Why the Dark Greens should throw off their guilt and Grow Up

Update 11-08-12: Latest interview with Patrick Moore here- he also quotes Hunter as calling for an ideology for environmentalism to succeed; Moore concludes (n climate change) “I fear the irrational policies of extreme environmentalists far more that a warmer climate on this relatively cold planet”.

Simple science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

-Patrick Moore, Confessions of a Greenpeace Drop-out (2011).

Paul Kingsnorth wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free a week or so ago called The new environmentalism: where men must act ‘as gods’ to save the planet

Kingsnorth is a “Dark Green” and he critiques the rise of what he calls the “neo-environmentalists”, who I wrote about about in April here.

After lamenting the failure of traditional greens “to prevent the global industrial machine from continuing to destroy wild nature and replace it with human culture” Kingsnorth goes onto compare the rise of the neo-environmentalists with the neo-liberals of the early 1970s:

Like the neoliberals, the neo-environmentalists are attempting to break through the lines of an old orthodoxy which is visibly exhausted and confused. Like the neoliberals, they speak the language of money and power. Like the neoliberals, they cluster around a few key thinktanks: then, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Cato Institute and the Adam Smith Institute; now, the Breakthrough Institute, the Long Now Foundation and the Copenhagen Consensus. Like the neoliberals, they think they have radical solutions.

Neo-environmentalism is a progressive, business-friendly, postmodern take on the environmental dilemma. It dismisses traditional green thinking, with its emphasis on limits and transforming societal values, as naive. New technologies, global capitalism and western-style development are not the problem but the solution. The future lies in enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, nanotechnology, geo-engineering and anything else new and complex that annoys Greenpeace.

The emphasis on “limits” is naive: utilising natural resources is not a zero-sum game, where there is small, finite amount of stuff and a growing population leading to a smaller slice of the pie to go round- “resources” are indeed in effect created- the raw materials of the earth only become “resources” once we have devised technology to utilise them, and this technology continually improves, as can be seen with the impact of shale gas for example;

and the aspiration to ” transforming societal values” is nothing short of authoritarian: whose values are we supposed to adopt? why are they any preferable?

Meanwhile Kingsnorth fails completely to address the obvious reason why Kyoto and Copenhagen-style responses to climate change cannot work: if you are rich you might think GDP is negotiable; but try telling that to the rest of the world.

In mentioning Greenpeace, Kingsnorth would have done well to quote its co-founder Patrick Moore who left the deep-green organisation in 1986 on account of irreconcilable ideological divisions with the rest of the group.

In his gripping memoir Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout (2011) Moore quotes a conversation he had with his long-term friend and colleague the Canadian journalist Bob Hunter after some of the early, dramatic Greenpeace actions against US H-bomb testing in the Pacific at the height of the Cold War. Hunter had apparently been willing to die for the cause; but although Greenpeace were prevented from sailing into the test site, they gained enough public support to force Nixon to cancel the remaining tests. Moore describes the conversations with Hunter after events that really put Greenpeace- and the environmental movement- firmly on the map:

“Pat, this is the beginning of something really important and very powerful,” he predicted. “But there is a very good chance it will become a kind of ecofascism. Not everyone can get a PhD in ecology. So the only way to change the behavior of the masses is to create a popular mythology, a religion of the environment where people simply have faith in the gurus.” Today I shudder at the accuracy of his foresight.

Moore’s descriptions of other early Greenpeace adventures, culminating with a show-down on the high seas with the Russian whaling fleet, are as exciting as any thriller; but as time goes on he sees the movement spawned by his own commitment and charisma turn against reason and science; he becomes “intellectually alienated” from his own organisation. It is this split between environemental activism and any kind of reason or evidence- indeed, the deliberate misrepresentation of facts by activists- that goes to the heart of the split between the “neos-” and the “traditionalists”:

It is not so much the concern about the environment, or the health of the consumer, or the help for the poor and disadvantaged. It is a radical fight against a technology merely for political success. This could be tolerated in rich countries where people lead a luxurious life, even without the technology.

