50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-anti-capitalist
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden– (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.

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Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:

Eco-Pragmatists:

Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010
http://www.greenspirit.com/index.cfm

Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism– human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.

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So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists– once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

What have Fossil Fuels Ever Done for Us?

Book Review:
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
Alex Epstein

Portfolio/Penguin 2014

Kindle Edition

Energy is a life and death issue—it is not one where we can afford to be sloppy in our thinking and seize upon statistics that seem to confirm our worldview. -Alex Epstein

Everyone knows fossil fuels are Bad. Bad for the planet, Bad for the environment, Bad for people. They pollute the atmosphere and groundwater, destroy whole eco-systems, and worst of all are responsible for the wholesale eco-cide of the entire biosphere through unstoppable apocalyptic climate change.

But wait, urges Alex Epstein, author of the recent book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Isn’t there something important missing from this narrative of Bad Guy Fossil Fuels? Indeed we might ask, as Monty Python did of the Romans: What have fossil fuels ever done for us?

 

…apart from education, roads, hospitals, sanitation, and a vastly increased life expectancy… in fact, pretty much everything that makes life in the modern world worth living.

This is the passionate moral case for fossil fuels that Epstein develops in his eminently readable and clearly-laid out book, and through his organisation The Center for Industrial Progress:
contrary to what nearly everyone has been brought up to believe in these strangely post-modern and relativistic times we live in, fossil fuels are not just good, but a moral necessity for the foreseeable future, a human right no less, and it is about time people started making an unequivocal stand for them.

Taking on the Big Guns of the environmental movement such as Bill McKibben, Paul Ehrlich and Amory Lovins, Epstein shows that not only have they been spectacularly wrong in their predictions but that there is a fundamental flaw in their moral philosophy:

The environmental thought leaders’ opposition to fossil fuels is not a mistaken attempt at pursuing human life as their standard of value. They are too smart and knowledgeable to make such a mistake. Their opposition is a consistent attempt at pursuing their actual standard of value: a pristine environment, unaltered nature. Energy is our most powerful means of transforming our environment to meet our needs. If an unaltered, untransformed environment is our standard of value, then nothing could be worse than cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.

This muddled and dangerous way of thinking has become mainstream, infecting our education systems and politics so much that speaking out in favour of the dirty black stuff we dig out of the ground to fuel our civilisation must be the highest form of heresy. Even oil giants such as ExxonMobil and Shell have pandered to environmentalist agendas- for example by avoiding any mention of the word “Oil” on their Homepages, and paying lip-service to renewables and the “idealism” of their opponents without challenging the basic moral argument- something Epstein takes strong issue with in his section “What the Fossil-Fuel Industry must do”.

What is at the heart of this irrational objection to the wonders of cheap energy?

The reason we have come to oppose fossil fuels and not see their virtues is not primarily because of a lack of factual knowledge, but because of the presence of irrational moral prejudice in our leaders and, to a degree, in our entire culture.

But fossil fuels are non-renewable! I hear you say. Is it not crazy to base a society on an essential mineral that is going to run out?
-but predictions of “peak oil” and fears over shortages have been with us since the beginning of the Oil Age- the reality is, we have barely scratched the surface, literally, in terms of the resources that are there in the earth’s crust waiting for the technology to arrive to extract them: the data does not lie- even as our populations grow and demand for energy increases and extraction rises to keep pace, paradoxically fossil fuel reserves continue to grow.

The problem is not the lack of resources, but the increasingly tight straight-jacket being placed around the freedom to extract them:

Our concern for the future should not be running out of energy resources; it should be running out of the freedom to create energy resources, including our number-one energy resource today, fossil fuels.

Ultimately, advanced nuclear energy- the only scalable energy source that is more (potentially far more) energy dense than oil and gas- may step in to drive what will be the greatest energy transition of all time; but although nuclear should still be supported whenever possible, this will take decades- and nuclear, as we all know, is not even considered as an option by most environmentalists.

What about direct pollution from extraction? Naturally, Epstein does not dismiss the obvious downside to mining and drilling- there is certainly an environmental and human-health cost. But what is missing from the general public debate is that as wealth increases as a result of access to energy, so does our ability and desire to clean up the environment. British cities like London were far more polluted by smog in the early industrial era than even Beijing is today. Furthermore, we choose in today’s world to spend some of our fossil-fuel wealth on environmental protection, wilderness preservation and so on, something poor countries cannot easily afford to do. The downsides make fossil fuels an easy target- the overwhelmingly net positive benefits to human life and the environment are generally ignored.

Pessimistic predictions often assume that our environment is perfect until humans mess it up; they don’t consider the possibility that we could improve our environment. But the data of the last forty years indicate that we have been doing exactly that—using fossil fuels.

Shouldn’t we be switching to cleaner energies such as wind, solar and hydro anyway? Apart from the fact that most environmental groups have been busy vigorously opposing hydro-power in much of the world for the past 30 years, the fact is that there simply is no good affordable, scalable alternative to coal, oil and gas at present. Renewables are sometimes dubbed “unreliables”- they don’t work all the time and they need a gas or coal back-up in any case. More than that, they have far lower energy density than the fuels they pertain to replace, in some cases by two or more orders of magnitude.

It seems that there’s more focus on getting energy directly from the sun, which is often considered “natural,” than there is on getting it in a way that will maximize human life. It is deeply irresponsible and disturbing that environmental leaders are telling us to deprive ourselves of fossil fuels on the promise of what can charitably be described as a highly speculative experiment, and can less charitably be described as an ill-conceived, resource-wasting, perennial failure.

Epstein goes onto point out that tens of thousand of giant steel wind-turbines are hardly “renewable” in any meaningful sense, even if the wind is:

For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, including every input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful.

Renewables are low-density, extensive technologies that, if unrolled on the vast scale that would be required for them to really replace much energy-dense coal or gas, would certainly have an immense negative environmental impact on the land where they are installed, but also in the pollution caused by their manufacture. Epstein notes wryly

Fox could make a far more alarming movie than Gasland based on supposedly risk-free solar and wind technology. Imagine a scene at a rare-earth mine in a movie called Wasteland.

In short, Epstein makes clear that trying to replace energy-dense fossil fuels with diffuse intermittent renewables is a recipe for disaster:

If fossil fuels have catastrophic consequences and it makes sense to use a lot less of them, that would be an epic tragedy, given the state of the alternatives right now. Being forced to rely on solar, wind, and biofuels would be a horror beyond anything we can imagine, as a civilization that runs on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy would see its machines dead, its productivity destroyed, its resources disappearing.

At the core of the moral issue must be energy access for the couple of billion in undeveloped countries who currently lack pretty much any access to cheap energy at all: they tend to be very poor with low life-expectancy and high infant-mortality, little educational opportunities and poor or non-existent health services. Yet as a result of the environmental agenda’s influence on current policy, they cannot expect to get much help from the West which has decided it best to keep the poor in the dark with the US refusing to fund coal-fired power stations- the cheapest and most effective option- in developing nations.

