Letting the Precautionary Principle Genie out of the GM/Nuclear Bottle

Yesterday, I tried to explain why pro-GM environmentalists had misconceived the perspectives of their anti-GM colleagues as simply ‘scientific illiteracy’. In particular, I was amazed that Keith Kloor had turned a central tenet of environmentalism — the precautionary principle — into a central tenet of climate scepticism. Said Kloor, in his discussion of the principle:

We also aren’t 100 percent certain when global warming is going to arrive with a vengeance, much less do we know the particulars of numerous climate impacts. Should we wait for 100 percent certainty before proceeding with efforts to reduce greenhouse gases? Somehow, I’m guessing Suzuki would say no. As would many other scientists.

That is of course the problem with the precautionary principle. In… erm… principle: it works both ways. But in practice, the application of the precautionary principle works in favour of the environmentalist’s preoccupations. It doesn’t subject the precautionary principle to the precautionary principle, but to whatever intervention is already being made — i.e. the emissions of substances into the natural environment — and says that there is no need of scientific understanding to begin to regulate that intervention. And as I pointed out yesterday, it is a fundamental of global environmental politics and treaties, such as the Rio Declaration and the UNFCCC process. It was first used in the formulation of the Montreal Protocol to limit emissions of CFCs:

The Parties to this Protocol,

Being Parties to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer,


Determined to protect the ozone layer by taking precautionary measures to control equitably total global emissions of substances that deplete it, with the ultimate objective of their elimination on the basis of developments in scientific knowledge, taking into account technical and economic considerations and bearing in mind the developmental needs of developing countries,


Noting the precautionary measures for controlling emissions of certain chlorofluorocarbons that have already been taken at national and regional levels,



Rather than being ‘scientifically illiterate’, then, anti-GM environmentalists were simply doing what environmentalists — including the newly pro-GM camp — have always done: emphasised uncertainty about what the effects of industrial processes on the environment will be in an argument for controlling that technology. They were appealing to the very same ideas that pro-GM environmentalists had long appealed to: that natural processes are fragile, and highly sensitive to change. But what the pro-GM environmentalists had forgotten is just how much their own perspectives were fixed on exactly the same ground: the precautionary principle. The environmental commentators lining up to identify themselves as pro-science and pro-GM have done nothing, over the years, to confront the rank alarmism and naked exploitation of the precautionary principle in the climate debate, and have therefore allowed the idea of fragile ecosystems and our total vulnerability to climate change to fester. Indeed, they have milked it themselves. They have only themselves to blame.

It is interesting, then, to see this incoherence manifest itself in the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers latest salvo against his comrades, taking aim at their use of the precautionary principle:

The “precautionary principle”, the idea that a new technology or policy should not be employed until we can be sure it is safe, sounds very reasonable. But as always, it’s more complicated than that. Everything we do entails not doing something else; in this case, not using nuclear, in the short term at least, means more coal, more shale gas, more fracking, to maintain energy demands (and cutting energy use would cause its own problems, of course). Is that safer? Nuclear power has risks, of course it does. But so does everything, and nuclear power has clear potential benefits. The trick is to calmly and sensibly assess those risks and benefits, not pull up the drawbridge out of misguided fear.

Environmentalism is the epitome of the politics of fear. It’s no use allowing fear to dominate the environmental debate — for decades — and then to say ‘oh, your fear is misguided’. In reality, Chivers is telling his comrades, ‘my fear is better than your fear’. Environmentalism’s incoherence manifests itself as a squabble between its adherents — a cascade of special pleading, in which the arguments they had previously deployed against ‘climate sceptics’ are turned on themselves. So it turns out that a great deal of the environmental movement really were ‘scientifically illiterate’, and ‘anti-science’, after all.

This reflects something long argued here. Shrill environmental rhetoric has been the growing thorn in its own side. The angrier and louder environmentalists have got, the more they have done to beset their own progress. The Joe Romms, 10:10 campaigns and George Monbiots of the world have done more to expose the real character of environmentalism than anything the sceptics have been able to throw at them. Greens are left fighting a rear-guard action… against themselves. It would be a comedy, if it wasn’t the case that the world was so invested in environmental policy-making. It is instead tragedy.

While we might welcome moves by some environmentalists to counsel their fellow greens about the incautious application of the… erm… precautionary principle, their attempts to remove themselves from the mess they have made do not show any evidence that they understand it, or can ever really escape it. Continuing his own attempts to reconcile the pro and anti-GM greens, Sunny Hundal betrays his irreconcilably contradicted perspective on today’s Liberal Conspiracy blog:

Why do most politically active right-wingers Conservatives and UKIPers deny climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant; they deny it because they hate the political implications of global warming and the cost of mitigation. They’ve convinced themselves that AGW is a far-left conspiracy to raise their taxes and change their lifestyle.


Should people concerned about the growth of nuclear weapon technology, or (hypothetically) human mutation, ignore the potential consequences? Not really. It’s the job of elected representatives to voice those concerns and ask (possibly ignorant) questions. They may even campaign to stop funding. The court of public opinion drives democracy – to ignore that opinion is dangerous. The Monsanto problem should not be dismissed away, at least not for elected representatives of the left.

