Mark Lynas Doesn’t Get It

Posted by Ben Pile on April 25, 2011
Apr 252011

Barry Woods points us to Mark Lynas’s latest comment on the gap opening up between himself and anti-nuclear environmentalists.

Yesterday I was an environmentalist. Today, according to tweets from prominent greens, and an op-ed response piece in the Guardian, I’m a “Chernobyl death denier”. My crime has been to stick to the peer-reviewed consensus scientific reports on the health impacts of the Chernobyl disaster, rather than – as is apparently necessary to remain politically correct as a ‘green’ – cleaving instead to self-published reports from pseudo scientists who have spent a lifetime hyping the purported dangers of radiation.

As said in the previous post here, the bond formed between environmentalists, and of course between environmentalists and the establishment, is insubstantial. They were held together by the utility created by their scare stories, given scientific authority, not by the cohesive substance that might bring people of a similar political philosophy or culture together: shared values, vision, or goals.

In 2008, the Royal Society gave Lynas an award for his book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. At the time, we wrote,

It seems that, rather than basing knowledge about the material universe on experimental evidence, the Royal Society and its senior members instead seek authority in science fiction; the extrapolation of superficially plausible science, forward into the future, where a drama plays out. … Lynas the one-time circus-activist stuntman, has his childish perspective on the world given respectability by the establishment’s accolades, and has expensive films made about his dark fantasy.

There is a peculiar symbiosis, in which, Lynas and his ilk give the scientific establishment authority by constructing nightmare visions of the future, which are given credibility by figures such as Sir Martin Rees and Lord May. The service that Lynas does for the Royal Society is to connect this institution to our everyday fears and anxieties, to give it relevance at a time when, as with politicians, it struggles to define its purpose.

Lynas, Like Monbiot now shouts “DENIERS” at the environmental movement, who call him a denier…

I have discovered over the past few weeks that the anti-nuclear end of the environmental movement has no regard for proper scientific process when it comes to the issue which defines it. Perhaps this is no surprise, because as George Monbiot and others have shown, the methods used by campaigners on nuclear bear all the hallmarks of the methods used by anti-science climate change ‘deniers’.

Lynas and Monbiot have forgotten their own environmental journeys. They have forgotten where they came from. They find themselves in a snug relationship with respectable, institutional science, and imagine that it was always so. They cannot remember their lives as self-styled anti-establishment radicals.

According to the Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit, “the claimed effect has no biological plausibility”. So why were Green Audit’s conclusions accepted so uncritically by the media and the public, if not by scientists? Because, “a high degree of mistrust in conventional agencies can make elaborate conspiracies seem plausible”.

So this is what Green Audit and other anti-nuclear campaign groups thrive on: distrust of both the nuclear industry and official health protection and regulatory agencies, allowing them to invoke shadowy conspiracies by men in white lab coats who presumably enjoy foisting dangerous radioactive materials on an unwilling public, all no doubt controlled by a sinister mastermind bearing a striking resemblance to Mr Burns off the Simpsons, the evil boss of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

Lynas nearly has a point here — the issue of trust is key. But he has forgotten that he himself stood against the science… Just last year, in What the Green Movement Got Wrong, Lynas admitted that his objection to GM, and his participation in anti GM direct action ‘wasn’t a science-based rational thing. It was an emotional thing and it was about the relation between humans and other living things’.

What Lynas should do is attempt to understand why his preoccupation with some emotional idea about ‘the relation between humans and other living things’ precluded trust in the scientific institutions that claimed it was safe. Instead, he uses the authority of institutional science to bash his erstwhile comrades, seemingly oblivious to the fact that, barely a decade ago, he would have been just as indifferent to such an argument about what ‘science’ says, just as Monbiot was.

The similarities with climate science ‘deniers’ is overwhelming. Take the selective use of data. Climate sceptics make much of the supposed lack of global warming over the last ten years – they do this by starting their data series in 1998, which was a very hot year, making it appear as if cooling took place thereafter. Similarly, Busby et al exclude Welsh leaukaemia data between 1974-81 (when there was only one incidence on the North Wales coastal strip, despite a much more lax safety regime in Sellafield during that period and consequently far greater releases of radiation into the sea), and use instead the period 1982-90, when there were nine. Had Green Audit used the longer data series, their conclusions would not have been statistically significant, which was presumably why the earlier data was excluded.

