July 27, 2017

A true hero of the Earth

Katherine Victoria Goldsmith reflects on how her husband Edward Goldsmith, founder of The Ecologist, spurned a life of easy privilege to spend his life studying, writing and vigorously opposing the established ideas of economic progress – in the process galvanising the environmental movement worldwide.

Adapted from an article printed in the Arab Ecologist in January 2005, it was republished in the Pacific Ecologist in Spring 2010. It may also be seen as a pdf—A true hero of the Earth

Katherine Goldsmith was married to Edward Goldsmith for 28 years before his death on 21 August 2009. She was his second wife and they have two sons, Benedict and Zeno.

Katherine, born in New Zealand, is an environmental campaigner and writer with expertise in how cities can sustain themselves, especially in our time of climate change.


One could think of Edward Goldsmith, founder of The Ecologist magazine, as one might an octopus, a sort of vital genius blessed with a prodigious memory; thoughtful, engaging, but somehow unclassifiable; a misfit who could squeeze himself into astonishing places, his restive ganglia probing, penetrating all nooks and crannies of the universe, questioning the basic assumptions of conventional wisdom. But here the metaphor ends, for he had a restless energy better acquainted with the man than the appealing cephalopod.

‘Teddy’ Goldsmith’s primary place amongst the dramatis personae of thinkers, social commen­tators, and environmental activists over the past forty years had unlikely beginnings. He was born in France of a Catholic mother of peasant stock, and an English father of German-Jewish stock, followed by a peripatetic childhood and ramshackle English education, culminating at Oxford, all of which instilled in him the lucidité of an outsider, a self-professed one at that.

This was the essential alchemy of someone who for most of his life found himself questioning and spurning the views of the establishment with its ideas of development and economic progress, and writing about its incumbent environmental and social ills. “He would never”, Teddy often said, quoting Groucho Marx, another inimitable character, “belong to a club that would have him as a member”. Considered the father of the environmental movement in the UK and elsewhere, the UK’s Ecology Society never opened their doors to him, a fact of which he was somewhat proud.

He was always, it seemed, a ‘spurner’, spurning the life of easy privilege projected for him and expected of a member of a prominent European banking family. He largely dismissed the notions of free trade, notions on which modern economics is based, and the logical positivism taught at his Oxford college, regarding the former as “total garbage”, and the latter “beneath contempt”, preferring to enjoy the university’s more sensuous pleasures.

After ‘coming down’ he chose his own intellectual pursuits, reading a vast range of subjects in the manner of an anthropologist manqué and private scholar, forming over the years his own view of evolution, science, and society, starkly at odds with the conventional views maintained around him. If no one would publish his views on modern science and a great range of other topics, he himself would publish and be damned: cybernetics, the ‘Unification of Science,’ the social stability of tribal societies, the real costs of pollution. With Amazonia under a logging threat, he became a founder member of The Primitive Peoples Fund, now Survival International. He helped start the forerunner of the Green Party, The People Party. He would publish his own magazine to air his views, write his own Das Kapital and to hell with them all!

In the decade when Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring was called an hysterical fool, and a youthful Prince Charles was accused by the Australian press of “stirring up ideas about pollution”, Teddy, with the weight of his globe-trotting mind and tireless energy, launched The Ecologist with his colleagues; the initial print run being an optimistic 30,000. After the second issue it was apparent he would be ruined: the office was moved to his home and he proceeded to do the work of a dozen staff, after which, he decamped to the countryside, where it became more of a cottage industry.

Again the outsider, he was surrounded by rustic realists who grew turnips, milked cows and played golf. What they thought of this cosmopolitan urban sophisticate with a neglected beard and indifferent clothes was anybody’s guess. But ideas flew from him in all directions; he stood for his father’s old constituency in Suffolk on a ‘green party’ ticket campaigning with a Bactrian camel, a potent symbol warning farmers of the erosion and desertification of their fertile arable land, his slogan read, “No deserts In Suffolk!” Later, he stood for local elections in Cornwall, also on a ‘green party’ ticket.