So democracy is good, when its about the things Sunny Hundal wants it to be about: Monsanto, nuclear proliferation, and so on. But democracy is not so good when it asks questions about the ‘political implications of global warming’. Nobody who challenges climate change orthodoxy could be, as Sunny is, concerned about the implications for democracy. In other words, he rightly points out that political arguments are promiscuous with ‘scientific evidence’, but doesn’t notice himself hiding his own prejudices behind ‘science’, which allows him to determine that only some concerns are legitimate. Environmentalists have always hidden their political project behind science, and speculated about to what motivates other people to see things differently… The only answer they can produce is that everyone else — even their own pals — is ‘scientifically illiterate’.

Environmentalists, between them, claim to have the monopoly on science and democracy, but are promiscuous with both. ‘Democracy’ has weight when environmentalists are hiding behind ‘public opinion’, and science is invoked in spite of it. Fundamentally, it is the precautionary principle which has allowed environmentalists to vacillate. It has been used to circumvent democracy, or to say that people are not capable of understanding the issues (i.e. risk), and then used to amplify risk, no matter what ‘science says’.

Tom Chivers cannot take the precautionary principle away from his anti-nuclear comrades without depriving himself of the same. Thus he re-invents the precautionary approach as applying only to novel technologies: ‘The “precautionary principle”, the idea that a new technology or policy should not be employed until we can be sure it is safe, sounds very reasonable.’ But nuclear power has been around for nearly 60 years — only 20 years fewer than the UK’s National Grid. The precautionary principle applies to any technology, no matter how long it has been around, and presumes in favour of regulating it, notwithstanding that ‘scientific evidence’ may not be able to substantiate any claim that it is dangerous. Under the precautionary principle, a weak, theoretical risk is magnified by its potential impact. A nuclear accident can be widespread. Thus, nuclear power is regarded as certainly more ‘risky’ than conventional means. Similarly, under the precautionary approach, and under climate agreements, controls on the emissions of CO2 from industry are sought, not because any substantial evidence exists that they are harmful, but because we cannot say how harmful they will be.

Look carefully at the arguments for things such as containing global temperatures beneath 2 degrees, for instance, and it turns out that 2 degrees is not a limit detected by science, but is instead a arbitrary horizon of uncertainty. Before 2 degrees, we can be more sure of our assumptions. Beyond it, things become less certain, and theoretical risks are magnified. There may well exist very reasonable scientific measurements which show how a rising proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere will produce an increase in temperature. But then there is the difficult matter of how this relatively modest increase will be exacerbated by feedback mechanisms. And then there is another question about how much that warming will turn into effects throughout the climate, and in turn how much that will effect other natural processes before it is experienced by human society. In each leap, what counts in the policy-makers perspective is not what has been shown, but what the putative risks are. Causal chains, beginning with CO2 emissions scenarios turn into story lines, each with a measure of probability attached to them. Under the precautionary principle, policy makers are obliged to take the worst case.

And under such an obligation, the likelihood of 20-30 cm of sea level rise by 2100 becomes 10 meters. Slightly warmer nights and slightly longer summers with slightly more warmer days becomes desertification and mass extinction. Slightly milder winters with slightly more precipitation becomes floods of biblical proportions. Slightly different weather patterns become the denuding of fertile grounds, and the mass migration of hundreds of millions of people looking for shelter, water and food. To point out that this is what the precautionary principle does to ‘scientific evidence’ — even while acknowledging that climate change is a problem — is to be ‘scientifically illiterate’, or to be ‘anti-science’, or to be a ‘denier’.

So the journalists who are now rounding on anti-GM and anti-nuclear campaigners are doing so at the risk of undermining their own perspectives. I am happy to agree with them that the benefits of nuclear and GM outweigh any reasonable estimation of their risks. But they are naive about their own arguments. The sensible estimation of risks is completely confused by the precautionary principle — risk analysis without numbers — whether the issue is GM, nuclear, or climate change. That they are pulling the rug out from under their own feet should give us no cause for celebration yet: few of them are capable of reflecting on their own incoherence, and fewer still are reflecting on the implications for the absurd and far-reaching policies that have been created in order to ‘save the planet’. And the process of building supranational political institutions continues apace, as if there were nothing wrong with the precautionary principle — the fundamental of that institution building — at all.

Inconvenient Environmentalists

The issue of genetically modified food crops has resurfaced. This issue has a long history, and my last attempt to compile an account of it was back in May 2009, here.

One of the things I’ve written a bit about is the differences between two parts of the environmental movement. On the one hand there are what appears to be a bunch of ‘street-level’ activists, who are involved nonetheless in large organisations like FoE and Greenpeace. And on the other are more respectable ‘establishment’ environmentalists — especially those within the government. Back in 2009, Lord May of Oxford (him again) was growing weary of street-level environmentalism, as was reported in the Guardian:

“Much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s a political movement,” said Lord May, who is a former government chief scientific adviser and president of the Royal Society. He singled out Greenpeace as an environmental campaign group that had “transmogrified” into one with primarily an anti-globalisation stance.

The same tension between scruffy and smart greens is playing out once more in the debate about GM. A new green protest group, called ‘Take the Flour Back‘ has threatened to destroy crops. This has upset many of their smarter comrades in the green movement. ‘Don’t vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry’, implored the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers.