Leaving aside ‘the science’ for a moment, Lynas misses the point — made here, often — that, as far as ‘the Deniers’ are concerned, there is no longer any good reason to take pronouncements from official science at face value. They have been politicised. Scientists now fulfil a political need. That is the price of politics that claims legitimacy in scientific authority. It no longer matters what official science says. Moreover, once environmentalists decided to invest their political capital in the notion of scientific certainty, they let the politically-and-financially-motivated-science cat out of the bag. After all, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if oil interests can influence the science, so too can the interests that stand to gain from seemingly eco-friendly policies.

And there are bloody good reasons for asking questions about ‘the science’. As Barry Woods asks at Lynas’s blog,

Franny Armstrong, in the Guardian scoop of the 10:10 ‘No Pressure’ video said 300,000 people were dying of climate change.

Am I a ‘deniar’ to ask her where she got that figure from, or ask Damian Carrington who wrote the story to verify her source for that statement.

The full story of Franny and the 300,000 ‘deaths from climate change’ claim can be read here.

The claim of X deaths per year from climate change belies the reality that each of those virtual deaths are from poverty, not from from climate change. This blog has argued that in this claim we can see climate politics preceding climate science. In order to make it stand, we have to presuppose that things could not have happened any other way than a small change in the weather causing so many deaths.
The implication is, then, that those people could not have been wealthier, so that they were not so vulnerable to the elements. Such a possibility is anathema to the environmentalists’ conception of the world. And this is the logic that Lynas carries forward in his fantasy, Six Degrees, and this highly deterministic, naturalistic view of the world is what the scientific establisment has bought into, not discovered through science. It is a value-driven view of the world, not a value-free investigation of it, as much as Presidents of the Royal Society protest otherwise.

So Lynas is left in a bind. If he really were to see the argument about trust through, he would realise his own role as the purveyor of distrust. If he were to start to understand himself, as he once stood alongside his former anti-nuclear colleagues, he would realise the fragility of scientific authority, used in lieu of trust. He would be forced, simultaneously, to understand the objections of the deniers, and he would start to see how trust in science is being squandered, colonised by empty political agendas such as his own.

In Whom Do We Trust?

Posted by Ben Pile on April 24, 2011
Apr 242011

I’ve been too busy for blogging, again. Moving house — or trying to, and boring stuff like that. This is a very long post, and slightly out of date. So only read if you’ve got some spare time this Easter weekend. I will come back to some of the points I’ve tried to raise here, because I think the accident in Fukushima has caused interesting things to fall out of the environmental debate. I’ve been thinking about what Monbiot has to say about nuclear power, and how it interacts, so to speak, with the climate issue. The issue that emerges when we look at both debates is, I believe, trust.

George Monbiot has escalated his rhetoric against his one-time anti-nuclear colleagues in the environmental movement.

The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

This isn’t an atomic coming-out party for Monbiot. He and fellow environmentalist Mark Lynas have had a number of skirmishes with others from the green camp over the years over the issue.

In 2008, Lynas claimed to have experienced a ‘Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma.’ Monbiot agreed. Lynas went head to head against Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas. The reality of the rift developing between greens, however, is not one in which dogma is replaced by ‘evidence’ or ‘science, as Monbiot and Lynas claim, but by another dogma – climate alarmism, the logic of which now unsettles the grounds it emerged from. As was argued here, this fusion of environmentalism and advocacy of nuclear power looks less like a Damascene conversion, and more like a Reformation. Deep ecologism was giving way to a form of seemingly pragmatic environmentalism, or climate-centricism – a form that is more palatable to the establishment.

Any kind of ‘climate sceptic’ could tell Monbiot and Lynas that their outlooks ‘have done other people [...] a terrible disservice’. But what nobody who emphasises the potential of nuclear power would argue is that it is ‘safe’. What makes nuclear power more or less risky than any other form of power is a mixture of things, some technical, and some institutional, the same as any other. As has been pointed out across the wider debate, coal mining in some parts of the world is a far more dangerous enterprise than in others. And so it is with nuclear, which remains amongst the safest means of producing energy, according to the attempts to model the human of accidents.

And so it is with climate change. That is to say that while a total rejection of climate change is at best premature, so the extent to which climate change became the organising principle of today’s climate-obsessed political world is absurd. As has been argued here, in lieu of some idea about the extent to which ‘climate change is happening’, and the degree to which human society is sensitive to climate change, the mantra ‘climate change is happening’ stands to obfuscate any attempt to put risks and their solutions into perspective, and intensely polarises the debate. This mantra is sufficient, it seems, to permit any imagined (i.e. superficially plausible) scenario to dominate the discussion under the rubric of the precautionary principle, at the expense of any sense of proportion. There are some interesting parallels developing between the highly charged and polarised climate and nuclear debates.

