October 23, 2017

Uncle Teddy

This is a chapter about Teddy Goldsmith from Green Warriors by the prodigious environmental writer Fred Pearce. Green Warriors was edited by Jill Black, and published by The Bodley Head, London, 10 January 1991. The publisher’s synopsis reads:

“As the century comes to a close and we begin to comprehend the scale and brutality of our assaults on the planet, environmentalists are on the march as never before. All around the world their organizations are beginning to be taken seriously as the need for a new global order establishes itself in the public imagination. But who are these environmental activists and how have they won their position of power? In Green Warriors Fred Pearce probes the origins, philosophies and motivations of this handful of campaigners whose activities increasingly dominate the political agenda. He looks at the people behind the worldwide network of environmental groups: the lawyers, engineers and media professionals who gave up lucrative careers for the low-paid excitement of the green movement; the radical priests and their green flocks fighting land barons who turned forests into low-grade pasture across Latin America; the angry scientist driven to public platforms to explain their fears for the future of the planet. And, with Greenpeace a billion-dollar organization claiming that ecology could become the first ‘science-religion’, Fred Pearce asks where the green movement is going and suggests how it might fashion its agenda for the 90s and beyond.”

Find a bookseller here.

Green Warriors front cover

Green Warriors front cover

Not ten miles from Nicholson’s Chelsea home lives another top-notch British green. Teddy Goldsmith is uncle to the radical wing of the international green movement as well as one of its most potent intellectual forces. A few people think he is mad; I have met several environmentalists who believe he is a malign force; but few fail to warm to him personally. In the business world, he is merely an outlandish ornament to the career of his younger brother, the financier and corporate raider James Goldsmith. To greens, he is the founder and publisher of The Ecologist, a fundamentalist green journal that passed its 20th anniversary in 1990.

The Goldsmiths were for centuries one of Europe’s leading banking families – the slightly poorer cousins of the Rothschilds. Teddy and Jimmy’s grandfather, Adolf, came to Britain in the late 19th century and set about becoming British. By 1910, Adolf’s son, Frank Goldsmith, was a Suffolk landowner and the young MP for Stowmarket. But anti-German hysteria in Britain at the start of the First World War forced him to flee to France, where he ran a chain of luxury hotels and met and married a girl from Auvergne called Marcelle Moullier, mother of Teddy and Jimmy. Teddy was born in Paris in 1928 and describes his youth as one long holiday, moving between hotels across the south of France. The family returned to Britain (initially to Claridge’s) during the 1930s, and by 1950 Teddy was at Magdalen College, Oxford. Jimmy joined him in Oxford at the age of 16 after tiring of life at Eton.

This is one of the moments where Jimmy’s biographers notice Teddy. The two of them, says Teddy, spent 18 months at Oxford doing little else but gamble with their friends, who included a man who was to continue to influence their lives, John Aspinall. The difference, even at this age was that Jimmy gambled with real money, while the others traded in IOUs.

Teddy says today that he became disillusioned with his studies, concluding that the world was going to the dogs and that the study of history was designed to justify the process. After Oxford, he went to Paris where he unsuccessfully started up in business. He soon saw that his brother had greater business acumen, however, and handed over his companies to Jimmy. Teddy then drifted, travelling the world, often with Aspinall who was looking for rare animals to stock his private zoo: Howletts, near Canterbury. Aspinall was leading an extraordinary double life, dividing his time between his zoo and his gambling club, the Clermont, in Berkeley Square, where his rich clients included Jimmy Goldsmith and friends such as Jim Slater and Lord Lucan.

Aspinall’s spirit for adventure was turning into a deep love of the wildness of animals, a love which led him into trouble with the authorities in later years after slack safety standards at his zoos led to a series of deaths. Jimmy shared the love of wild things, arguing in the 1980s that, just as predators are essential to the survival of the fittest in the jungle, so his carnivorous activities on the world’s financial markets were good for capitalism.

Teddy, meanwhile, was developing his own style of survivalist thinking. He developed an enthusiasm for tribal groups round the world and for ensuring their survival. He read widely on African anthropology and still has a large bookcase of learned volumes on the topic at his Richmond home. In the 1960s, he served on committees for the Primitive Peoples’ Fund, now known as Survival International.

His world travels led him to feel a revulsion towards the way that the modern world was destroying traditional cultures. “I began to realise that the survival of primitive peoples and of the environment were inseparable,” he says today. “Primitive people were disappearing; so was wildlife, as my friend Aspinall told me. I realised that the root problem was economic development. So I decided to start a paper to explore these issues.”

