Bees, Tin, Ozone… Anything Else?

A few weeks back, I took a look at the Friends of the Earth campaign that links Samsung to environmental destruction in Indonesia. FoE wanted to mobilise public opinion, using the standard method of generating consumer guilt with shocking images of poor people and lush landscapes denuded of trees. The message is simple: you did that, by buying a smartphone.

But the tin used in Samsung’s smartphones amounted to no more than 95 tonnes of hundreds of thousands of tonnes produced annually. The emphasis on smartphones was a strategy, though was presented as something of significance.

FoE currently have another campaign running — the Bee Cause — which aims to protect Britain’s bee population. FoE want the public to sign their petition, the wording of which is as follows:

Dear David Cameron,

Britain’s bees are under threat. Yet we need bees. They’re important to our food supply, economy and quality of life.

Along with thousands of others, I’ve joined The Bee Cause to help protect Britain’s bees.

But the Government needs to act too. Please adopt a National Bee Action Plan to ensure that the way we farm our food and plan our towns and cities gets bees back on track. The Government must also have the right experts in place to protect our most threatened species.

Yours sincerely,

Who doesn’t love the humble bumble? And who wouldn’t want to sign up to to protect the fluffiest of insects? But what would it mean to sign this petition, to demand the Prime Minister protects the bees?

It’s not apparent what the aim of the Bee Cause actually is. For that, one needs to look more deeply at the FoE’s campaign literature. And no environmental campaign is complete without two important elements: 1. Demanding that something be more heavily regulated or banned. 2. Claiming that the campaign is sanctioned in some way by science.

The National Bee Action Plan should set out how the UK Government will achieve a quantifiable reduction in the use of pesticides, including encouraging alternative pest control methods. It should commit to improving the assessment of pesticides’ impacts on bees, and to suspending the use of those pesticides thought to be linked to bee deaths until fully independent reviews prove they’re not contributing to bee decline.

The science comes courtesy of Tom D. Breeze, Stuart P.M. Roberts and Simon G. Potts at University of Reading Centre for Agri-Environment Research, who were commissioned by FoE.

But at least one researcher has pointed out that there are problems with the emphasis environmental campaigners are putting on pesticides. Lynn Dicks from the University of Cambridge wrote in Nature this week that,

There is no doubt that the proposed restriction on the use of these neonicotinoids on nectar- and pollen-rich crops such as oilseed rape will reduce a potentially serious risk to bees. It seems a crucial step towards reversing or halting observed declines in bees and other flower-feeders. But that is not enough for some environmental campaigners, who have framed the problem as one of the very survival of an unspecified number of bee species. Two and a half million people have signed an online petition telling EU decision-makers: “If you act urgently with precaution now, we could save bees from extinction.”

The assertion that a ban on neonicotinoids in Europe will save bees from extinction is absurd. There are bee species around the world in genuine danger of extinction, such as the once-common rusty-patched bumblebee in the United States, which has vanished from 87% of its historic range since the early 1990s. Diseases, rather than pesticides, are suspected of driving that decline. And although there have been dramatic falls in the numbers of managed honey bee Apis mellifera colonies in some countries, it remains a widespread and common bee, not in imminent danger of extinction.

Well-meaning exaggeration is common. The Guardian, a pro-environ­ment British newspaper, mangled my parliamentary evidence on moths and beetles to claim that three-quarters of all UK pollinator species, including bees, were in severe decline.

Dicks is speaking about’s petition, similar, but perhaps more determined than FoE’s. The text of their petition reads:

To EU decision-makers: We call on you to immediately ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. The catastrophic demise of bee colonies could put our whole food chain in danger. If you act urgently with precaution now, we could save bees from extinction.

Now the campaign has acheived 2.5 million virtual signatures, and the site proudly proclaims:

Our voices were heard! After we delivered the petition, the European Commission recommended suspending 3 deadly poisons! But some countries and pesticide companies could try to block it before the final vote. Let’s build the buzz to get a full ban on all bee killing pesticides!

The Guardian, which Dicks also mentions has a whole section on Bees. It’s contribution to the campaign to save the bee is mostly penned by Damian Carrington – the Guardian’s ‘head of environment’. Carrington, as he is inclined to, ‘mangled’ Dicks’s research, fingering pesticides as the cause of bee problems over a number of articles.

EU proposes to ban insecticides linked to bee decline
Three neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used insecticides would be forbidden across the continent for two years

Insecticide ‘unacceptable’ danger to bees, report finds
Campaigners say the conclusion by the European Food Safety Authority is a ‘death knell’ for neonicotinoid pesticides

Insecticide regulators ignoring risk to bees, say MPs
A parliamentary inquiry has uncovered evidence that links widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides to decline in bees

Evidence of pesticide harm to bees is now overwhelming
Yet more top-quality research shows current regulation is woefully inadequate in protecting the creatures that pollinate much of our food

The silence of the bees: government refuses to act on pesticide evidence
Extrapolating scientific data appears to be fine if policy-makers like where it leads – such as a badger cull – but is abhorrent if they don’t, as with bees

But the evidence Dicks gave to Parliament is summarised:

1. Wild bees and other pollinating insects are known to be declining in the UK and elsewhere in response to multiple interacting pressures, including the use of pesticides.

2. There is an urgent need for data on the actual exposure of wild pollinators to neonicotinoids or combinations of pesticides in their natural environment.

3. The Defra project (PS2371) that is supposed to fill this knowledge gap seems unlikely to. I cannot scrutinise the methods, but as described it is a small case study with a potential methodological flaw.

4. Recent evidence on the sub-lethal effects of field-realistic levels of neonicotinoids on bumblebees shows that serious implications for bumblebee colonies are possible.

5. No similar evidence has been published for solitary bees or other flower-feeding insects.

6. There is a lack of transparency in the pesticide regulatory system. The details of studies supporting the regulatory assessment are inaccessible.

7. There are many alternative farm management measures to enhance the natural pest control service provided in farmed ecosystems. My team at Cambridge are compiling a synopsis of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of these.

In other words, Dicks is far more circumspect than Carrington. The main difference is one between saying that there is sufficient scientific evidence to call for an outright ban on the one hand, and on the other calling for more evidence. But then Dicks herself makes a curious claim:

As a scientist involved in this debate, I find this misinformation deeply frustrating. Yet I also see that lies and exaggeration on both sides are a necessary part of the democratic process to trigger rapid policy change. It is simply impossible to interest millions of members of the public, or the farming press, with carefully reasoned explanations. And politicians respond to public opinion much more readily than they respond to science.

This is a fairly explicit justification of environmental alarmism: it is a legitimate and necessary strategy. But it also begs the question. If the premise of ‘rapid policy change’ is ‘science’, then any exaggeration of the science deprives the policy of its basis in science. As is ever the case with environmentalism, a feckless public is fingered as the agent responsible for both inertia and the low quality of public debate. And yet it is researchers, politicians and journalists who act in concert. Dicks continues:

There is a precedent here. The 1987 Montreal Protocol that banned chloro­fluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer is commonly held up as a shining example of a rapid policy response to emerging science. Yet it was agreed against a backdrop of wild stories of millions of extra cases of cancer and industry warnings that it would cost the US economy billions of dollars.

Is this a good precedent? And was it really true that the Montreal Protocol was a response to public pressure? As this blog has argued, public opinion and supranational environmental agencies move in spite of each other. In other words, things like the Montreal Protocol happen precisely because national governments cannot mobilise public opinion, or rather, form fully-functioning democratic mandates. It’s much easy to take your licence from panet-saving super-panels than from the hoi polloi. Dicks herself recognises the problem:

There is a risk, of course, that rapidly made, responsive policy changes will not turn out to be the most intelligent ones. We saw this in the European biofuels policy, which set a target of 10% renewable content in transport fuels by 2020, despite evidence at the time that this was not the best way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions using renewable energy.

