Letter to Steve Warshal

Written the day after Peter’s death

 

Dear Steve

I was shocked and upset to learn from John Sauven yesterday of Peter’s death. It’s so hard to imagine still less bear.

I know how much you loved him and I have some idea, I think, of quite how much of life you two shared. My deepest condolences and sympathy.

My own first encounter with Peter was with you. It was my interview for Greenpeace (1986), in a dingy backroom of the timber wharf warehouse in Islington. A pretty unpromising place, I thought. I was prepared to be disappointed by the experience having something of a dim view of Greenpeace at the time. Then I met you guys. There was a friendly intensity – an absolute seriousness, leavened by immense charm. These people mean business, I thought. And you did. And then we did.

Working with Peter was one of the great privileges of my life. Greenpeace was a powerful experience, but having the opportunity to work and be alongside Peter was transformational. I was green (as in naive) as a spring leaf but he was patient and coached and encouraged. His energy and organisational skills were prodigious, his intellect and powers of measured reasoning sublime, and the bastard also had empathy and humanity too. I adored him.

Of course, Peter was in bold contrast to others who were impressive and admirable in many ways but, for me, a drain. I would have left Greenpeace within a year and thereby missed out on one of the most powerful experiences of my life without Peter’s calm and reassuring presence in the background. We eventually let rip of course and it was a blast…anything and everything began to seem possible. We started to feel we could change the world and I think we did. We got Greenpeace in shape, created a culture of trust and creativity and for calculated risk-taking that enabled an explosion of campaigning energy, flair and impact. The world shifted on its axis.

And Peter was the foundation, the father, the engineer. He got us in the right places, helped us practically, introduced a rigour in critical reasoning then let us do our thing. It was an object lesson in leadership: quiet actually, relatively unassuming but omnipresent too so that we never felt alone and exposed. We also knew, for sure, that the opposition – from world governments to global corporations – didn’t have anyone to compare with our leader; no-one who either had his stamina or could out-reason him, match his quiet passion and his unassuming but wholly resolute confidence. It made us feel impregnable.

I’d been in the organisation for two weeks when Peter abandoned me one evening in a Greenpeace international trustee meeting in Lewes. David McTaggart was on the prowl; in electric mood and mode, promoting World Park Antarctica and a Greenpeace base there with a fierce and crystalline intensity. Peter cooly announced he had a parent teacher evening or something akin in Kentish Town and I was suddenly the UK trustee…I was crapping myself and McTaggart was staring straight at me. It came to a vote. About half of the trustee body was for David’s proposition and half against. Mine was the deciding vote. Oh fuck. What did Peter want, or Alan? Who knew? Fuck, fuck. I decided that having a base in Antarctica was a good idea for us; I listened to the arguments and made a decision – casting vote, here we go!! The next day back in London Alan furious, Peter amused! Not sure he agreed that I’d done the right thing but he supported me all the way. I later confessed I’d found David somewhat intimidating and asked whether Peter felt the same way. Well, ‘no, not really’, Peter replied. As Under Secretary-of-State in Northern Ireland he’d had the Reverend Ian Paisley bellowing at him day in day out and while McTaggart was a force he didn’t quite compare. And there it was…in a nutshell – Peter had that worldliness, that experience, that assurance and he deployed it to embolden us all whether or not and maybe even sometimes especially when we made mistakes. He was of course always ready to reflect and laugh and as I looked at photos of him last night I was reminded that he had one particularly kind eye and one particularly steely eye. Did you see that too?

I’ve got a million stories and lovely memories but I suppose over and above the personal friendship, the mentoring, the everyday support he provided, Peter was a great campaigner.  In fact, I would say he was arguably one of the great campaigners of the environmental or indeed any other movement.

Others had more external charisma perhaps and even brighter fires burning, but few, if any, had his strategic skills, his inexorable logic, his systematic application. And he didn’t try to do it (all) himself by any means; he let us build an organisation that across the piece was extraordinarily confident, well-tooled and able. The sum of the parts was a mighty thing as he knew it could be and he was its stealthy, assured source and coil spring.

And look what he/we did! Of course we were part of an immense and hugely talented international organisation with outstanding values, a fearlessness and a hard-earned brand to die for. But with this fantastic foundation Peter shaped and led a programme of work that changed the world and gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Let’s remember that time for a moment – our time. The Montreal Protocol (actions against ICI, ‘sorry grandpa’); the North Sea campaign; Acid Rain; major actions on Sellafield and against BNFL that almost killed the nuclear industry in this country; one of the world’s first major Global Warming campaigns; nuclear free seas…The launch of the new Rainbow Warrior. The reinforcement and amplification of the most compelling brand in the environmental world. We grew the Greenpeace membership from 40,000 to nearly 400,000 in four years, giving us immense influence; created the Greenpeace Environmental Trust.