What this blog has emphasised is first that what determines the outcome of climate (whether or not it is changing) is much more the human, social, economic, or political conditions than the magnitude of any natural phenomenon. Second, this means that environmental dogma which argues that we live within ecological limits may actually make us more vulnerable to changes in the natural world. Third, the argument here is that we have lost sight of the fact of our self-dependence over some kind of theory of natural or divine providence, leading to a form of environmental-determinism. Everything is seen through the prism of climate, or environment. Last, we can better account for the rise of this eco-centrism by taking a broader look at changes within the human world, than taking it for granted that environmentalism is in the ascendant because of changes in the natural world observed by science.

These things in mind, then, what is there to say about the most recent leg of Monbiot’s nuclear journey?

It might seem in order to welcome Monbiot’s apparent honesty. But while he seems to have emphasised evidence over irrationality, something important is missing from his argument. The debate Monbiot seems to be involved in now is with anti-nuclear campaigner, Helen Caldicott. Typically for Monbiot, he believed the debate could be won by asking her for her ‘sources’, and then demolishing them. This involves a point-by-point refutation of Caldicott’s claims, courtesy of Professor Gerry Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology, Department of Surgery & Cancer, Imperial College, London, and Professor Robin Grimes, Professor of Materials Physics, Imperial College, London. Rather than engaging in debate, Monbiot and Caldicott now seem engaged in a battle of received wisdom – a my-dad’s-bigger-than-your-dad pissing-contest.

And isn’t that the problem with the climate debate? George can make all the appeals to scientific, institutional authority he pleases – the IPCC, scientific academies, peer-reviewed journals – but it makes no difference to people who lack the confidence in those institutions necessary to take their statements at face value.

It is no good, then, being the warrior who marches into intellectual battle bearing someone else’s authority. It is a blunt and soft instrument, whether it’s Monbiot using it to bash his erstwhile fellow eco-warriors, whether it’s climate sceptics hoping that the latest research will once-and-for-all debunk AGW, or whether it’s climate activists marching under banners claiming to best represent scientific evidence.  Beating people up with other people’s scientific authority does not move either the climate or nuclear energy debates forward.

There is an impasse. It should cause George to stop, not to turn around and shout at his own team, screaming, ‘you’ve got the science wrong, idiots’, but instead to attempt to understand why he once found the arguments against nuclear so compelling. He should then try to understand why his opponents still find themselves convinced of the same case. Why don’t they find the same evidence compelling? After all, the science is the same as it was when he stood against nuclear. Only he has changed his mind. Instead, he says of his ‘hero’, Caroline Lucas that she can ‘be wildly illogical when she chooses’, and of the green movement…

Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate-change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don’t suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced.

This is an especially absurd criticism from Monbiot. When Mark Lynas made the same kind of  comments in Channel 4’s film, What the Green Movement Got Wrong, last year, Monbiot was livid. Remembering that Channel 4 had broadcast Against Nature — a three-part series criticising environmentalism – in 1998, and The Great Global Warming Swindle in 2007 (two films, nine years apart, both by Martin Durkin), Monbiot constructed a view that the broadcaster had been engaged in a war against environmentalism.

Last night it aired yet another polemic: What the Green Movement Got Wrong. This one was presented by two people who still consider themselves green: Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas. It’s not as rabid as the other films. But, like its predecessors, it airs blatant falsehoods about environmentalists and fits snugly into the corporate agenda.

Mark Lynas, just 4 months ago, was according to Monbiot, a useful idiot, unwittingly reproducing corporate propaganda. To his anti-nuclear counterparts in the green movement, Monbiot may well now look like such a character. The film he criticised angrily sold itself with these words,

In this film, these life-long diehard greens advocate radical solutions to climate change, which include GM crops and nuclear energy. They argue that by clinging to an ideology formed more than 40 years ago, the traditional green lobby has failed in its aims and is ultimately harming its own environmental cause.

Now, Mobiot says of the green movement’s anti-nuclear effort,

The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

It’s not merely that Monbiot has a short memory. After all, not only does he now seem to some extent sympathetic to the film he was hostile to in 2010, the point is the same as those made in Martin Durkin’s films in 1998 and 2007: environmentalism does humans a disservice. Monbiot should realise that there is no mystery to this. The tendency of environmentalists to produce anti-human arguments it not down to mere errors of judgement, the result of some slight numerical oversight in an otherwise procedurally-sound empirical calculation; it is fundamental.