Epstein shares some personal opinions from those effected by this naive “Green” policy of only promoting unreliable and expensive renewable energy to those who really need it:

Another Kenyan, James Shikwati of the Inter Region Economic Network, explains why he resents programs to encourage underdeveloped countries to use solar or wind. The rich countries can afford to engage in some luxurious experimentation with other forms of energy, but for us we are still at the stage of survival. I don’t see how a solar panel is going to power a steel industry, how a solar panel is going to power a railway network, it might work, maybe, to power a small transistor radio.

Right now, there are calls to reduce the life-giving, life-sustaining use of fossil-fuels by 80% in order to meet the demands of addressing climate change (and Bill McKibben has apparently called for 95% cuts)- once again we have to ask the question, has a full accounting of both costs AND benefits been done here? Humans have always been, and will always be subject to the vagaries of weather and climate- but it is our technology and skills of innovation that keep us safe.

Epstein claims we are basing policy on bad science and an unreasonable faith in “experts” who have been repeatably shown to be wrong in the past:

many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists have deliberately tried to manipulate us into equating the greenhouse effect with the predictions of invalid computer models based on their demonstrably faulty understanding of how CO2 actually affects climate….
This sloppy use of “science” as an authority, practiced by politicians of all parties, guarantees that we make bad, unscientific decisions.

Alex Epstein is really unimpressed with the call for alarm so far, with on about a half-degree of warming caused so far since industrial CO2 emissions really picked up pace in the first half of the last century; nor is he impressed by the use of unreliable climate model projections on which to base policy. The last thing we should be doing is timetabling the rapid dismantling of the only way we can actually protect ourselves from storms, droughts, floods and sea-level rise: the cheap, abundant energy produced through fossil fuels.

Thus, climate change, extreme weather, volatility, and danger are all inherent in climate whether or not we affect it with CO2 emissions. Thus, when we think about how fossil fuel use impacts climate livability, we are not asking: Are we taking a stable, safe climate and making it dangerous? But: Are we making our volatile, dangerous climate safer or more dangerous?

Environmental policy is based on the ideological and even religious belief that everything was fine and perfect and dandy in the world until modern humans came along with their dirty technology and filthy fossil fuels. Epstein slices through this deceit rather nicely:

the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability. No matter what, climate will always be naturally hazardous—and the key question will always be whether we have the adaptability to handle it or, better yet, master it.

He concludes with the most important point, again one almost entirely missing from climate discourse (emphasis added):

The climate future appears to be extremely bright. Fossil fuels’ product, energy, has given us an unthinkable mastery over climate and thus record climate livability. And its major climate-affecting by-product, CO2, has fertilized the atmosphere and likely brought some mild and beneficial warming along with it. But we can’t know how good the warming is because, whether it is net negative or positive, it’s completely drowned out by the net positive of the energy effect.

In this essential book, Epstein makes an impassioned call for clarity on what our moral perogative should be in terms of energy, climate and environmental policy:

if we’re on a human standard of value, we need to have an impact on our environment. Transforming our environment is how we survive. Every animal survives in a way that affects its environment; we just do it on a greater scale with far greater ability. We have to be clear: Is human life our standard of value or is “lack of impact” our standard of value?

More than just a close analyses and explanation of what is wrong with the anti-fossil fuel movement, Epstein wants us to take action. He wants the fossil fuel industry to stop being ashamed of its product, but rather proudly speak out in its defence; and he wants you, the reader and every-day user of fossil fuels, to join the debate and stand up to defend the attack on our fossil-fuel future.

We don’t want to “save the planet” from human beings; we want to improve the planet for human beings.

Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous—because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.

Keeping the Poor in the Dark to save the Climate

I was asked on Twitter to comment on this post on “Confessions of a Former Climate Change Denialist”

It is a curious post. The author begins by making some valid concerns about the relative risks of climate change relative to other threats such as poverty:

Being a biology and ecology geek in high school, my mind nurtured environmental concerns, especially in my birth country, Iran, where air and environment pollution, uncontrolled hunting, deforestation and desert formation are rampant. When I first heard about climate change through media (nothing had been taught in school), I couldn’t help but see it as a distraction from more immediate issues — poverty, childhood mortality, wars and conflicts, pollution, and so on. It bothered me to think of countries coming together and people marching in the streets over such a hypothetical long-term effect while children die of preventable causes.

However, he does not repudiate or refute any of these moral concerns, but rather seems to reject them purely on the grounds that questioning the Climate Apocalypse hypothesis would assume a conspiracy- and then he would feel aligned with 9-11 Truthers or those who believe the moon landing was a hoax.

This is surely a non-sequitor- you can believe climate change is a risk without feeling it has to trump all other social and environmental concerns, surely? This is not climate change “denial” at all, and it troubles me that the author does not overcome the moral issues on moral grounds.

The argument that climate change may not be as great a concern as addressing poverty and human development is best made by Bjorn Lomborg, recently for example here:

While global warming will be a problem, much of the rhetoric is wildly exaggerated – like when UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon calls it “an existential challenge for the whole human race.” The IPCC finds that the total cost of climate change by 2070 is between 0.2pc and 2pc of GDP. While this is definitely a problem, it is equivalent to less than one year of recession over the next 60 years.

Global warming pales when compared to many other global problems. While the WHO estimates 250,000 annual deaths from global warming in 30 years, 4.3 million die right now each year from indoor air pollution, 800 million are starving, and 2.5 billion live in poverty and lack clean water and sanitation.

Moreover, no matter how bad you think global warming may be in the future, the wrong policies will be worse:

Climate policies can easily cost much more than the global warming damage will – while helping very little. The German solar adventure, which has cost taxpayers more than $130 billion, will at the end of the century just postpone global warming by a trivial 37 hours.

Robert Bryce also adresses the issue of what he calls “the most revolting tenet of the Left’s climate-change strategy: their desire to keep the poor in the dark.”

a coalition of U.S. environmental groups has convinced the Obama administration that it should oppose the financing of coal-fired power plants in developing countries out of concern for climate change. And the Obama administration has been doing just that. In July 2013, the Export-Import Bank, an export-credit agency backed by the U.S. government, voted to halt financing for the Thai Binh 2 power plant, a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired facility in northern Vietnam. At about the same time, the World Bank declared that it would limit financing of coal-fired-generation projects to “rare circumstances.”

For the developing world, where many millions have not yet had access to any kind of regular electricity, coal is by far the cheapest and quickest option, which means in reality the only option for now. The poor are being denied access to energy as a direct result of first-world, wealthy environmentalist concerns about the rather abstract and nebulous impacts of “climate change” at some unknown point a generation or two into the future.