This is one of those agonised posts. I actually like the Green Party. My dad used to be, and may still be, a member. They’re well-meaning and many of them share my taste for unkempt beards. I think I put Jenny Jones as my first choice in the London mayoral elections.

But the trouble is that they’re scientifically illiterate and have what seems to be a fear of technological process. The one big thing they’ve got right, that anthropogenic climate change is a threat to human wellbeing, they seem to have got right by accident.

Today they’ve reached a possible new low. That self-same Jenny Jones, recipient of the Chivers vote, is to appear at the “Take the Flour Back” protest at Rothamstead Research, which is intending to “decontaminate” – which is to say vandalise – an ongoing experiment into genetically modified wheat. (Thanks to Mark Lynas for the heads-up.)

Mark Lynas, of course, famously and loudly renounced his anti-GM past. It ‘wasn’t a science-based rational thing’, he said. ‘It was an emotional thing and it was about the relation between humans and other living things’. But things are never as they seem. Although Lynas’s views on GM and his new-found advocacy (with Monbiot) of nuclear power, seem like progress, he hasn’t been able to meaningfully reflect on what drove his anti-GM and anti-nuclear self. As I point out here, Lynas seems to believe that he can account for his ex-views as simple scientific ignorance. But is that really all there is to the chasm between greens?

Similarly, soft-green journalist, Keith Kloor nearly asked an interesting question: ‘Is Environmentalism Anti-Science?’

Oddly enough, just like people who dismiss climate change as some sort of global scam by scientists, many anti-GMO greens have constructed a universe that suits their worldview. Many climate skeptics, for example, believe that the threat of global warming is cooked up by a UN-led cabal of scientists, whose real agenda is to impose one world fascistic or socialist government. A similar feverish perspective is held by many GMO opponents, who believe that genetic engineering is being shoved down the world’s throat by a few big corporate agricultural companies (Monsanto being the number one bogeyman). Greenpeace is especially active in developing countries, such as India and China, setting itself up as the defender of small farmers and declaring that there “is enough scientific evidence now to show that GM crops are a risk to human health.”

This is by now, a recurring theme of the climate debate: those who disagree with us have some sort of agenda or ideology which precludes their view of the science. It’s the ‘well you would say that wouldn’t you’ view of politics, which presumes that anyone with a perspective is hopelessly unable to engage with the debate. But most notably, it presupposes the sheer innocence of those wielding the argument, as though their own perspectives weren’t coloured by ‘ideology’. As Kloor unwittingly demonstrates:

You might be surprised to learn that some esteemed figures in the environmentalist pantheon–not just groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth–embrace this criteria for GMOs. Consider, for example, the highly respected David Suzuki, who, according to one survey, is the most trusted man in Canada. He has said:

Because we aren’t certain about the effects of GMOs, we must consider one of the guiding principles in science, the precautionary principle. Under this principle, if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be. And it is up to those proposing the action or policy to prove that it is not harmful.

We also aren’t 100 percent certain when global warming is going to arrive with a vengeance, much less do we know the particulars of numerous climate impacts. Should we wait for 100 percent certainty before proceeding with efforts to reduce greenhouse gases? Somehow, I’m guessing Suzuki would say no. As would many other scientists.

But when it comes to GMOs, there’s an impossible-to-meet standard. Why?

I’ve been particularly interested in this question lately. In doing some catch-up reading, I came across a fascinating roundtable of views in a 2009 Seed magazine article, set up by this introduction:

Most Europeans don’t consider themselves to be anti-science or particularly technophobic. In fact, Europe’s full embrace of the scientific consensus on another environmental issue, global warming, has enabled the continent to take the clear lead on climate change, with the most ambitious emissions targets, the first carbon trading market, and the greenest urban infrastructure plans on the planet.

Europe’s scientific disconnect is more broadly true of eco-minded citizens worldwide: They laud the likes of James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri but shrink in horror at the scientist who offers up a Bt corn plant (even though numerous studies indicate that Bt crops—by dramatically curbing pesticide use—conserve biodiversity on farms and reduce chemical-related sickness among farmers).

So why the disconnect? Why do many environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering?

Kloor forgets that the precautionary principle is a tenet of environmentalism and of global environmental politics. For instance, Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Furthermore, this principle is woven into the substance of European politics, as is explained by a communication from the Comission:

The precautionary principle enables rapid response in the face of a possible danger to human, animal or plant health, or to protect the environment. In particular, where scientific data do not permit a complete evaluation of the risk, recourse to this principle may, for example, be used to stop distribution or order withdrawal from the market of products likely to be hazardous.


The precautionary principle is detailed in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (EU). It aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk. However, in practice, the scope of this principle is far wider and also covers consumer policy, European legislation concerning food and human, animal and plant health.

And article 191 of the Treaty explains:

Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.

Kloor should not be surprised then, that the precautionary principle is applied by Europe in the case of GM foods. The precautionary principle — not scientific consensus — in fact informs its policies on GM and on the climate issue. Kloor, in trying to identify opponents of GM with opponents of climate change policies, imagines that the scientific consensus has driven climate policy.