These and much more created the imperative, the space and the popular support for political action. They released the forces that caused better businesses to change their policies, culture and behaviours. They led to the Earth Summit, the IPCC and COP…They gave rise to a thousand, a million kindred campaigns and actions and organisations…

And this was Peter. He was its locus, its forcefield.

You have lost a great friend, I a mentor. Professionally my relationship with Peter was the most inspiring and enlightening of my life. I became a different, better person. And after last night’s news when I look back to 32 years ago I can remember that period now – almost all of it – as vividly as if it was yesterday.

I hope you are coping and finding solace. It would be great to share some grief, reminisce and have a laugh at some point soon.

My very best wishes

Jonathan

 

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Tracy Worcester 

It is hard to imagine working against factory farms without having Peter’s wisdom and partnership to call on. As one of the world’s most articulate and brilliant warriors, he was a true hero. We will all miss him and cherish the privilege to have worked on together on campaigns like the Midland Pig Producers plans to build building a a massive pig factory next to a village and women’s prison in Derbyshire. His generous heart and whopping brain inspired and led us and the locals to continue to shine the light on the horrors of factory farming till the Environment agency came up with such stringent regulations, that MPP abandoned the project.

He Had Our Back – Peter Melchett’s Contribution to Greenpeace

 

Chris Rose

IMG_0046

Peter on a walk round his farm in April this year.  Behind him is a field full of cowslips, part of a new wildlife habitat.

Peter Melchett, who was a Minister in the Northern Ireland office used to dealing with Ian Paisley across the conference table, was never going to be fazed by the 15 years he spent as chair and Executive Director of Greenpeace UK (1985 to 2001).  To supporters, politicians and media in the UK he is best remembered for his part in a white-suited action against GM maize but the greatest contribution he made to Greenpeace was as a leader, and most of that was invisible to the public gaze.

Once Peter put himself at the service of Greenpeace, although he continued to give speeches and interviews, his personal profile was far lower than it had been when he forged the alliance of environment and conservation groups as Wildlife Link and led many political and legislative battles for the environment in Parliament.

Resilience

By the mid 1980s Greenpeace was already in transformation from a charismatic but chaotic entity often riven by personal rivalries, into an effective international campaign group but Peter guided its UK development into a resilient and stable campaigning machine, and professionalized and grew the organization at the same time.

He brought systems and organization, introducing specialist science, legal, accounts and political units, together with HR policies and management practices drawing on his previous experience in government and the third sector.   Although resented by some campaigners used to a more anarchic environment, he made these changes not just to treat the staff better and improve efficiency but to make Greenpeace harder to infiltrate or attack by government or corporates.

Power

With a background in politics and a family background in business large and small, Peter understood power and influence in a way few other NGO campaigners or leaders did, then or now.  He knew that politicians might never win a popularity contest with Greenpeace, but could disable or sink it through stealthier means such as injunctions, asset seizures or subversion.  As its support grew, it posed a greater challenge to vested interests so the stakes got higher.

Largely un-noticed both inside and outside, Peter set about making Greenpeace’s UK ‘ship’ legally and financially watertight, with reserves to ride out headwinds.  On his watch, it invested in the expertise necessary to locate strategic targets that could change the trajectory of environmental outcomes, and then plan and run high-risk campaigns involving non-violent direct actions, with the optimal chance of living to fight another day.

He Had Our Back

Peter had a massive sense of duty and honour.  He took a personal interest in looking after the volunteers who physically and legally put themselves on the line when he often could not.  So he was always ready to take responsibility and lead from the front when the organisation came under fire.  “He made me feel safe”, said a director who served under him. “As a young campaigner”, an activist said “you knew whatever you did, he’d would support you in public: he had our back”.

Two Jewish friends who worked with me at Greenpeace say they used to call him a a ‘mensch’ – Yiddish – a man of integrity and honour.  “He was so solid, and reliable especially when the shit hit the fan – you could always count on Peter” says one.

