Obituary: Ecologist cartoonist Richard Willson

Richard Willson
Two founding members of the Ecologist pay tribute to a talented and thoughtful man whose wildly seditious cartoons in the magazine called into question accepted dogma on everything from economic growth to science

By the time of Teddy Goldsmith's memorial service, almost two years' ago, Richard Willson was suffering severely from Parkinson's disease, but his mind was as razor sharp as ever. He had made an extraordinary effort to be there and to connect once again with old friends, especially those such as ourselves who had helped Teddy start the Ecologist in 1970.

After the memorial service and reception, Richard joined us for a convivial dinner of food, wine, and nostalgia. Inevitably, we reminisced about the early years of the magazine and some of the pranks we got up to, in particular our role in the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm when, thanks to Richard, we scooped the world's media on China's mid-conference derailment of the draft UN Declaration on the Human Environment.

How on earth did we do that? Prior to the Conference, Robert had gone to Stockholm to find a printer and distributor for a daily newspaper that would provide an independent 'ecological' commentary on the two-week long proceedings. He discovered from Sweden's Friends of the Earth (Jordens Vänner) that David Brower, the founder of FoE in the United States, was also considering a conference newspaper. The obvious solution was for the Ecologist and FoE to join forces. Thus, a joint Ecologist/FoE team produced the Stockholm Conference Eco every night of the Conference, and Jordens Vänner distributed it free to delegates in their hotels so they could breakfast on feedback. The Eco was so successful that thereafter an independent newspaper woke up the powers-that-be at every major UN Conference that followed, whether on population, food, trade liberalization, or virtually everything else under the sun. With his iconoclastic, irreverent cartoons, Richard was a force in both the Eco and many of its successors.

The countries participating in the Stockholm Conference were hugely divided (so much so that we changed the conference slogan from "Only One Earth" to "only 113 earths"), particularly over the draft Declaration. The secretariat and industrial countries were anxious that the draft survive debate without significant amendment. They had overlooked China, the biggest of only three communist countries that did not boycott the conference.

It was China's first big scene on the international stage since the People's Republic of China took over China's representation in the UN from the Republic of China, aka Taiwan, just 6 months earlier. Half way through the meeting, she decided to flex her muscles and show she was a contender. China insisted on a special session to review the draft and discuss amendments.

The session was closed to all but delegates and secretariat. No journalists or observers allowed. We had to get in. Luckily, a sympathetic German delegate lent us his pass. Richard, whose manner was the exact opposite of his wickedly seditious cartoons, was the only one of our motley crew who (a) looked respectable, (b) had brought a suit, (c) still wore a tie. So in he went. He emerged, beaming, with a blow-by-blow account. China had roundly condemned the draft and proposed an alternative 10-point declaration. This wrecked all attempts to protect the draft and unleashed a torrent of amendments. We proudly broke the story the next morning under the headline 'China Declares' and published China's declaration in full. The kicker is we were the only one with the story, it was vigorously denied at the official morning press briefing, and nobody believed us! But the truth leaked out a day or so later and henceforth the Eco was required reading.

Richard was born in London on 15th May, 1939. The actress Susannah York was his contemporary and one of his closest and dearest friends, accompanying him to occasions such as Teddy's 80th birthday party. It must have been extremely sad for him when she passed away at the beginning of the year.

Richard worked as a caricaturist, first on The Observer from 1968 to 1971, and from 1971 for The Times. His cartoons adorned many other notable outlets, such as the New Internationalist, New Scientist, New Statesman, Punch, the Spectator, and the Washington Post. But it was his encounter with Teddy Goldsmith and the invitation to work for the Ecologist that truly gave him the scope to show the utter absurdity of human activities, especially those in the name of 'development' or 'science'. Teddy would not write an editorial for the Ecologist without his ideas being translated into a Richard Willson cartoon that would then be for ever etched into the memory of the reader.

In the early days of the magazine, from the first issue on and including The Blueprint for Survival (published five months before the Stockholm Conference), John Maddox of Nature had taken to denouncing us as anti-social, Neo-Luddites who didn't understand the first thing about modern economics and the ability of technocrats to solve and benefit from resource scarcity. As to humanity's closing in on fundamental limits to environmental tolerance, stuff and nonsense. This provoked one of Richard's brilliant caricatures, with a bevy of scientists, their heads in the clouds or buried in mathematical equations, walking smartly over the abyss, with John Maddox as their redoubtable leader. The cartoon graces the cover of The Doomsday Fun Book, which contains a wonderful representation of many of Richard's best and most notable drawings.

Richard had a devilish sense of humour and often you'd see him grinning away as he conjured up some crazy representation of a political statement from an eminent politician or industrialist. In fact he was something of an anarchist with a belief in the self-governing principles of the libertarian community as laid down by Kropotkin, Proudhon, Godwin, Bakunin, perhaps even Murray Bookchin. He shared Teddy's disgust at the hubris of reductionist science and economic development; and his conviction that the way forward is towards a community-based, ecologically sensitive, much more self sufficient and decentralized society. What a great combination! Teddy's biting perception of ecological truths and Richard's ability to capture them graphically.

We will deeply miss his sweet nature and his acid pen.

Peter Bunyard and Robert Prescott-Allen are founding members of the Ecologist


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