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Tony Juniper on the Past, Present and Future of Environmental Advocacy

Updated: May 31, 2019

By Josh Ettinger (@joshettinger)

Tony Juniper is one of the leading environmentalists in the UK. He has published numerous books, including ‘What has Nature Ever Done for Us?’ and ‘Rainforest: Dispatches from Earth’s Most Vital Frontlines,’ and previously served as Executive Director of Friends of the Earth. He currently works as Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). He also recently became Chairman of Natural England. Anthroposphere writer Josh Ettinger spoke with Juniper to explore his reflections on a variety of contemporary issues related to environmental advocacy.

What led you to transition from scientific researcher to environmental activist? I came into the world of conservation and environment via a passion for the natural world, which goes back to childhood. A particular passion of mine was birds and after university, I worked at Birdlife International, where I was responsible for work we were doing to protect critically endangered parrots. Not only was it a matter of protecting the birds’ habitats, but also limiting the trade of wild parrots. We campaigned for legislation limiting the bird trade and engaged in public communication efforts to help consumers make more informed choices, such as only buying captive-bred parrots should they want to own one. Afterward, I was lucky enough to get a role running Friends of the Earth’s tropical forest campaign. So that’s how I made the transition from conservation biologist to the world of environmental campaigning.

In your most recent book, you explore the importance of rainforests and how their destruction is driven largely by the global economy. There seems to be growing public awareness of links to deforestation hidden in our shopping, caused by commodities like palm oil. How do we build on this momentum?

I wonder if this is as new as it seems. Back in the 1990s Friends of the Earth ran campaigns about tropical timber in which we made connections to certain commodities. I fear we’ve been waging a losing battle on this one, because 25 years later we’re still raising awareness, so I think we probably need to be doing something slightly differently. What we have yet to do — and the evidence is seen in the fact that this continues after a quarter of a century of advocacy — is to connect consumer awareness into political and corporate awareness at national and global levels. Some supermarkets and brands are doing better than others. What we should all be doing as consumers is supporting those that are doing this effectively and shunning those that are still doing nothing about it.

How should the environmental advocacy community balance publicly shaming actors who are failing to do their part and proactive collaboration to help get them on track? I imagine, for example, that a corporation might not be keen to work with a group that just protested outside their stores.

This is why it’s been very important to have a spectrum of activity across the conservation movement. Some deliver pressure tactics and in so doing, open space for those who wish to talk about solutions and operate within. You know, this is a dynamic I saw up-close in the 1990s when Friends of the Earth boycotted companies that were importing known unsustainable sources of timber. At the same time, other organisations were working with those same companies to design and set up the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which became the best certification scheme of sustainable wood. We know this strategy works and in the future, one would hope that the environmental community would do this in a more coordinated and strategic way.

The recent Yellow Jacket protest movement in France was sparked by a new fuel tax to fund renewable energy investments. Is there a risk to fighting for environmental causes in isolation from other societal issues?

This is another piece that the environmental community needs to master as we go forward—the extent to which we can present a joined-up view of the change society needs. The thing we need to engineer is what many people refer to as a just transition. In the case of France and the fuel tax, people who don’t have a lot of disposable income saw it as very unjust that they were being targeted by taxes when they didn’t have much money to start with. It’s similar to what we’ve seen with the rise of President Trump — a prominent climate skeptic. Some voters feel disadvantaged by climate laws and feel that their government doesn’t care about their jobs and livelihoods.

If we are going to build a deep and unstoppable movement for low carbon futures, we’re going to have to bring on-board the people who’d otherwise feel as though this is an impossible ask of them: people working in gas, people working in coal, people working in fossil-generated electricity, the automotive sector, high-carbon agriculture, all of them are going to resist the change unless we can build a just transition, creating jobs and opportunities for those communities as we move away from an unsustainable system. How do we do this? It’s obviously a work in progress but the idea of a Green New Deal has been around for quite some time, which is taking off in the United States right now. The center of this proposal is the government having an explicit policy to build up low-carbon transport, low-carbon heating, low-carbon electricity, and to do that with a series of public investments that create jobs and bring social advantages at the same time as cutting carbon. That kind of package is increasingly what we need to talk about.

