What? The Green Movement Got Something Wrong?!

by | Nov 4, 2010

Channel 4 will be showing “What the Green Movement Got Wrong” tonight. Tune in at 9pm…

It’s too early to say much about the film — I haven’t seen it yet — but it appears to feature prominent environmentalist, Mark Lynas saying that environmentalists were wrong to oppose GM and nuclear energy. The thinking being that these are two ways we could prevent global warming.

“My view”, says Lynas, “as one of the contributors to the film, is simple: the greens can dish it out, but they can’t take it.”

You what, Mark?

This is a real debate and the environment movement needs to tackle it head-on rather than asserting that all challenges must be part of some imagined evil conspiracy.

Is this the same Mark Lynas:

Pie-man Mark Lynas said he was unable to ignore Lomborg’s comments on climate change. “I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face,” said Lynas, “in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.” Many countries in the Third World are also experiencing the effects of climate change. In Africa, Lake Chad is now a twentieth of the size it was in the 1950s, leaving millions potentially without water. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is planning the evacuation of its entire population as sea levels continue to rise. “And yet despite all this evidence,” comments Lynas, “Lomborg somehow contrives to argue that it is cheaper to go on burning fossil fuels than to switch to clean energy to prevent runaway global warming. This feeds right into the agenda of profiteering multinationals like Esso.”He continued: “I don’t see why the environment should suffer every time some bored, obscure academic fancies an ego trip. This book is full of dangerous nonsense.

Lynas’s views on nuclear power has got him into trouble with the green movement before, of course. Back in 2008, he wrote,

Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. […] The backlash to my first magazine article on the subject prompted my inbox to collapse, the blogs to drip with venom, the dirty looks to multiply.

Just imagine! Venomous attacks from environmentalists! Poor, poor, Lynas. Still, at least it’s provided a moment of self reflection, even if it is own backside he’s disappearing into.

But was Lynas’s conversion a Road to an Atomic Damascus or the Green Reformation, we asked, as Lynas battled with another favourite of ours, Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas. Lynas, like Luther, has nailed his theses to Ch4’s door. It will be interesting to see just how deep a reflection on the problems of the environmental movement Lynas has been able to commit himself to. I have my doubts.

It’s all well and good to propose nuclear power as a technical solution to an objectively-defined problem of climate change, and to point out that the greens have been the ones doing most to prevent progress in this regard. But this misses the point that environmentalism — Lynas included — doesn’t begin with objectively-defined crises. For instance, Lynas now finds himself accused of the kind of attack on his integrity he was once proud to be involved in. Silly consumer ethics guru, Leo Hickman in Tuesday’s Guardian points out that

An environmental documentary due to be broadcast on Channel 4 on Thursday evening has come under attack from a leading American environmentalist who was interviewed for the programme, as well as a coalition of anti-GM campaigners based in the developing world. [… ] In a letter sent today to Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, a coalition of anti-GM campaigners based in the developing world led by India’s Vandana Shiva accused the filmmakers of using only two “southern-based commentators”, both of whom are “funded by major GMO [genetically modified organisms] companies”.

Friends of the Earth, who are angry that they have been named in the film, have issued a statement and a film:

[youtube EHREDKZLfII]

And it is here that we can really see what the environmental movement gets wrong. Kirtana Chandrasekaran’s vision for the future is one in which we ‘build on the knowledge’ that small farmers throughout the world have. The irony here being that, just a moment previously, she had complained that GM technology locks poorer people into debt and poverty. She can’t see beyond this form of existence, to consider the possibility of small farmers becoming big farmers, and of leaving subsistence existences — and possibly rural life — far behind them. For Chandrasekaran, subsistence existences are the expression of pure eco-virtue. And this is what the environmental movement gets terribly, terribly wrong.


  1. George Carty

    Anyone here read “The Wages of Destruction” by Adam Tooze?

