April 29, 2017

Ecologist and environmentalist Edward Goldsmith

On 4 September 2009 Last Word on BBC Radio 4 ran this piece on the life of Teddy Goldsmith, featuring exerpts of Teddy’s own speech as well as commentary by his nephew Zac Goldsmith, and his long standing friends and colleagues Jonathon Porritt and Robin Hanbury-Tenison. The presenter is Matthew Bannister.

The original audio can be found here.


Edward Goldsmith, always known as Teddy. The founder of The Ecologist, and its editor for many years, was ahead of his time in predicting many of the changes to the Earth’s climate which are not part of mainstream scientific opinion. Teddy Goldsmith was the son of the Conservative MP Frank Goldsmith, and brother of the businessman, Sir James Goldsmith.

He was one of the first people to stand for Parliament on an Ecology ticket when he unsuccessfully contested the constituency of Eye in Suffolk in 1974. His book, A Blueprint For Survival, sold three quarters of a million copies in the 1970s and led eventually to the foundation of the Green Party. But as the ecological campaigner Jonathon Porritt, and Teddy’s nephew Zac Goldsmith explain, he only had one political objective.

Jonathon Porritt: He really didn’t fit any conventional political categorization. His ideology, if he had one, was an ideology of the natural world. He was driven completely by the logic of the Earth’s limited carrying capacity.

Zac Goldsmith: He was never disillusioned with it, I mean, he fell out with members of the Green movement, but usually it was the other way round. What quite often upset his colleagues was that he was willing to talk to anyone so he did a tour in France which involved speaking with members of the far right in France, and, that for him was perfectly understandable, it was perfectly acceptable, he was willing to talk to anyone. but it was not acceptable to his colleagues, and he pointed out that, only 2 or 3 months before, he had done a tour in Switzerland, where he had spoken to a number of Trotskyite movements. I mean, Teddy was willing to talk to anyone and I think he was probably, you know, purist in that sense, but he ruffled a lot of feathers in doing so, but he was not a right winger in that sense.

Edward Goldsmith: We are creating a planet which is ever less habitable, ever less suitable for accommodating our species, and with climate change, ozone layer depletion, deforestation and the destruction of the soil, and the general chemicalization of everything. I don’t think, at the rate at which it is happening, I don’t think our species is going to last very long. I really believe we are moving in the direction of our extinction as a species.

Teddy Goldsmith’s friend, the President of Survival International.

Robin Hanbury-Tenison: He was an old testament prophet. He understood what was happening to the world, long before the rest of us cottoned-on. And he was forecasting doom and gloom in a way which got him ridiculed a lot and it got him a lot of bad press in the early days, because we were called doom-watchers and he was the prime doom-watcher. But of course he was right. He forecast the oil shortage and the energy shortage, and the energy crisis and all the other things which are now conventional wisdom.

His apocalyptic vision was vindicated in some ways, but, not in others surely?

Robin Hanbury-Tenison: I mean, obviously, he went to some extremes with his views. well, you have to, I think. I mean, Teddy, had such a huge knowledge of history and ecology that he extrapolated, from that vast knowledge, scenarios, which may have sometimes been worst case, and not happen, but on the whole, he was right. But it was a very clear exposition.

Edward Goldsmith: Technology has never solved the problems of the past. We have largely solved our problems by exporting them. We had far too many people in England after the industrial revolution which leads necessarily to a population explosion and we exported them to America and Canada and new Zealand and Australia.

Robin Hanbury-Tenison: Do you remember the Millennium Bug? Well, we were staying in Mexico for Christmas and new year, 1999-2000, and as the countdown came for midnight on 1999, Teddy, who had forecast the end of the world, at last, all his prognoses were coming to fruition, and we were sitting in front of the television, and as news came from Fiji that the world had not come to an end, and Singapore, Teddy would say “oh wait wait wait until its gets to Europe, London, then you will see that everything will collapse, and for goodness sake dear boy, don’t fly for the next month, planes will be falling out of the air”. And then Europe didn’t collapse and New York didn’t collapse and I think he was genuinely disappointed that the world didn’t come to an end.

Teddy Goldsmith’s nephew, Zac, edited The Ecologist for ten years and is now an advisor on green issues to the Conservative Party. He says Teddy wasn’t particularly good at managing money.