In the 1980s he had already been involved in several demonstrations against nuclear weapons.  Just before his time at Greenpeace, he and partner Cass Wedd were arrested on a CND protest at Sculthorpe a USAF base not far from his farm in Norfolk.   It amused him that as he stepped forward to make his symbolic cut in the fence, plummy voice of Lady Olga Maitland (of ‘Women and Families for Defence’) rang out: “Peter, Peter, don’t do it. It’ll ruin your career!”

Once Chair and Executive Director, Peter rarely took a front-line part in Greenpeace actions, not because he didn’t want to but because he felt responsible for remaining available at the helm.  In 1999 he broke with this rule by leading an action to remove a GM maize crop.   A former criminologist, he spent a night in Norwich Jail.  I asked what it was like: “everyone was nice to me” he said, “anyway Eton prepares you for that sort of regime”.   Eventually a jury found all defendants not guilty of criminal damage, agreeing with Greenpeace’s defence of ‘lawful excuse’:  by destroying the crop they had stopped a greater harm of polluting other maize crops with GM pollen.

Peter could be obdurate and domineering as well as avuncular, self-deprecating and charming.  In the 1980s I once described him as more Grizzly than Teddy Bear.  He was also modest, for example rarely mentioning his time as a Minister in which he achieved changes which would have provided most people with a lifetime of stories to dine out on.  I think what drew him to Greenpeace was a combination of its potential to deliver results in terms of outcomes for causes he cared about – more or less Green and Peace – and its way of doing things.

For most people, its principles of non violence and bearing witness, inherited from or inspired by the Quakers in their early protests against nuclear testing in the pacific, were simply historical backdrop but for Peter they were lodestones used in in real-life, on a regular basis, and especially when faced with difficult and testing decisions.  As a personal bonus, in the UK this often meant cajoling, pushing or forcing a political and social Establishment deeply opposed to environmentalism, into change.  Greenpeace campaigns repeated the dynamic of that Olga Maitland moment, in which the establishment tried to stop Peter doing what he thought and felt was right, not just once or twice but over and over.  His principles made him a natural fit with the organisation’s hallmark tactics and worldview.

The Truth

Peter said he left Westminster for NGOs because he was fed up with the “lying game”.  In 1995 after the successful Brent Spar campaign to stop Shell dumping a huge redundant oil storage facility at sea, his sense of honour put him and Greenpeace at the centre of a media firestorm fanned by government ministers enraged at Shell’s capitulation.   Just before Shell gave way, Peter had written to the UK Shell Board laying out Greenpeace’s case and including an estimate that the Spar might still contain thousands of tonnes of oil.   It then realised this was due to a misinterpreted sample from an inspection pipe and the likely figure was far less.  Peter wrote to Shell ‘apologizing’ for potentially misleading them. This apology was misused to attack Greenpeace about the campaign as a whole, which was never about the tonnage of oil on board but oil companies and the government wanting to reopen the debate about dumping waste at sea.

Although not personally to blame for the error, Peter took responsibility.  Earlier this year I talked to Peter and he recalled how he had been “hauled over the coals” by Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight.  He said: “after we were off air – I wish this had been recorded – [Paxman] said to me, “I bet you regret telling the truth now don’t you ?”.   I was so gobsmacked, I couldn’t think of a snappy reply.  I mean he just assumed that everyone would normally lie about something like that, and to me it was just unthinkable that an NGO would lie”.

The same year, Greenpeace ‘invaded’ Sellafield and at Aldermaston blocked a pipe discharging radioactivity into the Thames.  Furious Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind sent MoD police to raid Greenpeace’s offices in search of evidence to charge activists with ‘conspiracy’.  Peter responded with an open letter in The Independent ‘J’accuse Malcolm Rifkind’ challenging the minister to come for him rather than ‘scapegoat’ individual activists.

Peter made Greenpeace UK more international, upping its contribution to international operations, and expanded its influence by using his vast network of contacts among more establishment NGOs.  His personal affability and confidence, and his experience of dealing with opponents face-to-face in politics in ways that avoided escalation of differences, were qualities that enabled him to sit down with Greenpeace’s opponents and often talk them into accepting an inevitable change in their ways after a campaign had peaked, rather than continue to opposing it.

Peter’s personal connections came in useful at unexpected moments. Elaine Lawrence, a Campaign Director of Greenpeace remembers:

When we did that die in in front of Downing street by the memorial where we were dressed in nuclear radiation suits [part of a campaign against THORP], Peter and I led the first group around the corner to the site from the House of Commons.  So we were walking at the front of about 30 people trying not to look suspicious when who should come round the corner but Tony Blair who stopped, greeted Peter and started chatting to him.  Everything – every group – was timed down to the last second so this was potentially a disaster.  Peter totally kept his cool and managed to politely get Tony to stop talking – seconds later we round the corner, get in position and put our suits on – it was very funny.