The fact that the Precautionary Principle informs international policy making is forgotten in many analyses. This error is owed, I believe to the fact that the consensus on climate change is a ‘consensus without an object’; the consensus allows anyone to say anything in its name, just so long as it supports a policy intended to stop it. The claim that ‘climate change is happening’ — i.e. the consensus position — is itself empty. Conversely, nobody really claims that ‘climate change is not happening’ — the position attributed to ‘climate sceptics’. It turns out, furthermore, that it’s quite hard to identify any meaningful consensus which is useful to policy-making. Sure climate change is happening, but to what degree, and what effects? When you ask the policymakers, invariably, they will mutter on about meters of sea level by the end of the century, melting glaciers, and hundreds of thousands of deaths a year, each of which is not just contestable, but entirely wrong, and not supported by the consensus. But let’s not be too hard on the politicians on this point; even Lord May gets it wrong.

Kloor, Lynas and Chivers want to eat their GM climate cake and sustain it. And they are not alone. In the Guardian, editor of the Liberal Conspiracy blog, Sunny Hundal attempts to defend the green movements’ anti-scientific view of GM by claiming that, ‘Though Greens sometimes get their science wrong, they’re better than most‘:

In this case I’ll agree with the scientists that many of the assertions made about the GM trial are false. The Greens should accept that, even if they remain opposed to GM foods more broadly.

But some of the criticism is unfair.First, the Conservatives and Ukip are far more scientifically illiterate than the Greens. They are actively trying to sabotage the debate on how to deal with climate change, and most deny it is even taking place.

Given that scientists are utterly failing to engage or lead the debate on climate change – why not spend more time dealing with that bigger problem than attacking Greens over small things? Our planet is dying thanks to global warming and some scientists think this GM outrage should be a top priority? Really?

Nobody who imagines that the scientific consensus is that ‘our planet is dying’ is in a position to criticise anyone for ‘scientific illiteracy’. Here’s another lovely prognostication from a Guardian journalist about biotech from a decade ago:

This is why biotechnology – whose promoters claim that it will feed the world – has been deployed to produce not food but feed: it allows farmers to switch from grains which keep people alive to the production of more lucrative crops for livestock. Within as little as 10 years, the world will be faced with a choice: arable farming either continues to feed the world’s animals or it continues to feed the world’s people. It cannot do both.

(H/T: James H).

Shrill cries about dying planets have been the currency of people marching with the scientific consensus on climate, and against it on GM. Whingeing about ‘scientific illiteracy’ is no good, when for decades, climate change alarmism has gone unchallenged. A ‘scientific consensus’ is not a licence to speculate wildly about the possible impacts of climate change. Yet that must be the implication of so many of the complaints about the anti-GM environmentalists from environmental commentators. They ought to be able to identify a deeper problem with environmentalism, such as with the precautionary principle, which is reproduced in international agreements and treaties. This incoherence is not owed to scientific illiteracy. It’s owed to political illiteracy.

Kloor has a post on his own blog, which begins with the words of Tim Minchin:

It goes like this: 1. You fear something. 2. You find a hypothesis to justify your fear. 3. You block stuff that doesn’t support your case.

This, says Kloor, ‘describes the process that leads anti-GMO opponents and apparently many greens to support destruction of an agricultural experiment’. He then considers the contradiction created by climate researcher, Steve Easterbrook’s stances on climate and GM. Kloor is right to explore the inconsistent arguments, but like Minchin, only finds cod explanations for them.

In the Observer, Will Hutton urges that ‘We have a duty to put our faith in science, not trample on it’, and that ‘Anti-GM campaigners would do well to remember that progress is dependent upon scientific research’.

Victorians could see that science and capitalism were engines of progress. Today, we see corporations as manipulators of science to create huge personal fortunes for a distant, antisocial elite at the top – and the public realm in which scientific advance might be discussed is dominated by media careless of objectivity.

This is a culture that generates movements such as Take Back the Flour that trust no one and it won’t change until companies are forced, or volunteer, to rejoin the society of which they are part. And until we create media that respect truth.

Hutton is nearly right. There is a cultural aversion to progress. But it has little to do with corporations and capitalism in the way he imagines. It was the ‘antisocial elite at the top’ who most embraced environmentalism, warts and all. And I include in that elite their defenders at Guardian and Observer newspapers. It was the establishment which created the idea that nature was fragile, and that corporations would plunder it with rapacious technologies. It was they, who banged on about catastrophic climate change, and the need to respond to it with powerful political institutions, including treaties which enshrined the precautionary principle. It was they who said we need to use our cars less and walk more, and to eschew the benefits of industrial society; to make do and mend, to recycle. It was them who said our desires for more would send us to hell in a handcart. It was them who changed science from something which could liberate our potential into something which contains that potential by legitimising a form of politics based on ecological risk. That was the ‘scientific consensus’, they claimed. Their lack of foresight is now manifested in the anti-GM protest movement. They have the inconvenient environmentalists they deserve.

Unsettling Science

I’m a big fan of scientific videos and visualisation generally. Here’s a wonderful recent example.

