'Huge need to act fast,' says Andy Atkins

5 March 2014, Comments 0

Andy Atkins, CEO, Friends of the EarthA Rocha UK chief Andy Atkins used to be CEO for Friends of the Earth. Dr Ruth Valerio interviewed him way back then. Here are the thoughts that fuelled his campaigning for the environment…

15 February 2013

Where did your interest in environmental issues come from?

I’ve always been interested in what we now call ‘the environment’, and I reflect in later life that my earliest memories were of a tropical island in the Pacific where my parents were missionaries. So I grew up in an amazing environmental context and have always been really into the great outdoors as well as into loving animals and nature. In my young adult life this grew increasingly into an understanding of how the world worked and how everything fitted together, so I developed a more academic interest in it from university onwards, but was always keen on the great outdoors, nature, and so on, at a kind of emotional level if you like.

How did that develop through working with Tearfund with its more human emphasis?

I actually did do an Environmental Studies GCSE at school (I was the one person), so I did study it earlier than uni, but in all of the jobs I did (even before Tearfund), I was noting the impact of the environment on people and vice versa. Once I was at Tearfund, I had the great opportunity there to set up policy and campaigning work and propose some issues we should work on. And it was already becoming obvious to me, working in the development sector, that actually climate change was having a huge impact – or would have a huge impact and was beginning to have an impact already – on the development goals that we all have. So if you want to bring people more water or more food or whatever, you can’t do that easily if your climate goes up the spout. So I started to get even more into environmental issues because of the impact on human development. That’s why we set up the climate change and development programme at Tearfund and things went from there. To cut a long story short, I found it hard to work on development and not notice the impact that environmental trends were having on people and vice versa. It doesn’t make sense to work on one and ignore the other.

Where does your Christian faith come in?

I probably would be passionate about both human development and environment because I am who I am. I think given the fact that my parents also were quite social justice-minded, it’s no great surprise that I would be interested in social justice and in the environment. I think where my faith has influenced me is in choosing to work in that field permanently as a job, as a lifelong commitment, as opposed to taking an interest in development and environment as a hobby or as something I do in my spare time. I guess at a fairly early age I looked at the problems of, at that stage, human development and poverty in the developing world, and felt it’s really going to take people to commit themselves to bringing about change. So that took me down that road as opposed to being a banker or an architect or something, because that’s part of a belief: if I believe God cares about these things, somebody’s got to do something about it. And the same applies to the environment, so I guess I’ve worked full-time in either environment or development charities as a kind of choice of living out my faith, but I would have probably been interested in those issues anyway.

You’ve worked in both Christian and non-faith-based organisations. What do you think are the merits of working for different types?

Actually, the organisations I’ve worked for, whether overtly Christian or of all faiths and none (as Friends of the Earth is), each has a pretty similar remit, which is changing the world! That’s huge! And the remit is pretty much the same whether it’s changing the world in eradicating poverty or in saving the environment or, increasingly, changing the world in making those two things work together because you can’t do it any other way, which is where I’m at.

I think where they differ is in the audiences they’re working with. So many faith-based organisations are aiming to mobilise their particular community, which has a pro and a con. The pro is that it’s quite clearly defined: often there’s a common language and common culture, which makes it quite easy to target. The con is that it’s probably quite restricted in numbers, whereas working for an organisation like Friends of the Earth it’s the equal and opposite. We’re aiming ourselves at the entire public, a much bigger constituency, but that constituency is much more varied with many different cultures and subcultures and languages, and actually it’s almost impossible to aim yourself equally at the entire public. So I think the remits have been huge and equal, but their constituencies and how they go about working with them is quite different.

Does it make a difference for you personally whether you’re working for a Christian organisation or not?

It doesn’t make a difference in a positive or negative way; it’s just that there are differences. So – I’ve found coming to Friends of the Earth some intriguing things: first, there is a huge commitment at Friends of the Earth to improving people’s lives in protecting the environment and making it work together, as big a commitment or bigger than I have seen anywhere else. So, what is clear is that – faith or no faith – people can be really committed to good things, and I really welcome that.

