“FoEI is a campaigning organization. Our strength is in our ability to motivate people. We call upon the public to change not only their minds, but also their habits and activities. We ask them to put pressure on decision-makers to provide the necessary measures to protect the environment. We do not avoid contentious issues, and we do not seek to avoid conflict.”
In 1969, the Executive Director of the US Sierra Club resigned out of frustration that the organization neglected to tackle nuclear issues, or even to work internationally. This visionary man was called David Brower, and he explained:
Realising it was time to stop working toward a moon-like earth, I started a new organization. We fished around for a name, and came up with Friends of the Earth. It was essential that it be international in scope. With meetings in London, Paris and Stockholm, we were able to convince environmental people in three more countries to let the FoE idea migrate. Other countries now in the FoE network were courted, or courted us, and in no time the sun was rising somewhere on a FoE group. We made it a point not to be clearly organized or directed by some old tired formula from the top. Find good people with the right ideas and let them move ahead their way.” (1995)
So-called ‘environmental people’ from France, Great Britain, Sweden and the United States founded FoEI in Roslagen, Sweden in 1971. These first gatherings were passionate, multicultural exchanges of concerns and ideas. According to Richard Sandbrook, an early FoE activist from Britain, “The start of Friends of the Earth, and indeed of FoEI, was romantic to be sure, but it was also very hit and miss and mundane. Day by day you never knew where the money was coming from, nor who would take the slightest notice of what we did.”
Early meetings resulted in a unanimous decision to oppose nuclear power on the global level. In subsequent years, FoEI advanced to the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement, and thanks to the expertise of energy guru Amory Lovins became known for groundbreaking work on energy alternatives. Devastating accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 increased the number of FoE groups strenuously opposing nuclear energy.
“Ten years ago, I went to my first meeting of Friends of the Earth International. I recall a babble of accents, a kaleidoscope of ideas, views and strategies. The spectrum of resources at our command ranged from modest to tiny. Could this small, motley crew help save the earth? But I also remember the words of a Japanese member tumbling out so fast we had to ask her to slow down. She was pleading passionately, not for an issue in her own country, but for Pacific islanders threatened by nuclear testing. Not just their crisis: ours, too. Citizens’ groups such as FoEI can reach across geographical and cultural boundaries, to act together in a way that our governments have so often failed to do.”
Throughout the 1970s, FoEI gathered allies in many countries and created a strong and critical presence in various international environmental negotiations. FoEI’s unique position on whaling, for example, which urged the protection of whale species without the destruction of traditional human livelihoods, enjoyed a rare success after a decade of campaigning with the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling. FoE representatives also exhibited their talents for enlightened thinking with the publication of ECO, a daily NGO bulletin produced in collaboration with The Ecologist magazine, at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. ECO has since appeared at numerous other global fora on issues ranging from whaling to energy, and continues to provide NGOs and governments alike with essential and insightful analyses.
Although international, Friends of the Earth remained predominantly northern in membership until strong groups from Asia, Latin America and Africa joined in the 1980s. The southern perspective deepened and broadened FoEI’s analysis and activities. Tropical rainforests became a central issue with the launching of a FoEI rainforest campaign in 1985, and FoE groups worked creatively and intensively together with indigenous peoples to draw attention to the plight of the world’s tropical forest dwellers and their habitats. Another global initiative of the 1980s was the founding of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) in 1982 by FoE groups in Malaysia, Brazil and the United States.
FoEI’s first Eastern European member was Poland’s Polski Klub Ekologiczny which joined in 1985; FoE Estonia, the first independent Soviet association ever to become a member of an international environmental organization joined three years later. Pan-European action on issues ranging from acid rain and air pollution to packaging and biotechnology intensified and increased in effectiveness. Two influential European organizations were also initiated during this period: the Brussels-based FoE Europe in 1985, the first regional FoE coordination; and Milieukontakt Oost-Europa in 1987, started by FoEI and the World Information Service on Energy (WISE) in order to facilitate East-West cooperation on environmental problems.
FoEI’s global reputation was solidified in the 1990s. Parallel to the emergence of ever more global social and environmental problems, the federation has embraced a rapidly increasing number of member groups, and older groups have become stronger. FoE groups must conform to specific membership criteria, and members regularly assess themselves in light of these requirements. Annual General Meetings, the earliest of which were brainstorming sessions for a small group of Europeans and North Americans, have developed into week-long, highly-structured events covering multiple topics and attended by women and men from South, North, East and West. With a total of 68 member groups worldwide in 2002, FoEI has at last become a global force for environmental and social change.
FoEI’s potential was brandished at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where a vocal mosaic of FoE groups critiqued the business-as-usual approach of governments and corporations attending the meeting. FoE Netherlands also used Rio as the stage to introduce its groundbreaking Action Plan for a Sustainable Netherlands, a first step in the popularization of the concepts of ‘environmental space’ and equity. Sustainable Netherlands has since given birth to the Towards Sustainable Europe Campaign and the North-South Project — both of which fall under the umbrella of FoEI’s Sustainable Societies Programme.
Like any other organization, FoEI enters rough waters from time to time. Campaigns and projects are often frustrated by lack of funding, and the Secretariat has survived several lean seasons. FoE member organizations suffer in varying degrees from insufficient infrastructure, lack of staff, and crippling workloads. When groups become overwhelmed by national problems, international communication may falter. Differing analyses and strategies can result in divisive or deadlocked discussions, and necessary bureaucratic business can consume valuable time during international meetings. The lack of clear progress in many campaign areas, and the simultaneous proliferation of environmental damage and social misery can dishearten and demotivate activists. And for some, environmental activism can prove dangerous and even fatal, as the mysterious deaths of four top FoE Costa Rica campaigners in 1994-95 tragically proved.
Much of the momentum behind FoEI’s campaigning is surely provided by the personal contact, solidarity and inspiration that the federation provides. It is also heartening to imagine that if current trends continue, FoEI’s ideas will probably meet with greater political acceptance in coming years. One push in that direction should come via FoEI’s Council of Patrons, which unites prominent thinkers, activists and celebrities who support the work of the federation. It can only be hoped that each coming day in FoEI’s existence makes us stronger, and brings us closer to truly sustainable societies.