It would be hard to think of any EU directive which wasn’t as equally counter-productive, if not self-destructive. The EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive, for instance, is causing a 16GW energy gap to emerge in the UK. To close the gap, it would be necessary to speed up the rate of wind farm building by 6000%, and cost billions in subsidies. Britain will be going the way of Germany: facing a much increased risk of power cuts, multiplication of energy bills, 100s of billions in subsidies and related problems throughout the economy. These failures will join the European Emissions Trading System and the emissions reductions targets, and the more general failure of the EU to influence global policy, leaving it in an island of expensive energy and redundant technology. But I digress…

This risk means that communicating the science itself directly to appropriate decision- makers remains extremely important. Scientists must not be turned off by the rhetoric, but motivated by it. We should engage with the debate throughout. It is important to get as near to the decision-makers as possible, providing clear and well-referenced information with an independent voice.

The problem should be immediately apparent. Researchers are not independent. The researchers at Reading, for instance, were commissioned by FoE. I, like many people, have no time — and perhaps not the expertise — to look into theirs or Dicks’s claims. Nor do we have the money to commission research. And FoE and other organisations are themselves funded by the European Union precisely to lobby MEPs. FoE staff are seconded into government departments — in the case of Bryony Worthington, a short stint at FoE, then DEFRA was all it took to make her a member of the House of Lords. Similarly, researchers are increasingly sought to provide the evidence base for policy which appears in many cases to have been decided before the research even begins. Policy-based evidence-making is only the half of it. As this blog has pointed out, environmentalism is a political idea, which a great deal of seemingly scientific research takes its premises from.

It gets worse:

You can’t switch off the lies and exaggeration. But don’t worry about them. When I saw the exaggerated pollinator-decline claim attributed to me in The Guardian I did not seek to correct it, because the correct information, with references, will go into a forthcoming parliamentary-committee report. Unlike stories in the press, that report will definitely be read by officials who advise the politicians who, for the United Kingdom at least, make the final decision. And because of such reports, and a recent risk assessment from the European Food Safety Authority, we can be fairly sure that the decision on whether to restrict neonicotinoid use in Europe will not be made on the basis of avoiding 20% yield losses in crops, or saving the world’s bees from extinction.

Dicks can sleep easily at night, perhaps, knowing that she did what she could to best inform the UK’s policy-makers. But higher courts makes the decision: the European Commission and the EU Parliament. And at least one of those bodies seems to have reacted to the demands of NGOs, rather than to the counsel of scientists. As Carrington reported at the end of last month,

Insecticides linked to serious harm in bees could be banned from use on flowering crops in Europe as early as July, under proposals set out by the European commission on Thursday, branded “hugely significant” by environmentalists. The move marks remarkably rapid action after evidence has mounted in recent months that the pesticides are contributing to the decline in insects that pollinate a third of all food.

This doesn’t seem to have proceeded on the basis of clear and independent science, but on the basis of incestuous relationships between the environmental movement, researchers and technological bureaucracies. I don’t claim any expertise in bees here. What I am aware of, however, is a growing tendency of politicians at all levels of government to be easily moved by flimsy, alarmist tales of ecological decline on the scantiest evidence — which is often nothing more than speculation. There is also a tendency of NGOs seeking to assert themselves politically, on the same groundless claims, and by mobilising the public on similarly wildly exaggerated claims — the FoE’s campaign against Samsung, for example. I’m also aware that, in spite of the claims that the world’s bee population is in precipitous decline, this is still possible:

If it were really the case that bees were dropping out of the sky, how is it possible to buy a third of a kilo of honey for £0.99(US$1.51)? When I asked on Twitter, I had a number of interesting replies:

Because most honey is mostly fake. Even when it says it’s real.

cos it’s probably not proper honey

Because fake honey is being sold.

You can buy cheap “honey” because it may not be “honey” you’re buying

My tweet had been a reply to Richard Dawkins, who had claimed:

Bees are more important for our economy than most people can imagine. Bee survival is dangerously threatened by poisons

And on Dawkins’s own site to which the tweet linked:

Quietly, globally, billions of bees are dying, threatening our crops and food. But in 48 hours the European Union could move to ban the most poisonous pesticides, and pave the way to a global ban that would save bees from extinction.

It seems obvious that the extent of bee decline and our dependence on bees has been overstated. This over-sensitivity to trends that may or may not have any truth to them seems to be environmental ‘ideology’ in motion. And it’s from this presupposed idea of imminent, inevitable collapse of the systems which we purportedly depend that this ‘ideology’ turns into political power.

Lynn Dicks may well think this necessary — that we remain in a state of anxiety and ignorance in order to make decisions possible. But this isn’t a healthy form of politics. What it really speaks to is the disengagement of the public from elite politics — a state of affairs that scientists such as Dicks services and sustains, rather than criticises and sheds any light on. It’s not enough simply to have an arrangement between policy-makers and scientists, in which the latter supply the former with ‘independent’ advice. As we can see, too much interferes with that communication, and there is good evidence that suggests that seemingly independent researchers are as vulnerable to the hype, alarmism, and misleading ideas about the natural world and society as the feckless public. Dicks should have challenged the Guardian, and Avaaz, and FoE. That is, of course, what democracy means. It’s no good pretending that ‘good science’ and independent research can happen without it.

Sir Paul Nurse & Nigel Lawson

As pointed out over at Bishop Hill, Nigel Lawson was the subject of some comments made by Royal Society president, Paul Nurse at his lecture at the University of Melbourne recently.

I have written a lot about the Royal Society, its campaigns, and the angry and doom-laden words of its presidents. It seems obvious that these presidents have real difficulty understanding the debate they want to comment on. But what seems more obvious is that they cannot listen (or read) to any other argument. That must be the case because they cannot reproduce their critics arguments at all faithfully. Bad faith, then, seems to be the cause of the hostility.

But I’m already bored of writing something about it that will surely be as ignored as everything else I’ve written about the Royal Society. I thought it might be more fun to try a different approach.

Ehrlich Joins the Headshrinkers

He is better known for his work on population, but neomalthusian, Paul Ehrlich is listed as an author on a new paper, the abstract of which reads as follows,

Government policies are needed when people’s behaviors fail to deliver the public good. Those policies will be most effective if they can stimulate long-term changes in beliefs and norms, creating and reinforcing the behaviors needed to solidify and extend the public good. It is often the shortterm acceptability of potential policies, rather than their longer-term efficacy, that determines their scope and deployment. The policy process should include a consideration of both timescales. The academy, however, has provided insufficient insight on the coevolution of social norms and different policy instruments, thus compromising the ability of decisionmakers to craft effective solutions to the society’s most intractable environmental problems. Life scientists could make fundamental contributions to this agenda through targeted research on the emergence of social norms.

In other words…

Scientists Should Advance Management of Behavioral Norms

.. says the press release from the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Needless to say, I find this weird. The press release explains…

The authors maintain that effective policies induce not only short-term changes in behavior but also long-term changes in norms. More effective management of social norms will be necessary, they write, to persuade the public to accept the inconvenience and expense of many environmental policies.

What is weirdest in my view is that biologists should take an interest in the development, and indeed the deliberate manipulation — engineering — of ‘social norms’. Almost as weird is the authors’ understanding of what a ‘social norm’ actually is:

This is how domestic recycling, for example, has become the accepted habit of many people who were at first resentful of having to separate recyclable items.