What I’ve also seen is that people, without necessarily having a faith through a particular religion, can still have a very spiritual side, so it’s a really big mistake to think that these people are not professing Christians, professing Muslims or whatever, therefore they have no spirituality. So that’s been re-enforced for me.

Now there are also passionate atheists in the Friends of the Earth supporter base but there are also highly spiritual people of different faiths, so it hasn’t been hard. It’s been fascinating actually.

Have faith-based organisations got a particular role?

Yes, very much so. If I look at the trends in environmental degradation and the trends in human poverty, there is a huge need to act fast, to mobilise people to bring about change and actually that takes all sorts of organisations and all sorts of leaders to mobilise whoever they can mobilise, and key groups among the general population are groups of faith. So I think faith groups have a huge role both in mobilising their constituency but also through helping that constituency see what their own faith says about the issues.

I think that’s where Christian organisations have a lot further to go on the environment than they have to go on poverty. For most churches you go to in the UK it will be accepted that it is part of Christian duty to care for the vulnerable, give to the poor; it’s almost taken for granted. I believe it is exactly the same from a faith perspective about looking after the environment. However, the Christian churches are a long way from an understanding of that as a general rule, or accepting it the way they accept a responsibility around poverty. I think that’s moving in the right direction, but I’d love to see that move much much faster, and that’s got to come, I think, from leadership in the church making the point and turning it into normal behaviour to care about the environment just as we care about poverty. So leaders of faith groups carry a huge role and responsibility: to lead their people around these issues.

What do you think are A Rocha’s distinctives?

From what I see and know, I think A Rocha is great. A couple of things occur to me. To the best of my knowledge it’s maybe the only and certainly the biggest Christian environmental organisation in this country, if not around the world. The fact that it is doing practical stuff on the ground and in several countries, I think is a real strength because it allows A Rocha UK (and I think it could do more of this), but it allows A Rocha UK to speak with great authority on what works and what doesn’t work in terms of practical conservation. I also like the fact that A Rocha UK is very conscious of the fact that people and the environment have to go together. And although A Rocha UK may focus more on the conservation of species and certain ecosystems in the practical work it does, it’s not trying to do that in isolation from people, communities and wider public well-being. And I think that’s brilliant!

Where I’d love to see A Rocha UK go (and it’s not my place to say!) is not to convert itself into a campaigning organisation and drop the practical conservation – that would be terrible – but to use the practical experience it’s got also to influence policy and change public perceptions of issues, at least within the church, much more consciously and explicitly. We need people to move beyond just doing their bit on the ground to actually using that as credibility and influence to change things on a much bigger scale, which means changing policy, affecting government, affecting business, etc. And I think A Rocha UK can have a really useful role in that, in helping galvanise UK Christians and others to use their voice to that end.

Give me your top tips for lobbying.

First of all, recognise that politicians are human. They like to be congratulated when they’ve done something right, but they’re also open to pressure.

Secondly, recognise that we pay them! They are our servants, so tell them what you would like them to do. A lot of people, particularly within the churches, have too deferential an attitude to politicians. They’re just people like you and me. We elected them. Now I think they’re very brave to stand for election, so credit to elected politicians for that. But ultimately they’re our servants, we elect them, we pay them – so tell them what you want them to do!

The last tip is to recognise the psychological benefit for you (and in fact for the politician) of doing things in numbers. So it’s very hard as an individual (particularly if you’re the only one in your church who cares about these things) to be constantly going back to your MP, but if you can find other people to work with, make a group, link up with another group, that will be better for your own ability to sustain that kind of work. Actually it will have more impact on the politician as well, because when the politician perceives that they’ve got ten people coming to them about this issue instead of one, or they’ve got ten letters that week instead of one, they’re human after all and they think, ‘Ooh, this is becoming a bigger issue.’

What are the key things you’ve learnt from running Friends of the Earth?

One of them has been the huge importance of distinguishing between policy and politics. What I mean by that is, policy is about putting forward what you want to happen and, of course, that needs to be based on scientific fact and evidence and so on, but that alone is not enough. You have to understand that the context in which you put that proposal, and whether that proposal goes forward or goes nowhere, is going to be dependent on a balance of forces, on a balance of ideas, of who thinks they can get away with what, and who thinks they can block what you’re trying to do. And that’s the politics.