But Monbiot doesn’t understand criticism of his own argument. What was in 2010, according to him, ‘corporate propaganda’ might well be, in 2011, good science. He doesn’t seem to recognise that the political argument came before the scientific evidence. And he doesn’t seem to recognise that the scientific evidence isn’t sufficient to make the case for nuclear alone.

A different perspective on the science exists because of a distrust of the organisation or institution which produced it. Nuclear sceptics – Monbiot compares them to ‘climate change deniers’ – don’t believe that the science of the pro-nuclear argument has been produced by a transparent, objective and impartial process. Similarly, Monbiot claims that climate change deniers – the ones he compares nuclear sceptics to – have not produced their scientific arguments from an objective, transparent, impartial basis; they are driven by a commitment to a ‘free-market ideology’, or more straightforwardly, by their lust for profit. No matter what really lies behind his opponents’ arguments, Monbiot, like many others, claim the authority of institutional science.

But Monbiot has forgotten his own stand against institutional science. In 1999, for instance, he wrote,

When nineteen eminent Fellows of the Royal Society publish a joint statement, the world, quite rightly, takes note. We need, the biologists told us in a letter to The Telegraph this week, “to distinguish good science from bad science” and “bring good science into the centre of decision-making.” To which we all reply, quite so. But what, precisely, is good science?


In an article in the Guardian last week, another eminent Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor Christopher Leaver, argued that genetic engineering will save the world from starvation. His assessment would be hilarious, were we to forget how influential he is.


It’s hardly surprising that scientists, even the most illustrious, can no longer distinguish good from bad. [...]Our laboratories, as a result, are crammed with idiot savants, people with a profound understanding of their own subject, but who know nothing whatever about the political and economic realities which govern its deployment. Christopher Leaver’s primitive Modernism, his childish faith in technology’s ability to solve political and economic problems, are shared by some of the best researchers in Britain. Unable to see beyond the sub-microscopic, they have, unwittingly, become mercenaries in the corporate war against the poor.

Genetically engineered plants offer the world very little of benefit that conventional breeding has not already produced. But they offer the corporations control over what, indeed whether, we eat. The people who develop them have got the science right, and everything else wrong.

It didn’t matter what institutional science said. If they were seemingly pro-GM, it was because, as ‘idiot savants’, they were unable to fathom the ethical, political, and economic consequences of their science. Like Frankenstein, they did not know what they were unleashing into the world.

Now, of course, to further his nuclear argument, Monbiot hides behind that same scientific authority, but fails to understand why the same story of ignorant scientists — obedient slaves of industrial capitalism — persists. It’s as though the distrust in science had nothing to do with him. He no longer seems to understand why people don’t trust scientific and quasi-independent official organisations to say what’s safe, and what’s not.

There is a sickly atmosphere of distrust in which this debate takes place. On the one hand, many such as Monbiot seem happy to throw around these claims about those on the wrong side of environmental debate being in hock to private interests. And yet on the other, science is expected to do all the moral and political work: ‘science says…’

The fundamental here then, is distrust. Monbiot, and many like him do not trust corporations, do not trust the governments which seemingly regulate them, and do not trust scientists when they produce arguments which coincide with commercial interests. His recent self-reflection isn’t so deep: he does not take responsibility for the arguments he has been advancing for decades. He doesn’t attempt to understand his own former perspective, and why people who once shared it with him remain unconvinced by the position he now claims.

We should extend the point… the environmental movement’s distrust spreads wide and deep. Even democracy itself is the object of criticism from environmentalists – it seems to allow the expression of climate-change denial. People are, according to this view, too weak-minded to abandon the material comforts that industrial society serves to them, and thus are too easily led by ‘greed’ than by reality. On this view, people don’t know their best interests, and so political ecology has rarely been tested by the democratic process, but has been reproduced in institutions above democracy, above national governments. Meanwhile, Monbiot has argued that this process has been too slow, not ambitious enough, and doesn’t reflect sufficient ambition on behalf of the governments involved in it. The ethic driving this construction is best expressed by Monbiot himself:

It is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.

Monbiot has no faith in humans, finds no moral good in the service of human interests, and has faith in scientific institutions only to the extent that they serve his own argument. He trusts governments and public institutions only when they serve this bizarre authoritarian, technocratic, and regressive agenda, confused though it is. The rest of the time, they, and anyone who criticises his perspective is the agent of ‘corporate propaganda’, and will bring nothing less than doom upon this planet. His claim to be concerned about the ‘disservice’ done to people by the anti-nuclear campaign is a paper-thin lie.

