What the ‘green movement’ really got wrong

Channel 4’s mea culpa from two leading environmentalists still took for granted that humanity faces insuperable natural limits.

Ben Pile

Topics Culture

Environmentalists have long claimed that their desire to save the world has been thwarted by conspiracies of Big Oil and right-wing think-tanks. Channel 4’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong (watch it here) showed signs that some environmentalists are at last beginning to take responsibility for their failures. But does it tell us anything we didn’t already know, and will the new environmentalists be so different from the old?

The main thrust of the film is that, by opposing GM, nuclear power, and DDT, environmentalists have damaged the chances of a solution to climate change and have done serious harm to poorer people and their own public image. Critics have been arguing this for environmentalism’s entire history, of course. But it is interesting to see some sober reflection on green failure nonetheless. Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (see a review of the book here), speaks candidly about how his objection to GM ‘wasn’t a science-based rational thing. It was an emotional thing and it was about the relation between humans and other living things’. Since Lynas ‘came out’ in favour of nuclear power, he has found himself on the receiving end of the self-righteousness he once meted out to others.

Although it is interesting to see one-time activists reflecting in this way, the reformulation of environmentalism doesn’t really address the problems with its initial perspective. The arguments in the film don’t form a criticism of environmentalism as an instance of the politics of fear, but merely moderate some of its excesses. There is an interesting discussion about the shortcomings of the precautionary principle, and the film’s participants are far more circumspect about risk from certain technologies than they have been in the past.

But these risks are merely seen in contrast to the ultimate catastrophe: climate change. Technologies are not considered in terms of their potential for humans, but are embraced reluctantly as solutions to climate change. Genetically modified (GM) food is sold seemingly only on the basis that it is a means to begrudgingly feed the poor. The limitations of the catastrophic narrative still are such that they constrain discussion about progress beyond subsistence.

The new environmentalists’ point is that the environmental movement failed to protect the environment. So the tension between development and environment still haunts the debate, rather than being exorcised from it. And this is the film’s major shortcoming. The real claim of environmentalism – its ethics – is not merely that we must protect the environment, but that we should live within environmental limits.

This is explored only briefly in the film, by reference to Paul Ehrlich who, in the late 60s, attempted to give these limits numerical substance. Ehrlich predicted dire consequences, but the resource depletion, mass famine and economic collapse he saw in his calculations failed to materialise. Undaunted, the environmental movement merely deferred the date of eco-tastrophe further into the future, and made an ethic out of life within presumed environmental limits – ‘sustainability’. The result has been the tendency of the environmental movement to produce ideas which are hostile to technological development and appear to be anti-human in consequence. But this character of environmentalism is only superficially explored in the film.

This shallow treatment of environmentalism’s substance resulted in a heated but ultimately futile studio debate broadcast after the film. In this exchange, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, Greenpeace’s token scientist Doug Parr, and Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth (FoE) criticised the film for what they saw as it’s preoccupation with technology as the means to overcome these limits. ‘You can’t look at technology in ideological isolation’, said Bennett, insisting that FoE have a ‘pragmatic rather than ideological approach to technology’. Monbiot claimed that this was the most ‘ideological film I’ve ever seen on television’. Each side now accused each other of ‘ideology’, while claiming science and pragmatism for themselves.

However, this kind of ‘pragmatism’ has long been a feature of the environmental movement. For instance, in 2004, Lynas declared that ‘[t]he struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere’. In 2008, Monbiot seemed to agree, arguing that the eco-anarcho-socialists gathered at Climate Camp were undermining themselves: ‘Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim’, he said.

It is this claim about ‘pragmatism’ that allows environmentalists to smuggle their own ‘ideology’ into such debates under the cover of ‘science’. And it was only ever a clash between two groups of environmentalists – rather than criticism from without – that would finally expose the tendency of ‘pragmatism’ to produce its own crises. The same ‘science’ seems to produce different arguments, and here lies the biggest mystery about the greens. ‘Where’s the cohesion of the new environmentalists?’, asked Doug Parr; there is no new environmental movement, he pointed out.

In fact, there never really has been an environmental movement, full stop. Environmentalism has been a loud and bizarre spectacle of UK politics, but it has never moved more than a handful of people out onto the streets at any one time. It has never achieved sufficient numbers to count as a political force. And there has been no cohesive environmental philosophy. Instead, as Lynas admits, environmentalists were united, not by science, but by their emotional rejection of contemporary society.

As with most criticism of environmentalism, it is often the reaction to it that reveals more than the criticism itself. Monbiot replies that the movement was unsuccessful, not because it failed to capture the minds of the public, but because ‘we are massively out-spent by corporate-funded movements which have had hundreds of millions poured into them telling government and the media there isn’t a problem’, a claim which surely ignores the UK and EU governments’ environmental policies. He complains that Channel 4 has ‘broadcast a series of polemics about the environment… over the last 20 years’. But the three films he’s talking about – Against Nature, The Great Global Warming Swindle and What the Green Movement Got Wrong – occupied no more than six hours of two decades of near continuous broadcasting. What environmentalists lack in terms of a sense of proportion, they make up for with a sense of persecution.

What Lynas has realised, and Monbiot has not, is that ‘sceptics’ did not undermine the environmentalists’ cause. Environmentalists were their own worst enemy. They have alienated the rest of society by their own uncompromising and misanthropic outlook. The challenge for the new environmentalists is to emerge from this crisis of their own making into an era of growing scepticism, while keeping an eye on the consequences of their arguments. But without the precautionary principle, alarmism, doom and catastrophe, and premature claims to scientific certainty, what is environmentalism?

Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog.

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Topics Culture


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