There is a hazard, here though, in taking such images at face value, as is described at length on this blog. What we see in the above video is not just the planet; we see it in timelapse, we see its colours adjusted. We see the result of many $billions of scientific research, and millions of human hours of work, without seeing the work. And the images invite us to bring all sorts of presuppositions to the image. Here’s an example:

A BBC article on the history of the ‘Earthrise’ image credits it with starting the environmental movement:

These images, along with hundreds of other still pictures taken of the whole Earth during Apollo’s nine flights to the Moon, helped to drive the momentum of a burgeoning green movement during the 1970s.

They fuelled an awareness of the vulnerability of the Earth which still resonates with us today and shapes our behaviour, as Fred Hoyle predicted it would.

Al Gore, […] also suggested that such live footage of the whole Earth broadcast continuously over the internet would provide a powerful modern reminder of the fragility of our home planet – in the way that those first hand snapped Apollo pictures had done all those decades earlier.

These claims are implausible for a number of reasons. Firstly, there never has been an ‘environmental movement’ in any meaningful sense. Environmental activists need to make big noises to make up for their small numbers. More fundamentally, environmentalism has always been a preoccupation of the establishment, and they had already had their imaginations captured by the environmental narrative. Nobody ever saw the Sun or Moon rise, and said, ‘my god, don’t they look fragile’. They don’t. So why would seeing the world ever make anyone believe that it looked ‘vulnerable’. Fragility, in this case, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. The environmentalist projects his beliefs onto the image. And he flatters himself that an image changed his consciousness, not realising he was staring at his own prejudices.

Here’s a more recent example.

The image comes from an article on Huffington Post today. Claims the Huffpo,

The image above, from the USGS, shows all the world’s water — from bodies of water, glaciers, soil, water vapor and even living things — in a sphere with a diameter of 860 miles. The volume of the sphere would equal 332.5 million cubic miles.

The USGS explains that the sphere only appears small in relation to the entire Earth — the diameter of the sphere is a bit larger than the distance between Salt Lake City and Topeka, Kansas.

So far, so good, then. It’s an interesting graphic. Who hasn’t wondered how much water there is in the world, and how big it would be, if it were all in once place. But then right behind the science comes the politics…

The research comes as experts warn that increasing water scarcity is likely to contribute to political instability in Africa and elsewhere. John Kufuor, a former president of Ghana and current head of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, told Bloomberg, “People migrate to find water anywhere if there’s a scarcity situation. People have fought wars to access water.”

Even the U.S. is not immune from water shortages. According to the EPA, more than 36 states are expecting “local, regional, or statewide” water shortages by 2013, “even under non-drought conditions.”

Just as it’s not plausible that the Earthrise image began a movement, it’s not plausible that this image speaks to us about the shortage of water on Earth. It’s volume is 332,500,000 cubic miles; enough for 80,000 Olympic swimming pools of the stuff for each person on the planet. So, getting worked up about its immanent shortage is not unlike getting worked up about there being ‘not enough food in the world’, when you simply haven’t gone to the supermarket.

The problem is one of just getting water to where it is needed. But this fact is omitted from the ‘scientific’ presentation, either of the entire world’s supply of water, or in analyses that there is insufficient rainfall in some region, to meet the needs of people living there. This of course, chimes with the imperatives of the ‘sustainability’ agenda — that our demand for water shouldn’t exceed its supply. Wars will follow.

But the corollary of this argument is that nature herself causes war. That looks to me like a pretty good argument for piping the stuff wherever nature didn’t intend it to be. In fact, it is a robust argument for not relying on ‘nature’ to deliver water at all. But things such as water supply appear to us as something determined ‘naturally’. Rob Lyons of Spiked-Online pointed out the danger of this fallacy, following the wettest ‘drought’ the UK has ever experienced,

The UK is not an especially dry country overall. The problem is that many of the wettest areas have relatively few people while the driest areas (particularly around London) are often densely populated. It should not be beyond the wit of planners to devise means to get the water to the right parts of the country. For example, while a national water grid would be expensive and (probably) overkill, it would be relatively easy to link the Severn – often engorged with water from the Welsh mountains – with the Thames, which flows through London. There’s even an existing canal between the two, currently undergoing restoration. Alternatively, we should just go the whole hog and build the capacity to desalinate a much larger chunk of the capital’s water needs.

But the main game in town right now is ‘demand management’, not ‘increasing supply’. We Brits, apparently, have the temerity to use more water than our European neighbours. We don’t tend to water our gardens using rainwater from a butt and we don’t flush our toilets using dishwater. (Though if Livingstone had his way, we wouldn’t flush very often at all. ‘If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down’, he told a conference in 2005.) While Livingstone’s mayoral opponent, Boris Johnson has, for all his other faults, talked up the possibilities for improving infrastructure, Johnson’s Conservative colleagues in Whitehall seem to have adopted the make-do-and-mend mindset of greens.

The claims that water shortages will lead to ‘wars in Africa’ similarly misconceive the problem of not enough money as not enough water. And science turns up to show ‘look, not enough water’. Anyone who makes claims of that order is projecting onto the world.