    It points out that some of the most extreme murderous policies of the Third Reich were motivated by a desire to save the way of life of the German peasant farmers (who mostly had insufficient land to compete with the large farms of North America).

  2. Donna Laframboise

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts after the Channel 4 show airs.

  3. Mooloo

    in which we ‘build on the knowledge’ that small farmers throughout the world have.

    I loathe this sort of thinking.

    The real agricultural knowledge is held by modern scientists and corporates, not small farmers. It’s anti-scientific to think that all those scientists doing experiments are no-nothings that haven’t even bothered to try out traditional techniques first. They try them, and then find something better. Often much better.

    Meanwhile men who can barely make ends meet are not able to experiment, because that might mean starvation. So they farm just like they always have, which is often quite badly.

    (Naturally the corporates don’t always use their huge knowledge in a way that benefits mankind in general, but that’s a different issue.)

  4. Philip

    My personal highlights from the subsequent C4 debate…

    – Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth still pushing the idea of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and then pointing out in dead pan that it takes 15 years to build a nuclear power station (with the implication that this is just too long to prevent the UK’s lights going out and therefore presumably that nuclear cannot be a reasonable part of the energy mix).

    – Greenpeace scientist Doug Parr claiming that Greenpeace is after all pro-science and pragmatic, and stating that renewables will solve everything by 2050.

    – Ben Page of Ipsos MORI blaming the warmist woes on the attention the media gives to a very small minority of scientists who say global warming is not happening at all (?!?).

    – George Monbiot claiming the greens are massively outspent and outgunned by corporate funded movements and going on to claim that the documentary had a wildly romantic view of technology. (Despite occasional suggestions of the Guardianista’s support for technological solutions to their problems, I have a feeling that this is not really the case with George. Instead, his only real interest often seems to be in stopping the use of fossil fuels – why this in particular, I wonder?)

    – Michael Buick of Sandbag I thought had some kind of sense in his comments. Removal of energy subsidies – for all kinds of generation – seems likely to have numerous benefits and realistic tax for commons damage seems obvious as well (although I suspect that Sandbag would have a different view on what “realistic” means here).

    – Mark Lynas acknowledging both that Greenpeace routinely exaggerates the downsides of nuclear power, and that there is a need to accept a reasonable level of risk. Also his “respectfully, that’s rubbish” putdown to Monbiot.

    – Monbiot acknowledging the problems with biofuels, and then going on to talk about the need for redistribution and social justice – without even bothering to mention trade liberalisation.

    The general feeling I got was that most of the greens present just don’t accept the need for tradeoffs and rational comparison of costs and benefits and are very defensive about their record. The last point is well illustrated by the DDT issue: Greenpeace’s Doug Parr was seen I think claiming that there has never been a ban on malarial spraying and that Greenpeace have never expressed opposition to such measures. This position was subsequently supported by Monbiot, who was then challenged by Brand to compare sources. Although I’m not particularly knowledgeable on this topic, I was able to quickly find a couple of sources that I reckon might be relevant:


    After watching this entertaining mixture of good intentions and vested interests, I have to say I find it all too easy to end up ruefully reflecting on F.A. Hayek’s comments from half a century ago regarding the dangers of taking intellectuals too seriously.

  5. Ben Pile

    Philip, all too easy to end up ruefully reflecting on F.A. Hayek’s comments from half a century ago regarding the dangers of taking intellectuals too seriously.

    Eco-nutters vs. Hayek? You’ve found yourself between a rock and a hard place. But Monbiot and Lynas are hardly ‘intellectuals’.

  6. geoffchambers

    George Monbiot, in an article on the programme here
    raises the think-tank funded sceptics conspiracy myth again. A commenter has linked to an old CR post on the subject (well-funded-world-wide-fund-for-fear) but it’s comment number 300+. If you kept an eye out for such already debunked myths and got a comment in early, you’d be doing yourselves and Guardian readers a big favour.