This is addressed in the paper:

Recycling provides a simple example. In many places, recycling programs began with much grumbling, under the pressure of increased costs for oversized garbage loads. Today, recycling is second nature for many people, who have come to view it as a normative behavior. This has led to increased recycling even under reduced enforcement. Prohibition provides an illuminating counterexample: Short-term declines in the consumption of alcohol in the face of severe penalties did not lead to widespread or long-term temperance. Effective policies, then, are ones that induce both short-term changes in behavior and longer-term changes in social norms.

A better example of what recycling is — at least as far as life in the UK is concerned — is a transformation of the relationship between local authorities and the people they (in theory) serve. And this transformation came from on high. Rather than local councils implementing policies through decisions made by the voter, most UK recycling rules are the consequence of EU directives on the management of landfill sites. A tax is imposed on the tonnage of waste sent to landfill. Notably, the people who select their representatives at local and national levels do not get to select the executive branch of the EU government. Yet, say the authors of the paper…

Some may object to an expanded governmental role in influencing norms, but we feel strongly that our recommendations can be carried out in a way that abides by the principles of representative democracy, including transparency, fairness, and accountability (Norton et al. 1998). Furthermore, government is only one of many parties and interests in democratic systems acting to influence values and social norms; other parties include, for instance, corporations, charitable organizations, neighborhood groups, organized religions, and public and private schools. Therefore, people’s behaviors, values, and preferences—and the social norms to which they give rise—are under continuous pressure, but government is uniquely obligated to locate the common good and formulate its policies accordingly. A central role of academics in this process would be to elucidate both the intended and the unintended effects of governmental policies and regulations on social norms, to help ensure transparency and a focus on the common good.

In fact, there was a fair amount of resistance to the recycling rules. And rather than accepting them, the antagonism that developed between local authorities and people was mediated by a relaxation of the rules — many councils backed down after public pressure, others themselves campaigned for changes, and the fines for householders’ non-compliance were quickly dropped. Where people ‘accept’ recycling now, it is because there is no alternative. ‘Social norms’ have nothing to do with it. For there to be evidence of a ‘social norm’ developing, there has to be a choice to do otherwise.

The authors believe that ‘government is uniquely obligated to locate the common good and formulate its policies accordingly’. But this, like the claim that ‘social norms’ follow recycling policies, get’s the concept of democratic government on its head: government’s seek to engineer values around their preferred politics and policies.

It is not for democratic governments to determine what ‘the common good’ is. ‘The common good’ is established in a democratic society by a much wider debate, and a contest of competing arguments, which the elected government then delivers on. Where there is no contest — where there is a political consensus on the government’s role — there can be, by definition, no possibility of the government identifying a ‘common good’; the claim to have identified the greater good is simply self-service, necessarily.

Perhaps that’s a bold claim. but the author’s take their definition of ‘democracy’ from another paper — Norton B, Costanza R, Bishop RC. 1998. The evolution of preferences: Why “sovereign” preferences may not lead to sustainable policies and what to do about it. Ecological Economics 24: 193–211, the discussion in which includes this interesting claim:

A commitment to democracy, and a rejection of any role for philosopher kings, scientific experts or, especially, for totalitarian manipulators of opinion, demands that preference formation be a highly individual, non-coercive process, according to this view. In this sense the individual consumer is sovereign, even as his or her preferences change, because the process of preference change is directed by the individual, rather than by an outside agent (this, of course, flies in the face of the fact that preferences are being manipulated by outside agents every day).

Norton et al confuse ‘democracy’ with ‘consumer sovereignty’. They continue on this tack, to examine ‘four degrees of consumer sovereignty’…

Degree 1: unchanging preferences
Degree 2: preferences as given
Degree 3: consumer sovereignty as commitment to democracy
Degree 4: democratic preference change

This leads to a painfully loaded discussion about a hypothetical society, which is gripped by a religious sect whose beliefs dictate that the first-born child from each non-believing family be sacrificed in order to prevent Armageddon.

Hoping we will never face a situation so dire as to live in a society solemnly and with due legislative process committed to human sacrifice (as in our hypothetical example above), one hopes that policy will be set in a situation of open debate, with experts weighing in, and with interactions between the public, experts, and political decision makers. If a democratic process, including safeguards for individual rights of present people, is in place, then surely it makes sense to inject into the debate moral concerns about the well-being of future generations, even if these arguments require questioning and criticizing individuals’ sincerely felt preferences.


Evidence that current behavior has negative impacts on other individuals, other species, or the future may require re-consideration of that behavior and the preferences that generate it. We can come to a democratic consensus about our shared preferences for a sustainable society through a process of discussion and debate, and then use these principles as guides to encourage people to
see the inappropriateness of some preferences, given the scientifically demonstrable impacts of acting on those preferences.

So the paper itself starts from poor premises: a shallow understanding of democracy as ‘consumer sovereignty’, and an egregious example of respect for individual preferences leading to the slaughter of infants. After some hand-wringing and indeed, hand-waving, the article concludes:

Actively seeking to influence preferences is not inconsistent with a democratic society. Quite the contrary, in order to operationalize real democracy, a two tiered decision structure must be used (Fig. 1). This is necessary in order to eliminate ‘preference inconsistencies’ between the short term and the long term and between local and global goals, a phenomenon described in the social psychology literature as a ‘social trap’ (Platt, 1973; Cross and Guyer, 1980). There must first be general, democratic consensus on the broad, longterm goals of society. At this level ‘individual sovereignty’ holds, in the sense that the rights and goals of all individuals in society must be taken into account, but in the context of a shared dialogue aimed at achieving broad consensus. Once these broad goals are democratically arrived at, they can be used to limit and direct preferences at lower levels. For example, once there is general consensus on the goal of sustainability, with agreement by all the major stakeholders in society, then society is justified in taking action to change local behaviors that are inconsistent with this goal. It may be justified, for example, to attempt to change either people’s preferences for driving automobiles or the price of doing so (or both) in order to change behavior to be more consistent with the longer term sustainability goals. In this way the foresight that we do possess in order to modify short-term cultural evolutionary forces toward achieving our shared long-term goals is utilized. If economics and other social sciences are to adequately address problems of sustainability, it will be necessary to develop evolutionary models that make preference formation and reformation an endogenous part of the analysis, and to develop mechanisms to modify short term cultural evolutionary forces in the direction of long term sustainability goals.

So this is the sleight-of-hand… Government’s can be coercive on the condition that there exists ‘general, democratic consensus on the broad, longterm goals of society’. So what the environmentalists do — NB Ehrlich’s earlier work — is to outline the possibility of some kind of ecological Armageddon. Once this is established as a party political consensus (rather than a broad societal consensus) the ‘general, democratic consensus on the broad, longterm goals of society’ consists of no more than ‘we want to survive’. This in turn reduces democratic politics to the elitism — “philosopher kings, scientific experts [and …] totalitarian manipulators of opinion” — that Norton et al set out to avoid.

Returning to the Paper co-authored by Ehrlich, it is notable, then, that there has been no ‘situation of open debate, with experts weighing in, and with interactions between the public, experts, and political decision makers’ that Norton et al speak of, not in the case of recycling or climate change and energy policy in the UK. Indeed, the entire point of constructing supranational political organisations and panels of experts to lead policymaking on climate change has been to circumvent the problem of democracy. As Chris Huhne revealed in an interview with the BBC in 2011:

All through human political history, you have had governments that have tried to set up particular objectives and have realised they can only go so far so fast without the rest of the world going along with them. For example, back in the bad old days of communism you had the whole argument about whether Joe Stalin could have socialism in one country. You can’t have environmentalism in one country.

Political leaders that do not enjoy the authority of a genuine democratic mandate have a preference for supranational political institutions. Huhne was no exception. Politically ambitious, the only way he could secure whatever vision he wanted to realise was by seeking authority from above, rather than below. The problem that remains is how to get the below to respond whilst maintaining the notion that a merely nominative democracy is more than that.

So what is a social norm?

