the general public there’s been a complete transformation, even since I joined FoE in 1990.

‘However, I think we’re getting to a new phase now, because all the things that have been achieved are pretty non-disruptive in terms of requiring changes to people’s behaviour and consumption patterns or to the economy. Whereas now, dealing with all the crunches—resource depletion, population growth, global warming and mass extinction of species—requires a different level of change. It requires getting down into the fundamentals of the economy. It requires culture change and painting a positive picture of how we could navigate this with a high quality of life.

‘But also it needs political change—people in parliament to tell it like it is. If we could get a couple of Greens in Westminster with these priorities: social welfare, environmental protection, economic stability, built around a single idea of how you do sustainability—that would be a very powerful intervention.’

Juniper acknowledges that the Green Party’s financial resources are not what he was used to at FoE, but that’s not the only reason he is realistic about his chances of becoming one of those MPs telling it like it is. In 2005, the Liberal Democrats won Cambridge with 44 per cent of the vote. The Green Party took 2.9 per cent. Even in a traditionally volatile seat, (Labour took it from the Conservatives in 1997) he has a Herculean task on his hands. The key to attracting voters, he believes, is the Green New Deal. ‘It’s an idea whose time has come. Energy security goals, low-carbon development goals and kickstarting the economy all as one package…the other parties aren’t talking about that.’

To your polling stations

Juniper does see hope in that what he considers the most important drivers for change outside parliament—the private sector, popular culture, science, the NGOs—all are broadly heading in the right direction. ‘Blend them all together and you can see the dynamic reaction between all these pieces. I think probably the most important thing for strategy is to work out where to put what piece at what moment. In the meantime, we’re being told [by politicians] that the solution to a consumer-driven debt crisis is more debt. The people who crashed the plane are now volunteering to fly the next one.’

And if his fairy godmother allowed him to pass one law? ‘I’d have a new official measure to national wellbeing to replace GDP. It would include people’s life satisfaction, greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption, and levels of crime, education and longevity—with an attempt to make sense of lots of different data sets beyond simply how much stuff we’re consuming.’

Perhaps the notion that the day might dawn when Juniper comes to draft legislation is not so wild. When I ask what keeps him from becoming jaded, not a heartbeat passes before he replies, ‘Unending success!’ He laughs, but goes on to justify a response we have not become accustomed to hearing from environmentalists. ‘Of all the endangered birds I was working on at Birdlife International 20 years ago, not one has become extinct. Every campaign we ran at FoE had a positive impact, and some of them were resounding victories. I don’t get jaded—I keep thinking how many more opportunities there are.’

So, if you happen to find yourself standing as a candidate in Cambridge at the next general election, beware: you’ll be up against an engaging and personable opponent whose passion—blended with the unrelenting logic of his arguments—flows out of him like an unstoppable stream. And only a fool would bet against him continuing that run of unending success.

Dixe Wills is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2009

 

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