This issue was also the subject of a recent exchange between Matt Ridley and Mark Lynas. Ridley kicked off with a post entitled “Greens Take the Low Moral Ground” :

the cost of climate policies is already falling most heavily on today’s poor. Subsidies for renewable energy have raised costs of heating and transport disproportionately for the poor. Subsidies for biofuels have raised food prices by diverting food into fuel, tipping millions into malnutrition and killing about 190,000 people a year. The refusal of many rich countries to fund aid for coal-fired electricity in Africa and Asia rather than renewable projects (and in passing I declare a financial interest in coal mining) leaves more than a billion people without access to electricity and contributes to 3.5 million deaths a year from indoor air pollution caused by cooking over open fires of wood and dung.

Greens think these harms are a price worth paying to stop the warming. They want (other) people to bear such sacrifices today so that the people of 2100, who will be up to seven times as rich, do not have to face the prospect of living in a world that is perhaps 0.8 – 1.2 degrees warmer. And this is the moral high ground?

Lynas’ response correctly identifies the dilemma- that poor climate policies will hurt the poor- but focuses on what he calls Ridley’s “climate change denial”:

This is a familiar paradox, and one that has been pointed out by many people (e.g. Breakthrough Institute and Roger Pielke Jnr. There is no doubt that global energy production is going to have to double, triple or even quadruple this century in order to allow for economic development and poverty eradication worldwide. This is one of the reasons I have supported nuclear power, which along with renewables can offset the use of coal and other fossil fuels in producing this much-needed increase in energy supplies….

What bugs me however is that Ridley resolves this paradox instead by denying the gravity of global warming.

He then agreed to publish on his blog this response from Ridley:

Does Mark think dangerous warming is inevitable? I doubt it. Does he think he can rule out non-dangerous warming? I hope not. It would require cherry-picking to achieve that. The IPCC gives a range of outcomes from harmless to harmful. I think the lower end of the range is more plausible. Mark thinks the higher end is more plausible. But we are both within the range of outcomes. How does that make me a “denier”?

Whatever about the technical details of climate sensitivity etc, Lynas failed to address the issue that current climate policies- driven by climate alarmism and fear-mongering- are ineffective in terms of reducing CO2 emissions, while clearly also hurting the poor now. And yes, despite Lynas’ objections, these do of course include biofuels which are indeed clearly a result of renewables quotas on the back of climate policies, (and some environmental NGOs some do still support biofuels) locking in the state subsidies we still have today.

Of course Lynas should be applauded for his stance on nuclear and GMOs, yet he seems unwilling to accept that many of the same voices to claim the sky is falling on climate also oppose GMOs and nuclear power- and that these are all ways of keeping the poor poor while hindering actions that could also reduce CO2.

Lynas was gracious enough to apologise for the slur of “denier” against Ridley:

Yes, I withdraw that accusation, with apologies. It is clear from this response that he is a ‘lukewarmer’ – I checked with him and he is OK with that particular moniker.

Mark

Mark should have known better- he must realise that Matt Ridley has never “denied” CO2 as a warming gas or its likely contribution to recent (slight) warming- he merely takes issue with the more alarmist speculations of climate catastrophe.

But scroll further down the comments though and you will see that the climate crazies have come out in force:

I think it is high time that we take global warming to be what it truly is, an existential threat that, if left un-mitigated in the very immediate future, will lead to the deaths of over 1 billion human beings over the next 5 decades.

In this circumstance, likely an understatement if current groundwater depletion trends continue, then those among us who ARE climate deniers are WORSE than holocaust deniers, by several magnitudes of order. (being that the deaths may yet be avoided!)

People are already dying- of poverty. It is pointed out of course that it is the poor who will be most at risk from climate change- yes, indeed they will- because they are poor.

Addressing poverty now, bringing people out of poverty right now, in the fastest way possible, is the best way to help the environment. Once out of the drudgery of subsistence agriculture, people have more security and thus tend to reduce their birth rates, and have more options in terms of efficient use of resources. As they get richer still, some of them may even become environmentalists themselves, a luxury only the well-off can afford. As the whole world gets richer, the options for technological innovation to help decarbonisation efforts will increase.

For many environmentalists, this is not the plan at all. Underpinned by a legacy of misanthropy and pseudo-religious Nature worship, innovation is rejected in favour of moralistic powerdown programs that apply only to the poor and not to themselves. There is no politically or ethically feasible way forward that does not first address poverty, and climate policies that do not prioritise this should be rejected. Until Greens understand and accept this, they will languish in the moral basement.

Virtuous Corruption

From the zone5 archives:
First published May 6th 2011 on the my old and now defunct zone5 blog.
Following on from the last post on the “97% consensus” this book also had an interesting discussion on the earlier study by Oreskes

Book Review
The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science
Aynsley Kellow
Edgar Elgar 2007

Complete book downloadable here as a pdf.

Virtuous Corruption

This book by Aynsley Kellow, Professor of Politics and Policy at the University of Tasmania, Australia, is a provocative and in depth look at the degree to which the scientific underpinnings of environmental policy may be at times, and perhaps even chronically, be subject to a sort of “virtual corruption” in which results are biased consciously or unconsciously to fit what the researchers may perceive to be a virtuous cause of environmental protection; and how increasingly this is facilitated by the movement of actual scientific research away from direct observation and field studies towards a ‘virtual science’ of computer modelling.

Kellow asserts that

a purely ‘scientific’ basis for public policy may be a chimera: there is rarely a linear relationship between science and public policy, with scientific understanding leading to only one policy option.

Kellow begins with the example of the “khting vor“, a species of horned cow in Vietnam which was on the 2003 Red List of endangered species put out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) even though there was every indication that such an animal had never existed. It appeared to be a mythical beast of which numerous museum specimens were in fact fakes.

Much could be written about the process whereby the IUCN consensus (or other international consensus documents on science) was produced, but suffice to say that nobody really had a strong reason to oppose its inclusion, and plenty had some reason to list it. For any skeptics, the invocation of the precautionary principle has been enough to repel dissent. After all, it might have existed…

In the next chapter Kellow examines the political ecology of conservation biology with reference of one of the bastions of environmental ideology, the question of biodiversity. This is one of the key indicators of human impact on the natural world: Greenpeace for example cites species loss at being anything from 50,000 to 100,000 species each year. However, as Kellow points out, few of these are actual known species whose extinction has been documented and confirmed. The IUCN-World Conservation Union, Kellow cites, claim that only ‘more than 800′ plant and animal extinctions since 1500 have been confirmed; the rest appear to be computer generated extrapolations. To put this in context, no one knows how many species there are anyway, with about 1.7million have been described while estimates of the total range from 5 to 100 million. Kellow cites examples of species that were believed to have been extinct that have then reappeared; and while loss of biodiversity and extinctions are of course concerning, most extinctions cited in the very large figures of Greenpeace for example seem to be “virtual’ extinctions.