And I knew of this difference, I’d been managing this difference at Tearfund, but coming to Friends of the Earth I have seen just how much you really have to understand the politics as well as have a good policy proposal. I’m in awe of my colleagues here for their ability to read the politics so that the proposal is then accepted and taken forward by the politicians. I love living in a working environment where you can both have a good excuse to get deeply into issues at an academic and quite geeky level, at the same time as really getting involved in the current dynamics of the UK’s political system: individuals, institutions, processes, etc, which is sometimes exciting, sometimes nerve-racking, but you have to do both to get the change you want.

Many of the issues we work on are huge areas in their own right and one of the things I love about Friends of the Earth is we do have specialists on so many different issues, so I don’t carry around an encyclopedia in my head, I just go and ask a mate!

Another one is actually about public awareness, because it is commonly said that people don’t care that much about the environment. Actually I take quite a different view from the privilege of being in this role where I not only go and talk to a lot of people, but a lot of people come and talk to me, whether I like it or not. The moment people know I’m Friends of the Earth they want to give me their opinion! And what I find is that most people are really concerned about the environment and they know there are problems. There’s not a lack of care or fundamental ignorance, they just don’t know what to do. And sometimes they’re not convinced that there is anything we can do.

Over the last 20–30 years, one of the victories of the environmental movement is that it has got awareness of the environment and its importance and the links between that and human well-being much more mainstream than it was before. What we haven’t yet done is show people, here are the solutions and here’s how we bring them about, on a grand scale. Some people know, but largely the population doesn’t. And that’s again where Friends of the Earth and potentially A Rocha come in: we know what some of the solutions are; what we lack is wider public understanding of that and how to bring them about.

AndyAtkinsAndRuthValerio


What are some of the solutions?

It depends on the issue you’re talking about.

I think on the energy side, we know there are all sorts of renewable energy sources available. We also know there are all sorts of energy efficiency technologies available. It is not a technical problem getting our carbon emissions down; we know what to do. The problem is the political will and the public backing for the political will to do it fast enough.

Likewise, there’s all sorts of really good work going on around biodiversity, recreating nature, so we are going to have to have a change in our flood defence system. You could if you wanted just build some very high concrete walls, which would look awful. They might keep the sea out but it would be incredibly expensive and nobody is going to want to live anywhere near them. Or, you could do it in quite a different way and create many more coastal marshlands to take the sea when it comes in. You could create nature reserves at the same time, which could become tourist attractions. There are many ways to do this and there’s a way to do this that is really good for nature and really good for people, and there are ways to do it that are far less attractive. But we know what we could do – it’s getting the will behind it to do it the right way.

How can we raise the media profile of these issues?

AndyAtkins2…And particularly in the current economic situation. Just about every interview that I do, the first question is, ‘Right now, with everybody so concerned with the economy, why should they bother?’ It’s that systemic. And what can we do? First of all, I think individuals who care about the environment can use the media to put this on the agenda: you can phone up a radio talk show, you can comment on blogs and put an environmental perspective. So if you know about these things and care about them, use the modern media of twitter/facebook/blogs to actually put it on the agenda.

Secondly, campaigning in an engaging way that involves the public more tends to get it into the media too. So, for example, when we launched our campaign on bees last year we could have just produced a report. We didn’t: we planted a bee garden down on London’s South Bank; it ended up with ITV doing their early morning weather report there, etc. And we’ve given away free seeds so people can plant wildflower gardens, whether it’s in their flat or their driveway or their farm, whatever. So there are ways of doing things that catch the public attention and that will often then catch the media attention, that way round. And that can happen whether it’s at local or at national level.

The last thing, I think, is really making connections for people between the issues that we might see as environmental and what their concerns are. So, as an environmental organisation, we are very keen to do something about getting carbon emissions down. What people are worried about right now is their fuel bills, energy prices, staying warm… Actually, it’s the same answer as what we need for climate change: we need to get ourselves off fossil fuels, get ourselves onto renewable energy, and insulate our houses. But we must say, ‘Look, what you need is some insulation, what we need is to get off fossil fuels, so that your energy prices over time will actually be lower not higher than if we stayed on gas.’ That shows a link and an understanding of their position and their context.

