Oxford Ecology Movement 1970's
Oxford Greens in the 1970s
In 1976 two scientists, Peter Taylor (a zoologist and ecologist who was doing a PhD in the relation of perception in tribal society to the ecological environment) and Gordon Thompson (who did a PhD 1973 in applied maths related to high-temperature plasma undergoing fusion), set up the Political Ecology Research Group (PERG) as a charitable company limited by guarantee. This was at the beginning of the ‘political ecology’ concept as it related to science, and to the concept of ‘science activism’
Based in Oxford its initial purpose was to provide input to the Windscale Inquiry which got underway in 1977. Martin Stott, who went on to chair HDRA Garden Organic, was a Labour Party member based in London . He joined in 1977 and says:-
“I moved to Oxford in mid-1979 (having been PERG's 'rep' in London till then) and the link caused me some problems because I was a member of the Labour Party and some people in the LP saw membership of PERG as being inter alia member of another party - a heinous crime under LP rules. These were the early days of the influence of the Bennites which led to the split that formed the SDP. There was an attempt to expel me from the LP. This may seem a little peripheral but it was a reflection of the turbulent times that PERG was part of.”
PERG (1976-92) went on to research many of the ecological issues of the time and to influence mainstream scientific thinking. Their reports covered organic farming, AGR reactor safety, aggregates/quarrying, large-scale afforestation, deep ocean disposal of nuclear waste, health risks of coal and nuclear generation, effects of a severe accidents at Sizewell B, nuclear emergency planning, the Windscale fire and nuclear waste in the marine environment.
In 1978 some members of PERG -Anthony Cheke, Gordon Thompson and Alan Francis- created the Oxford Ecology Movement (OEM) to contest the 1979 General Election, the year when Margaret Thatcher came to power, and local city elections. Anthony Cheke was the General Election candidate and the group wrote a manifesto, ‘A Sane Future'. The Movement and manifesto were well received by people in the city, including Sue Manning, Sarah Pethybridge, Mike Birkin and Penny Newsome. OEM recruited some 50 members when the Ecology Party’s entire national membership numbered in the hundreds.
Interestingly the group chose to be a local autonomous ‘movement’ rather than a branch of the Ecology Party. This was done out of a belief that ecological politics would be better served by groups which primarily served their local communities. The group rejected the more conventional party political model.
As Taylor says of the era:-
“Most of the historic focus has been on 'party' structure and policies – but at the outset there was a deep part of the 'movement' that was antipathetic to party politics, viewing politicians as ineffective at controlling the system. These 'deep greens' tended to leave the field and set up 'alternative' communities. Others laboured away both within and outside academia to change consciousness.
Another aspect of the movement was to try and stay 'local' – especially to focus upon community, growing local food and getting involved politically at a community level only. At this time the Liberal Party was leading the struggle for community and devolved decision making. The first 'split' in the UK came when several people decided to found a regular party – at first called the Ecology Party, later renamed 'Green'”
The Movement disbanded after the 1979 election. Some members went on to join the Oxford Ecology Party which had been set up by Phil Foggitt who was also its first co-ordinator.
As Phil said:-
“I was of the opinion that ecologists should become actively involved in politics because it was the political policies which were creating the problems in the first place. In terms of left-right scale of EP members I was on the right in terms of strategy. i.e. I felt we should have one leader (M or F) not 2 as some suggested later and we needed to present as efficient/competent a front as possible and be as visible in the mainstream as possible. Others were more anarchistically motivated and didn’t seem to be as bothered about moving beyond much of a small clique or pressure group.”
Other members found their way into the Green Party where several are still active.
Research and article by David Taylor, January 2017