Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been campaigning since 1971. After many years of hard work, the pioneering UK charity is feeling optimistic, as consciousness among the general public reaches unprecedented heights. We spoke to its CEO, Craig Bennett, to find out what's next for the organisation.
In the context of heightened awareness of climate change, thanks to Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes, what do you think about the role of established environmental campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth?
It has been brilliant to see the emergence of Extinction Rebellion, and particularly the youth strikes this year. They have brought a real urgency and vibrancy to the debate that had been missing before that.
Particularly with the youth strikes when they first emerged, lots of people wondered if there was a big organisation behind them. But it was completely authentic, with the inspiration from Greta Thumberg, and simply mobilised through social media - so that makes it all the more exciting. These are protest movements, raising the profile of the issues.
Meanwhile, organisations like Friends of the Earth work really hard to campaign for the solutions. We’ve done a lot of research over the years to work out what the solutions are, and so I think we complement each other really well. We need protest to keep pushing climate change and environmental issues up the agenda, but actually Friends of the Earth needs to say 'here are the solutions, here is what we can actually do about it'.
Different things appeal to different people - some people will want to get involved in protest, others might want to campaign about particular solutions around where they live. It is important in the wider environmental NGO movement that we offer a range of diverse options to get involved.
Can you explain the context around your latest campaigns?
We have a strong track record of winning campaign work, but on quite specific policy issues - such as solar feed-in tariffs. However, we realised we have been winning lots of battles, but it felt like we were ‘losing the war’. What I mean by that is we have realised that we need to bring about a big shift in values in society, and how we frame these issues in the first place. That opens up whole new opportunities for measures that government can put in place that it wouldn’t dream of, if it was stuck within the current reality.
The first campaign we did like that was the bees campaign. That was about re-awakening the British public to the decline of nature, the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems - but doing it without using any of those words. The bee became the ambassador for that much bigger story about the loss of abundancy in nature.
There is evidence that specific campaign shifted values in society to bring nature back into our lives. The very fact you see roadside verges and parts of parks and gardens not being mown and allowed to go wild - even 10 years ago that would have been considered untidy - now people celebrate it.
That is sometimes more significant than some of the policy wins, because that is lasting change that will stick.
Lots of people will come into these things from different angles. Some people will be really interested in stopping the ‘bad stuff’, so we have a campaign on fracking and that has been very successful. But others are motivated by promoting the ‘good stuff’, so we have our new campaign on doubling UK tree cover.
Friends of the Earth has most recently identified the big six sectors of the economy that fundamentally have to change to tackle climate change. We are looking at how we can have national and local climate emergency plans to tackle the crisis.
Our plastics campaign is similar. It represents the bigger issues of overconsumption and the fossil fuel economy. All our campaigns tell a bigger story than just the issue they appear to cover. We are hoping that will lead to these big society shifts.
When it comes to tackling the climate emergency, how do we as a society find that balance between individual action and political-level action?
It is always very simple with the climate change debate to suggest that it is one thing or another. Is it action in the UK, is it about China, is it about the US? The fact is, we need action in all of these places and at all of these levels.
What is particularly interesting is this relationship between government action and individual action. Individuals often feel powerless because they think it is the government that can pull the big levers. But actually history has shown time and time again, that governments always come late to the party. Politicians only act when they feel there is a big uprising of citizens behind something. So taking individual action is sometimes the only way we can get them to act.
You see it in mass movements from history, such as the abolition of the slave trade; people boycotted products and made their views known. That helped build the support to finally get slavery banned. In the same way with climate change, by people choosing an ethical bank, choosing certain energy sources, choosing to buy food that’s organic, reducing meat consumption, choosing to fly a bit less - all of these things.
That’s a way of sending powerful messages to politicians that they want them to do more. Then if the government puts the right measures in place, such as improved public transport, more people will use it.
Where do you get your personal motivation from? How to you manage that balance between outrage and optimism?
At heart I’m a campaigner, and people seem to have this caricature is that we are angry and miserable about things. If you think about it though, you can’t possibly be a campaigner unless you are an optimist. You can’t do it unless you believe that change is possible, even in the face of adversity at times. We do believe we can change things and that we will.
The only way is if we stand up and do something about it. In my life and in my career there have been so many things I have been told could never happen and we end up winning them.
I don’t take no for an answer. If you tell me something can’t be done, I try twice as hard to make it happen. That’s the kind of activity we need an it spurs us on for these big changes.
Do you agree that moving your money is one of the simplest and most impactful ways that individuals can make a positive difference? More broadly, what role do you see for the banking sector in tackling climate and environmental challenges?
It's the old adage that ‘money makes the world go round’, but when it is put into the wrong things that will harm society rather than help it, then the world’s going round in the wrong direction.
The vast bulk of the finance sector has been incredibly slow at addressing the issue of climate change. The big banks have been pretty deaf to sustainability issues for years, a few programmes here or there but they are often a figleaf to the fact the vast majority of their financial activity is not ethical at all - just chasing the quick and dirty money.
That is why it is so important we have banks like Triodos that fundamentally - across all of their investments and activity - look at the ethical side of things.
What excites me is that I do see the finance sector quite soon making what will be a very big and fast change, when it finally happens. Given the carbon bubble and that investment markets have a herd mentality, I see that they will believe in something passionately, until some part of the market believes it is not true - and then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. As we saw happen with the financial crisis in 2008.
At some point in the future the carbon bubble will burst, and suddenly what are currently seen as assets in oil and gas reserves will become liabilities. When that switch happens, I think it will be very quick - banks like Triodos are much more resilient and secure for this potential scenario.
About Craig Bennett
Craig Bennett started as CEO of Friends of the Earth in July 2015. He is an accomplished public speaker, regularly appears in broadcast and print media, and lectures at several universities and business schools. Triodos Bank has partnered with Friends of the Earth since 2007 – sharing the same values of wanting to help create a sustainable world that protects the environment.
You can follow him on Twitter.
The Colour of Money
A shortened version of this interview was originally published in the autumn/winter 2019 edition of The Colour of Money, Triodos Bank's inspirational magazine.
Our mission is to make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change. The Colour of Money gives you stories, features, and interviews showing you how we do just that.
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