Green Alliance: twenty fifth anniversary

Published by Green Alliance, in October 2004.

What I remember most is the office. It was a tiny triangle with a single window high up on the North wall. At its widest, it was about eight feet across, narrowing to six at the far end, all of fifteen feet away. But the ceilings were high.

Into this space, the backroom of the Electoral Reform Society office in Chandos Place, we crammed three desks, several filing cabinets and a lot of paper. Fortunately, it was never visited by anyone from the Health and Safety Executive. But there was an excellent café downstairs which kept us supplied with coffee and bacon sandwiches and often doubled as an overspill meeting room.

The Green Alliance has grown greatly since then, but living conditions for its current staff bear a striking resemblance to those early days. Maybe there is something about overcrowded offices that stimulates creativity. Friends of the Earth in Poland Street a decade earlier had much the same feel to it. I know that when I eventually found myself in a spacious office in the old Marsham Street towers I had to fill them up with paper as fast as possible in order to feel comfortable.

A lot came out of that little room in Chandos Place, not all of it well remembered. The first steps in the environmental engagement with the business community began with a dialogue on pesticides and a publication Julie Hill researched for the Institute of Business Ethics. The copy for the first greenish fund was written there. This was where Tessa Tennant began the work that launched her on a stellar career as the pioneer of green investment.

Here it was that we recognised that politicians only really listen to other politicians. So we wrote environmental speeches for David Owen, Micahel Heseltine and other leading political figures to encourage them to compete with each other. We also lobbied, successfully, for the publication of Britain’s first White Paper on environmental policy. Something the current government would do well to emulate. The meetings we set up between the leaders of the major environmental groups to coordinate their input to the White Paper continue to this day as the White Paper Dinners.

Our confined quarters were a powerful inducement to spin things off. The pesticides dialogue eventually led to the creation of the Pesticides Trust . We initiated the formation of the National Food Alliance which continues to do excellent work to this day as ………  We collaborated with the National Council of Voluntary Organisations to create Wastewatch.

Our imagination and ambition were never confined by our space. So we reached out to the world from our back room. To this day the Green Alliance continues to coordinate the input of the British environmental bodies to the European Environment Bureau. Though we did not know it at the time, money from George Soros financed the Green Alliance’s role in building the first links between Eastern European and Western environmental organisations.

This set the Green Alliance up to play a key role in the preparations for the Earth Summit. We raised over a million dollars, a huge sum in those days, to organise the NGO part of European preparatory conference. For some strange UN reason, this included everywhere from Anchorage to Vladivostok. This led to the first ever meeting of environmentalists from East and West at a conference that began in Vienna, held workshops on a boat sailing down the Danube, and held its final plenary in Budapest.

The moment I remember best is when we smuggled a passport- less anti-nuclear activist from Tajikistan across the border into Austria. But at the subsequent Bergen Conference we set the model for the engagement of non-governmental organisations in UN Conferences that was used at Rio and after.

So much for the past. The future is more important. And more difficult. For all our efforts, the environment is in a more parlous state now than it was over three decades ago when I first went to work for Friends of the Earth.

We have made real progress. The world is a better place than it would have been without our efforts. But the problems have mounted faster than our successes. The need for a persistent and effective political response to the challenges facing our environment is greater than ever. That means the need for, and task facing, the Green Alliance, is greater than ever.