PIRC turns 40

This year, PIRC turns forty.

We were founded in 1971 by campaigner Charles Medawar and veteran social entrepreneur Michael Young, who also set up, amongst many other organisations, the Open University. PIRC’s creation was inspired by the work of legendary US civic activist Ralph Nader, and it was his brand of activism – using careful research and cogent advocacy to empower citizens and hold governments and companies to account – that Medawar and Young sought to bring to British shores.

PIRC in its 1970s incarnation, replete with cool hair.

In its early years, PIRC’s remit was broad, taking in issues of industrial pollution, workplace safety, consumer protection, and government secrecy – all bound together by a commitment to operating in the public interest. PIRC’s ‘social audits’ of unaccountable companies laid the foundations for corporate social responsibility reporting; whilst our concern for breaking down the walls of secrecy that kept citizens from scrutinising their government led to the formation of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Maurice Frankel, a founding member and current Director of CFOI and former PIRC staff member, remains one of our trustees to this day. We’ve been making use of the FOI Act that he helped bring into law in our recent investigation of outsourced carbon emissions.

In more recent years, PIRC came to concentrate on critiquing the pharmaceutical industry – our work earning the praise of many, including John Le Carré, author of The Constant Gardener. But the rise of climate change as an issue of overwhelming concern precipitated a shift in our focus to environmental matters, and press for a transition towards a sustainable society.

Our fortieth birthday coincides with the fortieth anniversary of the modern environmental movement. PIRC was set up in the same year as Friends of the Earth in the UK and Greenpeace in the US. Over the past four decades, environmentalism has gone from being a fringe concern to part of mainstream politics, achieving some notable successes along the way – such as tackling acid rain (the subject of one of PIRC’s first reports), and taking renewable energy into the mainstream (the subject of two of PIRC’s more recent projects, Zero Carbon Britain and the Offshore Valuation).

But the environmental agenda has also seen its fortunes wax and wane. 2010 was a difficult year for environmentalists, following the failure of Copenhagen to reach a global climate deal, attacks by climate sceptics and a falling-away of media interest. Some commentators even seek to proclaim the death of environmentalism. Yet it would be far more constructive to debate its future – a future that may see environmentalism becoming very different, with new priorities and different ways of working, but still a vital social movement. Life, as they say, begins at forty. As the movement looks back on its first forty years, it’s crucial also to be considering the next forty, and the great transformations needed to make the world of 2050 a sustainable, healthy and happy one to live in.

As we celebrate our 40th, we’d also like to take this opportunity to wish our Chair of Trustees, Chris Zealley, a very happy birthday. He turns 80 today and has worked for PIRC since its foundation. Very best wishes from all of us, Chris!

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