(It might also be pointed out that in some cases extinction might be a good thing: in a recent conversation with an out-spoken neo-Malthusian of my acquaintance on this topic I gave smallpox and the AIDS virus as examples, to which the response was ‘Why?’- he seemed comfortable with the argument that since every species has equal right to exist alongside ourselves, we have no right to fight against diseases.)

The ideology behind this comes from the notion of the primacy of biodiversity- more diversity is always good as this contributes to the resilience of the ‘balance of nature’ and the strengthening of the fragile ‘web of life’.

Kellow questions these assumptions as well, arguing that “over the past 30 years the idea of adaptation to disturbance” has replaced the concept of the climax community among most ecological scientists” and goes onto say:

It is a point of some interest that in the popular imagination, the stability of the climax community is probably still the dominant ‘myth of nature’, sustained by constant repetition by political ecologists, and like ‘sustained yield’, the progenitor of ‘sustainable development’ (which emerged in a social context of great uncertainty in Germany), no doubt offering the reassurance of stability in uncertain and rapidly changing times. Similarly, ‘climate change’ suggests that the climate doesn’t usually change, which geological science tells us is poppycock.

Kellow gives other examples of this: if the ecosystem (or the climate) is always changing, what state are we supposed to try to conserve? Whatever decisions we take in ecological management, they will inevitably be governed by our own human values about nature. A classic example of this is the ‘native-exotic’ debate: for example, in the woodlands of Glengariff near here, when they were granted SAC (Special Area od Conservation) status over 10 years ago, all the conifers including some high-grade timber such as Cedar and Douglas Fir were removed (I know as I have a couple of beams from those trees in my roundhouse frame) in order to keep the woodland as ‘native’ as possible: but to a permaculturalist, this conservation ethic seems arbitrary and wasteful. Few exotics are actually invasive (rhododendron being an obvious example) while maintaining areas as museum pieces frozen at a particular moment in time involves in keeping humans from taking a sustainable yield. David Holmgren gave me a more extreme example from New Zealand where Douglas Fir was invading the denuded slopes of the Southern Alps. This was dealt with by spraying herbicides from helicopters to deter this ‘invasive’ species.

(Michael Crichton gives other examples of this from the management of National Parks in America which he considers to have been disastrous causing more harm than good, and cites Alston Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone: the destruction of America’s first National Park.)

Environmentalists took to the idea of a self-regulating ecosystem like ducks to Walden Pond but they failed to appreciate that it was the product of mathematics, part of the very post-Enlightenment rationality they were rejecting as they began to turn ecological science into religion, where knowledge rested on the ‘almost sensuous intuiting of natural harmonies’, as Theodore Rosak put it, and the balance of nature was thus granted sacred status.

{see my more recent post reviewing Daniel Botkin’s book which also examines these themes of early computer modelling and the myth f the “balance of nature”.}

Kellow continues with these themes in the next two chapters on climate science, which he calls “post-normal” or “virtual” because of its reliance on computer models and its politicization. Kellow presents here a detailed examination of climate science, the problems with computer models and the way this is used to promote in his view a political agenda. They represent the most damning critique of climate science- all the more so since it was written before climategate but points some of the blame at many of the same players.

One of the problems with modelling is that the models are only as good as the data that is fed into them; yet they have a tendency to become tautological as the models themselves are then used to assess the quality of the data: this is one of the ways in which there may be a strong tendency for “virtuous corruption” in the field. For example, Kellow argues that not only does the data have to be nursed in order to “correct” for the Urban Heat Island Effect, but Kellow cites another example of erroneous data being fed into the models leading to misleading conclusions about future emissions from developing nations, an error based upon hugely underestimating their relative wealth and therefore over-estimating the likely increases in emissions as they develop.

Kellow takes a look at the infamous hockey-stick graph published in 1998 by Mann et al (later to play centre-stage in climategate) and how a couple of papers over-turned the accepted history of global temperatures by essentially eliminating the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) in order to make recent warming look “unprecedented.”

What was surprising was not the publication of a couple of papers which challenged the established scientific orthodoxy- that happens all the time- but that these papers were accepted and became the new orthodoxy so quickly and so readily, and it is clear that both the alacrity and readiness and subsequent defence of the new orthodoxy were inextricably related to the political value of the findings.

One of the most interesting sections is examples given of papers that might have questioned the so-called “consensus” on climate science, but which were rejected by journals or found difficulty in passing peer-review, and also Kellow’s critique of Oreskes 2004 paper claiming in a survey of all 928 scientific papers produced between 1993 and 2003 using the keywords “climate change” that there was essentially no peer-reviewed literature that questioned the “consensus”. Kellow is eviscerating of this paper which he sees as

palpable nonsense, as could quickly be verified by a replication of the search- a test any referee or editor could have subjected the paper to, had they bothered, and had they been at all skeptical of the claim…
…a search of the ISI database using ‘climate change’ produced 12000 papers, and Oreskes was forced to admit… that she had used the three keywords ‘global climate change’, which had reduced the return by an order of magnitude. Science published a correction by Oreskes but it refused to publish a letter from Dr. Benny Peiser which showed that her numbers could not be replicated, and another by Dr. Dennis Bray reporting a survey of climate scientists showing that fewer than 1 in 10 considered that climate change was principally caused by human activity.

The general view expressed by Oreskes is that skeptics are in the pay of Big Oil and therefore there is a professional motive to cast doubt on the consensus. This naive view extends throughout the environmental movement- detractors to any environmental concern are angrily dismissed as industry stooges. While it is easy to see how the oil and coal industry may have a vested interest in casting such doubts, the gas an nuclear industries stand to gain from Kyoto-style treaties, and carbon- trading may be seriously open to corruption from unscrupulous financial corporations, a charge levied at Enron. Just as homeopathy is marketed as an “alternative” to Evil Big Pharma but is actually sold for maximum profit just like real pharmaceuticals, so multi-national environmental NGOs also have agendas, manipulate data to attract more funding, and the same may also be true of activist scientists.
Kellow then goes on in the next chapter to examine the specific case of the attack on Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Swedish Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, Bjorn Lomborg was vilified- and continues to be so- not just for taking issue with proposed responses to climate change, namely the rapid Kyoto-style reduction in emissions, but in his challenge of the deeper tenets of environmentalism, namely that doomsday claims made by environmentalists are often not supported by the evidence and things may not be quite as bad as some would have us believe.

Kellow argues that the rise of virtual science based only on models and not checked in the real world reflect “the prominence among science of those who have been supporting a pessimistic view of environmental degradation since the re-emergence of Malthusianism from the late-1960s, exemplified particularly by Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich and his associates.” Kellow examines a group centered around Population Bomb author Professor Paul Ehrlich who vigorously defended there worldview which Lomborg characterized as the “Litany” of environmental doom.