Solutions and Business

I worked closely with Peter as Programme Director responsible to the Board for ‘re-strategizing’ and creating the campaign programmes of Greenpeace UK, and then as his Deputy Executive Director, in the 1990s.  At this time power was shifting from governments to corporates and there was a new demand from the public for practical ‘solutions’ they could buy or adopt in everyday life.  Partly inspired by the example of Greenpeace in Germany, we added to the usual problem-driving element of campaigns, the engineering of solutions.  Today this sounds obvious but at the time it was controversial and counter-intuitive to many activists and environmental groups.

This often meant working with companies doing the right thing or at the least saying “this is a good thing”, and opposing those doing the ‘wrong thing’.  Peter gave businesses what they took to be an ‘establishment figure’ as an interlocutor and his pragmatism played a big role in helping extend the influence of the organization, for example through establishing Greenpeace Business, a newsletter which also ran conferences.  The approach of campaigns plus face to face engagement with corporate CEOs that he helped develop, has been continued and expanded by others in Greenpeace such as its current Executive Director in the UK, John Sauven.

Peter’s love of animals made him a lifelong  passionate anti-whaling campaigner, and played a role in his pursuit of organic farming.  After Greenpeace he returned to the fight against the impact of pesticides which he had first encountered in grey partridge studies on his family farm in Norfolk.  He and Cass were proud of having badgers return to the farm.  Apparently tireless, he was still working as Soil Association Policy Director, only days before he died.

Some people who inherit assets and position become philanthropists and support good causes.  Peter and Cass did indeed support projects with grants from their family Courtyard Trust but his greater contribution was to spend the capital of his inherited privilege (Eton, Cambridge, The Lords, High Office, family businesses, land) like a philanthropist giving away status and opportunity, to make a difference for the environment.  He was a great friend to me and a truly generous man.

 

(Thanks to current and former staff of Greenpeace for reminding me of things about Peter).

Liz O’Neill, GM Freeze

Peter was a great friend to GM Freeze and I am writing on behalf of myself and the rest of the GM Freeze team – staff and management committee, both past and present.

We all have different memories to treasure. Some were at Peter’s side in that field of GM maize back in 1999; others have always taken a more behind-the-scenes role. Some have worked with Peter for the best part of twenty years; others are relative new-comers. What we all share, though, is the keen awareness that what we do, and what we have achieved, has been influenced by Peter’s knowledge; by his flair for campaigning; and by his generosity of spirit. For myself, I always knew that I could rely on Peter for support, advice and – when necessary – challenge.

Some people leave the world a better place than it would have been without them and Peter was most definitely one of them. We miss him terribly.

Helen Taylor

It’s been so lovely reading people’s memories about Peter, and listening to his story on Radio 4, yesterday. How he’d smile, I’m sure – not to mention give that endearing chuckle – to be remembered alongside Burt Reynolds!

Peter was quite simply my ‘David Attenborough’. He opened up my world to very many environmental issues, and gave enormous confidence to many, enabling us to fight for what is right..

I remember fondly those meetings with the multiple retailers – including CEO’s.. Steven Esom, Sir Stuart Rose, Justin King and very many technologists who twisted and turned but couldn’t deny that Peter was right, when discussing the merits of organic food. He commanded such respect!

His meeting with Sir John Krebs to challenge his GM stance. The time he gave to people like Georgina Downs, helping her win her battle against the damaging affects of spraying pesticides on her health, and others’, were just two events I recall with absolute admiration for Peter.

And of course, his ‘Food for Life’ work with his team mates, Lizzie and Jeanette… How he touched peoples’ lives, so many and of all ages. It was truly touching to see him interact with the school children, who this wondrous team had helped, through their gutsy and persistence work, in resurrecting the way we feed our school children.

I also loved his presentations… you just knew that other speakers would have agonised over their words and PowerPoints. When it was Peter’s turn he’d chat to his audience with his lovely, calm and booming voice, then flick through a few slides and end on a stunning image of two hares leaping in the sunshine, taken at his farm, I think! It always made me smile. He made things very simple and kept us all grounded, bless him.

And best of all whenever I was with him – even after I’d left the Soil Association, he’d always want to know how I was and give me a big, reassuring hug. He was so, so kind to us all..