The “Dark Greens” that Kingsnorth still identifies with seem completely unable- or unwilling- to recognise that they themselves have benefited from the modern world with all its nature-destroying technology, and instead try to reduce the normal need that humans have for natural resources to an evil sin. Instead Moore says

while there are some specific practices that should be banned (e.g., dumping toxic waste in rivers and seas, driftnet fishing, nuclear testing), most large issues are best dealt with by campaigns for reform rather than outright banning. We can’t ban farming, forestry, or mining. Activist groups are much better at dealing with issues that can be portrayed as black and white and good versus evil. That is partly why they have now arrived at positions such as “ban clear-cutting worldwide,” “ban nuclear energy,” “ban genetically modified food crops,” “ban chlorine and PVC (vinyl),” and “ban submarine mine tailings disposal.” This zero-tolerance approach is useless when it comes to providing our civilization with the materials and energy it needs to survive.

Kingsnorth admits that the green movement has failed in its goals, but refuses to acknowledge the obvious reasons for this even though they are staring him in the face: humans cannot live without having an impact on the environment, any more than any other species can; there is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it should also be clear from the evidence that ecosystems can recover from disturbance. This happens naturally anyway, often with cataclysmic effects if you look back through history; yet when humans do anything at all it seems it is viewed as “destruction”. It is also true that human technology improves in ways that often help this recovery: much cool-temperate forest has returned since we started using fossil fuels; this was very evident from my visit to the US last year, where I saw the islands around Puget Sound now richly forested, while they had been all but stripped bare not 100 years ago.

View from Orcas Island, WA

Similarly, moving to fossil fuels for heating and transport saved Victorian London from being buried in horse manure, but then resulted in the new problems of coal smoke leading to “pea-soupers.” As time went on and people got wealthier, new technologies emerged to scrub the exhaust and new regulations were imposed as people who were no longer simply scrambling to survive each day began to demand cleaner environments. Opposition to technology in general is a key foundation of Dark Green thinking, ignoring the spectacular gains that have been achieved in cleaning the environment even as the technology itself delivers more and more benfits- according to Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist

Today, a car emits less pollution traveling at full speed than a parked car did in 2970 from leaks.

Can countries like China, whose rapid industrialization has brought pollution to levels perhaps even greater than that of Britain in the 19th Century, follow the same path towards a cleaner local environment as wealth increases and a new middle-class begins to demand it? Yes, and perhaps sooner than later according to a paper from Bernstein Research, quoted here:

Their paper’s title — Who Are You Going to Believe: Me or Your Smog-Irritated, Burning, Weeping, Lying Eyes? — is a reference to what the authors regard as a general outside blindness to a conspicuous new political day. One reason no one is noticing, they say, is the curse of history itself. The record of surging economies — comparing China with, say Japan — suggests that a burning aspiration for cleaner surroundings over economic betterment should reach critical mass in China only in about a decade. Yet, “the clear signal from Shifang and Qidong is that China has reached the point today, where the population is ready to take to the streets in protest of worsening environmental conditions,

Kingsnorth goes onto suggest rather bizarrly

Some of this may shock old guard greens – which is the point – but it is not a new message. It is simply the latest variant on the old Wellsian techno-optimism which has been promising us paradise for over a century. The neo-environmentalists are growing in numbers at present not because their ideas are new, but because they offer a business-friendly worldview which, unlike the tiresome old green message, is designed to make people feel comfortable about their plane flights and their iPads. Science and business will provide. Nature will adapt. Optimism is permitted again. Indeed, it is almost mandatory.

But the H.G. Wells book Men Like Gods to which he refers was just that, a sci-fi novel about an advanced “Utopia” some 3000 years into the future. To claim that today’s Brands and Lynases- the “High Priests” of a new environmentalism- are operating in a fantasy world of science-fiction, “promising” a Utopia that has failed to materialise, is itself a bizarre fantasy, and gives a good insight of the blindness of the Dark Greens. Mr. Kingsnorth may not have noticed, but technology has indeed improved since the 1920s, and he would have done better to quote from another sci-fi writer, Arthur C. Clarke, who famously pointed out that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”- to an earlier culture, as surely the iPads, the clean air, and the Curiosity Mars Rover surely would do to H.G. Wells.