‘Science’ and images that look ‘scientific’, then, often belie some deeply ideological preconceptions. Such a phenomenon can turn something as great in abundance as water into something scarce. Worse, it then turns that image into a motive force. It uses images of the ‘fragile’ Earth, or the volume of water to unsettle confidence in the future, which is usually only convincing to those who already believe in it. This anxiety is in turn used to then make an argument for a solution to the problem, not in which abundance, but more scarcity is created. In other words, the illusion of scarcity is a political weapon. It demands that you eschew your ambitions, desires, or interests for the promise of mere survival. Science should be about overcoming such limits, not defining them for political ends.

‘The real enemy is humanity itself’

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12456/</em>

Forty years ago, two ideas about humanity’s relationship with the natural world caught the imagination of the richest and most influential people. The first was that the demands of a growing population were taking more from the planet than could be replaced by natural processes. The second, related idea was that there exist natural ‘limits to growth’. These two reinventions of Malthusianism became the basis of a new form of global politics, which has sought to contain human industrial and economic development ever since.

Fears about the possibility of global environmental catastrophe and its human consequences, as depicted by neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich – author of the 1968 prophecy, The Population Bomb – and the Club of Rome – a talking shop for high-level politicians, diplomats and researchers – became the ground on which a number of organisations established under the United Nations were formed. In 1972, the UN held its Conference on the Human Environment, and began its environment programme, UNEP. In 1983, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, aka The Brundtland Commission, after its chair, Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland) was formed, leading to the publication of its findings in 1987 in Our Common Future. Also known as the Brundtland Report, it became the bible of ‘sustainable development’.

Having established sustainable development as an imperative of global politics, more organisations and programmes under the UN were formed to deliver it. In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the first ‘Earth Summit’, was held in Rio, leading to the Agenda 21 ‘blueprint for a sustainable planet’, UN conventions on climate change and biodiversity, and the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNSCD). Since then, an entire ecosystem of global, national, governmental and non-governmental organisations has emerged, to advocate and implement the closer integration of human productive life with knowledge about the environment: to observe the ‘limits to growth’. The most notable of these is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under which a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions is being sought.

Forty years on, and those predictions of doom have not been borne out. The average life expectancy of a human has increased by 10 years, and the number of infants dying before their fifth birthday has fallen from 134 per thousand to 58. Thus, the human population has nearly doubled, and global GDP has risen threefold. There are more of us, we are healthier, wealthier and better fed. There is vast disparity between what the advocates of political environmentalism have claimed and reality. So why are world leaders set to meet next month in Rio at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development?

The conference, known as Rio+20, aims to bring together‘world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups’ to ‘shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever-more crowded planet to get to the future we want’. But these apparently noble ends belie some shameful means. It’s not for you or I to decide what ‘the future we want’ will look like by participating in democratic processes. Instead, ‘world leaders’ from governments, businesses and NGOs are to decide it for us.

What happens then, if we don’t believe that an emphasis on sustainability is the best way to approach the problems of poverty and inequity? What happens if we think that progress in the world has been achieved, in spite of it not being ‘sustainable’? And what if we don’t think that the Great and the Good are doing anything other than serving themselves by this new form of politics?

There is, of course, no opportunity for the expression of such ideas. The Rio+20 conference will be a meeting to extend the reach of supranational institutions that are already beyond democratic control. By design, the meeting precludes public engagement. And any recalcitrant ‘actors’ who do make it to the meeting can expect to be made pariahs. Environmentalism is a form of politics that exists apart from the demos. It superficially aims to resolve the problems that are putatively beyond the reach of normal politics, such as poverty, by promising to meet the merely metabolic needs of the world’s poorest people.

However, this promise comes at a price. The 1972 Stockholm meeting discussed the ‘need for new concepts of sovereignty, based not on the surrender of national sovereignties but on better means of exercising them collectively, and with a greater sense of responsibility for the common good’. In other words, the world can be fed, clothed and housed at the cost of autonomy.

This surrendering of autonomy is a price worth paying, according to its advocates, whose argument has been reduced to a neat little slogan: global problems need global solutions. For instance, while trying to understand why scepticism of climate-change policies seems to correspond to a conservative persuasion, the Guardian’s Damian Carringtonrecently opined: ‘The problem is that global environmental problems require global action, which means cooperation if there are to be no free-riders. That implies international treaties and regulations, which to some on the right equate with communism.’

The claim is ridiculous for many reasons; not least of which is the fact that one doesn’t need to be ‘on the right’ to be sceptical of international treaties and regulations. One might also object to the creation of powerful political institutions and far-reaching policies simply on the basis that their construction has not been democratic.

Another reason might be that the concepts of ‘global’ and ‘sustainability’ are at best nebulous. To what extent are ‘global problems’ really global? And to what extent can making and doing things ‘sustainably’ really address problems such as poverty and inequality? Poverty is not, in fact, a problem of too much exploitation of natural resources, but too little. And poverty is not a global problem, but a categorically local one, in which a population is isolated from the rest of the world.

We can only account for poverty and inequality in the terms preferred by environmentalists if we accept the limits-to-growth thesis and the zero-sum game that flows from it. In other words, that there are limits on what we can take from the planet and we can only solve poverty if we divide those limited resources more equitably. Such an argument for reducing and redistributing resources has the reactionary consequence of displacing the argument for creating more wealth.