I think previously we didn’t always show that: we were just banging on about things that we were most concerned about, often assuming and doing it because we knew it would help people, but without revealing what our thinking was. So, the other way to get these issues in the media is to show the connection between the narrowly defined ‘environment’ and people’s major concerns. We did that again on bees: when we actually brought out our report on that, it was showing that if we lost pollinators it would add £1.8 billion a year to our food bill. Interestingly enough, that was what so much of the media picked up on: it was the impact on our pockets not, ‘Wouldn’t it be terrible if we lost the fluffy bumble bee?’

Do you think that Christians find campaigning a difficult area to get into, and if so, why? Have you some top tips for lobbying our politicians, etc?

I think many people find campaigning difficult to get into, for a range reasons – from fear of authority figures, the perception that it’s very complicated, anxiety about potential conflict or just lack of confidence that their individual effort can make a difference. Once people get started, particularly in the company of others more experienced, they soon discover it’s quite simple in many ways, they can really change things, and their confidence grows. It can even be fun!

I think there was a strand of Christianity which implied that it was somehow wrong to ‘be political’, because it was seen as too earthly or challenging the establishment. Fortunately, in my years of campaigning, I think this misreading of the Bible has been increasingly corrected. If Christians are called to love our neighbour and cherish creation, that means caring what decisions or omissions are made which affect our neighbour and creation; that means getting involved in wider society debates and decisions, and pressing for the right ones; and that means campaigning and engaging with politicians and politics. It should simply be seen as the norm for responsible citizens, Christian or otherwise – neither special nor taboo!

How do you go about being a ‘friend of the earth’?

Oh my goodness, so many different things! I’m not doing it to show off. Long before coming to Friends of the Earth we were trying very hard not to fly unless we really had to, so our family holidays have been largely by train and so on. Certainly at work as well, if I can do something by train I’ll do it – just got back from Amsterdam and that was there and back by train. With transport use more generally, I cycle a lot, get to work by train and bike. Weekends I would far rather go somewhere by bike than by any other means really.

Then with our money. My wife and I support environmental and developmental organisations, so it’s partly how we use our money as well. And I suppose it’s other things like, just being sensitive as we do stuff round the house as to what’s going to use more or less resources, what’s good and what isn’t good for nature. And, like everybody else, we’re on a journey of recognising what’s good for nature and what isn’t. I love looking out of the window in the summer and seeing all the bees on the buddleia plant and we wouldn’t lose that tree for anything because I can see how just how loved it is by nature.

Food: we try as much as possible to get stuff that is more locally grown. I know that’s a complicated discussion, but we’re eating less meat than we used to. I’m very clear that all the evidence shows us that we’ve all got to eat less meat for food production to be sustainable. Combination of what we do with our time, what we do with our money, and how we try to organise our lives, where I think transport is the most obvious thing. And I know it’s quite a sacrifice for the kids because their mates are going off on flying holidays several times a year and they kind of lovingly hate me that we don’t do that. But also, some great experiences as well: trip down to Italy where all five of us drove down a couple of summers ago, which at the time was the most boring thing that ever happened and yet they go on and on about it from a happy perspective, seeing several countries go by. They are also learning to see the journey as part of the holiday and enjoy it rather than just get in a metal tube and get out the other end in a completely different place.

How do you enjoy nature?

I’ve always liked being outdoors, in fact I get twitchy if it takes me more than about an hour and a half to get out of the house, I just can’t stand sitting at home all day. So at the weekend I usually go for a bike ride into the country rather than into the city to get to work. I also love to paint. If I’ve got a few hours and the weather is good, I love just being out in the environment, and painting gives me the excuse to do that, painting landscape. Both involve getting out, either by bike or by sitting and painting.

Should we buy British honey or fairtrade honey from Africa?

I do think that as a general rule it is good to buy local stuff. I would not want to go as far as a general statement about not buying imported food, because with my care for international justice, I know that sometimes these imported products are providing livelihoods.

