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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. [1]

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.

Green Cronyism

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.

Groupthink Nonthink

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.

Conclusion

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.

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[1] Moore, P. (2010) Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist. Beatty Street Publishing Inc.

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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.

2 comments

1 Ronald Walter { 04.22.13 at 1:37 pm }

94 000 windmills to supply a pittance of electricity generated at the expense of coal is more than insane, it is going from ludicrous speed to plaid flying over the cuckoo’s nest insane. It is la la land for loony environmentalists.

You cannot be more cynical or more critical of any energy source than wind power. It is the worst form of ‘green’ energy. Land values suffer, pollution is a problem, and the energy return on investment is laughable.

If you are willing to want to be an environmentalist, with emphasis on ‘mentalist’, you will run as fast as you can from windmills, wind power, whatever. The damage done will not be realized for 50 years down the road and you will not see a bigger mess. It is the worst use of raw materials and application of resources. Get a grip, wind power is useless.

If you want to learn a thing or two about a thing or two about ecology, here is the best source:

Fundamentals of Ecology by Eugene Odum and Gary Barrett.

Amazon will have a copy.

2 Ian { 01.13.14 at 10:27 pm }

This is one of the best critiques of environmentalism that I have read. I consider myself an environmentalist, but only in the traditional sense of the word.

One of my earliest environmental “heroes” was the Australian naturalist Harry Butler. In his day his vision for a more environmentally responsible future seemed very radical. He always believed that mining and economics could go hand in hand with addressing and mitigating any environmental harm.

But around the end of the 1980s I could see clear signs of increased radicalism and use of propaganda at the expense of honest truth and ethical practice in environmentalism. Instead of closing the gap between mining and the environment as Butler had proposed, the two have become increasingly polarized. Today commercial mining interests can now expect to run into some form of opposition from an environmental lobby group. Today it seems that “anything goes” in the environment movement and many so-called environmentalists will not hesitate to make outrageous, totally unsubstantiated claims in order to win mostly media-oriented victories which are more often than not emotive and politically-motivated. They expect only good, well-researched scientific reports from mining companies, yet seldom do they ever return the favor.

I often wonder what Harry Butler must think of modern day environmentalism! I suspect he never considered that it would take on a life of its own and become so ubiquitous that it has entered every aspect of human society today. At the same time I suspect he frowns on many of the more extreme directions that environmentalism has taken.

Today we have a new phenomenon influencing environmentalism. I call it the “Steve Irwin” generation. These people are definitely more likely to be inspired by popular belief and fashion rather than knowledge. They are also much more selective in their interests. They are in effect “amateur specialists”. Many tend to be “passionate” (which is really just the buzz word for emotive) about one particular aspect of the environment or a concept relating to it, such as “wildlife” in general terms. Others have taken this idea of “passionate conservation” one step further and become even more selective. In the past decade or two we have seen the emergence of various groups committed to “saving” single kinds of animals or in some cases individual species. The world is now full of various groups and societies dedicated entirely to saving humpback whales, fruit bats, invertebrates, lions, elephants, snakes, crocodiles, dingoes, endangered plants etc. Rather than people taking the broad ecological view, as was so popular in past decades, the world view of these people has become more narrowed and centered. Their focus is on the apparent need to save just one or two select or favored species. Of course, the big problem with these groups is the members frequently become obsessed with their particular favored species. As a result, their world view becomes rather narrow and driven largely by emotion. They may for instance view the loss of just a single individual of their favored species as the end of all life as we know it unless the death is countered by swift and radical action. The members of these groups are often passionate to the point of zealotry. They frequently view all humans, including themselves, as little more than “invading parasites” and they firmly believe that the earth can only be saved through their help and efforts. They commonly rave about the need to “re-educate” humans. Delusions of grandeur are common, with some people claiming they “know” the mind of Mother Earth and what She “needs” in order to repair and rejuvenate herself. In this brave new world, we are now finding that people are trying to “save” certain select animals even from perfectly natural events. Periodic droughts that have always served to naturally thin out populations through lack of resources are now being seen as unnatural events resulting from human-induced climate change. So if an inland salt lake dries up and countless thousands of pelicans and other waterbirds start to perish, I strongly suspect that future generations of wildlife warriors will mount rescue expeditions to “save” these birds from what should be a natural death. As they claim to “know” the mind of Mother Nature, they will not be wavered in their quest. The fact that they will be giving wild birds that otherwise have no chance of survival a biased advantage, thereby potentially upsetting the ecology as a whole, will not be considered by these zealous crusaders. In their view, if they save this one species from a human-induced “catastrophe”, it will prevent extinction and this will automatically lead to a “healed” ecology.

In Australia, fruit bats are already being rescued by various “bat rescue” groups during natural summer heatwaves for instance. Such events occur almost every year and are nature’s way of thinning out the population. Suddenly people are saving heat-stressed bats from this natural process. They may be scoring a few political points in the media, but few genuine ecologists are impressed with their work. The fact that hundreds of thousands of fruit bats still perished during a recent heatwave suggests that the bat rescue groups are not quite as ubiquitous as they believe themselves to be. Pretending to “know” the mind of nature and what it “needs” is a popular human delusion in the modern world.

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