His argument for nuclear power has come because he has sensed that environmental movement’s continued objection to nuclear power will drive a wedge between them and the scientific authority he and they have claimed. Fukishima threatens to open up a rift between Greens and institutional science, and as has been pointed out, it is institutional ‘science’ which now carries the political and moral argument for environmentalism.

Over recent years, a strong relationship has developed between scientific institutions and one-time radical greens. The catastrophic narrative which emerged from environmentalists’ experience of malaise and its inherent distrust and disregard for people, once given scientific plausibility, gives renewed purpose to the political establishment. The putative magnitude of the looming climate crisis made it possible to sweep aside the differences that had troubled the relationship between institutional science and ecologism in the past such as GM technology and nuclear power. The green movement was, in these cases, able to move public opinion with fears about ‘frankenfood’, and the effects of invisible, radioactive substances also finding their way into our bodies.

Distrust in biotech firms in particular — and in corporations in general — led to ideas about firms gambling with ‘bio-security’ in order to increase their control over the food chain. The terrifying possibilities created by the cold war made individuals suspicious of nuclear power: it had been a mere ruse, designed to create the possibility of weapons development while only pretending to offer us a virtually inexhaustible quantity of cheap power. By the end of the eighties, the accident in Chernobyl destroyed confidence in many governments’ nuclear energy programmes.

In the cases of GM and nuclear power, the discussion about their potential was lost to the discussion about worst case-scenarios. As we can see in Mark Lynas’s arguments in What the Green Movement Got Wrong, it takes a bigger risk to turn up to put these scenarios into new perspective. The scientific establishment, as has been discussed on this blog, has not sought to intervene in the debate — since GM — to emphasise perspective on risk, and the potential of the fruits of modern, industrial society. While president of the Royal Society, Bob May’s pronouncements on climate change were uncompromising, Martin Rees, in the same role, had more charm, but no less of the alarm. He gave the human race just 50/50 odds of surviving this century in a book called ‘Our Final Hour’. Since taking the same position, Paul Nurse has entered the debate to claim that those who take issue with the predominance of alarmism are ‘attacking science’. The motto of the Royal Society, ‘Nullius in verba’, translated as ‘on the word of no-one’, and re-translated by May as ‘respect the facts’ might just as well be ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.

It is as if science had nothing to offer, save for during times of crisis. It might as well be held in a red box with a glass front, with the words ‘break only in case of emergencies’ etched onto it. In this atmosphere, GM technology and nuclear power only really offer any potential when we are subsumed by a larger crisis than can be conceivably generated by them. The political debate, equally, is not dominated by a positive discussion of possibilities and potential, but by worst-case scenarios. No energy policy is legitimised on the basis that it will create the possibility of cheaper energy to the consumer; it has to be framed in terms of its environmental impact. No discussion about transport — in the UK, at least — is given momentum by the opportunities that would be created were it possible to travel the length of the country in an hour or so, but by the question ‘is it sustainable?’ Architects no longer design buildings to meet people’s needs and wants, but to fulfil ecological criteria. People, in this weird political culture, are merely objects to be managed lest they cause an environmental disaster. That is the ethic of establishment environmentalism.

The accident at Fukushima threatens to unleash again green hostility to any conceivable risk created by technological society. This would upset the fragile agreement between the environmental movement, politicians, and institutional science that ‘climate change is the biggest threat facing mankind’. But the trust created between these groups under that mantra is provisional. It only exists while its logic is not threatened by, for one, the tendency to deep ecology that remains within it. Political reality precludes the expression of real, hair-shirt environmentalism. Nuclear power is a compromise.

Monbiot has missed, in his nuclear debate, an opportunity to reflect on his perspective, and on the perspective of his new-found opponents, his one-time fellow campaigners. Instead, he turns the issue into a battle of factoids, none of which he really understands, and none of which gives him the opportunity to form an analysis of the debate and what is driving it. Monbiot and Caldicott are playing my-evidence-is-better-than-your-evidence, but neither can explain why we should trust their ‘sources’; the origins of received wisdom. In his latest salvo in this absurd battle of the miserablists, Monbiot tells Caldicott,

If, on the basis of falsehoods and exaggerations, we make the wrong decisions, the consequences can be momentous. Two immediate issues leap to mind. The first is that countries shut down their nuclear power plants or stop the construction of new ones, and switch instead to fossil fuels. Almost all of us would prefer them to switch to renewable, but it seems that this is less likely to happen.

