Treachery and greenery
From The Economist print edition
An interesting analysis that compares the growing disagreements within the green community with factionalism in left wing politics.
I am not sure that I find the comparison all that compelling. First of all, environmentalists do not have to sign on to any single source of authority. There is no parallel here to the stale debates about “who is the true heir of Lenin”. Environmentalism is not born of reading one book or watching one movie, nor listening to one prophet. It is not an act of faith, but of reason, and rational, scientific, examination of how we can continue to survive on the spaceship we occupy. Because we haven’t got another one. That is a statement of indisputable fact, not an article of faith. And frankly, back in the late sixties, when I knew people who went to Marxists meetings, they were indeed much closer to Bible study students: just a different, big fat book full of assertions and puzzling concepts, and a lot of “because I say so”. The indoctrinated Maoists, Trotskyites and Marxists-Leninists were as scary as the Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons or the Scientologists as far as I was concerned.
The first big doctrinal dispute was over the publication in 1998 by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician and self-described green, of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”. Mr Lomborg argued that environmentalists were exaggerating many of the problems the planet faced.
But just because he called himself an environmentalist did not make him one – and I have grave suspicions of his motivation. And indeed some of the issues he identified – such as the rate of change in global warming – have indeed been accelerating: erring on the side of caution may be a more accurate characterisation than exagerration.
In 2005 Britons saw David Bellamy, a noted naturalist and wildlife enthusiast, threaten to chain himself to a wind turbine to protest against plans to build a wind farm in Cumbria, a remote and unspoilt part of England. Mr Bellamy objected on the grounds that the turbines would ruin the natural beauty of the moorland.
I am surprised that the Economist did not note that this is simply a difference in values – which are never objective and therefore cannot be common to all. David Bellamy placed a higher value on the unspoilt nature of Cumbria than people who wanted to make money out of energy – no suprise there. Visual and noise pollution from wind farms are just as objectionable as the local air pollution from coal fired power stations. The fact that one seems better than the other in terms of greenhouse gas emissions may not be enough to tip the balance for everybody. This is not doctrinal “schism” but a typical argument about how to measure values that cannot be traded in a market place.
But perhaps the biggest rift is over nuclear power. Here, disagreements reach the most rarefied levels. James Lovelock, a chemist who invented the Gaia hypothesis (the earth is a balance of interdependent mechanisms) and is godfather to a generation of greens, provoked much anger and soul-searching in 2004 when he declared that nuclear power offered the only credible solution to climate change. Opposition to atomic energy, said Mr Lovelock, was based on “irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media”. Equally influential organisations such as Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace preach the traditional anti-atomic doctrine.
But again, just because Mr Lovelock says it, does not make it true. Nuclear waste is a huge problem – and will be for millennia. Nuclear proliferation is also a huge issue. Iran says it just wants nuclear power stations for when its oil runs out – but who believes that? The cost of getting either of those wrong could be devastating. I think we are wise, again, to be cautious. We have had the “magic bullet” offered to us before – “power too cheap to meter” and all that. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t now.
Yes, I think we do have to have a serious debate about diesels. I do not think that we yet have the right balance between efficiency and emissions but progress is most definitely being made.
And that sort of decision needs to be made carefully and on the basis of evidence and objective peer review. Not ranting and acts of faith, and no-one is going to be sent out with an ice pick to track down James Lovelock, David Bellamy or Bjorn Lomborg.
The world does stand at great peril from the faith merchants. The ayatollahs of both Christianity and Islam equally place the world at risk in their desire to bring about “the end of times”. I do not think that the environmental movement thinks like that.
But politics is a dirty business, and getting things done often requires compromising high principles for the sake of practicality. The hard left was fractious because, fundamentally, their bickering didn’t matter. The environmental movement is becoming fractious because it does.
No it is not fractious or bickering. It is having a healthy, well informed debate about ideas and policies. Something that you cannot have if you occupy yourself with doctrines and faith. And yes it does matter: which is why we had better be sure we get it right. And the best way to determine that is to have a vigorous debate.
Am I in the right place for an argument?