As the new top man at Friends of the Earth (FOE), Andy Atkins is a man of his time. He previously worked for the Christian aid charity Tearfund, testament to the rising importance of development groups in the environment movement. Meanwhile, his dapper suit belies a long career “in the field” in some of the world’s poorest countries, but hints at the journey many of the best-known green groups have made, from radical freedom fighters to green establishment.
In this new world order, some ask what future there is for the old guard, caught between angry single-issue protest groups, such as Plane Stupid and the anti-coal campaign Leave It In The Ground, and the encroachment of green voices from other areas: third world charities, thinktanks or business.
The change of leadership and a new strategy next month are an opportunity to answer some of these questions.
After years of shouting about the threat of climate change, one shift will be to pay far more attention to advocating solutions to the crisis. The other will be on putting biodiversity back on an equal footing with headline-hogging greenhouse gases, reminding the world of the mass extinction under way.
In his first full interview since his appointment, Atkins said: “In five years’ time, we’d like everybody to be talking about the vulnerability of the natural world to people, and the value of the services the natural world provides — water, soil, clean air.”
Atkins grew up with his Anglican minister parents in Australia, for a while on the edge of a tropical forest in Queensland, but much of the time on the Torres Strait Islands archipelago.
“I grew up surrounded by extraordinary beauty and a sustainable lifestyle: People fished, grew their own crops, et cetera, but also my parents were deeply involved in what would now be called social justice issues. You can feel the intimate link between natural resources and well-being,” he said.
Atkins, married with three children, began working in human rights — first for the Chile Committee for Human Rights, later for CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), the Catholic Institute of International Relations (now Progressio), then Tearfund. At Tearfund, his first campaign was to stop a hydroelectric dam that was threatening rainforest in Honduras and the people living in it. He was later a founder of the Make Poverty History campaign and led Tearfund’s pioneering work on environment issues, especially climate change.
His faith-based background has raised eyebrows, especially after recent debates between religious ideas about intelligent design and the more widely accepted theory of evolution.
“First, Friends of the Earth is avowedly secular, but welcomes people of all faiths and none,” Atkins said.
Second, he has “a lot of sympathy” with the 18th-century naturalist John Ray.
“He described science as a way of better understanding God’s creation. I don’t find anything contradictory about the way science tells us the way the world works and the belief that God created it. I read traditional stories of the creation as clearly allegorical,” Atkins said.
On climate change, Atkins said: “The argument on the science has been won by us and others. However, we have yet to see the argument over action that’s needed. It requires a compete shift in thinking by governments. They need to move very fast and very hard.”