Thank you you for everything, Peter. You will be sorely, sorely missed.

Big hug… xx

Sarah Compson

It’s been hard to think of the right words to write about Peter’s passing. Like many of us who worked with him closely, his loss will be felt keenly in so many ways. It’s difficult to do justice (without a surfeit of well-justified adjectives) to quite what impact Peter has had both in terms of what he has achieved and the person that he was. Others have done an excellent job in this regard, so I just wanted to write a few words about what Peter has meant to me personally.

I first met Peter over 10 years ago when I began working at the Soil Association. His reputation certainly preceded him, and I remember feeling rather nervous about working with this Lord who eschewed the establishment, invented chugging, helped make Glastonbury Festival a thing, trashed GM crops, had been in charge of Greenpeace, had campaigned for decriminalising weed, and was a vegetarian pig-farmer! I remember being slightly bemused (and relieved) to find that the actual man behind the stories was very personable, with his shirt invariably untucked, his eyes twinkly, the most booming voice and an excellent chuckle.

As a junior member of staff with a good dose of imposter syndrome, I started off just doing as I was told by him. But I remember that my working relationship with Peter became much better when I started to disagree with him! Right now, I can picture the look in his eyes whenever I tried to counter his arguments. He relished a good debate! And so did I. Our movement is characterised by passionate people driven by strongly held values. The shadow side to this is that personal agendas and egos can often get in the way. I never felt that Peter led with his ego. I always respected the fact that he could be persuaded to a different viewpoint with sound reasoning, and I have always appreciated that a good debate with Peter helped to flesh out ideas rather than diminish them – which is surely the real purpose of debate in the first place. It never mattered if the reasoning came from the most senior or junior person in the room – he was focussed on the quality of the argument, not the arguer. Because of this, Peter always made time to listen carefully to different views, which I think is one of the reasons he is so well loved by so many people.

He also had a habit of creating opportunities – opening doors – then letting others walk through. It seems like many of us have stories of where Peter threw us in at the deep-end in early stages of our careers, but his backing and belief in our ability always seemed to make it feel possible to step up to the mark. I will be forever grateful for this.
Another thing I will always remember about Peter was that he was a ‘do-er’. He never had much time for talking shops, and would prefer to just get on with things, the more ambitious the better. His belief in the possible (albeit sometimes improbable) meant he would aim for targets that seemed ridiculously ambitious – but this is where his belief in doing what is right, combined with his campaigning spirit and determined approach always seemed to pay off. I most closely worked with Peter in relation to the Soil Association’s work on sustainable textiles, primarily organic cotton. Just last year he initiated a collaboration between the biggest global sustainable textile schemes around the world to galvanise brands and retailers into sourcing 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. The first report on the success of this initiative is due out soon, but it is doubtless that the impact on livelihoods, biodiversity and the environment will be huge. He has certainly left an important legacy in the textile sector – one of many that he worked across.

Ultimately, I feel like Peter’s many achievements in life come down to the person that he was. Honourable in far more than name, his absolute integrity always shone through. He lived his values, not because that is what you should do, but just because that is who he was. We have lost an extraordinary soul and I will miss him greatly.

Jen Collins

Peter played the long game and saw the big picture. I worked closely with him campaigning to protect the term organic on beauty products, an area he liked to joke that he was naturally suited to! We had great fun.

When we came across companies which packaged their products in a way that could potentially mislead consumers, you could almost hear Peter rubbing his hands with glee down the phone. He was so keen to make sure companies did the right thing and that consumer rights – and the term organic – were protected.

When we received legal letters about our campaigning, Peter found this exciting and said it showed we were having an impact. Our serious phone calls with the lawyer were peppered with jokes and he would chuckle delightedly when I pointed out something incorrect in the opposition’s approach.

Peter always knew exactly where the line was and trod it very carefully, proving time and again that we were in the right. He was fair, open minded and had faith in his colleagues and our abilities. He would take the time to listen to the views of people working at the coal face and to address the concerns of staff who felt our approach was too radical (it wasn’t).

He respected people and – as a good friend & colleague said to me on sharing the news – he was one of few senior men who genuinely felt women were equal. He proved this in a meeting when we were discussing the possibility of more beauty campaigning. I pointed out that I wouldn’t be around as I was going on maternity leave. Peter boomed affectionately down the phone; “Jenny! Maternity leave doesn’t last forever!” The whole meeting fell about laughing.