In 1980, Kit Pedler along with ecologist and entrepreneur Nigel Tuersley created Earthlife, a registered charity, as a joint venture. Earthlife's first interest was urban regeneration in a sustainable form. Other trustees included Members of Parliament John Silkin and Shirley Williams, along with the architect Tom Hancock. John Silkin was the shadow Environmental secretary in 1970 when Pedler and Davis were invited to brief the Government's Environmental minister Peter Walker on setting up a real life Doomwatch.
Their first attempt was to develop London's dockyards, all 120 acres of it. They were one of fifteen proposed schemes for the area which included a theme park proposed by Associated Dairies. . They wanted to create an Earthlife city rather than the usual offices, flats, shops etc - which is what Docklands got. But what Earthlife wanted to create was a place using alternative energy techniques (solar, wind and tidal), educating the public about their environment. They planned for permanent exhibitions centring on one of Pedler's favourite themes - the idea that the Earth is analogous to an organism of which we are a small part. However, in this case, it is Spaceship Earth and its life support systems. The proposed city incorporated a pyramid. Earthlife were hoping to develop botanical gardens including 'energy forests' of fast growing Swedish 'superwillows' which would grow well in the polluted soil of the docks.Their bid was rejected on grounds of it lacking financial backing, however the four bids that went through for a final decision were encouraged to take on board Earthlife's ideas and that of another failed bid, Southwark Quays who wanted a high technological city...
One man benefited from the failure of the bid: a journalist from New Scientist who bet Tuersley a bottle of whisky that the scheme would not be approved by the London Docklands Development Agency. This failure upset and inspired Tuersley to turn his attention to property development in order to finance the foundation's other plans which Pedler sadly would not live to see.
The organisation became an umbrella for seven specialised subsidiary companies such as Bioresources and Rural Investments Overseas, working on agro-forestry, agricultural and bio-energy projects in Southeast Asia, Central Africa and Latin Africa.
One of the projects involved protecting the Korup rain forest in Cameroon, home to a quarter of the world's primate species and half the plant varities found in tropical forests. This was launched in 1986. It was a cooperation between the British government, the Cameroonian government, companies and individuals. Local people would live and be protected in a buffer zone, settled on more fertile land. The area the size of London was to be protected, paid for by tourism and controlled use of the resources, mainly for medicines.
Roger Milne described Earthlife's approach as a laudible objective. 'Where other environmental and conservation groups would protest about forest destruction, Earthlife aimed to do something concrete....' In Tuersley's own words, promoting 'the sustainable use of the world's resources.'
They had critics. The New Scientist called them a yuppie environmentalist group, puzzled by their glossy ecological magazine sponsored by the Central Electricity Generating Board amongst others. 'Green capitalism for green yuppies' was a jibe thrown at Earthlife. But Tuersley had a very pragmatic approach to his work in getting high profile businesses on board. 'If you are going to work with industry, you have got to be able to speak its language. Our property business gives us a degree of credibility with people who wouldn't normally listen to conservation arguments.' He saw modern charities as businesses with a particular product and a particular market operating in a competitive marketplace. It was the spirit of the 80s. The New Scientist also reported how the same press release (on recycled paper) was sent to four different journalists working for the magazine, and how their 1986 magazine flooded various organisations.
It was operating as a business that did for Earthlife. In its final three years its annual turnover rose from £100,000 to a million, and employed forty people. A lack of discipline, expanding too quickly and failing to sell large quantities of books and t-shirts, was one of the reasons given for its fall. The foundation hit financial problems, with trading debts reported at £400,000 leaving people and firms left with 'burnt fingers.' Some people had re mortgaged their homes and used their own savings to help the Foundation. Tuersley promised all creditors would be repaid.
In February 1987, the European Year of the Environment, the trustees put Earthlife into liquidation. Their office in Belgrave Square was cleared and Tuersley tried to take legal action in a bid to stop it. The New Scientist sent a reporter round to the deserted offices where they met BT engineers and a motor cycle courier man The fall of Earthlife was described by Roger Milne in the 12th of March issue as a 'spectacular fall from grace ... sent shock waves reverberating through the international conservation community.' The World Widelife Fund took over the Cameroon project. John Elkington writng about how Earthlife influenced him said 'it was like a neutron star, spraying rare, life-promoting elements through the rest of its universe. One thing the experience taught me, however, was that rapid growth can be dangerous.'
Some twenty or so years later, Tuersley is still active in creating sustainable communities around the world. Tom Hancock, a practising Buddhist, died in 2006 whilst trying to create an Eden Project similar to the successful one in Cornwall, up in Northampton.
With thanks to Michael Seely