Talk given to Upminster U3a:
'Friends of the Earth:
the origins, principles, campaigning methods, and issues addressed by Friends of the Earth in order to protect the natural environment,
illustrated with examples of international, national and local campaigns.
Talk for U3a Upminster, on
1. Origins and structure:
Friends of the Earth (FoE) was founded in San Fransisco in 1969 (one of its founders David Brower left the Sierra Club, a conservation organisation, which had been set up in 1892 to protect American national parks). FoE’s main focus at this stage was opposition to nuclear power.
The UK organisation was set up in 1970 – it is known as FoE EWNI (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), and there is a separate FoE Scotland group.
In 1971 an international network was set up: FoEI (FoE International). By the late 1990s it had organisations in 52 countries, (including in 1993, 226,000 members in Britain), and claims to be one of the largest environmental groups. Currently (2017) there are more than 70 national groups – and thousands of local activist groups.
FoE EWNI is registered as a charity, and must therefore follow charity rules in regard to funding etc. It acts as a pressure group – trying to persuade those with power (government, business etc) to adopt a particular way of acting (not to pollute, not to be wasteful, to develop more sustainable production methods etc).
However, as a charity it does not get involved in party politics, nor does it put up candidates for local council or parliament. In this it is distinct from the Green Party, even though the two organisations have quite a few common aims. The Green Party has a wider remit, with policies on such matters as housing, education, the economy etc whereas FoE is exclusively concerned with the natural environment – though we are also concerned about those aspects of the economy and politics that affect the natural environment (more below).
Its structure is decentralised, and non-hierarchical. In other words, a local group like ours in Havering is free to decide what to campaign on (or not!), and we will only turn to the national organisation for guidance or to draw on its expertise, not to be told what to do!
FoE aims to be professional in the sense of being well-informed about issues – so it carries out research, especially at the head office in London. It has produced alternative Bills and green papers to those promoted by government. And it has used the public enquiry system to oppose nuclear power stations, roads etc.
Here in Havering we have been involved in planning enquiries and appeals – especially when we feel the green belt has been threatened. We have spoken at public enquiries, which involves a lot of careful preparation, and an understanding of planning rules and procedures, which we are slowly building up. None of us are experts, or professionals in the field - we are all members of the public and local residents like yourselves.
2. Principles and strategy:
‘By 2030 the next generation will enjoy an environment that’s getting better: a safer climate, flourishing nature, and healthy air, water and food.’
In other words, ‘a new, positive relationship between people and the planet’ - a world where the earth’s population, its climate, fresh water, food supplies and natural world can thrive. One where everyone gets a fair share of nature’s benefits. And we all… take responsibility for protecting our environment.’
When we examine the causes of damage to the natural environment, then the part played by the economy, government decision-making, and by the activities of large corporations cannot be avoided, so FoE has strong views on government policies and the actions of large corporations.
FoE therefore believes that change must be both personal and political/societal. And we need to address both local and wider problems: ‘Think globally, act locally’
Although, as I described, it grew out of a conservation based organisation, FoE soon broadened its aims to go beyond conservation, and to campaign against pollution and waste. One of its most dramatic actions involved dumping hundreds of glass drinks bottles at the HQ of Cadbury Schweppes in 1971 to draw attention to the need for recycling.
3. Examples of campaigns:
Other early campaigns, from the FoE website: www.foe.co.uk
- to save the whale (since the 1970s)
- against a proposal to bury nuclear waste in Lincolnshire (1980s),
- on river pollution (e.g. Mersey 1991)
- mahogany is murder 1993 (Brazil’s exports of tropical wood fell by 40% in 1995)
- acid rain (award-winning poster 1994)
- against road-building (e.g. Twyford Down 1993… Newbury Bypass re-routed 1996)
- to have the South Downs designated a National Park, 2009
- for better home insulation (with Help the Aged) Energy Conservation Act 2000.