  7. geoffchambers

    That’s an excellent demolition job you’ve done on the thread you link to.
    (Not everyone clicks on untitled links, and Ben is too modest to explain, so I’ll just point out that CR was busy on a second Monbiot thread about DDT).

  8. Philip

    Ben: “Eco-nutters vs. Hayek? You’ve found yourself between a rock and a hard place.”

    You must know I’m not claiming any particular allegiance, although I was impressed by the way some of his stuff matched up with some of the things I’ve seen going on around this issue. If you have a reference to an article or post explaining what else makes any sense, I’d really appreciate it.

  9. Ben Pile

    Philip I was kind of joking. But if you want a more serious answer, you might find some similarities in the anti-politics of environmentalists and Hayek. Notice in the debate that both sides were claiming that the other was ideological, and claiming that they alone were in possession of the ‘science’. Monbiot was criticising Lynas for his ‘blind faith’ (i.e. dogma), and saying that he was pragmatic. Of course, we could say, ‘well, George just doesn’t recognise his own position as political’ (and I would say that). But neither did Hayek.

  10. Philip

    Ben: “you might find some similarities in the anti-politics of environmentalists and Hayek”.

    By “anti-politics”, I think you mean the use of a populist stance of denial of politics in order to secure political support. Therefore, both sides in the C4 debate assume that it will be popular if their own position appears to be derivable solely from scientific considerations. By contrast, they label their opponents as being ideologues because they think people will regard this as being bad. But they do not appreciate that their own position is also based on an ideology, which has become so ingrained that it appears transparent. Likewise, although there is a rational case for society to pursue the ideas surrounding development, these ideas also have an ideological basis. Therefore both the rational case and the ideological case for development need to be made, if there is to be any hope that the ideas surrounding development will again become popular.

  11. Ben Pile

    Philip, I think there is a general cynicism of politics, which politicians have attempted to circumvent by presenting themselves as merely managers of public life, hence the desire to recruit ‘science’ into the business of this management. But the result is that the presuppositions of this process rarely get exposed, and less often contested. This is one reason why on this blog, we’ve criticised seeing the climate debate in terms of left/right politics. Anti-politics is, so to speak, a condition of environmentalism’s ascendency.

  12. Julie Kinnear

    It is the same all over the places. Before the elections politicians would do anything to grasp the attention of potential voters. And we have the topic no.1 in these days: to keep sustainable development with minimum impact on the environment. They won´t do much by talking in front of the cameras… Firstly they have to solve the problem with our dependency on fossil fuels and then to talk about everything else…

  13. Alex Cull

    Ben, some awesome commentary from you in that Stewart Brand thread in the Graun – maybe it would be a good idea to make some sort of backup just in case the mods decide that your arguments are just too good to remain undeleted…

  14. Alex Cull

    Haven’t yet seen this programme, but FoE’s stance reminds me of something that was on BBC Radio 4 at the beginning of the year, Analysis with Justin (Ethical Man) Rowlatt:


    There was a follow-up in BBC R4’s Feedback programme: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8701899.stm

    Sheila Freeman (FoE): “Why is there a persistent strand of green backlash at Radio 4? Analysis has, to use its own language, used fear of environmentalists to further [?] its own agenda – of promoting nuclear power and genetic engineering, even though both have been scientifically proven to be incapable of solving either climate change or world hunger.”

    On a similar note, C4 appear to have mightily annoyed Bianca Jagger, going by the tone of her tweets (BiancaJagger) – “I AM WATCHING AN IDIOTIC DOCUMENTARY ON CHANNEL 4 “WHAT THE GREEN MOVEMENT GOT WRONG” THESE IDIOTS ARE RECOMMENDING NUCLEAR POWER.”


    I think we’re likely to see, hear and read much more of this kind of thing after Cancun. It looks to me as though the media could be starting to dump AGW in earnest, and the protesting voices from FoE, Bianca and others are going to get louder and shriller.

