Like it or not (I obviously don’t) the green movement has failed. It has failed to inspire the public to care about the environment we all depend on, it has failed to make the public understand the gravity and scale of our current environmental problems, and it has failed to get politicians to do anything at all.
The important question is why?
And unfortunately the answer is too much for any single blog post. Even one as long as this. One could blame the well organized and well funded denial machine. They certainly must share part of the blame.
One could equally blame the media, for being unable to separate fact from fiction, and consistently prioritizing unimportant stories ahead of stories about the deteriorating health of our planet’s life support systems. This too would be accurate. Once could also blame the public for being unable to separate fact from fiction, and consistently preferring unimportant stories instead of stories about the deteriorating health of our planet’s life support systems. Even this would be accurate.
All of these factors and many more play a role in why the green movement has failed to get its message across. But that isn’t what this post is about.
This post is about the green movement itself and how it has alienated the public. Because while the factors I listed above have absolutely played a role in the green movement’s failure to effect change, they don’t tell the whole story.
Part 1: Genetically modified food
Probably no clearer example of this alienation comes to us from Greenpeace in Australia. Recently a group of Greenpeace protesters broke into a research facility and destroyed a trial crop of genetically modified wheat. Amongst other things, this trial was attempting to determine the safety of this strain of genetically modified wheat.
Why did Greenpeace destroy the wheat? Because according to Greenpeace “Genetically modified food has never been proven safe to eat“.
Think about that for a second.
How are scientists supposed to determine if this genetically modified wheat is safe, Greenpeace destroys the trials that were designed to address that specific question? Greenpeace’s position here has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with ideology.
But not only is Greenpeace’s action based on ideology, it was actively anti-science, and anti-scientist.
It is anti science because such research provides valuable information as Christopher Preston, an agricultural scientist at the University of Adelaide, explains:
These trials are not just about the development of genetically modified crops that may at some future time be developed commercially, but frequently provide spin-off information that is of use in our understanding of gene action in the environment. This important information is also lost.
Valuable data was destroyed. This will set back the development of new ideas, which will cost farmers money. Ideas that are needed as the world struggles to feed over 7 billion people.
Not only data was destroyed, but possibly careers were destroyed as Christopher Preston again explains:
All the research staff working in my program are on short-term contracts, which is the nature of scientific careers these days. They need to continually produce research to further these careers.
For them, the loss of a field trial could mean the difference between a new grant and leaving science.
For postgraduate students, the situation is even more difficult. Typically, current postgraduate students only get two field seasons to complete their research. The loss of a field trial can have an enormous impact on their ability to complete their degrees on time.
But being anti-science and scientist is only the least offensive aspect of Greenpeace’s action.
Most importantly Greenpeace’s actions are anti-human. The genetically modified wheat they destroyed was designed with a lower glycemic index and a higher fibre content. Both are features which could improve human health and save lives in the developed and developing world. If human population continues to grow, then so does the pressure on our food production systems. Can we feed 7 billion people? What about 8, 9 or 10 billion? It is irresponsible to ignore the potential solutions that genetic modification provides.
Professor Mark Tester, a plant scientist at the University of Adelaide, sums up the situation:
[Genetic modification] technology is not a magic bullet but it does offer new opportunities to improve the quality and quantity of wheat. One cannot make any generalisations about [genetic modification] or any other technology – it all depends on how it is used… One cannot say that all [genetic modification] is good or that all [genetic modification] is bad but it is one of many tools in our toolbox to try and help protect the environment and feed people around the world.
Yet Greenpeace, blinded by ideology, was unable to comprehend this. They destroyed the field trial, and in doing so were anti-science, anti-scientist, and anti-human.
And they were even anti-Greenpeace, or rather anti-their-own-stated-goals. There are many legitimate reasons to oppose genetically modified food, things like patent law, and other policies are incredibly troubling (note this isn’t a scientific problem but a political one), but in recklessly attacking genetically modified food they draw attention away from these legitimate issues and focus it on the one area that is relatively free from controversy (the research designed to answer questions we all have, like is it safe?).
In it’s opposition to Genetically modified food Greenpeace is not alone. A large part of the green movement is also ideologically opposed to genetically modified food.
But, while this sad story highlights how Greenpeace and the green movement have alienated the public, it is not the only story.
Part 2: Nuclear Power
Take nuclear power for instance, At the same time Greenpeace states (correctly) that climate change threatens our very way of life, that unless something drastic is done many will die and everyone else will suffer greatly, and (incorrectly) that, no matter what, nuclear power must be opposed at all costs:
Greenpeace has always fought — and will continue to fight — vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants.
As discussed in episode 21 of Irregular Climate, it makes absolutely zero sense to adopt a policy of dismantling nuclear power plants. One needs only look at Germany, which is generally seen as an environmental leader, to see why such a policy is exactly the wrong thing to do.
After the Fukushima disaster, Germany pledged to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by the year 2022. Currently nuclear power supplies about 25% of Germany’s electricity. The best case scenario would be if Germany is able to replace all of this electricity with renewable sources. But even if Germany is able to accomplish this amazing feat, it would do nothing to reduce its GHG emissions. Germany would be replacing one form of carbon-free energy with another, and all that massive investment and deployment of renewables won’t reduce Germany’s emissions, because Germany wont be replacing its dirty coal power plants and will still be burning massive amounts of coal.
In fact the International Energy Agency estimates that even a slowdown of the expansion of nuclear power will increase global emissions by 30%. Were the world to follow Germany, and Greenpeace’s advice emissions would rise even more.