Lomborg tells of how he had begin to examine the claims made by economist Julian Simon in the 1980s, who famously made a bet with Ehrlich that prices of a selection commodities would decline rather than increase, thus giving the lie to the Club of Rome’s 1972 report Limits to Growth. Simon won the bet, and as Lomborg examined his critiques of environmentalist pessimism also began to see how Ehrlich and others were wrong.

What is significant about the response to Lomborg was its irrationality, ad hominem attacks (IPCC chairman Pachauri likened Lomborg to Hitler) and lack of scientific rigour. Importantly however, one of the negative reviewers, Michael Grubb, accepted Lomborg’s view that the Litany was overplayed and in many areas things were in fact getting better:

To any modern professional, it is no news at all that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was mostly wrong or that Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have perennially exaggerated the problems of food supply
(It just happens that yesterday’s Guardian carries a story on just that- Lester Brown exaggerating the problems of food supply).

The problem was that many of the attacks from the likes of Michael Grubb, Jeffrey Harvey and Stuart Pimm, and other in the Union of Concerned Scientists, were themselves subject to Lomborg’s critique of promoting the Litany:

Not only were these critics the principle “litanists” whose reputations Lomborg had called into question, they were a small and tightly-defined group. They all seemed to be connected by an association with one person: Paul Ehrlich, who had famously lost the wager with Julian Simon, the contrarian whose statistics Lomborg had set out to disprove.

Kellow makes the important point that of course there are strong reasons to protect biodiversity and address climate impacts, but that the specific policies promoted themselves fall outside the remit of pure science- they require more than just science to justify them; there is an irony in the exaggerated attack on Lomborg since it rather proved his point that the Litany is exaggerated; and that while in medical science for example there is a strong principle of declaring conflict of interests,

rarely do we find declarations of political conflict of interest in the broad field of what we might broadly call ‘environmental science.’

Kellow goes on to give many other examples of the politicization of what he calls “activist scientists” in general environmentalism and climate science:

Many ‘activist’ environmental scientists … seem largely unaware that it is there cultural views (or myths) of nature that largely drive their particular ‘take’ on science

while he also makes the case that there are large amounts of funding and vested interest at stake for environmental groups, who gain from the continual belief that we are facing into environmental catastrophe.
This is an important book which documents thoroughly some of the history of the environmental movement and how climate change became its flagship, based on virtual science and a leaping from data to policy that is presented to the public and policy makers as if neutral, when in fact it is frequently imbued with ideology. There are lots of questions to be asked of both the environmental movement and the process of science itself; ultimately however, Kellow concludes that there may not be outright dishonesty involved:

Virtuous corruption need not presuppose deliberate or even conscious manipulation of data or models, but simply the privileging of certain results through the lack of sufficient skepticism of data and methods that provide answers that are politically useful.

Put away your Eco-Guilt

Monbiot again a couple of weeks ago:

For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.

Who has been telling us this “for years” ? Monbiot neglects to tell us- perhaps it is just made up. I assumed however that he was referring to Goklany’s Environmental Transition.

In the early stages of development the primary aim is – as would be expected – promoting growth. But as countries become wealthier they can afford to broaden their focus. ‘The richer a country, the greater its ability to do something about environmental concerns,’ says Goklany. ‘And the reason is simple – they have the economic infrastructure and the human capital to do something about it.’ In effect, the richer countries have the ability to buy themselves a better environment.

According to this theory, nations tend to clean up their act as they get wealthier- once the immediate needs of food and housing and medicine are catered for, there are resources available for cleaning the air and the water. This theory is modeled using the Environmental Kuznets Curve which shows the theoretical point at which despoiling the environment to power growth gives way to that same growth being used to improving the environment. No one who has traveled in a developing country would claim I think that they generally have cleaner air or cleaner water. You only have to compare the air quality of Beijing with that of London to see a striking example. London no longer has the pea-soupers of the 1940s and 50s, but Beijing- which is at a comparable stage of development to London 50 years ago – lives in a permanent and deadly pea soup. Will China be able to use some of its new-found wealth to clean the air so its citizens can go out without face-masks? Time will tell.

The visually sumptuous film Perfume- the Story of a Murderer has a fascinating behind the scenes short on the DVD which I watched a few years ago. In order to replicate the street scenes in the first part of the movie of 18th Century Paris, an entire department had to work for weeks to produce enough pure unadulterated knee-deep filth. The EPA would never allow this these days- and nor would citizens of the developed nations.

This is not to say there is some kind of inevitable straight-line process of development through these stages. As Yandle et al suggest (pdf)

Saying all this may tempt one to think that higher incomes alone will solve most environmental problems. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. If it were, transfers of income from richer to poorer societies—through foreign aid, for example—would enable the recipients to avoid environmental destruction. The movement along an environmental Kuznets curve is also a movement through a well-known set of property rights stations.

Wealth and growth are necessary- but not sufficient in themselves- to guarantee a cleaner environment.

Tim Worstall has already pointed out that it is what people do, not what they say they care about, that counts:

We might change out minds a little bit about this if we are to talk of climate change: for it is true that emissions from people living in the rich world are higher than of those living in the poor. But do also note what is happening: we rich world people are putting in place the expensive plans required to lower those emissions. Feed in tariffs, cap and trade, carbon taxes: whether you want to “take climate change seriously” or not is entirely up to you. But there’s absolutely no doubt that it is us in the places that apparently don’t care about it that are actually doing things about it.

Another example of this with regard to climate change is shale gas: rich world innovation has resulted in the development of cleaner shale gas which has succeeded- in the US at least- where treaties and carbon caps and taxes have so far failed: an overall reduction in CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, most of the increase in CO2 is coming from the still-developing world who rely on cheaper coal to drag themselves out of poverty.

Worstall has looked before at this issue, pointing out that in the IPCC reports, some of their scenarios actually show the highest growth leading to the lowest emissions.

We don’t have to stop economic growth at all, we can quite happily have around the same amount of it that we had in the 20 th century. So that’s a large number of the Green Miserablists shown to be wrong. We don’t have to reduce or even severely limit our energy consumption: we just have to get the growth in our consumption from other than the usual sources. A large number of the Energy Miserablists shown to be wrong there too.

It is not even just how clean the environment becomes however, but the further up Maslow’s hierarchy we climb, the more likely we are to become environmentalists. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus so perceptively point out in their book Breakthrough, environmentalism is not a reaction against modern industrial society, but a product of it.

All this should make Mr. Monbiot very happy, but no, it is not enough for the eco-zealot and True Believer: for them, it is not enough to do good deeds if you do not also feel a suitable amount of Eco-Guilt. However, if you go around asking people to tell you for a survey how much they care, different cultures may tell you very differently without any correlation necessarily to how much they are actually doing. A rich society with a very clean environment for example may list their environment low on a list of concerns simply because it is already fairly well looked after. Equally, in a different culture, asking you to rate your eco-guilt could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The peasant farmer who has to feed and cook for her children today and tomorrow and every day will slash and burn for short-term gain, and even cut down the last tree in sight if needs be, while richer societies have more energy-dense fuels that actually allow them to preserve wilderness. There is similarly plenty of evidence that early humans caused plenty of environmental degradation, probably including species extinction. Protecting endangered species does seem to be a modern invention, and not mainly because there was no need in the past.