We can see here how ‘decisions’ Monbiot speaks of and seems to worry about, are not really matters of choice at all, but of survival. There is of course no choice between survival and annihilation. Thus politics itself – on Monbiot’s view – isn’t really something that involves creating a relationship of trust or agreement between decision-makers and the public, such that the former can claim to have been given a mandate by the latter; the consequences of the decision are too grave to be left to the hoi-polloi. The debate about the future no longer involves the consideration of arguments, or of creating trust in public institutions – trust, which, ironically, Monbiot has spent the last 20 or so years doing his best to undermine. In the place of giving consent to authority, we are forced to accept whatever is decided by Monbiot on behalf of science. We are held hostage by the claim that to do otherwise would bring about the end of the world.

This reformulation of the means by which political ‘decisions’ are made legitimate creates a new contradiction from Monbiot’s incoherent thought. In his 2003 book, Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order, he claimed that,

Everything has been globalised except our consent. Democracy alone has been confined to the nation state. It stands at the national border, suitcase in hand, without a passport.

A handful of men in the richest nations use the global powers they have assumed to tell the rest of the world how to live. This book is an attempt to describe a world run on the principle by which those powerful men claim to govern: the principle of democracy. It is an attempt to replace our Age of Coercion with an Age of Consent.

‘Consent’, my elbow.

Climate change caused by the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gasses is further reducing the earth’s capacity to feed itself, through the expansion of drought zones, rising sea levels and the shrinkage of glacier-fed rivers. Partly because of the influence of the oil industry, the rich world’s governments have refused to agree to a reduction in the use of fossil fuels sufficient to arrest it.

This isn’t true now, and it wasn’t true when Monbiot was writing it. The reason governments have been unable to control the emissions of greenhouse gasses is not as Monbiot would have it, because of pressure from energy companies, but because such policies simply lack any form of democratic legitimacy.  In other words, the reason governments have been unable to control CO2 emissions to the extent they and Monbiot would like is the same as the reason why governments have been unable to go forward with nuclear energy programmes.

That is why environmental ideology is reproduced, not as much at the level of national democracy — which, remember, ‘stands at the national border, suitcase in hand, without a passport’ — as it is in the supranational political institution: the UN, for instance. All the more surprising then, that Monbiot, in Age of Consent,  singles this institution out for its failure to represent the world’s population.

Nobody voted for the ‘campaign against ourselves…’ that Monbiot proposes in Heat. Few people are interested in his ‘ campaign not for abundance but for austerity’. This campaign has not created a belief in its principles. It has not shared its vision of society, and of the future. It has not created its own institutions, in which people invest their trust. Unable to create trust in itself, it focuses on creating distrust. It borrows trust from science, to engender distrust in other institutions which fail, on its view, to protect us from climate crisis. It tells anyone who disagrees that they are taking issue with objective fact… against reality itself. It has been brought into establishment thinking, for its political currency, generated by  terrifying stories of Thermageddon.

The question ‘in whom do we trust’, seems to be answered now by which scare stories we believe in. Monbiot asks us to trust expertise to tell us about nuclear power, not because the potential of nuclear power creates new possibilities for us, and not because those possibilities are worthwhile ends in themselves, but because we’re supposed to be terrified of climate change. The truth is that we are asked to trust expertise on climate change, not because science has identified a possible threat to the security of our future, but because there is simply no other way that today’s political players can create trust.


There’s been some criticism here that this blog has given too much emphasis to Monbiot. Unfortunately for him, however, he manages to epitomise contemporary politics. He vacillates between on the one hand, seemingly revolutionary politics, and on the other, deeply conservative and establishment prejudices. Monbiot himself is not so powerful, but his relationship with the scientific establishment, and his transformation from some kind of anarcho-syndicalist to ambassador of scientific fact reveals a lot about contemporary debates.

Apr 042011

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at</em>

The coverage of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is dominated by the discussion of ‘levels of radiation’. Run-of-the-mill catastrophes – earthquakes, tsunamis, that kind of thing – provide rolling news networks with dramatic images to underpin hours of glib commentary and speculation about what will happen next. But radiation, being invisible without the right equipment, makes for its own order of media phenomenon.

Instead of depictions of awesome power destroying civilisation, radiation generates discussion around images of contaminated food and workers in protective clothing pointing Geiger counters at children’s thyroid glands. This is the backdrop to an endless recital of a litany about cancer, radiation sickness, corrupt energy companies and their political servants, and which scientists we should trust.

You might think, then, that when ‘levels of radiation’ turn out to be infinitesimally small, morbid speculation and radiophobia might cease. Last week, a press release from the UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) announced that ‘the minutest traces of iodine-131 associated with events at the Fukushima nuclear facility’ had been detected in Glasgow and Oxfordshire, but that there was no risk to health. Rather than offering a sober perspective on risk, however, the finding provoked yet more speculation from the media, activists and politicians.

