My favorite John Vidal story, like all of John’s stories, was best told by John himself.
Back in 2015, he was in the middle of a mighty reporting trip that took him down the 2,500-mile length of the Mekong River, documenting its strangulation by hydroelectric dams for the Guardian.
After staying in a village for a few days in Laos, he thanked the locals for their hospitality by paying for a new water well.
When he returned to the Guardian’s shining canal-side offices in London, pockets emptied onto a desk already covered in dog-eared expense receipts, he wrote to the accounting department and claimed the price of the well under the heading of “meals and entertainment.” As an explanation, he added: “Drinks for 500 people.”
“Do you think some fucking Guardian beancounter is going to tell me I can’t buy these people a well?” he would conclude in the retelling.
It’s a story that combines John’s two great passions in journalism: justice for the planet’s most benighted and a ripping yarn, well told.
John died Thursday aged 74 from cancer. During an almost three-decade run at the Guardian, he defined environmental journalism with a relentless focus on the connection between environmental degradation and global inequality.
The loss of his voice as an advocate for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people will be sorely felt.
To this day at global warming conventions you might hear people moaning about how John collapsed the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. The talks exploded after his publication of a draft agreement that would have shifted control of the global climate effort to wealthy countries. John had no truck with that. Those who blamed him for the failure of the talks were invariably from the rich countries that drafted the document.
The imbalance of power between rich and poor remains. Despite many false starts, a green economy is gaining pace. But the vast majority of investment is going into just a few economies. And the devastation of climate change is cruelly falling most heavily on the shoulders of the hungry, the poor and the displaced who were the heroes of so many of John’s stories.
When countries gather next month for yet another round of talks, wealthy nations’ governments will again fight against their obligation to send aid to those in need. John would have been at his best let loose on the absurdity of hosting such a conference in Dubai, where oil and wealth are held above all else.
The Mekong well episode also shows how he utterly shunned the buttoned-up distance of journalistic norms. He got involved. He lived his stories. In 2002, he reported on famine in Malawi and refused to simply leave with a full notebook telling himself that being the world’s witness was enough.
In his report in the Guardian Weekend magazine, he asked readers to contribute to a fund to help one village with which he’d developed a bond. He returned again and again to Malawi. The Gumbi Education Charity still runs and has built a school, solar power and empowerment for a whole community.
John had a writer’s soul. His newspaper prose felt as if it had floated in from an older time. He’d often write while sitting at the end of his dining table in the rambling row of one-up, one-down 17th century Welsh workers’ cottages he’d bought and knocked through with his brother. In the garden lay the foundations of an ancient forge. He liked to say it was right there, beside the lilies, that the Industrial Revolution and the story of the destruction of the living world began — only a minor exaggeration and worth it, as always, for the story.
The words he chose so carefully to cover the climate beat, since taking over as the Guardian’s first environment editor in 1989, were rambunctious, wondering, angry. And he used their power for change.
After months away from work in 2015, he returned with a dispatch that opened with an unforgettable shock: “Three months ago, a surgeon at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital took a saw, ripped through my sternum, levered open my ribcage, cut into the aorta of my still-beating heart and stitched in a vein from my leg.” It was the beginning of an article about air pollution and its effect on his health that galvanized a new conversation about bad air and heaped pressure on Boris Johnson — then London mayor — to do something about the capital’s illegal and deadly pollution. Now London has the largest clear air zone in the world.
He supposedly retired in 2017 — actually, he took voluntary redundancy and continued to write for the Guardian and others whenever he fancied, another scam he was tickled by.
For years, John and I teased book agents with promises to turn that draining article into a book that would document the scourge of toxic air, which kills seven million people each year around the world. But time gets away from you.
I was a cub reporter when we met and he treated me with respect and generosity. It was unfathomable to me that the great man would want to write a book with me. “It’s bloody lonely writing books on your own,” was his explanation. But of course, he did just that, finishing this year a book, “Fevered Planet,” on the link between pandemics and the destruction of nature. Ever the professional, he would be furious if I didn’t use this opportunity to promote it.
I loved John Vidal. He was boundless and a booster, a mentor, and friend. So filled with life and joy, he was as elemental as the great forces of nature he loved and documented.
It’s hard to imagine that, when his light went out, he didn’t use his final flash to refreeze some high glacier, undam a clogged up river or at the very least file one more outrageous expense receipt just to keep the bastards honest.