We adopt Ellickson’s (2001) definition of a social norm as “a rule governing an individual’s behavior that third parties other than state agents diffusely enforce by means of social sanction” (p. 3) for those who violate the norm and with rewards for those who follow it. […] Social norms may exist even when there are government regulations constraining behavior. The likelihood that any of us would get caught and fined were we to drop a candy wrapper in a park, for instance, is very small; we probably resist littering not because of the state regulations but because of personal (e.g., “I’m not the kind of person who litters”) or social (e.g., “I wouldn’t want others to think I am the kind of person who litters”) norms

And what’s the point…

Our intent in this article, however, is not to provide an exhaustive review of social norms (which we have neither the expertise nor the space to do) but to provide an overview for life scientists, from an interdisciplinary team interested in the issues, of the potential links between policy instruments and social norms.

There follows in the article some discussion and speculation about governmental attempts to change social norms through marketing campaigns and other interventions: fines, subsidies, changing ‘choice architecture’, and banning things. It’s insipid stuff that smacks more of desperation than of rigorous academic research. There is a recognition here that the attempts to build policies on the back of claims to scientific authority have failed as comprehensively as the attempt to build a popular environmental movement. The article is superficially about changing ‘social norms’, but in fact the way in which signals are transmitted to government all speak about depriving the individual of his autonomy. Adopt this social norm, or I’ll punch you in the face. As this cack-handed prose, demonstrates, nobody is as confused about social norms as these authors:

Laws and regulations, like fines, can serve to create or reinforce social norms merely by signaling to the members of a community that this is an issue that others think is important. Some have argued that regulations are inherently coercive and cannot or should not exceed implied levels of public permission for such regulations. An alternative viewpoint is that governments can and even should move beyond extant levels of public permission in order to shift norms, allowing public sentiment to later catch up with the regulation (House of Lords 2011). The abolition of slavery in the United States (Guelzo 2004) and the ban on smoking in public places in the United Kingdom are both government actions that exceeded public sentiment at the time but later gained widespread public acceptance.

When an argument treats the abolition of slavery in the same terms as the abolition of smoking in public, we can know that we’re looking at a weak argument. It’s unlikely that there was a ‘social norm’ in favour of slavery amongst slaves. Even weaker is the idea that a law can produce a change in social norms. The point is hopefully made more precisely if we imagine the reversal or inversion of such policies: can we imagine that making smoking compulsory in public spaces or the legalisation of slavery would produce a change in social norms? No doubt some people might welcome such moves. But then, if it is the job of government to create social norms, why not bring back slavery? At the very least, it would serve the ‘common good’ by ending the problem of unemployment. Anything can be justified by the terms Ehrlich and his co-authors employ.

The article then goes on to outline five areas of research that biologists can emphasise, to help in the coercion of the wider public:

1. More realistic policy interventions in collective-action models.
2. The role of error (deception) in displaying and detecting behaviors.
3. More realistic network structures.
4. The role of absolute versus relative payoffs.
5. The role of viscous (i.e., slowly changing) and fluid (i.e., rapidly changing) norms and behaviors.

None of these areas, however, speak about biological science in the strict sense. “Scientists should introduce perturbations in their models of cooperative emergence that mimic the policy interventions described above.” says item 1 on the agenda. “Scientists could effectively explore the impact of certain agents engaging in deceptive behaviors; the incentive to do so will rise with the sanctions and will decline for more visible behaviors”, says item 2. Item 3 asks scientists to look for “distant geographic connections sustained through social media networks, exchanges of letters and e-mail, and periodic face-to-face visits”. Item 4 urges scientists to use game theory to identify what “influences perceptions of fairness and the adoption of cooperative strategies”. Item 5 asks, “Does it benefit society to have some behaviors and norms be fluid, while others are viscous, and, if so, which behaviors and norms can tolerate fluidity?” and “What does this mean for
the policy interventions that governments might make to alter behaviors?”

Each item on this agenda for biologists extends biology, not just into the social sphere, but into the political sphere. In this way, it would seem that biology is being made a normative science. Before biologists embark on their agenda, they should ask themselves about the rights and wrongs of developing coercive techniques, and robbing individuals of their moral autonomy. The fact that biology has no real conception of moral autonomy, they should probably also ask whether their science is up to this task.

… it is clear that structural changes need to be made that would allow society and policymakers to more effectively assess the longer-term implications of policy proposals. Initially unpopular or only modestly popular measures may gain wider acceptance if they prompt reinforcing changes in how people define themselves and their society, particularly if the changes are aided by innovations that make their implementation easier or more effective. For instance, a poll of American opinions on global warming suggested that the public by and large opposes taxes on gasoline or electricity as a way of combating global climate change and, instead, favors stricter fuel- and building-efficiency standards (Leiserowtiz 2009). Although standards may be the path of least resistance, many environmental economists view taxes and other market-based instruments as a more efficient means to internalize the external costs of consumption. Political scientists have found that people have come to accept other taxes as normative after they have been convinced that the taxes effectively address shared concerns (Bobek et al. 2007). A carbon tax might therefore prove effective even in the face of near-term opposition. What needs to be assessed is the possibility that behaviors and values would coevolve in such a way that a carbon tax—or other policy instrument that raises prices, such as a cap-and-trade system—ultimately comes to be seen as worthy, which would therefore allow for its long-term effectiveness.

The authors recognise the problem that they cannot win the climate debate through democratic processes — that the case for environmentalism and environmental policy has not been won. The article argues for the problem to be framed in the terms of biological science. This is to reduce the voting public, from thinking, feeling, rational beings to mere organisms that need to be managed — farmed.

The academy, therefore, needs to increase its capacity to work with policymakers to effectively use existing knowledge on policy–behavior–norm interactions and to generate needed new insights in a timely fashion.

As previous posts here have shown, where once the academy, like the press, might have been a critic of power, it is increasingly the case that it is being sought to defend and extend power. Arguably, the interests of politics and research have coincided as they have struggled to identify their value to the wider public; the former unable to produce a democratic mandate, and the latter increasingly incapable of making an argument for academic enterprise as a good in itself. Being detached from the public means both institutions struggle to identify societal goals — the ‘common good’. The possibility of ecological catastrophe is a stand-in for a shared goal — it can be presupposed that we all want to survive. But in the process, the public are made objects of a ‘science’.

Whether or not climate change is a real problem, the compact between politics and the academy as is proposed by the article plainly aims to position science as a remedy to extant political problems. No good can possibly come of it. Even if biologists could produce ‘insights’ into the control of behaviour, it would come at the expense of policy being advanced on the basis of consent between rational people, resulting in only a further degradation of the concept of democracy. The reality is likely to be much more a broadening of the gap between the public and public institutions, and a deepening of the mutal cynicism between the public and politicians, into which scientists will be dragged. At the very least, before any researcher attempts to follow the agenda, they should attempt to form a critical view of that agenda in the same terms, before rising to the challenge of engineering social norms.

Climate Change Politics: Science's Pimp

Ed Davey made some revealing comments at his presentation at the Royal Society this week. James Delingpole has given Davey’s words the treatment they probably deserve, pointing out that the Royal Society has ‘jumped the shark’. Says Dellers,

The Royal Society – founded 1660; former motto “Nullius In Verba” – this week strapped on a giant pair of waterskis and leapt over an enormous shark swimming in the pond in nearby St James’s Park. The shark, whose name is Ed Davey, is believed to have been lured over from Westminster aquarium to perform bizarre tricks for the amusement and delight of the Royal Society’s membership.

I think James may have it slightly wrong here — not that it matters to his criticism, which I think correctly identifies the absurdity of the relationship between the science academy and the government, and the Secretary of State’s childish framing of the climate debate.

Says Davey,

It is fair to say that trust in politicians is not something the public has in abundance.

