Mike Childs

Head of science, policy and research for Friends of the Earth

Friends of the Earth: Big Ideas from history

This case study describes some of the benefits Friends of the Earth has gained from working with historians in the H&P network. The accompanying case study on Richard Huzzey and the history of anti-slavery campaigns presents the historian’s perspective.

Mike Childs is head of science, policy and research for Friends of the Earth. He was interested in the environment from an early age, influenced by an older brother who studied marine biology at university, and seeing the impact of a new road built near where he lived, destroying the Essex countryside while making no difference whatsoever to traffic jams. He worked as a laboratory technician for four years before studying biology at York University, where he was the first Green deputy-president of the Students’ Union.

He joined Friends of the Earth in 1989, because he believed it had a human dimension and he was concerned about development issues. He worked as a campaigner, volunteer and then a regional and national officer. He has led campaigns on many issues, including climate change and carcinogens emitted by factories.

‘Friends of the Earth is a unique place. It has always seen international development and protecting the environment going hand in hand – our strap line was ‘for people, for the planet’. So I’ve always felt close to Friends of the Earth.’

The Big Ideas project

Craig Bennett, the Chief Executive Officer of Friends of the Earth, believes that the organisation needs to refresh itself by working with people and organisations it has never worked with before, and be more open to different perspectives and ideas. According to Childs:

‘It needs to reach out and challenge its own assumptions, challenge its own thoughts, re-look at some of the issues we had already looked at.’

Childs discussed these ideas with colleagues at Friends of the Earth, and they came up with the Big Ideas project:

‘We took Craig’s ideas a stage further. We identified ten key topics we should look at – the big issues that are facing humanity over the next thirty or forty or fifty years. For each of those we wanted to reach out collaboratively and involve other people as best we could. But importantly, we wanted to look at issues that we had never looked at before.’

The ten ‘Big Ideas’ included the future of cities, the role of gender equality, energy security, and innovation for well-being, but also lessons from history.

‘History was an interesting one. Friends of the Earth had never really sat down and thought: what can we learn from change campaigns in the past. Climate change for example is, it’s fair to say, an unprecedented threat to human life and we need to make some pretty deep changes. These are not just policy tweaks to get us on the right pathway. We need to change people’s values, people’s norms. So we thought we needed to engage with historians and find out what can we learn from history. Some pretty fundamental things have changed over the past two hundred years or so. Why have they changed? What were their causes and effects? What can we learn from them for our campaigns in the future?’

Craig Bennett made contact with people he knew from having previously worked at Cambridge University. Childs went to Cambridge to visit Simon Szreter, one of the founders of H&P, who put him in touch with Fiona Holland, H&P’s public affairs manager, based at Kings College London:

‘So that led to Fiona, who was a fantastic supporter of the project, both in terms of helping to do specific things, such as setting up History & Policy and Friends of the Earth events, but also helping us reach out to historians on different topics. We are hugely grateful for the contribution she’s made. So that’s how the relationship formed, and it’s been brilliant, I think.’

They decided to start with a small, informal, closed seminar:

‘Talking to Fiona, we said we’d like to get some historians together with campaigners and get them to explore issues. Fiona said they might be a bit nervous of collaborating with a group of activists – let’s have a small closed seminar, so people feel safe and comfortable.’

The seminar took place in November 2014 at Kings College London. Eight historians gave short presentations on the theme of how and why change happens, followed by round table discussions:

‘One over-arching conclusion was: that was interesting wasn’t it? We ought to think about this stuff more often. And that’s a tick for History & Policy. Even to get people to start thinking that history is relevant to their world is a tick. We drew up seven or eight tentative conclusions from what we heard, which we then shared with all the participants. It was a brilliant event overall, very useful for the project with all the participants very keen to follow it up with further discussions and events.’

‘Why Change Happens’

A second larger event – a conference in June 2015 on the theme of Why Change Happens – included participants from other environment and development groups, such as Duncan Green, strategic adviser to Oxfam:

‘Duncan did a blog after that – saying he has been in Oxfam a long time and his development groups had been having the same conversations: we must be able to learn from history; we are winning lots of battles but in many ways it’s looking worse ahead of us, not better. So we need to think completely differently. That partly inspired this project. That’s where Duncan was coming from and others in the development world, looking at history and some massive changes that have happened in the past. How did they achieve that? How did it happen?’

