The Ecologist: Four decades of global warning

A pioneering environmental magazine in the 1970s, The Ecologist has spent 40 years alerting people to what we are doing to our world. Gillian Orr celebrates its birthday

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:58

Ponder these subjects if you will: the extensive waste produced by an overpopulated Britain. The depleted stock of natural resources. The damage inflicted on the environment by oil companies.

These are some of the most prevalent green issues around and articles about them could have appeared in any number of newspapers or journals today. Only they were also the lead stories in the first issue of The Ecologist, published in July 1970. Environmental concerns, it seems, remain the same 40 years on.

The 1960s and early 1970s saw the first wave of environmental awareness; Rachel Carson's seminal book Silent Spring, about the dangers of pesticides within food chains, had caused ripples when it was published in 1962. Friends of the Earth was founded in 1969, Greenpeace in 1971.

And it was in 1970 that Edward "Teddy" Goldsmith and a small group of collaborators first published The Ecologist. In an article on its 40th anniversary, to be published this week, Peter Bunyard, the science editor who has worked on the magazine since its inception, recalls that The Ecologist set out to challenge the notion that the world had never had it so good and that economic growth resulting from that vague concept of development was a panacea for virtually every human condition, whether that be poverty, starvation, pollution, ill-health or wars. It was to be a forum for Goldsmith and other academics to publish essays on the environment that were deemed too radical for the mainstream press. It connected with the public, growing from an initial circulation of 400 to become the world's leading environmental affairs magazine, with monthly sales of 20,000.

The magazine made waves in 1972 when it dedicated an entire issue to the now-famous "Blueprint for Survival" manifesto. It reported that because humans disrupted the ecosystems in which they exist, they alter other ecosystems all over the world. This was one of the earliest forecasts on what would come to be known as climate change. It was also published as a book and went on to sell 750,000 copies. Among other things, the text called for the formation of a movement for survival, leading to the creation of the People Party, later renamed the Ecology Party and finally, the Green Party.

Another famous issue came in 1998 when the magazine dedicated an entire edition to exposing the damaging environmental activities of biotech giant, Monsanto. The company threatened to sue The Ecologist's printers, who then pulped the entire print run. After another printer was found, it went on to become the biggest-selling issue ever and brought the concern of corporate interests behind genetically-modified crops to a wider audience.

The Ecologist came under the media spotlight when Teddy's nephew, Zac Goldsmith, became editor in 1998. Under him, The Ecologist's appeal was broadened by moving away from its academic origins towards a current affairs magazine.

He was made an advisor to David Cameron in 2005 and decided to stand as a candidate in the Richmond constituency in 2007, stepping down as editor (he won the seat in May's General Election). At the time he said: "The magazine has to remain impartial and feel free to have a go at the Government and at the Conservatives. So I can't both be the editor and a parliamentary candidate." While it is now edited by Mark Anslow, Zac Goldsmith remains the Chairman and Director.

In July last year The Ecologist became an online-only publication. Anslow says that this move "has enabled us to take this message and world view to a much wider audience, which has already grown way beyond that which we had as a printed publication". Going paperless was an appropriate move for a magazine with such long-held environmental credentials – and one that, according to a spokesperson at the time of moving online, was not profit-making.

The Ecologist's aim hasn't changed a great deal over the years. Of course, the public is much more familiar with environmental issues today than in 1970. However, Anslow believes there is a huge way to go: "Very few people – and still fewer politicians and policy-makers – seem able to join the dots when it comes to environmental issues. Understanding how climate change is linked to economic growth, population, consumption, and the structure of Western society is something few seem willing to contemplate – The Ecologist's role has always been to point out these links." Writing in 2009, Zac Goldsmith stated: "The Ecologist has lost money from the day it was launched in 1970, and will continue until the last edition is printed." But profit is, of course, not the point. The Ecologist's purpose is to campaign, inspire and inform and is needed now more than ever before.

To read more about how The Ecologist was founded, go to

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