The 2018 WWF Living Planet Report showed that, alarmingly, wildlife has declined by more than half since 1970. What has been the reaction to the report?

Everyone is quite shocked and feels something must be done, but the challenge is two-fold: one is to maintain interest and motivation behind that kind of revelation longer than reading the headline of a news story; and the other is to build support for solutions. It is becoming increasingly clear that the main remedy (but not the only one) will be in changing our food system and feeding the world in a way that doesn’t lead to these kinds of consequences. This means laying foundations for the recovery of nature and starting to turn things back in a different direction.

To what extent should there be a line between scientific research and advocacy?

The line is quite a blurred one actually. Some people think it is a hard and fast one, and maybe in some roles it is more true than others. For example, if you are a scientist working for government, the line between science and politics can be quite clear. If you are working as part of a multidisciplinary group researching social questions, you may be able to get closer to political issues than other science roles. But every scientist is also a human being. Trying to divorce data from personal values is kind of impossible at one level. So are we creating a false division between data analysis and personal choices and values? We make it because we are trying to protect the purity of our analytical work but actually, perhaps it is more honest to be advocates at the same time as being a scientist because at least you are being transparent about what your views are.

The perennial environmental debate is whether we should focus on top-down legislative solutions or bottom-up individual behaviour change. Do you lean towards one side?

We need both. Generally, one does not work without the other. If you want the government to change the law, you need evidence of public support. Behaviour change helps to create that political space. People actively want to recycle and if there is some basic offer of recycling facilities, people use them, and then the politicians are more likely to up-scale, which is what happened in this country [the UK]. It’s like what’s happening now with lower meat consumption. A few vegans 15 years ago are now being joined more and more, and their pioneering behaviour is being helped by the fact that more companies are now offering those kinds of choices. But if you want to get scale, then you need the government to legislate things. So these two phenomena follow each other and go in and out between which one is in the lead. It all goes back to public awareness, which is hugely important. The more information that’s out there, the more both of these things will happen.

What advice would you give to students and young people who want to make a difference in the world of environmental advocacy and climate change action?

I’d say the main thing is to get as much direct experience as you can by getting involved with different things. For instance, that might be a science field project collecting data; working on the IT systems that enable an activist group to function; working on the communications side to get out ideas to the public. Ideally, if you want to work in this field it would be all of those things plus ten others, whereby you can build a full picture of how this all works. In the early part of my career I was fortunate enough to be able to see challenges from quite a few different perspectives and still do today. I think that’s probably the most important thing — to be able to get a broad understanding of what’s going on and what needs to be done about it. All of this is complicated but the more experience you have, the better equipped you are to slip yourself into the fight in a way that you can make a difference.

How optimistic are you about the future?

I have to say it varies day to day. Although, I think in this line of work it is almost a professional duty to be positive because as we understand the scale of the threats before us, being pessimistic actually will decrease the chances of being able to come up with solutions. If we tell the world that it’s now impossible to achieve a 1.5 degree pathway, I think the fact that we said that will make it even more unlikely that we can do it. We commit ourselves into apathy and a sense of defeat. There is good reason to be worried that we can’t do this now but if there is a small chance of us coming through this, I think we have to focus on it and be positive about the possibilities that come with it.


Art by Abigail Hodges

Josh Ettinger is a recent graduate of the MSc in Environmental Change and Management course at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on climate change communication, with a focus on framing, storytelling and narrative structures. He previously worked in Washington DC at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where he developed strategies to advocate for evidence-based policymaking and funding for scientific research. He is currently interning at the Oxford office of the Stockholm Environment Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @joshettinger.


This article appears in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III.

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