This post is by Tom Burke, chairman and founding director of E3G and former director of Green Alliance (1982-91).
When I became the director of Green Alliance in 1982, its office was small annex to the office of the Electoral Reform Society in Chandos Place. When I say small, I mean very small indeed.
It was about ten feet wide and twelve long: a good sized prison cell. Somehow, I, Tessa Tennant and Julie Hill managed to squeeze ourselves and three desks into this space in clear breach of HSE regulations, of which we were fortunately ignorant at the time.
Out of this tiny space came some big things. It was here that a conversation about how to make the world go round differently turned into a conversation about how to make the money go round differently, as we came to understand that money really did make the world go round. Tessa Tennant picked up the idea, added a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm, and the rest is history, including several thousand current jobs in the City of London.
The first white paper on the environment
This little room also gave birth to the thought that it might be a good idea for the government to have an environment policy. Apart from a Labour white paper fifteen years before, dealing with pollution, no British government had ever set out a formal statement of its policy on the environment. We set out to get one.
We noticed that the only people politicians really pay attention to are other politicians. So we began a competition in the late eighties between the parties to capture the environmental high ground. This involved writing speeches for leaders like David Owen and Michael Heseltine. Our efforts were boosted by the Green Party’s 15 per cent vote share in the 1989 European elections.
When we first broached the idea with civil servants we were told that white papers were only issued in advance of legislation and none was planned on the environment. We pointed out that, in the previous decade, there had been eight white papers on buses and no legislation. This added a particular pleasure to the moment when, just after Chris Patten had announced there would indeed be an environment white paper, I took a call from the deputy secretary in the Department of the Environment, as it then was, to ask what exactly we wanted to see in a white paper.
To help us answer the question we convened the first of a series of ‘white paper dinners’ for the CEOs of the major environment NGOs. It is still running. The resultant ‘Our common inheritance’ remained the only statement of Britain’s environment policy for the next twenty eight years, until last year’s publication of Defra’s rather less ambitious ‘A green future’ 25 year plan.
An extraordinary negotiation
Just before Christmas 1990, Green Alliance received a wholly unexpected, but very welcome, present from an unlikely source. At the time we were busily engaged in a rare foray into international environmentalism. We had a mandate from the European Environment Bureau to organise NGO input for the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) region to the forthcoming Earth Summit.
We set about raising the money to do this and negotiated a grant for 50,000 Kroner from the Norwegian government. The cheque, which arrived just before Christmas, was for £50,000, half a million Kroner, almost half of our annual budget at the time. After little delay, caused by the Christmas holidays, during which it sat safely in a hastily arranged high interest deposit account, we returned the cash sent in error.
The UNECE Region is vast and somewhat misnamed. It actually runs from Anchorage to Vladivostok the long way round, taking in large chunks of Asia on the way. We were able to convene a series of meetings bringing environmentalists from East and West together for the first time. And, in an extraordinary meeting in Bergen, we had governments and NGOs negotiating round the same table to agree a text.
Conversations that make a difference
Since those days, the challenges have grown bigger. We are not winning the battle to protect the planet. But the forces working for it have also got bigger. In particular, publics everywhere get the importance of environmental issues – from climate change to plastics in the oceans – even if their governments still don’t.
What we learned at Green Alliance while I was director was how much can be accomplished by a very small group of people. They can have good ideas and turn them into action; they can spot weaknesses in the machinery of government and fix them; they can convene allies and turn them into a potent political force.
As it becomes ever more clear that the really big obstacles to achieving a better environment are political rather than economic or technological, those skills are needed more than ever. What we really learned, in our efforts to understand how to make the money go round differently, was that what makes the world go round are conversations, conversations with a purpose involving those with capacity to make a difference.
Running conversations with a purpose with people who can make a difference remains Green Alliance’s unique and vital task to this day.
This post is part of Green Alliance’s 40th anniversary blog series.