Food Chain Campaign (2009) – as £700 million of taxpayers’ money props up
factory farming in the UK through the EU CAP…
- consuming less and reducing waste: Earth Overshoot Day marks the date each year when humanity has demanded more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year. It's an initiative of the Global Footprint Network. This year Earth Overshoot Day falls on 1 August. That's 2 days earlier than last year. 30 years ago, it fell on 15 October. And in 1970, the first year it was tracked, the day fell on 29 December.
- Tony Juniper identifies the main successes as: Forest Stewardship
Council labeling scheme, Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
The Big Ask helped to lead to the Climate Change Act 2008.
The EU has agreed an historic commitment to reduce food waste across Europe, following campaigning by Friends of the Earth supporters and others. Members of the EU have formally pledged to try and cut their food waste by 50% by 2030, in line with global Sustainable Development Goals. There are about 55 million people in food poverty in Europe – and the food wasted throughout the continent could feed them over 9 times over. Food poverty means people are not able to afford healthy, nutritious food, or can’t get the food they would like to eat.
The EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives – known as the nature laws – need protecting. The nature laws protect some of our most precious natural places including Dartmoor, the North York Moors and Epping Forest. The same laws have led to the recovery of iconic British species such as the bittern and red kite. And some rare bee species are now dependent on nature sites protected by these laws.
4. The Big Picture
I will mention some other current campaigns when I tell you a bit more about Havering FoE, but
my point here is that FoE tries to show the links between environmental concerns and the economic and political decisions that lie behind them. You could call this a ‘holistic’ approach, and it is one that FoE adopted right from its early days..
To illustrate this, here is a brief account by Tony Juniper, who was executive director of FoE in the UK for 20 years. This is taken from an interview in a periodical called The Ecologist, April 2009. The account here also describes his ‘awakening’ to the need to protect the natural environment.
He says he ‘saw the light’ when tracking a rare parrot in Brazil: ‘I discovered the world population was one – it was effectively extinct in the wild. Finding it was an extraordinary moment. For me that was a metaphor for what was going on across the continent, and still is… 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, road-building schemes and the activities of western trans-nationals… we needed to take a holistic view about the failure of the economic and political circumstances that lay behind all of it.’
So he concludes: ‘Now, dealing with all the crunches – resource depletion, population growth, global warming and mass extinction of species – requires getting down into the fundamentals of the economy. It requires culture change… but it also needs political change.’
FoE also argues that industrialised countries are mainly to blame for environmental damage (for example, a US citizen is responsible for 16 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, which is 100 times that of a citizen of Mali), and it criticises large companies for their role. It maintains that there is an ecological debt owed by the rich countries to those they have exploited.
For example, I was astonished to see on a recent television programme about the days of the British Raj in India, how there were tiger-hunting expeditions that killed literally thousands of tigers – and there is no doubt in my mind that colonization led to the extraction of natural resources and to damage to the natural environment in the colonies.
Sadly, this exploitation by the wealthy of the rest of the world continues to this day: a recent report shows that illegal logging and the destruction of the rainforests is largely funded through tax havens: more than two-thirds of the money directed to Brazil’s soy and beef sectors was channeled through tax havens such as the Cayman Islands. That is, some $18.4bn. And this money is hidden, and difficult to trace, so this may be only a part of it.
As Elaine Gilligan of FoE International says: ‘This is dirty money, used for fuelling illegal activities that are driving the global environmental crisis….’ And: ‘Aggressive tax evasion deprives communities of funds needed for a range of measures, among them environmental protections…’
5. An explanation of two key, central ideas, two guiding principles:
When we think about what needs to be done in order to ensure that we live in ‘a world where people and nature can thrive’, very often we think first about our own safety and wellbeing. Hence the campaigns around pollution, especially air pollution. However, FoE and other environmental organisations have developed two key ideas which are guiding principles for the movement. They take us beyond our own wellbeing to that of future generations, as well as that of wildlife and the natural environment itself.
