Back to earth
When it comes to ‘The Environment’, Friends of the Earth is perhaps one of the best known of the movers and shakers.
With more than two million members worldwide and a network spanning 74 countries, it claims to be the world’s largest grassroots environmental organisation.
In Scotland it has had its own break-off group from the rest of the UK since 1979 – ahead of the anticipated devolution that did not happen until two decades later.
Th e organisation has led the charge on campaigns including improving bathing water – leading to the number of officially monitored beaches trebling – better air quality, and has been one of the leading voices pushing for more action on tackling climate change.
But in recent years, while still a well-respected and influential charity, its membership of about 3,000 members has waned and a restructure and redundancies have followed.
In May last year, chief executive Stan Blackley left after only a year in the job and there was a lengthy gap before his successor was announced.
Th e face that finally came in to replace him was a familiar one. Former head of research Richard Dixon had left Friends of the Earth in 2002 to go to WWF Scotland and was now returning to the fold, as director.
Speaking to Holyrood, he admits that the charity has of late “been rather quiet” and a lack of a figurehead meant it had been “a bit invisible”.
Where a year ago there were 15 central staff , there are now six – although only two of them remain from last year. Dixon says it has been a “pretty painful time” for the charity, although he adds that he is pleased he started after the cuts had to be made, saying: “The only way from here is up and I start with a staff who are looking forwards and upwards.”
Born in Dublin and growing up in Exeter, Dixon first came to Scotland in 1982 where he studied astronomy at St Andrews University, before going on to do a PhD at Edinburgh.
Even before taking up a paid role for Friends of the Earth, he had been one of its volunteers, first becoming convinced of the need for action after listening to Rainforest Alliance’s John Seed’s warning that if that generation did not start to do something to combat the damage being done, the planet was in serious trouble.
“Fully up to speed” after studying for an MSc in energy systems at Glasgow Caledonian University, he took on a role as an assistant environmental policy officer at Strathclyde Regional Council.
Th is was 1993 and although it was still quite new for local authorities to have officers dedicated to the council’s environmental impact, in the wake of the Rio Earth summit in 1992 it was already something beginning to move up the agenda.
In the years since, Dixon has built a reputation as one of Scotland’s foremost environmental campaigners, first with Friends of the Earth between 1994 and 2002, then at WWF Scotland – where he was head of policy, then director.
In his first stint at FOES, a major campaign was to improve Scotland’s air quality – highlighting the areas with the most polluted atmospheres.
He says: “If you think of all the environmental problems that face people, from contaminated water, to living next to a landfill, to climate change, air pollution is actually the one which is killing more people than anything else. In health terms, it’s the biggest environmental issue and nobody’s doing very much about it.” He describes that work as an “unfinished job”, so it is no surprise that one of the first actions in his second stint was this month to release new figures, which showed Glasgow Kerbside as the worst area for Nitrogen Dioxide fumes.
Once at WWF, with a larger team and more resources, his work included changing the often fractious relationship between the environmental sector and fishing industry – often at odds over stock numbers and sustainability.
He says: “We transformed our relationships from slagging each other off on the television and newspapers to praising each other. We got to a place where government, scientists, the fi shing industry and the NGOs can go to Europe and say Scotland is a good example of how they can all work together to manage stocks. It was a ten-year journey to get to that point.” He was also a central fi gure in drawing together Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, which sees the environmental lobby and others cooperating to get across a wider message on climate change.
It has seen the Scottish Parliament introduce tough, legally binding targets in the Climate Change Act passed in 2009.
Dixon says: “I think that’s one of the strengths of the environment movement in Scotland that there aren’t largely competing egos and we’re not too worried about how visible our brands are, as long as we’re all moving Scotland forward in the right direction.” In the years since he fi rst took up the green mantle there have been big changes in the way the sector deals with government – not least devolution.
He says: “I think one of the key changes that we really underestimate is how the civil service changed. When the civil service were commanded by the Scottish Offi ce, from a rather removed government, they had a very insular, secretive kind of culture.
“Now you’ve got a generation of civil servants whose default assumption is ‘of course I’ll tell you’. “That’s a healthy atmosphere in which to work and I think civil servants and ministers understand very clearly that both at WWF and even more so at Friends of the Earth, we are people who have a good scientific understanding and technical understanding.” He says Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, whose latest report to the Scottish Parliament on what was being done to tackle climate change has been criticised for not going far enough, has had good conversations with them and is trying to understand where they are coming from.
But, he says: “That doesn’t mean I won’t be on Twitter saying ‘you’re not doing enough’ or encouraging the opposition to ask him interesting questions.” Now of course the debate has moved on from devolution to whether Scotland should be independent.
His predecessor, Stan Blackley, left last May and went on to work for the Yes Scotland campaign with the belief that only independence could bring about the necessary changes in the environment. The Scottish Green Party has also come out in support of a Yes vote in the referendum next year.
Dixon says the charity has not got a definitive stance on independence.
“I think there’s a big opportunity for every group in civil society to paint a vision of what they would like Scotland to be like,” he says.
“Then the question is, is that vision more easily delivered in an independent Scotland, or in a Scotland but with perhaps more devolved powers?” He says the current position still depends on who is in government and says that either scenario could see a government being a great champion on climate change, or having other priorities.
“The only thing where potentially there is a definite gain through independence on the environment front is about nuclear weapons, because the SNP are talking about a written constitution which would make it very hard for Scotland to ever have nuclear weapons.
“It depends on the settlement of powers and who’s in charge and what their priorities are more than whether it’s independence or whether it’s enhanced devolution. That may change over time, we may be convinced, but I think it’s up to the parties to convince us.
“As a charity, we are not allowed to be political, but we would be allowed to say that we thought independence was better, or continued devolution was better if we were convinced that it would further our charitable aims.” The group’s role has changed over the years and Dixon says one of his main aims is to increase the profile and support base of the charity in Scotland.
“The membership has been very stable for many years. There’s been a slight decline over the last couple of years – partly because we haven’t been very visible and partly because of the financial times we’re in.” Pushing for an increased membership and donations at a time of recession may not be the easiest job in the world, as people think more about tightening their belts than saving the planet.
Dixon says this is a “natural and understandable tendency”, but there are still concerns about wider issues, including climate change, fracking and incinerators.
There is a lot of crossover between the different environmental groups with a spectrum that ranges from sitting round a table with ministers and officials, to stunts aimed at grabbing headlines and forcing the issue on the public consciousness.
Dixon describes Friends of the Earth as a more grassroots organisation and its groups across Scotland have different approaches from an organic garden that’s been started by the Falkirk branch, to a more “hard-edged” campaigning group in Tayside that has been opposing plans for a biomass plant from Forth Ports in Dundee.
He says stunts are a part of the campaigning ‘toolbox’.
“You’ve got e-actions, you’ve got standing outside the Parliament handing out petitions, standing somewhere important dressed in costumes, going to the RBS AGM singing songs – which is something that Friends of the Earth have been great at – being creative; to potentially even Greenpeace-style chaining yourself to something to stop something bad happening.
“We did chain ourselves to the French Embassy about nuclear testing in the South Pacific islands about 15 years ago and we have hung off cranes at the Tall Ships festival in protest about British Nuclear sponsoring a boat.
“Certainly the stunt side of things, something creative that gets you on television or gets a picture in the paper, is something we very much consider as part of our everyday armoury.”