Zac Goldsmith: Teddy always described himself as a hopeless investor. But the one investment that he made which paid off was to hand everything over to my father on the condition that he would be looked after. They were very close, and obviously, no legal agreement, but it was an investment which paid off, so that enabled Teddy to do the work he did, it enabled him to start The Ecologist magazine which he imagined would be a huge runaway bestseller at the time, but as it happens, he was ahead of the game, and very few people subscribed at the beginning. But it was that original investment which allowed him to do the work he did. So yeah.

And when you were editing The Ecologist, did he use to look over your shoulder, did he interfere?

Zac Goldsmith: For the first few editions, we worked very closely together. We very rarely disagreed. We disagreed on a few superficial things, but it was fun editing the magazine with him and he was incredibly courageous. I remember when we did, we did an entire edition on cancer, and it was called, Are The Experts Lying?, and one of the articles we printed, was a very long article about Sir Richard Doll, who at the time, was one of the most respected cancer experts in the country, if not the world, and we accused him in this article of selling out to big business, literally selling out to big business, and therefore doing us all a great dis-service.

This was considered at the time, incredibly radical if not heretical, and we received the customary writ, shortly after, and I remember Teddy’s response was delight. He said, “it’s wonderful news. We can help pay his legal fees”. There is nothing Teddy wanted more than to end up in court, defending his views, he was quite willing to have that battle. We never heard back from Sir Richard Doll. And actually, after his death, Sir Richard Doll’s death, a few weeks after his death, it emerged in The Guardian, that he was indeed being paid by big business, and a lot of the decisions he had taken, were the result of that, so, it was a bit of a punt at the time, and I think quite a courageous punt, on the part of my uncle Teddy, but we were vindicated.

Edward Goldsmith: Because of our industrial activities, we are making this planet, ever less habitable, of that, there is no doubt. With the destruction of the forests, of the soil, with climate change, ozone depletion, we are moving in the direction in which we will cease to be able to accommodate complex forms of life like humans, of that, there is no doubt.

I wonder if he has influenced your campaigning style. I mean, when he campaigned for parliament, he stood with a camel, didn’t he.

Zac Goldsmith: He campaigned with a camel and the stated reason was that it was a way of showing the people in his hopeful constituency that unless they changed, shifted from intensive agriculture to more sustainable agriculture, they would be living in a desert and that would be the only way to get around, but the real reason he brought the camel into his campaign is that he had two types of supporters, he had – the sort of green hippies, who were supporters at the time, and he had his old school London yuppies who’d come down to help him with the canvassing, and it was such a sort of odd mixture of people that he thought the best way to disguise that, because neither of them were particularly attracted to his very conservative constituency, the only way to disguise them was to dress them all up as Arabs, and have them follow a camel, and that way, they’d all look the same, and he was able to pin a message on to the side of the camel, on the back of that, “no deserts in Suffolk”.

And was Teddy hopeless in other ways, I mean was he a bit disorganised in life?

Robin Hanbury-Tenison: He always had a sort of, shabby elegance. I remember an extraordinary blue tweed suit he had once, and he did move around in an aura of chaos, and I mean his compost loo was something else.

Now tell me about this compost loo, this was in Cornwall wasn’t it

Robin Hanbury-Tenison: Yes, I mean, I used it, it smelt a bit earthy, and it was a long drop, but some of his more elegant friends did find it very strange, going in there, and Teddy was hugely enthusiastic about it.

And so how would you sum up his contribution to our current understanding about the state of the planet and what we need to do about it?

Robin Hanbury-Tenison: I don’t think one can over-estimate Teddy’s contribution. He started the ball rolling. He opened our eyes to a lot of things. He wasn’t always right about it, I mean, I disagreed passionately about him on some things, we argued about the speed at which things should be done, and what was practical, but he was the guru, who set us on the path, and I don’t think anybody else in the last fifty years can claim any more than he did, in laying down the parameters of what we need to do, to reduce our consumption, to recognize the speed with which we are destroying the planet, and to conserve our energy, and direct it into sustainable methods.

Robin Hanbury-Tenison recollecting Teddy Goldsmith who has died, aged 80.

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