On his organic farm and market garden, activities ranged from keeping rare chicken breeds and growing old apple fruit varieties, he initiated conferences ranging from ‘The implications of the Gaia Hypothesis’ to the ‘non-violent movement of Gandhian philosophy.’ Seemingly diverse topics, they were essential to Teddy who had the nerve to question the basic assumptions of the society in which he was living and to look to the great masters for alternatives: Kropotkin, Gandhi, and millenarian movements of every persuasion, and of course the earth’s manifold, ancient, diverse tribal societies.

He also travelled in India, invited to compare the growing environmental movement in Europe with the local Gandhian movement; advised Atlanta City in the US on its future; spent time as adjunct professor at various universities; wrote a three-volume work on The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams and, via The Ecologist, launched a full-scale attack on the World Bank and the FAO, spearheading sit-ins in Washington DC and the UN headquarters in New York. All the time he published special issues of The Ecologist, taught students, gave lectures while also drip-feeding his magnus opus The Way. The man was unstoppable, like nature itself, abhorring a vacuum.

The snappy Blueprint for Survival, written in 1972 with a colleague in two months and signed by over thirty leading scientists and academics of the day, surprised even Teddy, selling 500,000 copies worldwide, published in sixteen languages. For those on the other side of the world, including myself, in New Zealand, this was an appealing manual, along with others in the vanguard like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s The Limits to Growth, and these studies germinated environmental political parties and set the agendas for many NGOs.

Our discontent was real, but we were not alone: here was an ecologist manqué who didn’t peer down a microscope at the wild flagellations of the paramecium in a drop of slime, but someone who demanded you look at the whole picture, the woods, forests, soil, societies, all the interrelated living systems, methodically being destroyed before our very eyes, which no head of government, director of companies, scientist, academic or politician wished to address. But you yourself could do something about it and should. You had a voice didn’t you?

For such a pessimist he gave a strange hope. Teddy’s ability to look at the whole picture of what is happening globally did not win him many friends in a world where western governments are largely steered by corporate culture and preoccupied with globalised economics, with scientific advisers, students of reductionist science, all embedded in collective certitude that economic development, as ‘progress,’ is a given.

Someone once said “the nice part about being a pessimist is you are either constantly being proven right or pleasantly surprised.” Teddy was never surprised and would rather not have been right about prophecies he made over the past forty years. Early issues of The Ecologist are a testament to these prophecies which earned him a label as the ‘Cheerful Doomsmith,’ placing him in the ranks of the original ‘eco-catastrophists,’ a group considered as enlightened thinkers today rather than the maverick cranks of yesterday. He was, as his brother James, a renowned financier, pointed out to him, too many steps ahead of others.

Early issues of The Ecologist, published in the pre-internet 1970s, report on far-reaching issues: the United States’ cut-throat scramble for fossil fuels; risks of nuclear accidents and waste disposal; drought and climate change in the Sahara due to industrialisation of the North; the genetic vulnerability of farm crops from ‘super locusts,’ and Lord Gladwyn’s logic of growth, with an industrial economy, the US in collapse and people in the developing world victims of man-made disasters. These issues could well be from today’s mainstream newspapers.

An article on the energy crisis, circa 1970, points out man would be releasing energy into the environment at a rate equivalent to one twentieth of the solar radiation balance, with incalculable effects on the atmosphere and the world’s climate. It is illustrated with the Hubbert’s peak diagram, showing the blip of fossil-fuel production and consumption in its historic perspective, as a period of rapid population and industrial growth, one of the most abnormal phases in human history. This diagram has been ‘dusted down’ and used by today’s scientific community in warnings on climate change.

Teddy considered the past few centuries as the most abnormal phase of human history, which must be phased out. His last book, co-edited with Jerry Mander, The Case Against the Global Economy, was one of the first to look at the destructive nature of the global economy. No one is ever grateful to have a Cassandra in their midst. Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but after she spurned his love he turned his gift into a curse, causing her prophecies, though true, to be disbelieved by those who heard them.

Teddy received various awards, as varied as the complex subjects he threw himself into over a lifetime of campaigning for the complex eco-systems of the planet, of which we are an integral part. But the world’s problems are multiplying fast. Nothing has changed much since The Blueprint for Survival, and it gave him no comfort that in many instances he was right. He wished it wasn’t so, but on the other hand, I don’t quite know what he would have done otherwise.

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