Gordon James has been involved with Friends of the Earth for nearly 40 years. Retiring as Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru in September, he looks back, and forwards, at the challenges and rewards of environmental campaigning in Wales
You started Pembrokeshire Friends of the Earth in 1987. Was this your first involvement with the organisation?
Actually the first thing I did was in the early 1970s, just after they set up in the UK exactly 40 years ago. I wrote a letter on nuclear power to the local MP. They replied saying, thank you for your eloquent letter. Well, I hadn’t written it, it was written by Friends of the Earth staff. Right from the very beginning, Friends of the Earth has had a very high standard, and we’ve tried to maintain that ever since.
Has campaigning changed in the last 40 years?
It’s getting harder. Over the years we’ve won lots of campaigns. In the past we were asking for cleaner air, cleaner rivers, recycling – these were all the things that people generally welcomed. We’re now asking people to change their lifestyles very quickly, because of the immense threat of climate change. And no ones likes being told the way we live is causing this huge problem.
But environmental issues are also becoming much more mainstream. Ideas we’ve supported may once have seemed unrealistic, but now lots of policy in Wales is based on what we’ve campaigned for – recycling, renewable energy, tackling fuel poverty, energy efficiency. This is a big, big achievement for the environment movement. We shouldn’t forget the progress we’ve made, and should be proud of it.
So what’s been your proudest moment as a campaigner?
The GM-free Wales campaign, during the time I was director of Friends of the Earth Cymru between 1995 and 2000. In 1999 the Welsh Assembly was about to be set up and it was our campaign that showed that the Assembly could do things differently from Westminster. The example we set has been followed by regions throughout Europe, and is still strong today – I think it’s been one of our greatest achievements.
Many people call you the hardest working campaigner in Wales. What’s kept you motivated for four decades?
An anger I feel when I see things being done badly, or people being dishonest and putting out false information, when I see the media giving so much attention to people who are denying that climate change is happening when the evidence is overwhelming, or when I see people trying to rubbish wind energy with such weak arguments. I’ve got to get up and do something to try and make a difference, I just feel we can’t let them get away with it.
But also, I was brought up close to nature in Pembrokeshire and I still love it, and I feel strongly that we have to protect the habitat we’ve got for future generations. My great fear is that when my children are my age they’ll be living in a much more frightening world, because climate change will be much more of a reality for them than it is now.
What are the greatest environmental challenges for Wales?
Delivering the targets government has set – 3 per cent a year cut in greenhouse gas emissions, all electricity from renewables by 2025, major improvements in energy efficiency. There will be great benefits, but putting them into practice still meets a lot of resistance.
It’s seen as environment versus jobs – that environmental improvements will harm industry, hit jobs. But this is a false argument, lots of evidence shows that implementing good environmental policies and practices can help the economy and create jobs. And this is particularly true now – the green economy globally is expanding faster than any other sector.
We’re such a small nation, can anything we do make a difference to global challenges like climate change?
We’re already making a difference. From its early days, the Welsh Government has said it wants Wales to be a world leader in the green energy revolution, as we were a world leader in the industrial revolution.
We might be small, but we definitely have an important role to play. Wales is well ahead of England – in agricultural policies, targets for emissions reductions, recycling and waste reduction. So within the UK people are looking to Wales for a lead. And around the world people are looking to the UK for a lead, as the only country to have set legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, under the Climate Change Act that was largely the result of a Friends of the Earth campaign.
We also have a moral responsibility to act. Britain has emitted more carbon dioxide per person than any other nation because of our long exploitation of coal, and of course Wales became famous as a coal exporting country.
Will life be better for people in another 40 years, or worse?
I retain hope it can be better, but the next five years are crucial. We still have a window of opportunity to cut emissions and develop a low carbon economy, but we must act fast. We need brave politicians, and as individuals we have to do more too – we must live the life we want to see. When my children are my age, the world can be a better place, but we are running out of time.
What are the retirement plans? Does a campaigner ever actually retire, just keep their head down and stay quiet?
I definitely plan to carry on campaigning. Indeed I hope to have more time for research, writing and campaigning, as all the administration and management will go away. So no, I don’t expect I’ll be completely quiet