That is why, when it comes to climate change, it is so important that all the rigours of the scientific method are applied.

This gives us some important clues about what is really going on in the climate debate, which is helped by Delingpole’s ‘jumping the shark’ metaphor.

It probably needs no explaining here, but ‘jumping the shark’ is an allusion to the attempt to reverse falling viewing figures for the ’70s TV show, Happy Days. Like many TV series, the attempt to revive the show forced the writers to ever more desperate measures, only serving to demonstrate instead the terminal condition of the franchise.

There is a curious parallel, then, between the viewing figures for Happy Days in the late 1970s, and the UK public’s estimation of politicians in 2013. ‘Trust in politicians is not something the public has in abundance’. So call in the writers…

It should set alarm bells ringing. Those bells should be ringing most loudly at the Royal Society. Eyebrows should have been raised… ‘Did you hear that, Paul, Davey wants us to write him a script’.

Davey’s words reveal the dynamic that is driving the climate debate. He wants the authority of science; his own authority, as a member of the minority party in an unpopular coalition government, in a historically dire political situation, is non existent. If this blog has said nothing else in the past six years, it is that ‘science’ has been recruited into a political campaign to save the political establishment from the public. This takes two forms: first taking a mandate from science, rather than securing legitimacy through democratic processes; second, building supranational political institutions above democratic control. in this way, sovereignty is taken away from individuals and from national governments. To be seen to be doing the right thing, then, is more important than to be seen doing it in the right way…

That it is the science that drives policy.

And that we hear loud and clear from the experts.

When the scientists tell us that the evidence proves that smoking is addictive and can cause a whole host of deadly medical conditions from emphysema to heart disease, we believe them.

We try to give up, we hope our children never start.

When scientists tell us to that prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultra-violet rays can lead to cancer, we believe them, because their views are based on strong evidence.

We take precautions, we avoid sun burn, we cover up, use sun cream.

So if we have this trust in scientific evidence, why would we make an exception when it comes to the science of climate change?

When it comes to assessing the health of our planet’s eco-system – we should listen to the scientists – and we should believe them.

The logic here appears to be that, because we know that too much exposure to the sun can lead to an increased likelihood of skin cancer, the IPCC/UNFCCC process is legitimate.

Turning to scepticism, Davey makes an even stranger remark:

As President Obama said last month:

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

And Sir John also talked about how our hope must be to limit climate change – preventing us passing a potentially catastrophic tipping point – a great threat to life.

Because the stark fact is this – climate change is happening.

Maybe climate change is happening. But Roger Pielke Jr. has a handy button that can be pressed at such times as these, referring the statements such as Davey’s to the IPCC’s SREX report…

“There is medium evidence and high agreement that long-term trends in normalized losses have not been attributed to natural or anthropogenic climate change”
“The statement about the absence of trends in impacts attributable to natural or anthropogenic climate change holds for tropical and extratropical storms and tornados”
“The absence of an attributable climate change signal in losses also holds for flood losses”

The report even takes care of tying up a loose end that has allowed some commentators to avoid the scientific literature:

“Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.”

I expect the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change, and the brilliant minds of the Royal Society to be better able to recall and marshal the facts about climate change than I am, not least because they are all paid much more than I for their abilities. But perhaps the compact between them causes them to forget what it is science itself has told them. And it gets worse…

It may be as I mentioned earlier that the art of politics is not greatly revered.

But we will need every piece of political artistry we can bring to bear to make sure that we translate this scientific understanding into concrete and effective action to keep climate change within manageable levels.

Action based on the science, the risks and the impacts.

Action to deliver a low carbon way of life.

Rewiring the global economy, becoming more resource efficient while continuing to deliver the economic growth that improves people’s lives.

If you’re a member of the Royal Society — which seems unlikely, because the Royal Society is very good at ignoring its critics — you should, I hope, be able to see Davey’s words as an explicit statement that you are recruited into a political campaign.

But Davey is not the first politician to speak to the Royal Society, of course. In 1998, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke about a new relationship between science and policy,

In studying the system of the earth and its atmosphere we have no laboratory in which to carry out controlled experiments. We have to rely on observations of natural systems. We need to identify particular areas of research which will help to establish cause and effect. We need to consider in more detail the likely effects of change within precise timescales. And to consider the wider implications for policy—for energy production, for fuel efficiency, for reforestation. This is no small task, for the annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide alone is of the order of three billion tonnes. And half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution remains in the atmosphere. We have an extensive research programme at our meteorological office and we provide one of the world’s four centres for the study of climatic change. We must ensure that what we do is founded on good science to establish cause and effect.


The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development.

Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century and one in which I am sure your advice will be repeatedly sought.

Thatcher’s speech is arguably far more lucid than Davey’s. While the former PM speaks in paragraphs, Davey can barely grunt one-line factoids. But what both speeches speak to is the idea of a dependent relationship between the systems of the natural and human worlds. Over the 25 years between the two speeches, that belief became orthodoxy. And it is that orthodoxy that allows Davey to peddle myths about the extent to which climate change signals have been detected, and attributed to humans. And it would seem to be that same orthodoxy that prevents the scientists of the Royal Society from calling him out on it.

The standard caveat that I am usuall forced to include here is that none of this is to say that ‘climate change isn’t happening’, nor that climate change will not be a problem. It’s simply that the likes of Davey inaccurately represent the facts, and relies heavily on the possibility of catastrophic scenarios to make his claims. Moreover, whether or not climate change is happening, the estimate of impact presuppose humanity’s closely dependent relationship with the natural world. The Royal Society’s scientists aren’t just being asked to take sides in a political campaign, they are asked to reproduce the ideology of that campaign. And what will it achieve? The goals of men like Davey are policies — totems to their own power that serve no useful function:

The real prize, the real prize, is to design in long-term emissions reduction through systemic change.

Designing out carbon.

And that is where this Coalition Government has been building on the framework created by the last Labour Administration.

Putting muscle and flesh on the bones of the Climate Change Act.

Turning theory into practice.

Taking forward the practical polices that will create a low carbon economy.

Maximising energy efficiency by overhauling the housing stock through the Green Deal.

Setting up the Green Investment Bank to leverage private sector investment into low carbon.

And now before Parliament a new Energy Bill – an ambitious long-term plan for a major reform of our electricity market to help ensure we deliver on our emissions reductions commitments, and attract the right investment for low carbon infrastructure – creating jobs and growth in the process.

Let us remind ourselves that Davey knows that politicians are unpopular. And yet he seeks global agreements on climate, to extend the UK Climate Change Act, to reorganise the productive economy, to continue to make energy expensive. For a man who knows his mandate is weak, he shows no signs of humility. Never mind that the existing legislation designed to protect the climate has failed to work on its own terms, has made life harder for people, and has many critics within even the green camp, Davey asks the scientists to defend him against criticism. And those we might expect to speak truth to power seem to have been flattered by power asking for their favours. He frames the debate for them…

You know, when I am confronted by some of the most dogmatic and blinkered people who deny that climate change is happening, I am reminded of the sentiment of the famous USA Today cartoon.

“If we really are wrong about climate change, we will have created a better world for nothing”.

In reality, those who deny climate change and demand a halt to emissions reduction and mitigation work, want us to take a huge gamble with the future of every human being on the planet, every future human being, our children and grand children, and every other living species.

We will not take that risk.

It should be an insult to the intelligence of the members of the organisation that is founded on the basis of its members’ intelligence. In reality, critics of climate change policy are as concerned about their children as any other person. Davey persuades the scientific academy with cheap moral point-scoring.

If the scientists buy Davey’s crude moral story of baddies versus goodies, it will be another demonstration that the Royal Society no longer takes its motto seriously. The gamble they are taking is with the future of trust in science. Trust in science will go the way that trust in politicians went, for the same reasons.