  15. Robert of Ottawa

    STOP MESSIN’. Let’s call the enviromentalists as they are: “Friends of Dearth|”

  16. geoffchambers

    Alex, I can’t see the media dumping AGW yet, not while it’s supported by Cameron, Milliband, and Bianca Jagger.
    Your quote from the FoE spokeslady “nuclear power and genetic engineering … have been scientifically proven to be incapable of solving either climate change or world hunger” is a gem. The “scientifically proven” presumably comes from the label of one of the Bianca Jagger cosmetics range.

  17. George Carty

    @Alex Cull

    I strongly disapprove of Monsanto’s business practices, but that’s an argument against Monsanto’s business practices (and the laws which permit them), not against genetic engineering technology itself!


    Or more likely (at least in the case of nuclear power) from Storm van der Leeuwen and Philip Smith, who did a “study” showing that nuclear power was unsustainable. The paper contains numerous deliberate mistakes:

    * It assumes that no breeder reactors are used, or even reactors capable of running on natural uranium (such as the Magnox or Candu).
    * It assumes that all uranium enrichment is done using the obsolete gaseous diffusion method, rather than the centrifuge method which only uses 2% as much energy.
    * It overestimates by about two orders of magnitude the amount of energy needed to mine uranium. The amount of energy that the Rössing mine in Namibia would consume according to Storm-Smith’s calculations is more than is consumed in reality by the entire country of Namibia.

    Why produce such a work of junk science? Because Storm van der Leeuwen is a high-up member of the Club of Rome, that gang of genocidal monsters who called humanity a “cancer” and advocated that the world’s population be reduced to less than one billion.

  18. Philip

    Alex, Geoff: I’ll third the praise to Ben for his commenting on the CiF article. It’s almost more enlightening to read him there, in the context of the warmists, then here.

  19. Dominic


    Redundant (but sincere) praise for Ben Pile’s robust work over on CiF.

    Robert of Ottawa – Friends of Dearth – ha! still cleaning the Petrus off the screen. Thank you; very droll.

    Bianca Jagger – proof positive that every material advantage does not guarantee mental acuity.

    George Carty – I hadn’t even heard of ‘stormsmith’ until I read your comment. I’ve spent the last few hours over at that site reading the study and the rebuttal to the criticisms you outline.

    Obviously I am an absolute beginner at the ‘is nuclear unsustainable’ game, but their rebuttal did seem quite solid… If you are still around, can you point me at more information (non-WNA) that undermines their conclusions?

    I make no bones about this – I want them to be wrong. If they are not, we are in an even bigger energy/climate khazi that I thought. So, research required.

  20. geoffchambers

    Alex, Phil, Dominic
    Ben is good when he gets going isn’t he? Having a couple of friendly snipers at his side helps too, I think.
    In my Cifilitic days, I used to feel that, at least Monbiot’s assistant would have to read it and report back to the Chief on the state of the battle. An uncomfortable moment for both, perhaps.

  21. Dominic


    ‘Cifilitic’ Hah!

    Stop it please. How can I continue to convince my wife that I am engaged in serious matters if she can hear me chortling away like a wind farm owner opening the monthly subsidy envelope?

  22. Neil Craig

    The assumption they got something wrong depends on assuming that the “environmentalists” care about the environment rather than being a false flag for wholly corrupt Luddites & those who want to use government power to control people & enrich themselves. The movement is certainly controlled by the latter & virtually every real envirobnmentalist has long been driven out of the movement.

    In those terms they have regretably got everything right, moving on from each fraudulent scare just after all the new laws & regulations have been put in place & just as it was proven a lie.

  23. Philip

    George has a new post, based on an article by Paul Kingsnorth that I thought confirmed several of Ben’s suggestions:


    The article separates environmentalists into a grass-roots eco-centric movement and a modern corporate/celebrity view: the grass-roots vision arose before any scientific justification and the modern view is conventional society’s reaction to the grass-roots movement. Perhaps this distinction is at the heart of the conflict between Monbiot and Brand?

