Believe or Know? Modern Environmentalism Reconsidered (Earth Day thoughts for midcourse correction)
When E. O. Wilson said “people would rather believe than know,” he perfectly summed up the state of modern environmentalism. For the fact is that the movement has been radicalized to such an extent that its policies are now characterized by senseless agendas better described as anti-science, anti-business and even anti-human; not pro-environment. 
Environmentalism’s gradual shift to extremism didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen on its own; the movement was led astray by the green lobby – the conglomerate of NGOs, advocacy organizations and political groups who use environmental motives to enact legislation favorable to their own goals. Today, the green lobby is a dominant force in the political sphere, despite few voters choosing to elect ‘green’ politicians.
Much of the green lobby’s success is directly attributable to its ability to demonize and brand opponents as heretics, even if their arguments are based on verifiable evidence or if they simply want to promote intelligent discussion. Through their ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns centered on perceived environmental injustices, the green lobby uses radical, ‘sexy’ catastrophe theories to bombard us with predictions of ecological collapse.
We are warned that there is no time for debate; that radical and swift action is necessary to avoid environmental apocalypse. Throw a celebrity in the mix and you have campaign gold – how could anyone argue against environmental experts like Brian May or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall?
Such sensationalist crusades may evoke the ‘spirit of the underdog’, but they ignore all technical issues and economic implications. This misguided green propaganda is now a firm fixture in the media, political fora and among the general public. It is inescapable and has clouded our perception of what is natural. We believe that wind farms are the definition of sustainable whereas deforested areas signify total environmental apocalypse. Yet anyone educated in ecology will confirm that there is more biodiversity in a recently cut forest than in a concrete-laden wind farm.
The honest, well-meaning intentions of true environmentalists have been hijacked by a small element of the green lobby who do have vested interests in green products and who stand to make a lot of money from the ‘green’ industry which survives off the back of environmentalism.
This is why the word ‘green’ has (wrongly) become synonymous with ‘good’. We forget that it is not a technical or scientific term; we don’t measure anything on a scale of ‘green-ness’. It is a political marketing slogan; a buzzword purely used to promote supposedly “environmentally-friendly” services and products. It won’t be found in any leading science journal or ecological study, but it is widely accepted because being ‘green’ is now part of pop culture.
This links with the idea that, for many, modern environmentalism is nothing more than a fashion statement – a view mirrored by former Green Party Chair Jonathon Porrit, who noted that environmentalism has spent 30 years going in and out of fashion.
In the 1970s, early campaigns focused on nuclear disarmament and the excessive hunting of whales; both laudable and necessary initiatives which had few socioeconomic impacts. They were met with broad public support and early environmentalists were heroes, standing up to governments and private companies alike. They were confrontational, anti-establishment and appealed to the masses with their reckless, yet successful, tactics.
After some notable achievements, these underdogs were catapulted into the international limelight and environmentalism became fashionable. Desperate to maintain support, campaigners began to tackle issues with far greater socio-economic impacts – things like agriculture, forestry, mining, fisheries, energy and manufacturing. Yet they failed to realize that these sectors impact every individual on earth and honest concern for the environment soon drifted into sensationalism and fabrication, with propaganda being used to maintain public support.
Cheap Virtue … Green Guilt
Concurrently, the environmental movement attracted activists motivated less by environmental concerns and more by political and social causes. They hijacked and politicized the movement, aptly learning to use green language to shroud their own agendas, which often had little link to science or ecology. Gradual extremism and green hysteria took over – the green lobby was born.
For some, environmentalism isn’t a fashion statement; it is a route to self-abnegation or self-aggrandizement. Caring for the environment is the same as volunteering to feel good. We all have nice homes, new cars and material goods made from raw materials. To counterbalance our own guilt, we are happy to pay extra to be environmentally responsible or to drive a Prius and take our own bags to Tesco.
However, this is merely aesthetic environmentalism. What if we had to do without wireless devices, or survive with only 8 hours of electricity per day – would we be so green then?
This green tokenism will never offset the massive alterations of nature that we have partly caused. Does anyone actually believe that a lot of small windmills will stop global warming? Such token changes merely line the pockets of those with vested interests in the green industry. In the long-term, these misguided attempts to ‘save’ the environment will simply divert vital money from genuine social and environmental problems.
Whilst some environmental campaigns can have benefits by bringing important, forgotten issues to the public domain and helping to achieve a higher degree of environmental protection where there was previously none, many also come with negative socio-economic or environmental consequences, unintended or not.
This green hypocrisy is largely a result of ‘green groupthink’ – the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, resulting typically in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making. Green groupthink has flourished because, blinded by planet-saving romanticism, the environmental movement dogmatically adheres to the one-sided propaganda peddled by the green lobby, without questioning it.
Politicians are as guilty as anyone for letting green groupthink run rampant. Environmental problems allow politicos to be seen as a voice for the voiceless – a fantastic opportunity for any policymaker. With re-election never far away, many politicians eagerly jump on popular environmental bandwagons, often without understanding or questioning the intricacies, complexity and unintended consequences of the issues. Effective policymaking is overshadowed by an insatiable desire to appease constituents and win votes.
Environmentalist agendas must be reconfigured. Extremism and irrationality are frowned upon in every other sector, so why are they acceptable in environmental matters? Modern environmentalism needs a simple reality check. Life on earth has flourished for more than three billion years; an unfathomable timeframe. If anything, it is egotistical to think that humans can make it vanish anytime soon – it is far more likely that humans could vanish but Mother Nature would survive.
Nevertheless, we do have impacts so we must be environmentally conscious. Some specific practices should be banned – dumping waste in rivers and seas and nuclear testing – but in many cases, zero-tolerance demands for outright bans are completely illogical; they are often deliberately based on spurious grounds in order to flatter the gullible and exploit the well-intentioned. Campaigns for reform would be more suitable to address the majority of issues.
Unfortunately, the reality is that radical environmentalism is now causing vital industries to migrate to countries where they can thrive. We bewail the recession and a lack of growth yet it is our support for ill-conceived environmental campaigns, backed by furious ‘green’ lobbyists, which is driving business elsewhere.
We need a more balanced approach where policies are not based on information that is inconsistent. Environmentalism is counter-productive if it is anti-development and undermines economies. We can’t regress to being hunting and gathering cave-dwellers. Our only option involves constantly developing new practices and better technologies to meet our needs, whilst reducing our negative environmental impacts.
We should also realize that industry may often be the cause of pollution, but they are the also job-makers and the ones who are investing huge amounts of money in safeguards – it isn’t the green lobby that pay the bills!
A sense of urgency is also necessary, but knee-jerk reactions based on hysteria help no-one. Sensible and pragmatic solutions must be backed by science. Decisions must be based on solid, logical information – not hype, dogma or political agendas.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, not known as an environmentalist, said that “preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense“. It is time to get sensible. It is time to know rather than believe.
Ben Acheson, a Parliamentary Assistant to Struan Stevenson (Member, European Parliament) in Brussels, specializes in energy and environment issues. Ben writes for The Huffington Post, www.scotspolitics.com, and www.thinkscotland.org. In his spare time, he plays semi-professional American Football where he was unanimously voted as the National Player of the Year (2012) in Belgium.