(i) Sustainability: that we should not do anything which leads to a world which is less safe, or poorer for future generations…. Sustainable activity can be carried on indefinitely – unsustainable activity will run out of some resource, or cause so much damage or pollution that it has to stop. Thus, generating electricity by means of solar panels, or wind power is sustainable – the sun and wind are limitless resources and there is no pollution; whereas coal, oil and gas will run out, and they cause atmospheric and other pollution. Some 40,000 people a year in the UK have their lives cut short because of air pollution.
(ii) Biodiversity: a natural environment that has a wide variety of life forms in it – such an environment is more sustainable. Every living thing is part of a complex web and interacts with every other living thing. Each living thing has its own function in the ‘ecosystem’. If one component is lost, then other parts of the system are harmed – unless something replaces the lost component. The more variety of living things there is, the more likelihood of the system being able to re-balance itself. A system with very few component parts is more vulnerable to collapse.
I recently came across a very vivid illustration of the danger of lack of biodiversity: there is a disease known as Panama disease, or fusarium wilt that is spreading and killing bananas. Now bananas are not only a pleasing part of our diets, but there are parts of the world where it is relied on as a staple food – in fact it is needed by hundreds of millions of people. There are also hundreds of thousands of people who earn their living from growing bananas.
Already one form of this fungal disease has wiped out a particular species of banana, the Gros Michel, which dominated the export market from Latin America. Economic losses were estimated at more than $2.3 billion.
In the 1960s the Cavendish banana, which is resistant to the first kind of disease, replaced the Gros Michel, and it now counts for 99% of exports. Note: one kind of banana – probably the only one most people in this country and America have ever tasted. However, a new variety of the fungus has arisen which threatens this species as well.
I will try to cut a long story short, but there is one important piece of background information to add to the picture: there are no seeds in bananas, as we have, over 7,000 years, bred the plants in such a way that they don’t produce seeds. To make new plants, cutting are taken from the stems – and the results are clones, genetically identical to the parent plant.
So, there are several possible solutions being proposed: one is to inoculate the bananas with bacteria that will fight the fungus, another is genetic modification to engineer a banana that is resistant to the new fungus (this would probably take at least 10 years to produce a commercially viable variety).
On the other hand Dr Angelina Sanderson, an ecologist, argues that the problem is ‘monocultures’ (i.e. a lack of biodiversity): ‘In nature, a pest is kept under control either through things that predate it or through limited availability of its food. On large banana plantations you have mile upon mile of food for pests, and the natural limits on their spread have been removed.’
Australian farmers have found that if you surround the bananas with other vegetation, they are 20% less likely to develop symptoms of disease. Other crops such as avocado, mango and corn could be grown around the bananas and ‘Greater diversity of plants and associated fungi and bacteria introduced new ecosystem dynamics, which could reduce the pressure of the disease.’
Some examples of campaigns that FoE has undertaken which illustrate these principles:
Perhaps the best-known campaign that FoE has been working on is to save the bees. FoE calls this the ‘Bee Cause.’
FoE points out that 75% of the food we eat needs to be pollinated, and bees (wild bees and honey bees) are major players in that. It would cost UK farmers £1.8 billion a year to pollinate their crops artificially if there were no bees.
It’s important first to point out that we are talking about a number of different kinds of bee: apart from honey bees, which are managed (or tame if you like) and live in hives, there are about 250 species of wild bee. These include solitary bees (such as the leafcutter bee and the mason bee), and about 25 species of bumble bees (of which about 6 are common).
Unfortunately, tragically in fact, bees are dying out. First, the number of different species is in decline: there are around 250 different species of bee in Britain, but since 1900 we have lost 20 species, and a further 35 are at risk. Secondly, the number of bees has declined: it has halved in the last 50 years in the UK, and numbers are falling more rapidly as the years go by. Finally, bee-keepers have been hit by colony collapse disorder: whole hives would suddenly die, for no obvious reason. Managed honey bee colonies fell by over 50% between 1985 and 2000.
