Green Activists Are Losing Their Fire
If those whom the gods love really do die young, then the deities must surely be green. For the two best, boldest and most effective environmental campaigners I have known departed decades before their time. Andrew Lees and Phil Clapp had a tremendous impact during their tragically truncated lives. And both - one British, one American; one prickly, one urbane; one scruffy, one smart - embodied something sadly lacking in today's pressure groups, which tend to be pusillanimous, policy-wonking and frequently petrified, in both senses of the word.
I was reminded of Lees this week when a vivid collection of personal testimonies by the Antanosy people from south-east Madagascar - of all things - landed on my desk. Lees collapsed and died, aged 45, probably from heat stroke, on New Year's Eve 15 years ago, while filming wildlife on their land. He was collecting evidence to fight plans by a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc to mine there for ilmenite - a mineral used, among other things, to whiten toothpaste.
The mine has now been running for nearly five years and the testimonies - collected by the Andrew Lees Trust, established in his name - movingly describe its impact on the people's lives and sacred forests.
I had first come across Lees a good decade before, and half a world away, in the Norfolk Broads. Spurred by some unknown instinct, he had become almost obsessively interested in an obscure patch of wildlife-rich land called Halvergate Marshes. Suddenly, it became the test case for the effectiveness of the Government's conservation policies, as local farmers sought to "improve" it for agriculture.
Lees ensured that it got national attention - by whatever means necessary. When an environment minister visited to find out what was going on, Lees was refused a meeting: so he hid in a ditch for hours, leaping out like a gumbooted naiad on the great man's arrival. The minister listened, the marsh was saved and national policy changed.
Lees eventually became campaigns director for Friends of the Earth, but - never one for such an increasingly bureaucratic outfit - was becoming estranged from it when he died. By contrast, Phil Clapp - who died 18 months ago of a sudden illness, aged 54 - was an insider, completely at home in Congressional corridors, international climate negotiations, or often arcane pressure-group politics. Always immaculately dressed, this gossip-loving, coffee-addicted, Buddhist Anglophile was a dapper thorn in the flesh of politicians as different as George W Bush and Al Gore, whom he would chastise for failing to implement his green principles while in power.
Perhaps his finest moment came when the Bush administration rejected a compromise during a vital climate meeting in Montreal, saying: "If it looks like a duck, it's still a duck." Clapp bought every yellow plastic duck in the city and started handing them out. Soon they were everywhere - peeking out of ministers' breast pockets, cascading out of opened briefcases, even floating in the loos. The US was laughed back to the table.
Both Lees and Clapp had guts, as well as humour, and it's hard to find much of either quality in today's pressure groups. It's true that these may not have found much to laugh about in the climate rows of the past three months, but their almost complete silence speaks volumes about their lack of courage.
Greenpeace's executive director, John Sauven, wrote a newspaper article this week calling for "fight" and "leadership" over climate, but his organisation has shown precious little of either. Indeed, two of his top aides have separately told me that the group is "keeping its head down" to avoid Right-wing US politicians capitalising on its involvement. This illustrates the problem precisely. Green groups got obsessed with policy and politicians, and complacent about public opinion, which they took for granted. They became part of the establishment, and let the sceptics take over their former role as insurgents. And they now cannot get their act together to respond.
Yet the gutlessness goes deeper. I have been told by a senior figure at Friends of the Earth that the group should only undertake campaigns where it already has public support. During the 2000 fuel price protests environmentalists ran for cover, losing the argument for green taxes in the process. Shamed, they swore they would never be so cowardly again; but just look at them now.
It's all about the bottom line. Raising funds has become their most important cause; the planet comes a distant second. I have never joined a green pressure group, and never intend to do so - but if I had, I would refuse to pay my subscription until it had regained the calling, courage and sheer cussedness of Lees and Clapp.
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2010