Monbiot’s Rewilding project- while worthy and interesting in itself- unfortunately seems to me to barely hide his misanthropy. He reminds me of a modern Thoreau, who idealized Nature while still having his Mum do his laundry.

It is quite right that we should want a clean environment and use some of our wealth to protect wild nature, but surely we can do this without the need to look down our noses at the hoi-polloi who like to do a bit of shopping as well.

Rachel Carson, DDT and the Greens

At the end of 2010 Channel 4 broadcast a fascinating documentary called What the Greens Got Wrong.

There was a lively studio debate afterwards featuring Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, with GMOs and nuclear power were the main topics under discussion. Another controversy, perhaps even more fundamental to the canon of Green thinking was also scrutinized, and lead to a somewhat acrimonious exchange between Stewart Brand and George Monbiot: Rachel Carson and DDT.

In his book Whole Earth Discipline Brand writes of the legacy of Rachel Carson and the subsequent *restrictions* on DDT use to combat malaria:

Environmentalists were right to be inspired by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book on pesticides, Silent Spring, but wrong to place DDT in the category of Absolute Evil (which she did not) … In an excess of zeal that Carson did not live to moderate, DDT was banned worldwide, and malaria took off in Africa. Quoted in a 2007 National Geographic article, Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said: ‘The ban on DDT may have killed 20m children.’

and rightly, Monbiot asks for sources for this claim: are the Greens really to blame for 20million deaths? This is a serious charge and demands suitably verifiable references.

Brand just refers him back to Robert Gwadz, a source Monbiot apparently has no interest in pursuing, instead over-playing his hand against Brand, as Keith Kloor noted at the time:

Well, to my eyes, Monbiot is swinging wildly with the charge of Brand being little more than a corporate shill. It’s too bad, too, because Monbiot was clearly winning on points with all the tight jabs that did hit their mark in his latest post.

Roll forward three-and-a-half years to yesterday’s World Malaria Day and Monbiot has post discussing his recent interview with another prominent Green Heretic James Lovelock concerning his new book A Rough Ride to the Future in which Lovelock repeats the same claims as Brand, apparently also without references:

Neither Rachel Carson, nor the green movement – nor the US government seemed aware of the dire human consequence of banning the manufacture of DDT and its lookalikes before substitutes were available … In 1963 malaria was about to become effectively controlled. The insecticide ban led to a rise in malaria deaths to 2 million yearly, plus over 100 million disabled by the disease.

Monbiot tells the same story that he told in 2010: there was no worldwide ban; DDT was no longer effective for malaria vector control due to over-use in agriculture; the Stockholm convention which regulates pesticide use permits DDT use for disease vector control; the whole story about DDT bans and millions of deaths is just a trumped up slur against the noble green movement and the honorable legacy of Rachel Carson by right-wing think tanks in the pay of Big Tobacco.

Not so fast. It seems to me there is rather more to this story than Monbiot and other Green apologists would like us to believe.

For a start, with reference to the Tobacco industries’ conspiracy and Monbiot’s claim of “paid astro-turfers” it turns out that things are not so simple. Fascinatingly according to Matt Ridley, Rachel Carson’s mentor William Heuper fully supported her views on DDT and other agrochemical carcinogens, and believed himself that the targeting tobacco as a cause of cancer- which was only really taking off in the 1960s and ’70s- was a plot to detract attention away from agrochemicals.

So obsessed was Hueper with his notion that pesticides and other synthetic chemicals were causing an epidemic of cancer and that industry was covering this up, that he bitterly opposed the suggestion that smoking take any blame – as an industry plot.

Elsewhere, the tobacco industry has also seen its interests threatened by the continuing use of DDT, thus indirectly finding common cause with environmentalists:

Yet British American Tobacco, in a coalition with many other corporations in Uganda, has called for a delay to the spraying program, warning that the use of DDT could threaten lucrative exports of tobacco, coffee, cut flowers and other agricultural products.

It seems to me that Monbiot resorts to paranoid conspiracy theories because he cannot substantiate his claims either. On Twitter yesterday I asked George whether he was 100% sure that environmental campaigns against DDT might not have contributed to the post-mid-1960s resurgence of malaria, sighting this paper on malaria in India:

In 1947, when India became independent, 75 million malaria cases in a population of 330 million were estimated.7 During the eradication era in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a spectacular achievement was witnessed on the malaria eradication front because malaria cases significantly declined to just 100,000 in 1964. However, reversal was experienced, and malaria staged a comeback. By 1976, malaria cases had touched the 6.4 million mark. A continued rise in P. falci-parum was witnessed, and its proportion has gradually risen to nearly 50% in recent years

Monbiot responded tersely:

-but in fact this is quite wrong: drug resistance is a separate issue that made treating malaria much harder, while no mention is made of DDT resistance. The Monbiot refused to correct himself on this, his rude and defensive tone betraying his desperate need to defend the Greens from any historical wrong-doing at all costs:

Instead, he could have simply referenced the Wikipaedia article on DDT which provides a good summary and confirms that DDT resistance was becoming a growing problem in the 1960s threatening to roll back many of the gains made in the previous couple of decades. However, it is NOT clear that this is what lead to the dramatic come-back made by the disease in the late-1960s:

In 1955, the World Health Organization commenced a program to eradicate malaria worldwide, relying largely on DDT. The program was initially highly successful, eliminating the disease in “Taiwan, much of the Caribbean, the Balkans, parts of northern Africa, the northern region of Australia, and a large swath of the South Pacific”[26] and dramatically reducing mortality in Sri Lanka and India.[27] However widespread agricultural use led to resistant insect populations. In many areas, early victories partially or completely reversed and, in some cases, rates of transmission even increased.[28] The program was successful in eliminating malaria only in areas with “high socio-economic status, well-organized healthcare systems, and relatively less intensive or seasonal malaria transmission”.

So, yes, it is indeed true that DDT resistance contributed to a resurgence of malaria in some countries- those without the means for a more comprehensive campaign relying not only on DDT but also including other environmental controls and public health measures; but this does not entirely let the Greens off the hook

A couple of things do not add up in the environmentalists’ defence since we are told repeatedly that DDT was never banned for vector control. The question is, which Monbiot (nor Quiggin and Lambert, who he references) does not address, instead deflecting the attention away with paranoid ramblings about paid astro-turf groups) is whether the 1972 US domestic ban for agricultural use made it hard to get for health workers in the field- this after all was the original claim made by Gwadz:

Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.”

(emphases added.)