‘“Fukushima nuclear plant” radiation found at UK sites’, saidthe BBC. Beneath the attention-grabbing headline, however, the claim is given statistical perspective: ‘a child’s exposure in one day would be less than one ten-thousandth of what they would receive from naturally occurring background radiation in a day’. In other words, during a normal day, an individual is exposed to background radiation equivalent to nearly 30 years of exposure to the additional radiation from Fukushima now ‘found at UK sites’. The HPA press release indicated that there was no risk to human health, and the article correctly quoted the HPA, yet its author found it necessary to talk about the accumulation of radioactive substances in the thyroid gland, leading to cancer. The attempt to put risk into numerical context is defeated by such emphasis on the danger of vastly greater concentrations of the substance. It’s less rational than talking about the risks of drowning in an article about the accidental spillage of a glass of water.

‘Fukushima radiation from Japan’s stricken plant detected across UK’, reported the Guardian, followed by a half-hearted attempt to emphasise the HPA’s advice that there was no risk present to human health. This included repeating the HPA’s ‘warning’ that ‘radiation levels in the UK could rise’. However, it’s hard to construe as a ‘warning’ the advice that even raised levels ‘will be significantly below any level that could cause harm to public health’. This was followed by a story that Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, had claimed that the HPA had delayed publishing their advice in order to prevent causing embarrassment to the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment – headed by erstwhile chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir David King – which was due to make a public call for investment in nuclear energy.

King once remarked that ‘climate change poses a bigger threat than terrorism’, that it is the ‘biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had’, and that foreign spies and US energy interests were behind attempts to undermine public confidence in climate science and the attempt to build an international agreement at Copenhagen. There is something almost comic and farcical to the way in which King and the Smith School now seem to be hoist by their own nuclear petard. The alarm they have helped to unleash in the climate debate has breached its containment, and now threatens to contaminate their own project. Because, once you speculate about energy companies’ clandestine lobbying effort and their influence over the political agenda in the face of a looming catastrophe – as King has – it’s difficult to claim that another mode of producing energy offers a panacea. The price of the politics of fear is the trust in public institutions of all kinds and their advice, be they corporations, scientific bodies and advisers, independent regulatory authorities, government departments, and politicians.

Salmond is wrong, of course. Delaying the publication of the HPA’s advice that the putative ‘fallout’ from Fukushima presented no risk could serve no purpose. Unless, that is, Salmond calculated that radiophobia would not be mediated by the HPA’s assurances, and would thus create an opportunity to put distance between his own party, with its renewable energy and emphatically anti-nuclear policies, and the apparently ‘pro-nuclear’ Labour Party at the upcoming elections.

If that’s the calculation that Salmond made, then he was absolutely correct. Writing in the Guardian, John Vidal quotes a former scientific adviser to Gorbachev during the Chernobyl accident: ‘When you hear “no immediate danger” [from nuclear radiation] then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.’ The accident at Fukushima is ‘potentially worse’ than the accident at Chernobyl, claims Vidal, while complaining that his erstwhile green comrades have compared those who question nuclear safety to ‘climate change deniers’. Ultimately, however, the question for Vidal is ‘who can we trust?’

The ‘levels of radiation’, are, after all, not the issue. It doesn’t matter that public health agencies have attempted to reassure the public that these levels are insignificant. In such a febrile atmosphere, the very fact that such a statement was made at all seems to let the safety cat out of the nuclear bag; in the minds of anti-nuclear campaigners and politicians, declaring that Fukushima has had no negative impact on the UK identifies the HPA as partial, rather than independent. Any attempt to put perspective on the magnitude of the accident is to be seen to take sides.

From any rational perspective, the quantities of radioactive material found in the UK from Japan are not worthy of comment, except perhaps to those who take an interest in the design of incredibly sensitive radiological monitoring hardware. A spokesperson from the HPA confirmed that the quantities involved were ‘at the limits of detection’. But that being the case, why would an agency concerned with public health make a statement about something that is of no concern to public health? There was a ‘lot of [public] interest about whether the radiation had reached the UK yet’, he told me, ‘we had found a result, and felt that we should publish it’.

There really was no story. So why the headlines? Why the discussion about cancer, and the danger of nuclear power? And indeed, why the coverage at all? It was not the discovery of a risk to health that led to the HPA issuing its statement, but the perception that there was an appetite for information. The information, rather than offering reassurance, seemed instead to offer an opportunity to escalate the level of alarm. It was as if policy statements and articles about ‘levels of radiation’ were written before they were measured and their significance established, with such trifling details merely tagged-on as an afterthought – a caveat, to excuse their authors from overt scaremongering.