But to date, the arguments that there exist limits to growth, an optimum relationship between people and the planet, and that industrial society is ‘unsustainable’, have not found support in reality. The neo-Malthusians’ predictions in the Sixties and Seventies were contradicted by growth in population and wealth. And now there is a growing recognition that the phenomenon most emphasised by environmentalists – climate change – has been overstated. The scientist who proposed that life on Earth may function as a self-regulating system, James Lovelock, has distanced himself from the more extreme implications of his hypothesis. Where Lovelock once predicted ‘Gaia’s revenge’, he has reflected in ashort interview for MSNBC.com on his alarmist tome, and criticised others such as Al Gore for their over-emphasis on catastrophic narratives. This is a remarkable volte face in itself, but reflects a broader phenomenon: the coming to fruition of environmentalism’s incoherence.

Issues such as genetically modified foods and nuclear powerhave caused friction and factions to form within the green movement. Prophecies of doom, such as sea-level rise,melting glaciers and ice caps, wars for resources, mass extinctions and economic and social chaos have been deferred from the imminent – first by decades, then centuries, and now perhaps even millennia, depriving the movement of its urgency and forcing its members to seek (and fail to find) more pragmatic formulations of environmentalism. Meetings to find a global agreement on climate change have ended in disarray and bitter recriminations rather than harmony and a bright green future. So can the Rio+20 meeting buck the trend, and settle on coherent objectives for global environmental politics?

It seems unlikely that it can. Although the meeting intends to deliver ‘the future we want’, it turns out that what ‘we’ want is more difficult to identify than the UN had hoped. Even when we – hoi polloi – were excluded from preparatory meetings to determine the conference’s agenda, negotiators from 193 countries failed to settle on what they wanted. Just as with the climate negotiations, it turns out that different countries have different interests and want different things. And those other actors – the unaccountable, unelected and undemocratic NGOs – look ready to throw their toys out of the pram. For example, development charity Oxfam whinged that ‘governments are using or allowing the talks to undermine established human rights and agreed principles such as equity, precaution, and “polluter pays”’.

This is no surprise. ‘Sustainability’ is not about delivering‘what we want’ at all but, on the contrary, mediating our desires, both material and political. Accordingly, the object of the Rio meeting is not as much about finding a ‘sustainable’ relationship between humanity and the natural world as it is about finding a secure basis for the political establishment. The agenda for the Rio +20 conference is the discussion of ‘decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness’. Again, noble aims, perhaps. But is the provision of life’s essentials, and the creation of opportunities for jobs and the design of cities, really a job for special forms of politics and supranational organisations?

The idea that there are too many people, or that the natural world is so fragile that these things are too difficult for normal, democratic politics to deliver, flies in the face of facts. It would be easier to take environmentalists and the UN’s environmental programmes more seriously if millions of people were marching under banners calling for ‘lower living standards’ and ‘less democracy’. Instead, just a tiny elite speaks for the sustainability agenda, and only a small section of that elite is allowed to debate what it even means to be ‘sustainable’. We are being asked to take at face value their claims to be serving the ‘common good’. But there is no difference between the constitutions of benevolent dictatorships and tyrannies.

Sustainability is a fickle concept. And its proponents are promiscuous with scientific evidence and ignorant of the context and the development of the sustainability agenda, believing it to be simply a matter of ‘science’ rather than politics. The truth of ‘sustainability’, and the meeting at Rio next month, is that it is not our relationship with the natural world that it wishes to control, but human desires, autonomy and sovereignty. That is why, in 1993, the Club of Rome published its report, The First Global Revolution, written by the club’s founder and president, Alexander King and Bertrand Schneider. The authors determined that, in order to overcome political failures, it was necessary to locate ‘a common enemy against whom we can unite’. But in fighting this enemy – ‘global warming, water shortages, famine and the like’ – the authors warned that we must not ‘mistake symptoms for causes’. ‘All these dangers are caused by human intervention in natural processes, and it is only through changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome. The real enemy then is humanity itself.’

Rio + 20, Spiked

I have an article up on Spiked today, about the absurdity that is the looming Rio+20 conference.

Forty years on, and those predictions of doom have not been borne out. The average life expectancy of a human has increased by 10 years, and the number of infants dying before their fifth birthday has fallen from 134 per thousand to 58. Thus, the human population has nearly doubled, and global GDP has risen threefold. There are more of us, we are healthier, wealthier and better fed. There is vast disparity between what the advocates of political environmentalism have claimed and reality. So why are world leaders set to meet next month in Rio at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development?

I’m predicting that Rio will go the way of Copenhagen… It will again expose the incoherence of environmentalism, and the self-serving agendas of those present, but will be rescued at the last moment by some kind of fudge, as was found at Durban. But perhaps I will be surprised.

Another thing I think will happen is an attempt to reinvent the environmental scare stories of yesteryear, such as population growth and resource depletion. The climate thing is looking worn out at the moment — not quite a busted flush, but climate alarmism is passé.

Mass Murdering Environmentalists on Billboards?

A lot of hand-wringing is going on about those billboards which depict individuals known for their psychopathic tendency and their comments on the environment. The use of the image of Ted Kaczynski (AKA the Unabomber) seems to have caused particular offence to those who in fact seem to be delighting in taking offence, and relishing the opportunity to demand that climate change sceptics apologise for the billboard campaign, and condemn it and the Heartland Institute, even though they had nothing to do with it.