Wiki states:

Spraying programs (especially using DDT) were curtailed due to concerns over safety and environmental effects, as well as problems in administrative, managerial and financial implementation, but mostly because mosquitoes were developing resistance to DDT

So the availability of DDT may be a mute point if it had been found to be ineffective anyway and was no longer being used.

There was indeed an environmental camapaign against DDT in the late-60s post- Silent Spring:

DDT became a prime target of the growing anti-chemical and anti-pesticide movements, and in 1967 a group of scientists and lawyers founded the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) with the specific goal of winning a ban on DDT.

Why was this necessary, one wonders, if DDT was already falling into disuse due to resistance?
According to this statement by the WHO in 2006

Nearly thirty years after phasing out the widespread use of indoor spraying with DDT and other insecticides to control malaria, the World Health Organization (WHO) today announced that this intervention will once again play a major role in its efforts to fight the disease.

-suggesting that DDT for vector control used in IRS (Indoor Residual Spraying) WAS severely curtailed, contradicting somewhat complacent claims by Monbiot that there was no restriction on its use for this purpose.

Wiki cites other reasons for the return of malaria apart from insect resistance:

WHO’s anti-malaria campaign of the 1950s and 1960s relied heavily on DDT and the results were promising, though temporary. Experts tie the resurgence of malaria to multiple factors, including poor leadership, management and funding of malaria control programs; poverty; civil unrest; and increased irrigation.

while countries who stopped using DDT experienced an increase in malaria:

According to DDT advocate Donald Roberts, malaria cases increased in South America after countries in that continent stopped using DDT. Research data shows a significantly strong negative relationship between DDT residual house sprayings and malaria rates. In a research from 1993 to 1995, Ecuador increased its use of DDT and resulted in a 61% reduction in malaria rates, while each of the other countries that gradually decreased its DDT use had large increase in malaria rates.

The reports are mixed: banning DDT for agricultural use may have saved lives by slowing the development of resistance; on the other hand, why was it still permitted- or used- in vector control if resistance had been such a problem? How long after the agricultural ban does resistance stop being a problem? The patterns of resistance and use in agriculture vis-a-vis vector control seem to be complex and vary considerably from country to country.

It has also been alleged that donor governments and agencies have refused to fund DDT spraying, or made aid contingent upon not using DDT. According to a report in the British Medical Journal, use of DDT in Mozambique “was stopped several decades ago, because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT.”[130] Roger Bate asserts, “many countries have been coming under pressure from international health and environment agencies to give up DDT or face losing aid grants: Belize and Bolivia are on record admitting they gave in to pressure on this issue from [USAID].”

More weight to the claim that environmental campaigns hindered the availability of DDT in some countries where it was badly needed comes from this letter to The Lancet in 2000, quoted in the comments under Monbiot’s Guardian article yesterday:

Since the early 1970s, DDT has been banned in
industrialised countries and the interdiction was gradually
extended to malarious countries. The bans occurred in
response to continuous international and national
pressures to eliminate DDT because of environmental
concerns…..Despite objections by notable malariologists, the move away from spraying houses was progressively
strengthened by WHO’s malaria control strategies of 1969,
1979, and 1992. These strategies were adopted even
though published WHO documents and committee reports
have consistently and accurately characterised DDT sprayed
houses as the most cost effective and safe approach
to malaria control…..Other mechanisms also have been used by
environmental advocates to stop use of DDT for malaria
control. A recent example is the agreement of the North
American Commission for Environmental Cooperation
(CEC) that forced Mexico to stop producing and using
DDT for malaria control. This agreement also eliminated
a rare source of DDT for malaria control in other countries
in South America…….Numerous epidemics have occurred in many countries,
after suspension of DDT house treatments, such as
Swaziland (1984) and Madagascar (1986–88), where
malaria killed more than 100 000 people….Today, few countries still use DDT and most have no way to even buy this insecticide…The position of
many scientists concerned about increasing malaria was
described in an open letter that was subsequently signed
by over 380 scientists, including three Nobel laureates in
medicine, representing 57 countries. The letter supports
continued use of DDT and residual spraying of houses for
malaria control.

This letter was covered by the Guardian at the time:

“While it is true that we don’t know every last risk of using DDT, we know very well what the risk of malaria is – and on balance malaria is far, far more deadly than the worst that one could imagine about DDT,” said Amir Attaran, director of the Malaria Project in Washington. He and the Malaria Foundation International organised the open letter.

In 2001, Greenpeace were campaigning to “close down the only major DDT production facility in the world, located in Cochin, India.”

Others who could claim to have some personal experience in malaria-torn countries and the use of DDT in both agriculture and disease control who finger the Greens include
Norman Borlaug (though he makes no reference to the possibility that resistance had become a problem); and
Anthony Trewavas in a letter to Nature (which I do not have access to);

According to an editorial in The Economist in 2000

In the early 1990s, for example, the United States Agency for International Development stopped the governments of Bolivia and Belize from using DDT. In Madagascar, the United Nations Development Programme tried to persuade the government to replace DDT with Propoxur, a less effective pesticide. To its credit, Madagascar refused. In Mozambique, both NORAD, the Norwegian development agency, and SIDA, its Swedish counterpart, said that they could not support the use of DDT, as it was banned in their own countries. That the problems of a desperately poor malarial country in Africa might be somewhat different from those of wealthy, non-malarial Scandinavia seems not to have occurred to them.

Monbiot would have is believe that all of these opinions of experts- including Gwadz and Roberts who are experts in the field with decades of experience in malaria control, and the 380 scientists and malaria experts including three Nobel Laureates who signed the Washington Malaria Project Open Letter are just the lazy and ideological parrots of a conspiracy perpetrated by tobacco industry shills.

To accept this is to deny the wider legacy and ideological roots of the environmental movement. As Jon Entine expalains in his book Scared to Death- How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health the post- Silent Spring DDT debate took place in the context of a growing political environmentalism that was often misanthropic in nature:

The issue of restricting population growth played into the debate over DDT in a disconcerting way. The public was confronted with Ehrlich’s (erroneous) conviction that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in coming decades because of overpopulation. The issue of withdrawing anti-malarial programs as a means of population control was broadly discussed and debated. In his book, Ehrlich himself appeared to “blame” DDT for saving lives, exacerbating the overpopulation problem: “The introduction of DDT in 1946 brought rapid control over the mosquitoes which carry malaria. As a result, the death rate on the island [of Ceylon] was halved in less than a decade. … Death control [DDT use] did not reach Colombia until after World War II. … Each child adds to the impossible burden of a family and to the despair of a mother.” (Ehrlich 1968)

As with many other instances of over-zealous application of the Precautionary Principle, Entine explains:

The paradigmatic example of an overreaction is what happened to DDT, the insecticide targeted by Rachel Carson. DDT remains the totemic villain of the environmental movement, but it has saved more lives from malaria and other insect-borne diseases than any other chemical. In retrospect, the ban on DDT has proven to be a mistake of tragic proportion. In the early 1960s, several developing countries had nearly wiped out malaria. After they stopped using the insecticide, other control methods had only modest success and malaria came raging back. In one of many examples, in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), DDT spraying had reduced malaria cases from 2.8 million in 1948 to 17 by 1963.

