Denmark: Focus on NOAH
Friends of the Earth Denmark was founded in 1969 in response to the very visible pollution that was present in Denmark at the time. Factories spewing out smoke, fjords being polluted with sewage and the use of harmful pesticides were all common place at the time.
The group was formed in dramatic circumstances. Every Wednesday night the University of Copenhagen would host public lectures called Natural History Wednesday Evenings - abbreviated to NOA in Danish. One series of lectures was on pollution which was very visible in 1969.
Shocked to discover the environmental situation in their country, a group of students who attended the lectures got together and decided to do something about it. They hired an auditorium and invited fellow students and professors to attend an event they were going to put on.
Once everyone was seated the students locked the doors and bombarded the audience's senses with pollution. A machine puffed on tobacco, a motorcycle roared around on the stage whilst pictures of lung cancer operations were projected in the background.
While the audience were trying to work out what was going on a live duck was brought on stage which the students proceeded to dunk in oil. They then called on the stunned audience to put the bird out of its misery and decapitate it. Nobody came forward and so the students carried out the gruesome task themselves and afterwards sprayed the audience with the blood that was pumping out of the dying duck.
Although the means of relaying the message was traumatic the inference was clear: everyone suffers from the effects of pollution and we need to act now.
As the doors to the auditorium were unlocked and the shell shocked audience made their way out, the organisers of the event asked them to join them in the formation of an environmental group. They also asked people to help them think of a name for the new-found group. Someone suggested they keep NOA and add the letter H to the end so they could link up with the character from the bible who saved all the animals. And so NOAH was born.
The group have always taken a holistic approach to their work, whilst over the years focussing on a range of environmental issues including climate, energy, agriculture, biofuels, genetically modified crops and transportation to name a few. They seek to inform the public and decision makers through a mix of activism and information in the form of the books, papers and reports they produce on the issues affecting Denmark.
From the outset they have been effective in shaping the environmental debate.
"When the Danish environment ministry was set up in 1970 the minister in charge held secret meetings with NOAH to find out what he should do" says Palle. "This gave the organisation a lot of influence in the early days."
"In the 19'70s NOAH played an active role in bringing about the new era of windmills in Denmark which now produce one fifth of the country's energy."
Today almost half of the wind turbines around the world are produced by Danish manufacturers
Sadly neither influence nor activism has managed to bring about positive change to another industry Denmark is well know for; the pork industry.
Pork is big business in the Denmark. Every year the industry rears 25 million pigs in terrible conditions, largely fed on genetically modified soy from South America.
A few years ago NOAH targeted German tourists in Denmark who travel in large numbers to the country every year.
With the aid of leaflets and flyers, NOAH volunteers advised the visitors not to buy Danish pork products. Whilst the action created a lot of publicity and annoyed the pork producers Palle is not optimistic about the prospect of an ethical revolution in the pork industry any time soon.
"In Denmark to change the agricultural industry is like asking the sun to travel in reverse" he says.
"Farmers are a small part of the population nowadays but we have this idea that the pork industry is very important for Denmark - it's not.
"If it weren't for EU subsidies the industry would not be profitable. It would be a better deal if we paid the farmers to do nothing. If we did that we wouldn't have that terrible smell in the countryside, or pollution in our waters"
He thinks part of the problem is that people living in the cities are disconnected from the countryside and are not fully aware of the problems the environment faces.
"When people go to the countryside they may notice, for example, the smell of the pig farms but tell themselves it's not so bad. If they had to endure that smell all the time they would think differently."
Addressing the root of the problem
Whilst much has been done in Denmark to address the problems of environmental degradation Palle believes that NOAH's job is harder now than it ever has been.
"A lot of the environmental problems have been dealt with," he says, but, "never at the root."
"We've gone from the obvious pollution in the air that you can smell or see to the more invisible contaminants such as genetically modified crops and fine particles from diesel engines in the cities. Your laundry is clean in the garden but your lungs are full of tiny dangerous particles.
"The general public thinks things are okay now. Today you can swim in Copenhagen harbour which was impossible thirty years ago. So, what's the problem?
"A lot has been achieved but the situation on the ground has changed. We now have the huge monster of climate change, which is a global problem but it needs to be addressed locally also. When you start thinking about it you realise that it's integrated in everything that we do in modern society."
Palle believes that the renewed interest in the climate, which came about from last year's climate summit in Copenhagen, has now decreased again and NOAH need to mobilise people once more and tell them the situation is not okay.
In 1986 NOAH joined Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) and since then they've been working on an international level to address the big issues like climate change.
One of the first international campaigns they worked on was the Sustainable Europe campaign in the 1990s with other European groups.
The Sustainable Europe campaign developed the concept of environmental space, the basic principle behind ecological debt that says you can't have a situation where some people are entitled to have a larger share of the earth's resources than others. There must be an equal share of carbon for everyone in the world. They then went onto make real calculations as to what is an equitable share. Not just for this generation but including the coming ones too.
This work really chimes with Palle's views on the environment:
"The environment is the single most important thing for the human race to get this sorted. For me justice has always been at the root." he says.
The Sustainable Europe campaign went onto inform much of the thinking and demands behind NOAH's campaigns on climate. Later the group joined the Big Ask campaign where European Friends of the Earth groups demanded EU wide cuts in carbon emissions of 40% by 2020.
All this collaboration paved the way for one of the high points in NOAH's history, the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, commonly known as COP15
demanding climate justice in copenhagen
NOAH played an instrumental role in accommodating and providing logistical support to the FoEI delegation who descended on Copenhagen in December 2009. Thanks to their dedicated team of volunteers, the federation had a strong presence on the streets and in the many forums that took place over the two weeks of the summit.
"The COP was both a high point for NOAH because of the Klimaforum [the People's Climate Summit] and the FoEI action, and a low point because of the outcome.
"It completely stretched our resources but we managed to receive and accommodate more than 2000 people from around the world and organise the Flood, the Friends of the Earth International action where more than 5000 people marched for climate justice" says Palle.
about palle bendsen
NOAH had been part of Palle's life on and off for decades. However, it was in 1995 when he became directly involved with the group.
As with everyone in the organisation, he either works in a volunteer capacity or on a project basis when there are funds available. The group has a flexible network of around one hundred volunteers who come and go depending on their situations, or can be called upon to lend a hand when needed.
As to what motivates Palle to devote his working life to the environment, he says there was never a single defining moment, but has been an integrated part of his outlook since his early teens.
When he was young for a while he worked on a Greek oil tanker alongside several nationalities.
"I saw the working conditions of people who were less privileged than we were in Scandinavia and the conditions people worked in to mobilise the oil that we were all depended on in those days. Before the oil crisis in 1973 Denmark was completely dependant on oil. After the crisis we moved to coal" he recalls.
Becoming a father also heightened his environmental awareness.
"Thirty years ago when my children were young I lived in the countryside where a neighbouring farmer was polluting the water with pesticides and a nearby municipal facility incinerating waste emitted large amounts of dioxins. Then there was the Chernobyl disaster that took place 1500 kilometres away. It was only a matter of luck that the wind blew the other way. Living in the countryside was no protection against pollution."
"When you have children you think about the future. Now I have a grandchild I'm thinking about the future again" he concludes.