It perhaps makes no sense to even try to quantify the risks of nuclear power while the debate is so dominated by such a disproportionate sensitivity. Thanks to the precautionary approach, the mere theoretical possibility of an accident haunts any calculation of risks. Indeed, it is anxiety itself which provides the substance of, for example, the argumentfor nuclear power from David King, the Smith School, and George Monbiot: nuclear will save us from climate change. What this anxiety speaks about is much less the merits and demerits of one form of energy production over another, and much more the inability of public figures to make arguments without recourse to fearmongering. In this environment, any argument that puts risk into statistical perspective – or criticises the alarm generated by sensational copy, anti-nuclear activists and interventions from public-health bureaucracies – looks like advocacy. And advocacy is, as Vidal and Salmond seem to have it, partial, interested, and probably gambling with public safety for profit. The only people we can trust are those who speak about the looming danger. Only crises can legitimise seemingly objective policymaking.

The expression ‘going nuclear’ used to depict the escalation of an individual’s rage, subsuming all those who stood near him or her. A more timely use of the expression might describe the absurd sensitivity to infinitesimal risks, leading to a drama that its cause did not warrant. The issue is not really what provokes the reaction, then – in this case, the non-story about almost no radioactive substance – but why that reaction is so explosive. It tears apart the relationship between radical and establishment environmentalists forged in the heat of panic about climate change. It threatens to undermine the government’s energy programme. And it turns naked fearmongering back on the fearmongerer. Suddenly, Vidal is comparing his erstwhile green comrades with ‘climate change deniers’, and Monbiot calls the UK’s first Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, ‘wildly illogical’.

What the reaction here in the UK to events at Fukushima reveals, then, is the instability of those perspectives and the crisis-prone nature of risk-averse politics.

Fear and Fukushima Fallout

Posted by Ben Pile on April 4, 2011
Apr 042011

No blog from me for a while, apologies.

However, I have an article up on Spiked today about the real and metaphorical fallout from Fukushima. Last week, UK monitoring stations detected infinitesimal quantities of iodene-131 from the accident there, leading to some strange comments from politicians and the media.

‘Fukushima radiation from Japan’s stricken plant detected across UK’, reported the Guardian, followed by a half-hearted attempt to emphasise the HPA’s advice that there was no risk present to human health. This included repeating the HPA’s ‘warning’ that ‘radiation levels in the UK could rise’. However, it’s hard to construe as a ‘warning’ the advice that even raised levels ‘will be significantly below any level that could cause harm to public health’. This was followed by a story that Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, had claimed that the HPA had delayed publishing their advice in order to prevent causing embarrassment to the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment – headed by erstwhile chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir David King – which was due to make a public call for investment in nuclear energy.

I think this shows some of the limitations of contemporary politics, not just environmentalism.

I have to admit, I have been surprised at the absurd levels of radiophobia surrounding this accident. I was hoping to put the scale of the ‘radiation from Japan’s stricken plant detected across UK’ into some numerical perspective. Here’s the start of that attempt, which I didn’t put into the article,

A slightly morbid experiment often given to science students is to estimate the number of molecules of air in our lungs might have also been exhaled by some historical figure during their final breath. Einstein is a popular and poignant choice. The outcome of the estimation varies, depending on how much attention to detail one wants to pay and which assumptions one makes, but it’s possible to argue that in each breath we take, there are 15 molecules which were also present in Einstein’s last gasp. This would seem remarkable, except that there are approximately 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules in each breath we take.

It struck me, however, that if there’s anything rational really driving radiophobia, it’s not any actual risk that can substantiated which bothers the anti-nuclear lobby. Instead, like many climate-alarmists, it’s mere theoretical possibility that really panics them. This enters the nuclear debate, just as with the climate debate, via the precautionary principle. This, I think, can be best summed up as ‘risk-analysis without numbers’. It doesn’t matter how you populate any such calculation with actual numbers (ie ‘knowns’), its what you don’t know which weighs the most.

As I mention in the article, no doubt this comes across to many as ‘pro-nuclear’. But the point is not to extol the virtues of any particular means of producing energy. What is at stake in the discussion about how to produce it is the benefit it creates for us. Not just ‘us’ here in the west, where more expensive energy has a relatively limited impact (for the moment, at least, though I’m sure the increasing cost of energy will begin to start having much more serious material and social effects in the future), but also for poorer parts of the world, who will really have to suffer the effects of Western anxieties about climate and nuclear.

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