31st January 2020
Customer conversations: Chatting to climate artist Geoff Francis
Grace Newton, Energy Specialist
Sometimes, talking to your energy supplier can be fun — we promise!
I was taking a call a while ago and got chatting to a fascinating customer, Geoff Francis.
Geoff has spent a lifetime fighting for animal rights and environmental issues. He is the founder of No More Dodos, a charity which raises awareness for animal extinction and habitat loss through sport and art, and his own art has been featured and shortlisted by the Saatchi gallery several times. Most recently, we featured his work in Portraits from the Precipice - our ongoing climate art exhibition. As a fellow long-standing vegan and passionate climate activist, I was keen to talk to Geoff again, and so one day we decided to set up another call.
GN: First of all, I’d love to know a bit more about how you first got involved with the environmental movement?
GF: Most of my life’s work has straddled animal rights and environmental positions. My relationship to animals has always been strong, and through that you obviously learn about the environment as well - animals can't live without their habitat - everything is interlinked.
By the time I got to university I'd become vegetarian, and soon after I became vegan - I've now been vegan for 48 years. After leaving university, I became involved with Friends of the Earth, who were just starting up at the time. I set up their paper recycling campaign - the first paper recycling campaign of its kind. At the time, computers worked on paper punch cards and the quality was superb. It was what all the various mills were looking for. Because we were Friends of the Earth, universities were happy to supply us with their used cards, which we’d send up to an independent mill in Scotland. It ran for 6 months or so until someone set fire to our warehouse.
Later, in 1976, I set up one of London's first ever vegan restaurants - possibly the first - just off Baker Street. It was a nice environment, but the industry was not like it is today - it was a real struggle. The restaurant was an idealistic statement on my part - the compassionate element of a vegan diet has always been something I've wanted to promote. There used to be these little signs that you would wear - Meat is Murder! We actually put that phrase into common parlance before anyone else. Before that it was always ‘Meat Means Murder.’ I met Morrissey from the Smiths and spoke to him about it. Not long after that, they put the phrase even further out there with a song of the same name.
GN: What was the driving force for your veganism?
GF: For me it started with animal rights, and then I became aware of so many other related issues - you can't separate animals from their environment - especially wild animals. That led to an awareness of all sorts of issues.
I was vegetarian for a few years, and then I became aware of the cruelty in the milk industry, and began to learn more about other effects. In the 1970s, I read Food for a Future by John Wynne-Tyson - a very influential book. It was a real eye-opener about the environmental effects of the food industries. From there I began to focus on human hunger. In '83, or thereabouts, I wrote a single that was performed by Captain Sensible called "Wot! No Meat" - which highlighted the cost of the meat industry to human beings as well as to animals. A few years later I did a book called the Celebrity Vegetarian Cookbook. I then set up a campaign called "Enough!" inspired by Gandhi's quote: "The world has enough for everyone's need but not enough for everyone’s greed".
"Melting Ice Caps"
At that time, I was peddling stuff that's now well accepted, but it's taken all this time for people to jump on board. If you want to stop animal suffering you also have to make people aware of what animal husbandry is doing to the environment. Nowadays, we've got the UN coming out with report after report - and so many other people - but that wasn't an easy message to push forward.
GN: Could you tell us about your work with No More Dodos, and about the importance of using sport and art in the work you guys do?
GF: Well, No More Dodos uses a unique mix of art and sport to inspire people to get involved in protecting endangered animals, plants, and their habitats. Sport, for example, is a great way for people to suddenly become aware that you're doing something good. The athletes all get very emotional about helping the kids. The clubs now have a real sense that they are role models.
You also get a point of access where if people are involved with a person or a club, they say, well if my heroes are doing this, how about I try it too? I've been banging on about this for a good little while (you might've seen Spirit of the Game, my young adult’s novel about this topic, which has actually been endorsed by the UN)! Now all the clubs are finding their social consciences, but they need to find their environmental consciences too.
No More Dodos sadly lost one of our patrons recently - Gordon Banks. Gordon made the most famous save in the world - it looked impossible - against the greatest player in the world, Pele. We’ve often played on that "impossible save" - it does sometimes look impossible to save the planet, and so we have loads of posters of Gordon making that save.
GN: Thinking about your restaurant, No More Dodos, and your own artistic pursuits, do you think creativity and art are good vehicles for engaging people?
"New York Skyline"
GF: Veganism, vegetarianism, environmentalism, general care and compassion - there have been great writers and artists who’ve addressed this throughout history. You go back to Leonardo saying "There will become a time when the murder of animals will be judged as the murder of men". There is also a more spiritual approach - I'm thinking of that lovely poem by William Blake: the Fly - where he brings something into the narrative that embodies Albert Schweizt's statement: All life is as significant to itself as ours is to us. I'd like to take this further and say that what we need to recognise is the significance of THAT life against our own.
We are not separate from any of our actions. We're not separated from any other form of life. Science keeps telling us that; philosophers, artists, and spiritually driven people have told us that for centuries. And yet, those that gain a particularly material advantage from our current way of life would say the reverse.
GN: Would you say art could be a solution to this issue?
GF: Certain types of artists always have something to do with moving things forward. I've been doing that for a long time, in all sorts of ways, writing, painting, sculpting. My feeling, and the feeling of the artists I work closely with, is that the point of art is to get people to look at the world differently.
GN: One last thing! Besides the environmental themes you often explore, I was wondering about do you do to make sure that your own art is sustainable?
GF: When I'm working on paintings, there's normally about 7 hanging around. Part of that is to do with the fact that I won't waste anything - If I get a new colour, something that might not work on the current painting will work brilliantly on the one in the corner. I'll also go to the local dump and get household and commercial paints (which I'm told isn't great for my liver) and I'll use that for the underpainting before the oils. It's recycling. Paint going into a landfill? Pure poison.
A huge thanks to Geoff for taking the time to chat to me!
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