Oxford Political Ecology Research Group

Oxford Greens in the 1970s part 2

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 non profit making co-operative company limited by guarantee (a worker co-op). 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 then 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.”

Oxford PERG continued in existence through the 1980s and 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.

The third annual report in 1981 gives the following as Aims & Organisation of the group:

"AIMS AND ORGANISATION
The Political Ecology Research Group is a science consultancy providing research support for political initiatives on environmental issues. We serve a wide range of community and citizens’ groups, district and county councils, and at times government organisations. It also provides research support for television, radio, and the press.

The primary working methods are critical review of government and industrial policies, environmental impact and hazard analysis, and direct participation in inquiries, commissions and committees with the provision of planning aid and expert witnesses.

PERG is committed to the publication and wide dissemination of the results of its research, in order to widen public awareness of the issues involved and of the role of science in the formation of public policy. It holds cepyright on all contracts undertaken.

PERG is a non-profit making co-operative company limited by guarantee. All working members are directors, and decisions are taken by consensus at regular meetings. Those engaged in work for the group are either paid employees or self-employed consultants, or donate their services. Costs (including remuneration) are kept low in order to serve small local initiatives which may have limited financial resources."

The report gives an account of the wide range of work undertaken by the group in its heyday; seven major research activities were undertaken, plus involvement in half a dozen other projects, publications both by PERG itself and by members in other journals and outlets, teaching and seminars and more. All of this on a turnover of some £11,000 - roughly equivalent to £40,000 in 2017 values.  There were eight directors who were all the working members of the co-operative.

There was also a leaflet published in 1981 giving a summary of the aims and work of the group including a partial list of clients  which included "Powys County Council, Gwen-t: County" Council, Barrow Town- Council, lpswich Borough Council, Granada TV, BBC Horizon, Greenpeace, the Ecology Party, 'Donegal Uranium Committee, the Government of Lower Saxony (West Germany), the Union Of Concerned Scientists (USA), the Town and. Country Planning Association, House. of Commons Select Committees and the General. and Municipal Workers’ Union "

PERG was always careful under Peter Taylor as Chair not to become involved in political activity. The concern was to not to compromise the ostensibly detached objective scientific work, especially in the nuclear area. Individual members such as Gordon Thompson, Anthony Cheke and Martin Stott did see the need for political engagement. Cheke and Thompson went on to found the Oxford Ecology Movement in 1978 to contest elections in 1979, and Stott continued to work within the Labour Party, particularly with the Socialist Environment and Resources Association (SERA) becoming a Labour Councillor on Oxford City in 1986-90.

Stott subsequently working in local government on environment/sustainability and thus being "politically restricted". Becoming Director of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council exemplified the effectiveness of the PERG approach to engagement with government. As Peter Taylor puts it "the 'political ecologists' in Britain went much further than their party-political colleagues; as scientists they came to occupy key positions in the policy making process, especially as 'chief government scientists' and heads of committees and commissions. They had to battle with technocrats from other scientific disciplines but they did have major influences."

Peter Taylor and Brian Wynne, another founder member of PERG, have since published widely on the social constructions of science. In 1979 in a PERG paper they wrote:

"Science is dialectical in nature, i.e. the results of research depend on the assumptions of the researchers, which depend on all manner of social factors specific to that researcher or research institution. The current situation where the Government attempts to appoint "impartial" assessors, in a quasi-legal framework, will in our view lead to the increasing dissatisfaction with the inquiry procedure." 1 

This critical approach to political ecology as being the politics of the application of ecological science has continued as a concern in academic circles, as reflected by the emergence of political ecology as a discipline and political ecology groups of researchers at various universities today. PERG blazed a trail that perhaps has echos today not only in academia, but also in growing popular unease with the authority of science as representing impartial truth.

It is also important to note that PERG managed to achieve some real traction in promoting green issues and values at a time when the political green movement was really struggling to be heard. 


Notes:

  1. from "A First Report of the Work of the Political Ecology Research Group, Oxford" by PERG 1979 quoted on p12 in "Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science" by Timothy Forsyth, pub. Routledge 2004 

 

Sources:
  • David Taylor personal emails with participants including Anthony Cheke, Alan Francis. 2017
  • RCO emails with Martin Stott 2018
  • PREG 1981 report
  • PERG Leaflet

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