Take for instance, the words of Keith Kloor, who seems to be offering running commentary on the affair, as though it were an unfolding event with global significance…

5/6, 9:30am EST: At his blog, Andrew Montford says the ”reverberations are going to be felt for quite a while.” Then he proceeds, Anthony Watts style, to demonstrate his partisan tendencies by devoting the rest of his post to similar guilt-by-association tactics by climate advocacy blogs. As Leo Hickman lamented on Twitter [shorthand cleaned up] to Montford, “very sad that you, too, like Watts, couldn’t resist a ‘comparison’ drive-by rather than simply condemn.” After I seconded this, Montford tweeted: “I’m trying to understand why Heartland’s actions [are] considered so much worse than the others.”

I’m trying to understand how he can’t see the difference. Heartland’s posters were part of a public advertising campaign that included a detailed explanation for why Heartland believed they were appropriate. While Heartland has discontinued the billboards, it should be noted that they have not apologized or renounced the message they conveyed.

Montford had pointed out that the Guardian had published a number of articles online, which claimed that there was a significance in Anders Breivik’s comments on climate change, and his reference to climate sceptics in his manifesto:

If Leo thinks that Helmer should dissociate himself from Heartland, then presumably he thinks that the Guardian should remove Grist from its Environment Network?

The double standards are interesting. The implication of Kloor’s criticism is that Montford must unreservedly condemn the Heartland’s campaign, as though he were somehow implicated by it. In other words, that Montford isn’t entitled to ask questions about the standards being demanded of sceptics, by the likes of the Guardian’s environmental correspondents. In other other words, Montford isn’t allowed to ask questions about the putative connection between people of a certain belief and their actions in general.

And the comments about the link between Breivik and climate change from Grist are not the Guardian’s only attempts to link climate scepticism to violence.

Just over a year ago, following Jared Lee Loughner’s attempt to murder congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Damian Carrington asked the Guardian’s online readers…

I have received a handful of threats by email and phone myself, which given my low profile is a measure of the extent of the problem. My better-known colleagues George Monbiot and Leo Hickman receive more.

So it’s clear that even in issues such as climate change there is an active fringe of people deploying violent rhetoric and hate mail against those with whom they disagree. Could that tip the balance between thought and action in the mind of an unstable individual? It’s a worryingly plausible thought.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Carrington was evidently attempting to say that climate change scepticism and violence were somehow connected. I took Carrington up on his offer. And I made my own comparison between violence and the ideology which drove it. The comments were deleted from the Guardian’s website, and my account suspended, as I explain here.

The Guardian moderator clearly objected to my own linking of Kaczynski’s environmentalism with his violence. I had argued that environmentalism’s tendency to view humans in a variously negative light must be a factor in the violence which he went on to commit. In order to do violence to humans, one must have a degraded view of humanity. It is easier to pull the trigger or plant the bomb when you believe that humans are no better — and may even be worse — than bugs and beasts. The Guardian is the most prominent publication in the UK that is attached to such a view of humans. It routinely publishes articles that speak about humans in such terms. For e.g. Monbiot:

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.

Of course, once you take the view that the object of politics is to diminish humans in the scheme of things, you’re not necessarily committed to mass murder. But the point was to explain that a dim view of humanity must be a necessary condition for killing people. If there is a connection between ‘ideology’ and expressions of violence, as Carrington was suggesting, then Carrington ought to start looking at the anti-human ideology he and his colleagues were advancing and its possible consequences. Ideas matter.

But ideas only matter to the Guardians of the planet when the ideas under examination are not their own. Never mind the connection between ideology and violence, then, what is behind the double standards?

The Heartland Institute seems to have become something of a bogeyman for green hacks. However the HI remains a tiny organisation. Time was when journalists like Kloor, Carrington and Hickman would rant about Exxon and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, though the evidence linking energy companies to think tanks was — and still is — scant.

The trouble for journalists who campaign on green issues is in explaining why the world does not respond to their doomsaying, and rush out to get behind the cause. It’s a paradox, in their view, that they can be so convinced while the public remains at best divided on the issue, and at worst, completely indifferent to the possibility of Thermageddon. The only way it can be explained is by connecting the public’s indifference to any organised attempt to intervene in the public sphere.

This means amplifying any operation, no matter how small or poorly-funded, to the extent that it becomes an organisation with global reach, and control over the public’s perception of climate change. In other words, in order to sustain this view, it is necessary to abandon any sense of proportion. Furthermore, it is necessary to forget the extent of the institutional effort in the other direction: the enormous collaboration between national governments, supranational political organisations, NGOs, corporations and, of course, self-regarding hacks.

I am not all that bothered, either way, by the Heartland’s campaign. It’s not the way I would choose to intervene in the debate. It’s not all that offensive to point out that Kaczynski’s environmentalism and his violent campaign were not coincident, though any power that the argument has is lost by turning it into a slogan on a billboard. Those of us who are not involved have nothing to explain, apologise for, condemn or distance ourselves from, to the individuals who are making a song and dance about this affair, principally for their own, transparently ‘partisan’ ends.