Edward Goldsmith, at 80; founded The Ecologist

By Bruce Weber
New York Times / September 7, 2009

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NEW YORK - “In the ‘70s I lived a very ecological life in rural Cornwall,’’ the British environmentalist and gadfly Edward Goldsmith recalled in a 2007 interview with The Ecologist, the magazine he founded in 1970. “I had a compost toilet that cost me all my friends. If they didn’t catch pneumonia because we had no central heating, they were sick from the smell of it.

“I remember on one occasion we had this very charming, beautiful woman staying with us. It was the middle of winter, so she was already blue with cold. She needed to use the loo, so out she went. You should have seen her face when she came back.

“The next day she invented a transparent excuse about her mother being ill and left. Never saw her again.’’

Such blithe resoluteness in the face of disapproval was typical of Mr. Goldsmith, an implacable critic of industrialism who founded The Ecologist to elevate environmental consciousness at a time when there was not much and who helped father a British political party, now known as the Green Party, that was among the world’s first to make environmental policy its priority.

“Quite a lot of people thought I was mad,’’ he said cheerily.

Mr. Goldsmith, known as Teddy, died Aug. 21 in Siena, Italy. He was 80 and lived in London, with homes in Italy and New Zealand. The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia, his wife, Katherine, wrote in an e-mail message.

Mr. Goldsmith was something of a utopian, something of a polemicist, and, not surprisingly, something of a polarizing figure as well. In his campaign against society’s relentless urge to modernize, he argued for self-sustaining, environmentally conscious communities and against the presumption that economic and technological developments were beneficent engines of progress.

He was admired by many for his vision and his passion - “His legacy will be great, if largely unrecognized,’’ Paul R. Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb,’’ said - and dismissed by many others as a crackpot.

“Some of his ecological and economics ideas were just crazy,’’ Norman Myers, a professor of environmental studies at Oxford and at Duke University, said.

Mr. Goldsmith was the author or editor of environmental tracts like “The Great U-Turn’’ (1978), in which he argued for the de-industrialization of society; and “The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams,’’ written with Nicholas Hildyard, which criticized the developmental policies of the World Bank.

But perhaps his most influential work, written with a handful of others in 1972, was “A Blueprint for Survival,’’ a manifesto that declared that life on earth would be unsustainable if civilization remained on its industrialized path.

The book hit a nerve, selling 750,000 copies, according to The Ecologist. It also ignited interest in conservation as a political issue in Britain and spawned the People Party, under whose banner Mr. Goldsmith ran for Parliament (and lost) in 1974. It is now known as the Green Party, which has representatives on 43 local councils in England and Wales.

Mr. Goldsmith was renowned for his stubbornness and charisma. Though a radical environmentalist, he was defiantly independent in his politics. He infuriated his left-leaning colleagues with his hostility toward science and technology, his willingness to engage the right wing in environmental policy discussions, and his sometimes reactionary social views; he wrote, for example, that one tragic consequence of industrialization was that it forced women to work outside the home.

Even his detractors, however, recognized the prescience of The Ecologist and the important role Mr. Goldsmith played in ratcheting up awareness of climate change, deforestation, the potential dangers of nuclear power plants, and the sustainability of life on the planet.

Edward René David Goldsmith was born in Paris, the older brother of financier Sir James Goldsmith, who lent crucial financial support to The Ecologist. Their father, Frank, was a former member of Parliament who ran a chain of hotels.

Young Teddy was educated at Oxford, served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army, and traveled widely, especially in the Third World. He developed an interest in primitive cultures, arriving at the belief that they should be preserved and that economic development was their enemy.

The Ecologist served to advance that position. Its first issue, in July 1970, featured articles on overpopulation and the dangers of man-made radiation in the nuclear age. He remained its editor until 1990. The magazine, which had a circulation of 20,000 and abandoned its print version this year, continues to publish online under the editorship of his nephew, Zac Goldsmith.

His first marriage ended in divorce. His brother died in 1997. In addition to Katherine, his wife of 28 years, he leaves five children, 10 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.

Mr. Goldsmith recognized that he was, by nature, a rabble-rouser, saying it was his job to raise awareness on matters that were being underaddressed.

“If in some small way I’ve helped to slow the runaway juggernaut that we’ve created, or make people aware of it, that has to be a good thing,’’ he said.

If that is how he wished to be remembered, he got his wish.

“Goldsmith forced others to think harder,’’ an editorial in the British newspaper The Guardian said after his death. “He was, in short, a stimulant - a shocker in good ways as well as bad.’’