Kingsnorth’s mention of “guilt” about technology is also very telling, and really just a projection of his own: “Guilt” is fundamental to the Dark Greens who appear to be only able to deal with it by trying to turn it into some sort of virtue, as if to say, “oh envy the poor undeveloped nations and the poor who don’t have access to our technology- if only we could be like them, then at least we wouldn’t have to feel guilty!!”

What a defeatist and miserable-ist position- no-one, least of all the Dark Greens with their long guilt-burdened faces, are going to give up the benefits of technology, or deny them to their children; environmentalists should be doing everything they can to enable development in the rest of the world so that at least people everywhere can avail of the Magic Washing Machine.

Kingsnorth admits the greens have failed in their own terms, focusing too much on technological solutions to climate change; but laments

Any campaign to protect the wild world which avoids acknowledging our intuitive, emotional relationship with it will leave itself open to the kind of heartless ideological assault it is now receiving from the neogreens.

Huh? “heartless ideological assault”? What on earth is he talking about? If he had read Patrick Moore’s accounts of his near-spriritual feelings for the whales and dolphins, he could not possibly justify such an accusation. He limply concludes in similar vein,

“All great civilisations,” wrote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, “are built on parochialism.” If the alternative is trying to act like gods, then I’m with the poets.

Again ignoring the brilliant take-down of the “Nature Poets” in Peter Kareiva’s talk, who Kingsnorth himslef links to- Thoreau for example lived just a short walk from town when he wrote his seminal “Waldon’s Pond” and had his mum still do his washing for him. Poets need technology too it would seem; “Nature” really does not seem that poetic until you have some comforts that civiliation is able to deliver.

Again, Kareiva points out how utterly self-defeating it is to try to engage young people today in the environment when you carry around the burden of guilt about i Pads and other communication technology that can really help here as well: if you project that onto others you are sure to alienate them.

Kingsnorth’s lament for the loss of our emotional connection to nature uncovers the other Dark strand of green thought that has been there at least since the nature mysticism of the Nazis: the deep, emotional need to enjoy “Nature” without being troubled by the noise and filthy commerce of Other Humans. In truth, despite its alliance with the Left and purported concern for justice and the poor, traditional greenery has always been snobbish and elitist.

To finish with one more quote from Patrick Moore:

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the more extreme environmental rhetoric is the tendency to characterize humans as a disease on the earth. This, in combination with doomsday predictions, causes people, especially young people, to give up hope for the future. Nothing could undermine more our prospects for finding solutions to environmental problems. We need bright young citizens with hope for the future, citizens who can apply their intelligence to solving problems and who can reject policies based on faulty logic and bad science.

Amen to that. The misanthropy of environmentalism is still alive and kicking, as I discovered during a debate on Facebook last week discussing the Kingsnorth post, where one contributor told us

I’m pinning my bet on all the share-ware garage bio-engineers out there working on the next G.M. eboli virus… More power to them!

To Kingsnorth and Dark Greens everywhere: throw off your guilt, be honest enough to admit that technology and progress really has happened and has improved billions of lives, including yours; and if you find Stewart Brand’s challenge to “be like Gods” just too much for you, then at least try to just grow up a little bit.

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1 Comment

  1. I would think if people/businesses/innovators could spend their hard earned money on making better and more enviromental friendly technologies and products instead of paying for compliance with heavy regulations spawned by the enviromental movement the better off all would be I think learning to use the enviroment more responsibly is fine, but expecting humans to live a zero carbon lifestyle is not only impossible (short of being dead) but unfair to expect it, after all what animal lives a zero carbon lifestyle do you know about? these enviromentalists would benefit themselves the earth and everyone else if they would spend their time and money on research and the like to find better technologies and substitutes, and touche’ on the benefits of using oil/gas over using wood, whales too benefited no longer do we need to hunt them for fuel. also the enviromentla movment discredits itself with pushing false sciences and false environmentally friendly technologies like ethonol and should base their ideas on real science then they would get alot more supporters, you think?

    Reply

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