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Treachery and greenery

with 8 comments

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?

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Environment, politics

8 Responses

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  1. […] Treachery and greenery […]

  2. Mark Twain’s famous quip that “everybody
    talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about
    it” is sometimes cited in the debate over global warming. Some people
    even say that the time for debate over this issue is long past.
    Perhaps we should pray that the time for effective action has not
    passed as well.

    I am not going to talk about the weather here, because there is not
    much I can do about it. But as a former Massachusetts resident now
    residing in Taiwan, and very concerned about the issue of global
    warming, I have done something worth talking about. I am calling for
    the creation of polar cities in the future to house remnants of
    humankind who might survive the hell of global warming 500 or 1000
    years from now. And I am calling, through a blog and a Wikipedia entry
    on the Internet, for
    the planning, design and construction of these sustainable polar city
    retreats now, while we still have time, fuel, materials and
    transportation to build them.

    danny bee

    June 30, 2007 at 10:02 pm

  3. This kind of survivalist mentality is not going to help most of the world’s population.

    Global warming is already causing huge problems in Canada’s north. Many communities are coastal and face obliteration as sea levels rise. Most roads and many communities depend on permafrost for their stability, and the permafrost is melting. And the ice roads that serve many communities in the winter are simply not usable for much of that time.

    Frankly, the idea of large number of people moving in to what is already a deteriorating situation appalls me. The idea of occupying the south pole must be even worse.

    Stephen Rees

    July 1, 2007 at 9:32 am

  4. Steve,
    Appreciate your feedback and understand your sentiments. You said: “This kind of survivalist mentality is not going to help most of the world’s population. ” True. I am not a survivalist, though. There is a method to my madness. The reason i created the idea and the blog and am doing global PR to spread the word about polar cities, is NOT so much because I really think we will need them, maybe, but I don’t know. but the main reason I am doing this and soliciting feedback like yours is that I want to scare the sh*t out of people who read about my idea of polar cities in their local newspapers, once the MSM picks up my idea, something they haven’t done yet and will prob never do, but i want to scare people into something REAL and practical and useful about global warming, concrete actions. My blog is just a foil to push real action, whatever experts think is best. — DANNY

    Now what do you think? (SMILE)

    You said : “Frankly, the idea of large number of people moving in to what is already a deteriorating situation appalls me. The idea of occupying the south pole must be even worse.”

    BUT….we might need sustainable towns and cities in both polar regions, for maybe just 200 million peopple, at the end of time, before humankind perishes completely. read James Lovelock on “breeding pairs in the arctic”….that is where i got the idea….


    danny bee

    July 7, 2007 at 9:06 pm

  5. see

    Thinking About Polar Cities — Or Trying To

    By Kit Stolz

    An interesting journalist named Dan Bloom, now based in Taiwan, has been agitating for consideration of one of James Lovelock’s more alarming ideas — polar cities. Idon’t have answers…….A Change in the Wind

    danny bee

    July 7, 2007 at 9:07 pm

  6. What do I think now? Pretty much the same. I think this idea is no more likely to get people actually doing something effective than having a world wide series of rock concerts. I also took the time to fix the link you posted, which was broken.

    For far too long we have had to listen to the global warming deniers. They seem to me to be as misguided as the 9/11 conspiracy theorists or the people who think we should do something about the assassination of President Kennedy. Now I am not going to say these people are wrong, or not entitled to their opinions. But in view of the problems we currently face, it does not seem to me that discussing these issues is the best use of our energies.

    I am not going to spend any more of my time in further refutations of your thesis, but equally I will not delete your comments. I do hope that we can start looking at things that can be done that will make the world a better place. I know that when I come to replace my old minivan and find a new place to live considerations of sustainability will be among those at the top of my list. Moving to the south pole won’t be.

    Stephen Rees

    July 8, 2007 at 11:22 am

  7. Stephen, thanks for your note, and yes, let’s agree to disagree. I like your blog and your concern for the world, and let’s hope we don’t have to move to polar cities in the far distant future. You are right: now we should be focusing on now. Most of us. Me, I am futurist. But I appreciate your keeping me aboard here and not deleting me. You are a good man, sir!

    Long live!

    danny bloom

    July 9, 2007 at 6:52 pm

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