Lucy Delap, who was then Director of History & Policy, had now taken over much of the conference organisation. Part of H&P’s role was to identify suitable historians to give presentations at the conference:

‘This is where Lucy picked up the baton from Simon and Fiona. She was key in identifying who we wanted to speak. We brainstormed a range of topics that we wanted to cover.

The conference revealed some differences in approach between activists and historians. Some activists were keen to learn from history but others, such as George Monbiot, in his closing presentation, doubted what they could learn from the past when the problems facing the world were unprecedented. But Childs felt that the difference was not as great as it might appear: 

‘I think the point George was making was that we can’t take a template from the past and hold it up for the future, because the conditions are different. And the historians we have worked with most closely have been keen to stress that all along.’

A bigger problem, Childs thought, was that some of the historians’ presentations, though fascinating in their own right, were not really relevant to Friends of the Earth, whose main concern, he now realised, was the ‘business of campaigning’. Furthermore, they had not captured well enough the round table conversations that followed each of the presentations. So although the conference had been interesting and had led to some useful relationships, perhaps the format could be improved:

‘That conference, enjoyable as it was and as pleased as I am that we did it, has not particularly had an impact on Friends of the Earth, although it may have done for the other participants from other groups. What it has led to is a conversation; again with Lucy in particular, on where does this go now?’

Lessons from history for campaigners

The next joint event, which took place in November 2015, followed a different format. Lucy Delap suggested that Richard Huzzey, who had given a presentation on the anti-slavery campaign in the nineteenth century at the earlier conference, should be more involved with the project. Childs worked with Huzzey to prepare a new brief for historians:

‘This time we didn’t get historians to present their cases, which was challenging for the historians, as well as for the campaigners, I think. Effectively all we had was campaigners reflecting on the historians’ case studies, which were circulated in advance. The historians were there to contribute if the campaigners misinterpreted or misunderstood something. Telling the campaigners that was what we were going to do meant they had to do their homework – they had to read their case studies. We set up individual people to speak first, so they definitely had to read their stuff, because they were the ones who went first in front of their peer group and the historians. It was quite tough to get people to do, but they engaged really well with it. That seminar went really well.’

One of the conclusions Friends of the Earth drew from the seminar was that they needed to understand more about the background and context to campaigns, which were often vehicles for longer-term change:

‘So, for example, [the historian] Jane Jordon wrote up a case study on the anti-contagious diseases act, which was clearly an appalling piece of legislation at so many different levels. There was a strong campaign against it, but that campaign wasn’t just to get rid of the anti-contagious diseases act; it was a vehicle for women’s equality. In some ways that is so obvious, but if you’ve got a choice of campaigns, you want to choose the one which is the best vehicle for where you ultimately need to get to, not just the one that may be, perhaps, the best fund-raising campaign or the best short-term opportunity.’

The outcome of the seminar is a publication, Campaigning for change: lessons from history, with an introduction written by Huzzey and a conclusion setting out detailed lessons for campaigners written by Childs:

‘Some of these campaigns were in the nineteenth century when things were different. We didn’t have the Internet then, we didn’t have social media. It was a different world. People’s sense of identity might have been different. So don’t take this as a recipe book for campaigning, but do draw lessons from it. Richard said that in his introduction. I say it in the conclusions. We have worked with participants to produce a publication - lessons from history for campaigners.’


Based on his experience at Friends of the Earth, working with History & Policy, Mike Childs suggests that:

  • There is real value from talking to people you don’t normally talk to. You never quite know what might come out of it.

‘From our perspective we think the lessons from this project will influence our future campaigns, both how we choose campaigns and what campaigns we choose to run. It will help our thought processes around campaigning.’

  • It is useful to step back and look at change over the long-term.

‘Historians don’t always agree on their interpretations, so it is not as though it is an uncontested world. But there is real value in stepping out and working with people whose job is to understand particular areas of history and really try and work with them to learn lessons for the twenty-first century.’

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment.

‘This whole project has been a huge experiment for Friends of the Earth, and it worked extremely well. The feedback was really positive.’

Further Reading

Campaigning for change: can we learn from history? By Mike Childs

Friends of the Earth Big Ideas web site

Duncan Green’s blog on the June 2015 conference

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  • Mike Childs is head of science, policy and research for Friends of the Earth. 

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