“The wonderful thing about Bedales,” observes Jeremy Wates, “is that it was able to turn out people with good academic grounding while providing an environment that was supportive of things that are even more important. The whole concept of outdoor work for example - it may not have been seen as the most glamorous way to pass an afternoon, but it was closer to today’s ideas of ecological sustainability than most things that were around in the UK in the 1970s.”
When he left school, Jeremy had a clear idea at least of what he didn’t want to do. “I did philosophy at university mainly because I’d crossed everything else off the list,” he recalls, while admitting that it suited him well. “After that, I wanted to do constructive things, and I ended up going to west Cork, where I helped out local farmers and smallholders doing bits of farming and building work. I learned a lot, both in practical skills and in attitude.” The magic of Ireland was such that Jeremy felt completely at home within a matter of weeks. He decided to settle there permanently, living on a smallholding and staying closely in touch with the land. “A lot of my friends over there were creative types, heavily into the organic lifestyle and local self-sufficiency, but eventually we decided that we had to do something on a wider scale,” Jeremy relates.
The answer was to found Earthwatch in 1980, which was ultimately to mushroom into the Irish arm of Friends of the Earth International. “We started very small and didn’t even have an office for a while. Our focus was initially on anti-nuclear and renewable energy issues but over time, this broadened out to encompass the full range of environmental issues,” Jeremy explains. The campaigns ranged from nuclear waste dumping in the Atlantic and the anti-Sellafield protests to acid rain, global warming and the ozone layer, as well as more local issues such as bogs, fish farming, recycling and toxic waste. “It was really satisfying to see the organisation grow into one of the most influential of its kind in Ireland during that period,” Jeremy says now. “I like to think that we combined the radicalism and militancy that an organisation such as Earthwatch needed with proper scientific rigour.”
By the 1990s, Jeremy had a personal decision to make about how to continue the environmental fight. “Through my work at Earthwatch, I had become involved in a lot of international processes,” he says. “I’d begun to feel that I had contributed as much as I could in Ireland and that it was probably the right moment to move on.” The time had come to shake up the global establishment and Jeremy now led a campaign by the European ECO Forum, an NGO coalition, to persuade governments to start work on a treaty on environmental democracy. The campaign was successful and led to Jeremy spending a couple of years coordinating the input from civil society organisations into the official negotiations for what was to become the Aarhus Convention. During this period, he was also under contract to the World Health Organisation to manage the preparation of public participation in the Third European Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in London.
How did Jeremy cope with such an immense workload? “If you’re going to get burned out, it usually happens in the first decade,” he believes. “In my case, the connection with my wife and children in the beautiful surroundings of West Cork and just being able to spend even a bit of time working with animals and the land had a really good grounding effect. I remember some days that would start with going up the hill to milk a couple of goats before breakfast and end with intense political discussions in the negotiating halls of the Palais des Nations in Geneva.”
With the Aarhus Convention adopted in 1998, Jeremy’s next task was to serve as Secretary to the Convention with the Geneva-based United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. For more than a decade, he oversaw developments such as the adoption of the 2003 Kiev Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers, the establishment of a compliance mechanism open to complaints from the public and the adoption of the Almaty Guidelines on public participation in international forums.
How did the transition from NGO campaigner to international civil servant work out? “I did find my first UN meetings back in the ‘80s unbelievably dull and formulaic and never imagined that I would end up being one of the bureaucrats servicing them,” says Jeremy. “You spend a lot of time trying to cut corners and eliminate red tape. But I gradually began to learn the language of international diplomacy and realised that one has a lot of opportunities to influence processes from the inside.” Did he become compromised? “That’s for others to judge but I don’t think so,” he replies. “I certainly never lost my sense of frustration about the political establishment’s inactivity on green issues.”
Last year, Jeremy left the UN to become Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of environmental organisations comprising more than 140 members from around 30 European countries and representing some fifteen million environmentally concerned citizens. His working life has consequently shifted from Geneva to Brussels, but, despite two decades of criss-crossing Europe, west Cork remains the place that Jeremy regards as home. “My wife is looking after the farm as we speak,” he says, “and I don’t get to spend the time there that I would like, but I’ll be back one day.”
Despite his efforts, Jeremy remains pragmatically pessimistic about the future of the planet. “If you look at the scientific data, things appear pretty bad. It is very likely that the world will heat up to a point that threatens our way of life, even life itself in some cases, but there are many uncertainties – for example, what happens if the Gulf Stream suddenly stops flowing? There’s good reason to be worried but the main thing is to adopt a precautionary approach, especially since the measures we need to combat global warming have other benefits.”
For now, Jeremy’s hopes for the future reside in the younger generation. “The world has such a huge ecological transition to make,” he emphasises. “We need to reduce the global environmental footprint by a third, and much more in the developed world, so that the poorest countries can climb out of poverty, but at least there is real energy in the new wave of activists. We hear such a lot about the global economic crisis, but the ecological crisis is ultimately much more serious. Increasingly, environmental and economic issues are converging; they can no longer be ignored, even by governments who are mainly preoccupied with the economy.”
Jeremy Wates was interviewed by James Fairweather in Summer 2012.