That paper, The Ecologist, was launched in 1970. It was a propitious moment. Other, thinkers who are today revered were coming to similar conclusions. One was Barbara Ward, a British economist. She coined the phrase “Spaceship Earth” as the title for a seminal book published in 1966 on the links between economics and the environment. Ward went on to found the International Institute for Environment and Development in London and was a moving force behind the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, which led to the formation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and made a number of important recommendations, such as calling for a moratorium on whaling.

For that conference Ward wrote another book with another highly memorable title, Only One Earth. She was a brilliant thinker, and an insider, cajoling and arm-twisting in the corridors of the UN. Teddy Goldsmith, on the other hand, was a born outsider, though he, like many in those days, believed that the Stockholm conference could help to usher in a new era of enlightened government.

His contribution to the run-up to the Stockholm conference, first published in The Ecologist and then in book form, was A Blueprint for Survival. The report was written by Teddy and his colleague at The Ecologist, Robert Allen. It was launched, somewhat incongruously, at Aspinall’s Clermont Club, and amounted to a call for a world order founded not on growth but on stable populations and “no-growth’ economies. That, said Goldsmith, was how native societies lived, and that was the only route to the survival of humans.

Despite its call for a world organised around small self-sufficient communities, the report had some highly authoritarian elements, including suggestions for compulsory birth control and abortion and an end to all immigration. Many interpreted it as an extreme right-wing tract. At the launch, Aspinall appeared to welcome the recent floods in Bangladesh, which had killed close to a million people, as a contribution to stabilising population. Nonetheless, the report gained the support of such figures as Sir Julian Huxley and Peter Scott and of organisations ranging from Survival International to the British branch of Friends of the Earth.

Goldsmith called in the report for the formation of a Movement for Survival. This led to the creation in Britain of the People Party, later renamed the Ecology Party and later still the Green Party. And, coming hard on the heels of another apocalyptic report called Limits to Growth, which was published in Washington to even greater clamour than Goldsmith could muster, A Blueprint for Survival helped to found a strong intellectual case for halting the post-war economic juggernaut.

1972 was a time of high environmental concern round the world. The governments of the US, Britain and many other nations were persuaded to set up new environmental bodies – the Environmental Protection Agency in the US and the Department of the Environment in Britain – and to enact new laws. Other environmental groups were forming in many countries and the Stockholm conference even attempted, disastrously, to co-opt them all into a form of global alliance. “It took us several years to dismantle that idea,” says Richard
Sandbrook, then at Friends of the Earth.

Environmental concern seemed for a while to have entered the mainstream of political debate. In Britain, Goldsmith held meetings with the rising star of the Liberal Party, David Steel, and followed up by accepting a very public invitation to discuss the implications of A Blueprint For Survival with Britain’s first Secretary of State for the Environment, Peter Walker. “At that time”, he says, “we genuinely believed that if politicians were alerted to what was happening to the planet, they would do something about it.” But the truth was that “Walker was only interested in being able to tell MPs that he had seen me.” Teddy has never been invited back by any of Walker’s successors. .

With legislation, such as Britain’s ultimately ineffectual Control of Pollution Act, passed and bureaucracies set up, the heat went out of the environmental debate for a time. The giant hiccup in world post-war economic growth that followed the oil crisis the following year left the world more concerned about the absence of economic growth than its destructive effects. It took more than a decade, and a sustained period of economic growth in the rich Western nations during the 1980s, before green concerns fought their way back towards the top of the political agenda.

For most of the 1970s, sales of A Blueprint for Survival, which eventually clocked up 750,000 copies, kept The Ecologist solvent, but there was no disguising the fact that few people seemed to want to buy the magazine. Goldsmith decided on one last public gesture. He agreed in 1974 to stand for parliament on behalf of the People Party in his father’s old Suffolk constituency. His living-room still contains a charming picture of a smiling bearded Goldsmith leading a group of hippy supporters and a camel (supplied by Aspinall) which is carrying an outsize sandwich-board reading: “No Deserts in Suffolk. Vote Goldsmith”. He lost his deposit, of course, and retreated for more than a decade to practise what he preached, returning to the land and running The Ecologist from farm cottages in Wadebridge in Cornwall. (He kept his flat in Paris, though; he was a Goldsmith, after all!)