From Bloomberg to Lomborg…

Bloomberg are reporting that

Wind is now cheaper than fossil fuels in producing electricity in Australia, the world’s biggest coal exporter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

What amazing news! So someone must have developed some amazing new technology!


Electricity can be supplied from a new wind farm in Australia at a cost of A$80 ($84) per megawatt hour, compared with A$143 a megawatt hour from a new coal-fired power plant or A$116 from a new station powered by natural gas when the cost of carbon emissions is included, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report. Coal-fired power stations built in the 1970s and 1980s can still produce power at a lower cost than that of wind, the research shows.

Bloomberg’s omission is fairly typical of news agencies these days. We might expect people reporting on things like energy markets to be a bit less… well… activist about the way they report things. Bloomberg isn’t only attempting to report the news, it’s trying to make it:

“The fact that wind power is now cheaper than coal and gas in a country with some of the world’s best fossil fuel resources shows that clean energy is a game changer which promises to turn the economics of power systems on its head,” Michael Liebreich, chief executive officer of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in a statement today.

Guess what, making energy more expensive ‘turn[s] the economics of power systems on its head’.

We could, tomorrow, create a tax on bicycles. Let’s say the tax is £8,000. Car manufacturers would now be able to claim that they had produced a car that was cheaper than the bike, right?

Would Bloomberg reporters fall for it? Of course not. Yet that must be how stupid Michael Liebreich thinks Bloomberg’s readers are.

Bjorn Lomborg, however, tells a different story.

No wonder the Australians are angry. Electricity prices have shot through the roof, increasing 56% in real prices since 2006.

This is both because of green costs like the carbon tax and feed-in tariffs, but also because of aging electric infrastructure that needs to be changed.

The price is now ¢26/kWh, compared to the US paying just above 11 australian cents.

If it were possible for wind turbines to produce electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power stations, it wouldn’t be necessary to push electricity prices up to make them ‘competitive’. It is a straightforward concept that shouldn’t be beyond the brains of news agency staff.

Blognitive Dissonance

Readers will no doubt remember climate change psychologist, Stephan Lewandowsky and his attempt to connect climate change denial and scepticism to conspiracy theories.

Lewandowsky et al’s paper, NASA faked the moon landing|Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science was published on the author’s university web site, though it was presented as ‘in press’, shortly to be published by the Journal of Psychological Science. However, in spite of being ‘in press’, the article never made it to hard copy.

We might reasonably be allowed to speculate what the reasons for the paper not making it to print were. One reason may be that it was, as has been widely observed, utter BS. Even Lewandowsky’s own colleagues pointed out its many flaws in methodology, and its naked attempt to diminish Lewandowsky’s opposites in the climate debate — climate bloggers.

Lewandowsky has returned, apparently with an analysis of the reactions to his unpublished, non-peer-reviewed paper. And it is published, in an ‘open-access’ journal,

Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation
Stephan Lewandowsky1*, John Cook1, 2, Klaus Oberauer1, 3 and Michael Hubble4
1 Psychology, University of Western Australia, Australia
2 Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, Australia
3 Psychology, University of Zurich, Switzerland
4 Climate Realities Research, Australia
Conspiracist ideation has been repeatedly implicated in the rejection of scientific propositions, although empirical evidence to date has been sparse. A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and the rejection of other scientific propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; LOG12 from here on). This article analyzes the response of the climate blogosphere to the publication of LOG12. We identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking. For example, whereas hypotheses were initially narrowly focused on LOG12, some ultimately grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors of LOG12, such as university executives, a media organization, and the Australian government. The overall pattern of the blogosphere’s response to LOG12 illustrates the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science, although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future

It’s all the more remarkable that the reaction to the first, unpublished paper (referred to in the new paper as ‘LOG12’) should be the subject of a second paper, published in a journal with arguably far less credibility. Indeed, there is not even a link to LOG12 in the new paper, other than the citation:

Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Gignac, G. E. (in press). NASA faked the moon landing|therefore (climate) science is a hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science. Psychological Science.

Still ‘in press’. Or is it? Perhaps the journal has decided, wisely, not to let themselves get dragged into Lewandowsky’s political war. Either way, readers of the new journal don’t get to see the substance of Lewandowsky’s earlier paper, nor the substantive criticisms of it — merely those which, on Lewandowsky et al’s view, demonstrate conspiracy theory ‘ideation’.

It’s a bit like comprehensively losing a football match 7-nil, but to only include in your retelling of the game one successful tackle. And that’s being generous to Lewandowsky. Because, not only does his new paper deny its readers a précis of his previous paper, he frames responses to it as ‘conspiracy ideation’, whereas in fact they were largely trying to establish exactly what it was he had done.

For instance, the new paper presents an unfolding story of sceptic’s reactions to the original paper:

“Skeptic” blogs not contacted (2). Initial attention of the blogosphere also focused on the method reported by LOG12, which stated: “Links were posted on 8 blogs (with a pro-science science stance but with a diverse audience); a further 5 `skeptic’ (or`skeptic’-leaning) blogs were approached but none posted the link.” Speculation immediately focused on the identity of the 5 “skeptic” bloggers. Within short order, 25 “skeptical” bloggers had come publicly forward ( to state that they had not been approached by the researchers. Of those 25 public declarations, 5 were by individuals who were invited to post links to the study by LOG12 in 2010. Two of these bloggers had engaged in correspondence with the research assistant for further clarification.

This apparent failure to locate the “skeptic” bloggers led to allegations of research misconduct by LOG12 in blog posts and comments. Those suspicions were sometimes asserted with considerably {sic} confidence; “Lew made up the `5 skeptical blogs’ bit. That much we know” ( One blog comment airing the suspicion that “skeptic” bloggers had not been contacted also provided the email address to which allegations of research misconduct could be directed at the host institution of LOG12’s first author. This comment was posted by an individual (SMcI; see Table 3) who had been contacted twice by the researchers’ assistant.

But self-evidently, it was the opacity of the first paper (LOG12) and its method that led to the bloggers’ speculation. Had Lewandowsky and his researchers been upfront about which blogs they had approached and when and by whom, there would have been no confusion. But on Lewandowsky’s view, speculation about his methodology counts as ‘conspiracy ideation’, which is to say that wondering out loud about whether or not Lewandowsky had done what he had claimed to have done betrays a similar mode of thought that convinces people that the CIA organised the assassination of JFK.

Blog comments, like blogs, vary in their quality. They can be breath-takingly bad, or conversely, knock you out with insight. But it would be impossible to claim that any ‘side’ of any debate on any subject had the monopoly on low quality conspiracy theories. Indeed, the conspiracy theorising by ‘warmists’ in the climate debate isn’t confined to the blogosphere. You may remember George’ Monbiot’s belief, published in The Guardian that oil interests pay for armies of sceptic drones to undermine his arguments. And respectability and scientific expertise is no barrier to bad ideas, either. The Royal Society itself published an argument in its guide to climate change that,

There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions… Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded…

I have little interest in parsing the 57 pages of the new paper, to get the measure of the remainder of what Lewandowsky believes are conspiracy theories. It seems sufficient to say that, whether or not the comments in question do betray a tendency of the authors towards conspiracy theorising, they were a response to a poorly-conceived research exercise which was transparently intended to frame the debate as one between science on the one hand, and idology/conspiracy theorists on the other. If the internet has a gutter, in which thrive conspiracy theories and pointless interminable flame wars between people who have little grasp on the real world, Lewandowsky’s work is amongst it.

But what is remarkable, however, is that seemingly academic research should have fallen to this level. Lewandowsky reduces academia to a silly blog comment war. He drags journals, and research organisations into this war, undermining the value of research in general and trust in it. The thrust of Lewandowsky’s paper is ‘I picked a fight on the Internet, and this is what people said about me’, which, of course, omits any criticism of his work that may enable him to develop a better argument.