What I’m getting at is that it is important that we look into these things, and that we learn collectively what is better for the environment. But I think you can get into a kind of purism and hypocrisy. I have genuinely heard people who I know take many overseas holidays and drive around in a 4×4, pontificate about how great they are because they’re not buying beans from Kenya, and I just think this is so wrong. The relative impact of those things is completely skew-whiff. If you’ve given up your 4×4, and you no longer take flying holidays, and you’re trying to get your carbon emissions in your home as low as possible, then you can worry about the margins, but there are other things that will make way more difference.

However, with that caveat, I think generally speaking, yes, buying local is clearly better in terms of transport miles and all the rest of it.

How do you keep going at times when the environmental outlook looks bleak?

Firstly, my faith tells me we must stand up for justice and nature – people and nature are to be cherished as reflecting God, not denigrated; secondly, while that clearly does not mean you win every battle, it’s a moral imperative to speak up for what is right – and pragmatically, you have no chance of achieving change if you don’t! Thirdly, I’ve repeatedly experienced, and know from history, that today’s failure and defeats often contain the seeds of tomorrow’s victories… if you look for them, learn from them. I force myself to look for them in the bleakest hours! Lastly, despite the alarming trends about which I am very realistic, I also see huge opportunities for change, and real solutions out there – technical, social, economic. We just need to galvanise many more people behind them. I hate missing opportunities – few things make me more depressed! – and pursuing the opportunites to galvanise more people around our agenda keeps me going!

I do believe that there’s a logic of justice: just because the outlook looks bleak is no excuse for giving up. Maybe I’m just wired that way; just because things are rough doesn’t mean you give up. And it’s where faith does come in. There are situations in life where you may not like it, you may not even be convinced you’re going to win, but faith says you absolutely have to keep going. That is the only right and fair thing to do for those who will suffer much more if we don’t fight these environmental battles. I am/we are in a position to do something about it: how can we not keep going? I am absolutely convinced that we have no way of leaving a decent life for people unless we also protect the environment. And I’m a campaigner at heart, which means I quite like a good fight!

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Yes. What are the big issues of the minute? We have a really crucial year ahead around energy and where we get our energy from. So there was a draft Energy Bill before Parliament, and the way that pans out will make the difference as to whether the UK makes a major step forward in energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy and therefore meeting our carbon emissions targets, or whether we get locked into continuing high carbon usage from the energy sector, potentially over many decades to come. And if we do, we won’t meet our obligations in the international arena (well, we probably will under the very weak international regime), but we won’t meet our UK climate change targets. I think the Energy Bill is absolutely critical. It sounds a fairly uninteresting bit of legislation but it’s absolutely critical for so many things. So I believe that if we can switch to much greater energy efficiency, much greater renewable energy, not only will energy prices in the end be much lower than they would otherwise be, it will help us to tackle fuel poverty.

That will have a huge knock-on effect on people’s well-being: 5 million households in Britain (supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world) can’t afford to heat their homes, and that has an impact on health, on education, on the kids living in those freezing houses. So energy: critical issue right now. And we’re campaigning on this – particularly to get our ‘de-carbonisation target’ into the bill, which would commit that bill to ensuring that our energy system comes off fossil fuels over the next 20 years.

Then also way we treat nature generally in this country and what the government is prepared to do to protect it. That big blow-up around the forests, for example, was fascinating. It completely took the government by surprise, and I think we’re starting to see, rightly, much greater public concern around things like bees, oddly enough, as people begin to understand not that they are disappearing but how pivotal they are to the food chain, as well as to the beauty of nature. And how pivotal actually they are to our economy and the damage if we lose them. Friends of the Earth are campaigning on bees, but there are other landscape and ecosystem issues: use of wetlands, a whole range of things that we need to start doing differently rather fast in this country or we will be fatally wounding the environment on which ultimately our economy depends. I think one of the big fights going on at the moment is around bees, but it’s a totem/an icon for our dependence on nature, and we’re beginning to wake up to that now. We have to win this battle on bees, but that’s the beginning not the end. There are many battles to win, but that’s going to be a big one this year.

[Photos of Andy Atkins courtesy of Friends of the Earth]

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