Greenpeace’s position on nuclear power is not unique in the green movement, it is the rule rather than the exception. It is almost like the mainstream green movement is more worried about the potential, but highly unlikely, threat that nuclear power poses, than the certain threat of climate change.
Sometimes it seems to me that greens are putting renewables first, climate change second. We have no obligation to support the renewables industry – or any other industry – against its competitors. Our obligation is to persuade policy makers to bring down emissions and reduce other environmental impacts as quickly and effectively as possible. The moment we start saying we won’t accept one technology under any circumstances, or we must use another technology whether it’s appropriate or not is the moment at which we make that aim harder to achieve.
The position of Germany, Greenpeace and the green movement flies in the face of their stated aims of combating climate change and reducing GHG emissions.
Such contradictions, understandably, confuse and alienate the public.
Part 3: The bigger problem
The green movement is against two technologies that could provide answers to some of the myriad of problems we face as human populations continues to grow: genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. These examples might be the most prominent, but they are not the only ones, and they are a symptom of a larger problem, perhaps best described by Hans Rosling and his magic washing machine:
There is a general trend of opposing new technology within the green movement. This opposition, as Hans Rosling describes in the video above is predominantly directed at people who live in developing countries. They cannot have the washing machine! Or much of anything else, apparently.
To support this position many greens present a romanticised version of the third world, where people are freed from the burdens of a modern technological life. Of course these same greens seem unwilling to give up these supposed burdens themselves. Or as Hans Rosling states: “Even the hardcore in the green movement use the washing machine!”
Of course people living the the third-world, don’t see things the same way. As Hans Rsoling emphatically says “If you have democracy people will vote for the washing machine!” Inevitably this alienates people in the third world, and people who care about the third world.
This anti-technology position lends itself, inevitably, to an anti-development position. Without access to technology little development is possible.
But this leads to what is perhaps the biggest problem with the green movement. It is perceived as being part of the radical left, of being anti-capitalism.
Often-times this perception is inaccurate, but sometimes it is explicit. As this article titled: No, Greens must not cosy up to capitalism. They must resist it by Patrick Curry in the Guardian makes clear:
the principal driver of the accelerating eco-crisis – anthropogenic climate change, biodiversity crash, destruction and degradation of wild habitat, and a virtual holocaust of animal species – is precisely capitalism… Any green movement worth its name must therefore resist industrial capitalism, however hopeless that may appear, and the only serious questions concern how.
Of course this perception is not entirely the fault of the green movement. It should be abundantly clear to everyone that there is a concerted effort by some special interests to brand the green movement as a radical left-wing conspiracy. To brand greens as watermelons, green on the outside but red on the inside. A grand communist plot.
Yet as absurd that sounds there is a surprisingly large percentage of the public (generally on the right-wing) that believes this to be true. These people are automatically alienated, and worse, frequently they become actively hostile to the very notion that we should care and protect the environment we all live in; the environment that sustains us.
You would think then, that a major priority of the green movement would be to counteract this alienation and hostility. But that is not what has happened. Instead, as special interests have pulled the right-wing away from caring about the environment, the green movement has helped the special interests and pushed the right-wing away.
Green issues are now seen as almost entirely left-wing issues, particularly in North America. Anti-right-wing rants are now common among the green movement. Unsurprisingly, there is a very large number of people who are alienated by this.
Part 4: The root of the problem and a solution
The green movement his failed. It has not inspired the public to care about the environment we all depend on, it has failed to make the public understand the gravity and scale of our current environmental problems, and it has failed to get politicians to do anything other than talk.
The root of the problem with green movement, lies in the failure of the green movement to understand the reality of the Anthropocene. That is to say they do not understand that humans are currently the dominant force shaping the planet.
There are over 7 billion people on the planet and our population is still increasing. Ideological rejections of new technologies; of potential solutions, will only lead to suffering. There are no more easy answers, no more perfect solutions. It is no longer a choice between a good option and a bad one.
Risk cannot be eliminated, that is simply not possible. But if we adopt the right polices we can minimize the risk.
This is what the green movement fail to understand. They are incapable of risk management. The see nuclear power as risky so they oppose it. Yet compared with the enormous risk of climate change, the risk of a nuclear disaster is negligible, and the worst case scenario of a nuclear meltdown is infinitely more manageable than what scientists say is all but certain due to climate change if we continue on our current emissions path.
Nuclear power is far from perfect, but it can provide us with part of the answer to deal with climate change. The same is true with genetically modified food. It is far from perfect and there are many legitimate issues (more political that scientific) that should be addressed, but again, it can provide us with part of the answer of how to feed a growing human population.
The solution to the problems within the green movement are simple.
The green movement needs to drop its ideological positions. It needs to view the world as it actually exists and not as it wishes it existed.
This means embracing science. It means following the data wherever it leads, even if that means admitting you were wrong in the past. Because as we approach the limits of the planet, having a thorough understanding the natural systems that sustain us becomes critical.
It also means understanding the nature of risk, and that eliminating risk is not possible. We can only, if we adopt the correct polices, minimize the risk.
But equally as important, the green movement needs to expand along the political spectrum. It needs to grow beyond the left-wing of the political spectrum and into the right. There is, after all, no reason why the right-wing shouldn’t care about the environment, they are forced to live in it as well.
In short, we need a new green movement. One that is not bound by ideology, but is instead firmly rooted in reality.
These solutions might be simple but, none of them will be easy. However the current path the green movement has chosen will only lead to failure. And that is something we can no longer afford.