We believe that there are several factors causing this decline:
- changes in agricultural practice so that there is less land with wild flowers on it, (hedgerows and wild areas have been replaced by large areas sown with just one crop)
- the increasing use of pesticides – especially neonicotinoids
- climate change has played a part because if the timing of the seasons shifts, then flowers bloom at a different time, when bees are not ready A similar thing is happening with migrating birds: the birds arrive at the same time, but global warming means the caterpillars hatch earlier.
- and of course honey bees are vulnerable to illnesses and pests, especially the varroa mite; and it is quite likely that the bees we have now in our hives are weaker and less resistant to the varroa mite because of the other factors – especially pesticides.
In our view, the most significant damage, and the damage that is easiest to deal with, is caused by pesticides. The type of pesticide that most worries environmentalists is neonicotinoids. These are neurotoxins – they attack the nervous system of insects. They were designed to attack insect pests. However, FoE has long argued that they harm bees: as you probably know, bees have an incredible sense of direction and can show each other where nectar is to be found by performing a ‘waggle dance’. They can actually tell each other the direction and the distance by varying their posture in the dance! What FoE has argued is that neurotoxins interfere with the bees’ ability to convey the knowledge about the location of nectar. In fact, many bees have lost their ability to return to the hive.
What has made the situation even worse is that many farmers have sprayed their crops as a precaution – without evidence of the presence of any pests. The manufacturers have argued that neonics don’t get into the flowers, while scientists have countered that they do; and there have been arguments over ‘safe’ levels of the toxin, with some scientists saying there is no safe level as even a tiny amount will cause some harm. Farmers have argued that they would get poorer crops if they didn’t spray, but tests have shown this is not true.
After long-drawn out arguments between the neonicotinoid manufacturers and scientists and environmentalists, the main neonicotinoids were banned by the European Union. At first, in 2013 there was a temporary ban, affecting only some crops, and then in April this year a permanent ban was agreed, covering almost all outside use of the three main neonicotinoids. Previously the UK had not supported a ban, but Michael Gove changed the UK position last – despite opposition from the National Farmers’ Union – and this may have helped at the European level.
In Havering we felt we should try to raise public awareness about the plight of the bees, so we have given talks about bees to community groups, in libraries and at the WI. We also produced a leaflet: ‘How to get more bees buzzing about, in 3 easy steps.’ We called on people to (i) not use pesticides, (2) let some of your garden or allotment go wild, and (3) plant flowers that are attractive to bees. (Not all blossoms are designed such that the nectar is accessible to bees…). The leaflet has a long list of flowers suitable for spring, summer and autumn.
We also had a series of meetings with the officer responsible for the natural environment (Simon Parkinson at the time), and we contributed to an article published in Living in summer 2013: ‘Borough is buzzing with help for bees.’ This article pointed out that Havering has set aside areas in local parks for wild flowers, and was, I think, a bit over-optimistic about the situation in Havering. For example, we have also pointed out that the most commonly-used herbicide Roundup is a suspected carcinogen, and shouldn’t be used – after all, if it causes cancer in humans it must be damaging insects and invertebrates, and fish when it is washed into rivers. Yet Havering uses it to clear weeds from the roadsides… They argue that the public doesn’t like weeds. We argue that weeds and wild flowers are essential for bees and other pollinators. Do you want your road to look ‘tidy’ and manicured, or do you want to help wildlife?
Breaking News! A very recent court case in America has led to the manufacturers of Roundup being fined for causing cancer in a worker who used the product regularly:
In the first of many pending lawsuits (probably as many as 5,000 in the US alone!) to go to trial, a jury in San Francisco concluded on Aug. 10 that the plaintiff had developed cancer from exposure to Roundup, Monsanto’s widely used herbicide, and ordered the company to pay US$289 million in damages.
The plaintiff, Dewayne Johnson, had used Roundup in his job as groundskeeper in a California school district. He later developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma. (In 2017 his doctors gave him 6 months to live). The jury awarded Johnson $39 million in compensatory damages to cover pain, suffering and medical bills due to negligence by Monsanto, plus an additional $250 million in punitive damages.