The Ecologist continued to be read by a small but admiring band and run by a devoted group of bright young greens recruited by ‘Uncle’ Teddy. It developed and refined his critique of the world. It fanned the flames of concern about the rainforests and educated many budding environmentalists in the belief that if they wished to save the forests they must also save the people who live in them. Goldsmith continued to travel widely, and to give focus to his growing anger at the direction of ‘development’ projects in the Third World.

In Sri Lanka he saw plans to flood large areas for a complex of hydroelectric dams known as the Mahaweli scheme. “These dams destroy so much in return for a few decades of electricity,” he says. “I came back from Sri Lanka determined to fight such projects,” and he launched a devastating assault in a book entitled The Environmental and Social Effects of Large Dams, published in 1985. He identified for attack the development policies of the World Bank at a time when other environmentalists were only dimly aware of this ‘Mr Big’ behind their many and various concerns.

In 1989, as his concerns again began to make their way on to the world’s front pages, Teddy returned from Cornwall to London, where a constant stream of journalists, film-makers, ‘green’ industrialists and fellow campaigners began to beat a path to his door. Old friends from the early 1970s were getting in touch again. There was excited talk of Goldsmith dinner parties where natives from the rainforests sat next to top officials from the World Bank.

When I joined the throng, he was just back from New York where he had petitioned the United Nations with three million signatures calling for an emergency debate on the fate of the rainforests. The event was captured on film for a TV programme on Goldsmith funded by Ted Turner in the US and Channel 4 in Britain. While in New York, the world’s money-making capital, Teddy was also filmed on top of the planet’s largest rubbish dump and in a hall full of video games – symbols, he says, of the kind of world to which poor nations should not aspire.

After New York, Teddy went to Washington, a city that seems to like him better than London does. There he met Senator Wyche Fowler, an old friend and president of the Senate Committee for Forests and Conservation. Wyche Fowler had organised a meeting on Capitol Hill where other leading senators, including presidential hopeful Al Gore, could hear pleas about the destruction of the Third World’s environment.

There to tell them the bad news were Teddy Goldsmith and other important campaigners’ from round the world whose names recur in this book, including Chee Yoke Ling from Friends of the Earth Malaysia, Smitu Kothari from New Delhi, Sunderlal Bahuguna, the head of the Chipko movement of tree-huggers in the Himalayas, Chad Dobson from the Bank Information Center in Washington and Phil Williams,a fellow campaigner against dams, from California. Goldsmith, back from Cornish exile, was in his element walking the corridors of power, and he persuaded Wyche Fowler to travel with him to Penang in Malaysia for a conference on Third World agriculture.

One of Goldsmith’s strengths is that, while enjoying the hurly-burly of campaigning and having a sharp eye for talented young campaigners, he is at heart an intellectual. It is a combination rare in England and may owe something to his French blood. He proudly told me that sales of The Ecologist had risen by 200 the previous month, but he also nurtures a growing fascination with philosophy and deep ecology. “I am looking for the traditional wisdom of society,” he says.

While many other environmentalists justify preservation of the environment in terms of science – preserving genetic diversity, saving tropical plants that could provide a cure for AIDS, Goldsmith says, “Perhaps we have to choose between science and wisdom. I can’t believe that science and technology leave us better off. The real wealth is nature, which science and technology are destroying.”

The Ecologist was beginning to run articles on aesthetics, for instance. “I am looking for a biospheric ethic”, he says, “in which aesthetics and other aspects of life that we tend to ignore will be important. Many of the things that we allow in society and should not, such as destroying forests, eroding soils and depriving people of their land, are aesthetically unpleasant.” He yearns for a world in which it is safe for us to follow such instincts. Indeed, he believes that only such a world is environmentally sound and, in the modern jargon, ‘sustainable’.

For Goldsmith, society is deeply corrupted and diseased by economic growth and the consumer society. “Conventional knowledge”, he says, “is wrong on virtually every issue because it doesn’t take account of the fact that it is looking at an aberrant system. It cannot distinguish between a tumour and a healthy organism. Sensible economics, for instance, would be quite different from the economics of today.”

When we spoke, Goldsmith had just published a new book called The Great U-turn: Deindustrialising Society. Through chapters on the fall of the Roman Empire and the ecology of health, unemployment and war, he argues that nothing less than the dismantling of modern industrial society can bring salvation. It is a bleak vision of the present, but one shared by many of the more radical environmental campaigners, from the New Age ‘deep ecologists’ of California to the tree-huggers of the Himalayas. While Max Nicholson’s concerns, and those of the WWF, remain largely to conserve wildlife, Goldsmith believes that to save our planet we must save ourselves.


Fred Pearce

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • Identi.ca
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top