And that’s the point. Lewandowsky’s research is intended to reduce the phenomenon of ‘scepticism’ and ‘denial’ without taking any notice of what sceptics say, except when it confirms to the stereotype Lewandowsky wants to demonstrate the existence of. No doubt that’s a ‘conspiracy theory’ on his view, but the truth is much simpler: either his mediocre talents aren’t sufficient for the critical self-reflection necessary to produce robust research, or an inflated ego precludes critical self-reflection.

There might well be some value — though I doubt it very much — in seeing what motivates online discussion. But this would involve a far less partisan, nudge-nudge-wink-wink smear on the researcher’s own enemies. Ultimately, ‘research’ of this kind will bring the academy down with it, because drawing attention to, and publishing Lewandowsky’s work means demonstrating to the world the fact that quite often, academic researchers are as petty-minded, ‘idologically-motivated’, and pig ignorant as the worst of online commentary. That was something that Academia could exclude. But no longer. It is as if research departments — especially those that have made a name for themselves by emphasising climate — have opened their doors to an army of pub bores, never mind climate activists. Half-baked, and cock-eyed theories about society, individuals, politics and economics and so on proliferate, and don’t do anything like as much to advance their own arguments as they do diminish the faculties of those outwith the faculty. It backfires, to take the university with them. Picture this…

The New Tin Pot Dictators: Green NGOs

It should be clear to everyone by now that environmentalists have no sense of proportion. For instance, on the green view, the claim that ‘climate change is happening’ has been a matter of true or false, rather than a matter of degree. But is this misconception the consequence of green ‘ideology’, or simply a strategy intended to promote it?

A press release from Friends of the Earth on Friday announced:

Samsung questioned over tin as profits soar

25 January 2013

Commenting on phone manufacture Samsung’s soaring profits revealed today (Friday 25 January 2013), Friends of the Earth’s Head of Campaigns Andrew Pendleton said:

“Samsung’s profits may be soaring, but do they come with a cost? The company has yet to explain whether the tin it uses in its phones is ravaging the tropical forests and coral reefs of Bangka Island, Indonesia.

“Research shows that tin from Banka is almost certainly in Samsung’s products.

“New rules are needed to make all companies disclose their supply chains – starting with a Europe-wide law next year.”


FoE’s research was published last November, in a report called, Mining for smartphones: the true cost of tin [PDF]. On page 20, the report explains FoE’s decision to target Samsung:

Samsung is the top-selling smartphone brand in Europe. It offers a wide range of handsets and as a result has a global reach like no other – in 2011 it sold 95 million smartphones – that’s nearly one in five of all smartphones sold worldwide (19.5 per cent of the global market share). In fact just one model, the Galaxy S, launched in June 2010, and updated Galaxy S2 and S3, has already sold more than 42 million. Samsung Electronics is South Korea’s biggest company and has extended its reach as an Olympic Games 2012 partner and Chelsea football club sponsor.

When Friends of the Earth investigators contacted Samsung Electronics prior to publication to ask if the company sourced tin from Bangka or was aware of the damage tin mining is causing the island’s communities and ecosystems, a Samsung spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied this. In a statement, the company said it took the issue of ethical sourcing of minerals very seriously. “Samsung is committed to upholding the highest standards of corporate responsibility, and we continue to evaluate our sourcing policies to ensure they comply with global standards associated with our industry,” said a spokesperson. “We will monitor the Bangka Island situation to determine if an investigation into whether tin in our supply chain is being sourced from the region is required.”

During Friends of the Earth’s research Samsung was identified as a buyer or user of Indonesian tin via the supply chain of PT Timah.

The problem, according to FoE is the environmental destruction caused by tin mining operations in Indonesia. As this FoE film shows, it’s certainly not a pretty process, and the lot of the workers involved in the production of tin have a pretty lousy time.

Tin is used in the production of mobile phones, chiefly as an ingredient in solder, a substance used to hold electronic components to circuit boards. But to what extent is Samsung responsible for the situation in Indonesia?

Let’s start with the facts. FoE claim that Samsung sold 95 million smartphones last year. That’s a lot of phones. So how much tin is that? Curiously, for it’s emphasis on smartphones, FoE’s report is vague about how much tin is in a smartphone. It produces this graphic instead. (Page 7).

A tablet contains between 1 and 3 grammes of ‘tin rich solder’. So let’s assume that a smartphone, which is about half the size and complexity of a tablet, contains a gramme of tin rich solder. So Samsung used 95 million grammes of tin in smartphones in 2011. There are a million grammes in a tonne (1,000 grammes in a kilogramme; 1,000 kg in a tonne). So that’s 95 tonnes of tin, for Samsung’s global smartphone market.

Is that a lot?


According to the US Geological Survey, in 2010, the world produced 277,000 tonnes of tin. On the FoE’s own gallery of images of tin mining in Indonesia, it shows a picture of an operation that produces 50,000 tonnes a year:

So Samsung and the market for smartphones hardly drive the bulk of production of tin in Indonesia.

Pretty much any electronic device will contain solder and therefore tin. It is an extremely useful substance. But its extraction, like the extraction from the earth of many useful substances, causes problems. And those problems are far more pronounced where institutions that might regulate extractive processes and protect workers are not as developed as they are in the west. For another instance, we might want to look at the extraction of rare earth metals for use in wind turbines and electric vehicles, which is arguably a dirtier and more dangerous process, but which Friends of the Earth seems to ignore.

In the past, a large part of the world’s supply of tin was produced in the south west of England. And the story was similar. As the following video from Cornish Mining World Heritage demonstrates, what was once a dangerous and exploitative industry is now celebrated for its historical significance.

Might it not be the case that in a hundred or so years — perhaps, and I hope, many fewer — that the tin mines of Indonesia will become museums like their Cornish predecessors? How is it that we can see Britain’s part in the history and development of global trade as so essential, but the expansion of such processes into the emerging economies as such a bad thing? After all, aren’t they the same story? The video shows, even if it doesn’t say so directly, the transformation of an economy, alongside the transformation of the landscape, politics, and concomitantly, the conditions that workers in tin mines experienced. Now we see videos like this, and perhaps visit the museums that now stand in place of the mines. They show how much life has changed. We would not tolerate the danger, the child labour, and the rates of pay. But in 19th Century Britain, there was no Friends of the Earth, and there were no global environmental NGOs complaining about the environmental impact of mining.

None of this is to defend unsafe working conditions and the ruthless exploitation of workers, of course. However, green NGOs have a tendency to not present the development going on behind the ugly images they trade in. Data from the World Bank is useful here.

As we can see from the above chart, the most striking thing is that mobile phone usage is now pretty widespread. It’s not as if Indonesians have been left out of the mobile phone and tin markets. The second most striking change in Indonesia since 1991 is the decline in infant mortality — from 80 per 1000 live births in 1991 to 33 in 2010. Next, we see enrolment in secondary education rising from 44% to 77% in a generation. Then we see life expectancy rising from 62 to 69. Finally we see 11% more people enjoying access to clean water than in 1991. Over the same period, GNI per capita, PPP (at current international $) rose from $1,390 to $4,180.

What is clear, then, is that in spite of the picture FoE have presented, conditions for people in Indonesia — tin miners amongst them — have improved. Readers will no doubt differ in their views about whether or not this progress is fast enough, and what, if anything could be done to speed that process up. The rights and wrongs of this need bringing out of the debate. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine that we owe nothing to people whose working conditions are dire if we are in a position to help. However, the basis on which we intervene in the political and economic lives of others needs careful consideration.