This means the jury … believed the company deliberately withheld from the public scientific knowledge that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was a cancer danger. The size of the damages awarded indicates that the jury was not persuaded by Monsanto’s expert witnesses.
Monsanto – one of the largest manufacturers of pesticides and of GM seeds – was recently taken over by another huge company Bayer…
Other campaigns have been launched with similar aims: nationally FoE campaigned for a National Pollinator Strategy, and Defra published a document in November 2014, after a public consultation.
More recently, in November 2017, we asked our new MP Julia Lopez about progress on the Pollinator Strategy, and she put forward a question which led to a debate in parliament. We are following up on this, but the recent EU decision is a big step forward. What is crucial, of course, is that in the event of Brexit we retain the same high standards that have been agreed in Europe.
(ii) Pollution and waste - sustainability
I imagine we are all aware of the terrible problem caused by plastic waste at present. Every minute the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped in the ocean. 5 million plastics bags every year go into the ocean. Birds get entangled, and they feed plastic to their young, fish and whales eat micro-plastic, etc. Clearly nature cannot thrive in these conditions.
But this is just the latest in a series of concerns that FoE has had about the negative side-effects of our way of life, starting with air pollution and ‘smog’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There are two things we would urge should happen: (i) we all should consume less – especially of the ‘throw-away’ products that are in vogue for a short while and then disappear. In other words we should Reduce wasteful consumption. (ii) We should Re-use and Re-cycle. This way we not only create less waste and pollution, but we also move towards a more sustainable lifestyle (some of the natural resources we use are disappearing).
There are regular workshops – described as parties! - held by Restart – which helps people to repair electrical goods rather than throw them away. https://therestartproject.org/ Their motto is: ‘Don’t despair, just repair’.
Recycling and Waste In Havering:
For some years now Havering FoE has been trying to get the council to do more in the way of recycling. When we meet with the officers responsible, however, (and the first time was over 5 years ago, the last time was in 2017) we are told that they are doing all they can, and that they are limited by a 15 year contract with a waste disposal company.
We are also alarmed to hear that the Green Points scheme is coming to an end this October. This rewards individuals with points in proportion to the amount of recycling carried out in their local area. We have been told that the scheme was originally government-funded, but now the funds have been withdrawn.
Havering FoE has written to a number of local supermarkets to ask what they are doing about reducing the amount of plastic in their packaging. We have to say that whilst there is a lot of awareness of this issue, local supermarkets are tied to the policies of their parent companies – we can only hope there is some movement nationally on this.
On the positive side, I recently met the team from Recycle Havering, who have lots of expertise and helpful advice. There is also information on the Havering website www.havering.gov.uk/recycling and there are some useful leaflets…
In Havering, FoE has been pressing for an Air Quality Action Plan for several years, and recently the council (finally!) published one. The borough has some ‘hot spots’ – especially near main roads – and we have the fourth highest number of early deaths from air pollution out of all London boroughs.
Again, this problem raises the question of social justice – since the most vulnerable people are those with pre-existing problems like asthma, and the elderly, and children. It is also well-known that low-income families are more likely to live near busy roads.
We found the AQAP frankly disappointing – good on saying that they would encourage people to avoid using their cars, but poor on saying what alternatives would be provided, and very poor indeed in the lack of any targets or timescales.
Recently we have taken up the issue of airport expansion. Already, local residents are subject to aircraft noise early in the morning. We are investigating who is responsible for this, and we recently met our MP Julia Lopez to express our opposition to the expansion of Heathrow. We believe this will cause more noise, and the extra flights will produce more greenhouse gases that will make it difficult for the UK to meet its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Unfortunately, Julia Lopez supports the expansion because she wants to see a ‘hub’ in Havering that would service the airport, and provide jobs locally. The question is, do we want to control global warming, or do we want yet more people travelling by air. Do we want more jobs at the expense of our natural environment?
To conclude: what are some of the things that we could do to protect the natural environment?
Reduce, re-use, recycle.
Protect the green belt.
Plant bee-friendly flowers and shrubs.