    Kingsnorth accepts that the grass-root’s view is associated with the left-wing, but objects to this since the original objective was to be independent of left-right. By accepting a left-right identification, he believes that the environmental movement is also accepting the primacy of human-centred interests – and therefore one way to attack the grass-roots movement may be to reassert the relevance of such political distinctions.

    He also explicitly condemns “giant wind farms”, “solar ‘factories’”, “biofuels on the prairies”, which I think he sees as typical responses of the modern movement to the grass-root’s issues. In this context, he provides a quote from David Cameron, which he suggests is typical of the view held by both left and right politicians:

    “… put to bed the notion that the environment and economic growth are somehow necessarily at odds. It is a view that belongs to the last century. What we need now is green growth.”

    It seems therefore as if it is the modern view that needs to be moved – so on this point at least, some environmental sceptics are on the same side as George and his chums. However, it is likely that in the end the normal business interests will prevail. Normally, I wouldn’t object to this too much, except for the concern that the business interests are operating against the interests of both people and the environment – because of the insistence on wind-farms and the nagging worry over electricity supplies. The clichés that come to mind are about being careful what you wish for, and reaping what you sew.

  24. Ben Pile

    Hi Philip,

    Is this the link to Monbiot’s new article? http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/jan/18/eco-power-list

    Monbiot is really good at unwittingly exposing the fissures in the eco-movement. But the defining characteristic of the eco movement is its incoherence, and it’s non-movement.

    The important dynamic is, I think, that environmentalism is a symptom, not a cause; and that is what makes an unholy alliance of Lynas/Brand/, Kingsnorth/Monbiot, and Cameron.

    Cameron, for instance, seems intent on behavioural change, and measuring how happy we are. That seems to have an analogue in Kingsnorth’s project. It’s certainly not about economic growth, which ‘Dave’ simply has no idea how to deliver. That’s why the axis defined by Kingsnorth appeals to him.

  25. Philip

    Ben –

    Yes, that’s the Monbiot article I’d noticed (the second interesting Guardian eco-article of the day! – the other one being the geothermal techno-fix from Damian).

    My understanding is that Kingsnorth is putting Dave in a box marked “corporate environmentalism”, and is therefore critical of him. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Dave reciprocates the dislike. I expect, as you say, that he probably does like Kingsnorth and Monbiot, or at least thinks they are useful.

    Despite environmentalism’s incoherence, do you think it is nonetheless possible and useful to identify and describe the distinct strands of opinion – for example, those exemplified by the positions of Lynas/Brand, Kingsnorth/Monbiot, and Cameron?

  26. Ben Pile

    do you think it is nonetheless possible and useful to identify and describe the distinct strands of opinion – for example, those exemplified by the positions of Lynas/Brand, Kingsnorth/Monbiot, and Cameron?

    I think they’re all quite changeable positions. Monbiot vacillates. Lynas is more honest about reflecting on his position, but nonetheless doesn’t seem to settle. David ‘vote-blue-go-green’ Cameron is obviously a different order of environmentalist, and probably the one we spend far too little time criticising. The political establishment obviously finds environmentalism expedient.

    But, yes, I think there’s definitely use in thinking about why environmentalism finds these different expressions — it’s essential. But it’s important not to see these things in isolation.

  27. Philip

    “Cameron is obviously a different order of environmentalist, and probably the one we spend far too little time criticising…”

    Definitely. In the end, it is the politician’s policies that will do the damage, and the opportunism of recent governments has been revolting. I’m sure many people have mailed Cameron’s office asking about the looming electricity supply problems. I certainly tried last year and – presumably like everyone else – failed to get any kind of substantive response. In some ways, I feel a lot of sympathy for people like Kingsnorth. They acted from what they thought of as the best of motives, and now find that one likely consequence is the degradation of the remaining UK wilderness areas.


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