This is how Foe see things though…

As major users of tin and hugely influential brands that deal with companies buying tin from BangkaBelitung province, we’re also calling on these smartphone giants to:

> Bring together affected parties in Bangka to agree and implement a plan to halt environmental and human problems caused by tin mining.
> Back new rules for all companies to come clean about how they do business.

We don’t have all the answers for Bangka. But as a crucial first step Friends of the Earth and our colleagues in Friends of the Earth Indonesia, Walhi, want Samsung and Apple to bring together all the affected parties to agree and implement a plan to halt environmental and human problems caused by mining. Finding a solution will need to involve miners, fishermen, government and other community groups. Friends of the Earth believes mining firms shouldn’t be allowed to operate without community consent, cleaning up properly afterwards and avoiding operating in precious ecosystems and habitats.

To help prevent these sorts of problems happening elsewhere in the world and to ensure that companies make our favourite products in a way that’s within the limits of our planet’s ability to support us, we’re asking Samsung and Apple to support Europe-wide legislation requiring full reporting on product supply chain impacts.

What is immediately obvious is the self-conscious tacking of human problems onto environmental concerns. After 200 years of history, the people of Cornwall — the descendants of the first industrial tin miners — are able to assert themselves politically. They are protected from dangerous and exploitative working conditions. These are rights which we expect for ourselves, and would surely wish for everyone. But wishing them for everyone means letting other people decide for themselves what the value of their environment is. The conditions FoE put down, however, are that mining operations must not take place in ‘in precious ecosystems and habitats’, and operate ‘in a way that’s within the limits of our planet’s ability to support us’.

The first problem, then, is that any emerging economy will be developing into space that is, on the green view, a ‘precious ecosystem’. Even in the UK, where barely a square inch of the landscape can be claimed as untouched by human hands, protests about building roads and homes still take place on the basis that it will disturb some ecosystem or other. Yet this image from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment Report tells a different story:

Barely 1.5% of the UK has something built on it — be it a home or a road. James Heartfield demonstrates the problem with the greens’ mindset at Spiked — the environmentalist’s failure to develop a sense of proportion:

Meanwhile, Britain’s protected Green Belt is expanding all the time. Currently it accounts for 12.6 per cent of the land area of England. ‘Special areas of conservation’, ‘sites of special scientific interest’ and ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’ account for a further 29.8 per cent (see More Homes and Better Places, published by the Building and Social Housing Foundation in September 2011). New national parks are also being created, the latest being the South Downs that stretches from Eastbourne to Winchester. The marking out of these restricted areas prevents any development of any scale from taking place.

The population of the UK are squeezed into 1.5% of its area, while flora and fauna frolic in the remainder. So if that’s what environmentalists want for an industrialised, advanced economy like the UK, what do they want for Indonesia?

It isn’t clear. And it never is clear. The sense of disproportion in the green argument is in this sense, strategic: to give the substance of numbers to an argument means committing yourself to redundancy once that number is made a target, and then realised. To leave the figure unstated gives the environmentalist to push for more, more, more. Moreover, giving the argument the perspective of numbers allows the putative destruction of one area to be seen against a greater whole — context. What might be a tragic episode for a one-eyed Disney-esque perspective might in fact be a convenient trade-off of development and conservation on a view with more depth. It might well be the case that Indonesians could decide for themselves that Bangka, as beautiful as it is, is a sacrifice worth making.

No doubt, however, Indonesia’s turbulent political history, and the economic circumstances of many Indonesians have precluded the kind of public debate about planning we might expect in the UK. But then, is the issue environmental? Or is it political? The basis on which FoE decide to intervene in the lives of Indonesians, then, doesn’t emerge out of a desire to work in solidarity with poor Indonesians, but out of what seems to be a desire to ‘protect the environment’. Hence, FoE call for ‘Europe-wide legislation requiring full reporting on product supply chain impacts’. FoE demand that mining shouldn’t occur without ‘community consent’, but the politics of tin mining in Indonesia is to be settled in Brussels and Strasbourg. It’s not enough that the EU’s undemocratic influence only extends as far as Europe; it is to set standards for the rest of the world, too, driven, as it is, by ‘civil society’ organisations — NGOs like Friends of the Earth. Environmental concerns, invariably expressed in unscientific and hopelessly catastrophic terms with no sense of proportion, are turned into world wide legislation by a level of governance with barely a mandate even from the people it governs. ‘Community consent’, my elbow.

Barely a mandate… for what seems to be a desire to ‘protect the environment’ But is that the whole story?

Something akin to a mandate is necessary, though, of course. And here we return to the disproportionate emphasis on just 95 tonnes of tin, that may possibly have been produced in Indonesia.

Friends of the Earth are attempting to raise the profile of their campaign by emphasising the putative environmental impact on a consumer item of choice — the smartphone. In this way, it is able to piggyback off, if not hijack, the marketing hype and consumer demand for these items. The remaining 276,905 tonnes of tin used in almost every other electronic item and plumbing system is not part of this story.

The campaign is launched. Obedient journalists (if that is what they really are) at The Guardian pick up the press release, and a journalist is sent off by plane, to meet with the victims of your desire for a smartphone…

Death metal: tin mining in Indonesia
If you own a mobile, it’s probably held together by tin from the Indonesian island of Bangka. Mining is wrecking the environment and every year it claims dozens more lives

Yes, ‘if you own a mobile’, possibly… But also if you own a kettle, a low energy CFL lamp, an oven, a boiler, a radio… anything… it too is ‘probably held together by tin…’ from the same place.

But no matter, the campaign has its publicity, and asks for the public to ‘Take Action‘. Meanwhile, the manufacturers, keen to sustain their fluffy eco-friendly PR are forced to submit. Companies embarrassed, and public mood demonstrated, the NGO takes the proof of concept and demonstration of public mood to the legislators.

To say that this is cynical would be an understatement. After all, where is FoE’s campaign for  the rights of workers who are not involved in extractive industries? Why is ‘community consent’ an issue only where a community attached to a ‘precious ecosystem’? And what business is it of the EU’s or the FoE’s to demand negotiations between the ‘community’ and the mining operations? The ‘environment’ is merely a basis from which political interests can extend their reach.

So the failure to develop a sense of proportion is strategic. The story begins with a tall tale about your smartphone and the ugly impact of mining on a picturesque landscape. The 95 tonnes is but a tiny fraction of the tin extracted anywhere, but the campaign mobilises (pardon the pun) consumer guilt about the remaining bulk, and turns it into political capital. Next we see the lot of the workers, but again, not in proportion, and not in the context of development — they are helpless victims, incapable of organising themselves politically, and so need European NGOs and political institutions to protect them. And of course, the ‘environmental destruction’ itself is not discussed in terms of what an appropriate level of protection is necessary.

Were there any sense of proportion to the FoE campaign, consumers might shrug, rather than join the campaign. If the ugly steps of economic development and industrialisation were seen in their context of improving conditions, and the growing potential of workers to bargain for rights for themselves, FoE would be unable to put on a parade victims. And if the loss of ‘precious ecosystems’ in our own and other country’s histories were seen in proportion to the vast stretches that — contrary to FoE’s claims — still exist, it would be hard to say that it’s not worth pulling tin out of the ground. And if there was any sense of proportion at all, the few people who are taken in by FoE’s absurd campaigns would carry no weight with EU legislators whatsoever.

But perhaps the worst of the FoE’s campaign is this unholy meeting of EU politics, ‘civil society’ and consumer ‘democracy’. The attempt to forge superficial solidarity between consumers in the West, and Indonesian tin miners belies a compact between wholly undemocratic organisations. FoE market themselves through images of muck and squalor to channel emotions far more cynically than any brand marketing campaign. And rather than simply turning such emotion into profit, FoE turn images of poverty and deforested areas into political power.