Entine concludes that although most environmental NGOs now accept DDT use for vector control, they should not be let ignore the costs of past actions:

Given the state of the science at the time Carson wrote her book, one might generously make the case that her concerns about the potentially unknown effects of synthetic chemicals on human health were not unwarranted. Some key facts were unclear. But after four decades chasing the potential risks of DDT and certain other chemicals without measurably improving world health, and is some cases degrading it, her followers in the environmental movement bear the responsibility of wasting billions of dollars and destroying millions of lives.

Exaggerated environmental alarmism is liable to cause, and is responsible for, a great deal of human suffering, a current issue being the campaign by Greenpeace and the Organic movement against Golden Rice. This is an asymmetric story of wealthy westerners with idealistic environmental obsessions interfering with the much more immediate life-and-death concerns of the poor. The South African journalist Ivo Vegter points out in his book Extreme Environment: How environmental exaggeration harms emerging economies how convenient it was for the US to plan a ban on DDT use in 1971, just after the last developed nation had eradicated malaria from its own shores.

He sums up the DDT debate:

Both sides are wrong. Both sides are guilty of exaggeration. And neither side does the rest of us any favours by their shrill extremism.
Rachel Carson was not evil. She raised very real problems, which in the preceding years had several times made newspaper headlines across her native United States….

In particular, Carson did not advocate ignoring insect-born diseases merely because combating them might require chemical pesticides. What she actually said was ‘Practical advice should be “spray as little as you possibly can” rather than “Spray to the limit of your capacity”‘.

Monbiot is right to challenge the hyperbole of comparing Rachel Carson to Hitler and blaming her personally for tens of millions of deaths, but this does not exonerate the environmental movement which continues to try to ban useful and life-saving technology due to narcissistic fears more than any science, from GMOs to nuclear power to neonicotinoids.

And Monbiot is guilty of his own hyperbole when it suits him. He calls out Lovelock:

James repeats and embellishes an extraordinary and disgraceful myth, first circulated a few years ago by corporate-funded astroturfers, that green campaigners are responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

But is this really any worse than Monbiot himself making unsubstantiated hyperbolic claims such as this about climate change?

This is the great moral issue of the twenty-first century, and if we don’t deal with climate change, we condemn hundreds of millions of people to death.

Is not this accusation -that those who obstruct (a particular kind of) “action on climate” are “worse than Hitler” the origin of the word “denier” which Monbiot is happy to use himself in his rhetoric?

Stay tuned- this is a topic I hope to return to quite soon….

Permaculture and GMOs

UK’s leading Permaculture author Patrick Whitefield posted an interesting tweet the other day:

to which I replied:

It seems a strange argument- how does one define “need” in this case? A new technology that can save large losses from disease seems something certainly desirable- and ultimately we may well need it to make farming more efficient. Even if we do not currently “need” GE spuds, the technology has many other applications and developing countries where food security is not so, well, secure, really do need such improvements for their farmers.

One specific but quite different application of the technology is of course Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice. With hundreds of thousands of vitamin-A deficient children becoming blind each year, and half of them dying within a year, this rice would indisputably be meeting a very urgent need which other methods are clearly not meeting. To claim otherwise is “just noise.”

Genetic engineering does have significant advantages over traditional breeding methods- new blight resistant varieties can be turned around in just one growing season as opposed to 10-15 years, keeping ahead of the blight’s own evolution. Either way, we are on a tread-mill, always striving to keep at least one step ahead of Nature who would starve us as soon as look at us. Moreover, a wider choice of tools surely leads to more resilience- just as the permaculture principle of “multiple sources” would advise.

You may as well say we don’t “need” computers since the postal service does an admiral job, or we don’t need buses and trains since the humble horse can carry us to Tipperary just as well. On the face of it is just seems like an excuse to undermine a technology which is somewhat arbitrarily the subject of a vitriolic environmentalist campaign. The clue comes in the last paragraph of the linked article:

Ultimately, the array of techniques currently in practice among commercial growers to prevent potato blight makes the need for a GM solution appear redundant and potentially reckless, especially when considering the broader implications of resistance, pesticide-use, and corporate ownership of our food systems.

Ah yes, playing the “corporate ownership of the food system” card- which rather conveniently serves to cover up the absence of any actual argument against GMOs in the article, even if some growers do find Sarpos preferable.

I challenged Patrick that his opposition was ideological, and he didn’t really have any argument. He disputed this- “For me this is not a matter of ideology but of practicality, of weighing pros and cons.”- and went on to make a point:

Again, this seems an odd argument- as if a solution cannot be used if it works really well, because if it works too well it won’t work very well. If you get my drift… In my view, this is just a concealed concession to fears of Pandora’s Box: we should not trust technology. We are too clever for our own good. No good in fact will come of this, since we just shouldn’t be meddlin’ in what we don’t really understand. That is what I mean by ideology- the misanthropy that underpins much environmentalism, including permaculture, that basically would shake its head in dismay at the Knowing Ape and say: People just ain’t no good.

In the real world there are actual farmers who know about these things, and have well known techniques to help slow the evolution of pest resistance, for example by planting corn refuges. As with so many issues raised in objection to GMOs, this is a farm management issue, not a plant breeding issue.

In fact, although resistance is an inevitable result of any kind of pest control method- that ol’ treadmill again- the reality is far more interesting. It turns out that the unintended consequences of for example of Bt corn in the US are of the beneficial kind- is so successful that it can actually provide a refuge for non-transgenic varieties. The halo effect is best known in the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii, credited with saving the Organic Papaya industry which was being devastated by ringspot virus- again, traditional methods had proved unable to solve the problem, so there an indisputable (but not undisputed) need:

In the case of the Hawaiian papaya, scientists planted an “island” of nontransgenic variety in an “ocean” of transgenic papaya as a means of securing the nontransgenic variety. The specially modified traits of GM crops helped to kill off pests, control water intake and provide a sort of refuge for non-modified crops in nearby acres.

Patrick responded to this:

Open-mindedness is a very welcome quality in this highly politicized and ideological issue. For Patrick Whitefield to even claim this is big bananas in permaculture world, since he is one of the top writers for the UK Permaculture Magazine, which has taken an overtly activist position against GMOs, and regularly fetes Indian ideologue Vandana Shiva .

(For an must-read in-depth look at what Vandana Shiva really stands for see this article by Marco Rosaire Conrad-Rossi.)

Most bizarrly though, Patrick ended the exchange by saying that it was me who is closed-minded!

I suggested to Patrick that he write an article on GMOs for the magazine, arguing for an open-minded approach. This I think would be rather a stretch- but one can live in hope.