What the Greens Really Got Wrong

by | Nov 8, 2010

Read my article about Ch4’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong at Spiked-Online.

Environmentalists have long claimed that their desire to save the world has been thwarted by conspiracies of Big Oil and right-wing think-tanks. Channel 4’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong (watch it here) showed signs that some environmentalists are at last beginning to take responsibility for their failures. But does it tell us anything we didn’t already know, and will the new environmentalists be so different from the old?

While you’re there, check out Brendan O’Neill’s excellent take on neomalthusianism.

When modern Malthusians insist that resources are finite, they only expose their historical illiteracy, misanthropy and social pessimism.

Arguing the corner for the neomalthusians, Adrian Stott of the OPT tries to defend his case.

Are we facing an existential environmental problem?

Yes. I hope we agree that the global environment is already in bad trouble, and getting worse. (If spiked is in denial over that, then there’s not much hope for this debate). The increasing rate of extinctions, the rising number of species suffering population declines in the order of 90 per cent (not just tigers, but sparrows and voles, too), the destruction of rainforests, the pollution of the oceans – the evidence is plain to see.

It’s plain to see that neomalthusians don’t really understand their own argument, nor the criticism of it, in spite of its historic failures.


  1. Dominic

    The neo-Malthusian argument derives much apparent weight from recent, vociferous claims by the WWF.

    Since 2006 the WWF has been using data from the Global Footprint Network (GFN) which purports to show the actual amount of bioproductive land required to support population at global and national scales.

    This is called the Ecological Footprint (EF).

    The problem is that the GFN methodology (brainchild of one Mathis Wackernagel, who spun it out of his PhD thesis into a healthy business) is not quite as good as its proponents would have us believe.

    Using EF calculations, the current WWF Living Planet report asserts as a matter of fact that global population requires ‘1.5 planets’ to support it.

    This gross over-estimate arises in no small part because of a crucial element of the EF calculation. It includes – in hectares – the amount of forested land necessary to absorb the CO2 emissions from the populated area under examination.

    Now if you thought – as you well might – that the EF was supposed to be a measure of resource (over) consumption, you could be forgiven for crying foul (or ‘bollocks’).

    Now you know why the EF is THE preferred methodology of the WWF for generating headline claims about over-population.

    Here’s a link to an early, insightful critique of the EF methodology (van den Bergh & Verbruggen, 1999):


    According to the EF metric, the UK ‘needs’ something like ‘2.75 planets’ to support its evil resource-hogging ways.

    This ‘fact’ has an odd habit of metamorphosing into the absurd claim that ‘global population is three times higher than the planet can support’.

    If you’ve ever wondered where that particular bit of eco-mythology got its start, now you know.

  2. George Carty

    Interesting — I thought that the “Earth’s carrying capacity is approximately two billion” claim was based on what the carrying capacity of the planet would be if only “organic” agriculture was allowed.

  3. Dominic

    @George Carty

    Yes, I’ve heard that too. I suspect that there are as many ‘justifications’ for insisting that we get rid of >2/3 of the global population as there are committed neo-Malthusians.

    The work is to demolish them, one by one, starting with the biggies.

  4. Dominic

    @ Alex Cull

    Thanks. I read it at the time with great interest. Eschenbach raises some interesting points, especially the way in which the EF penalises efficient agricultural practice by using -global- average yields as the compartor instead of local averages. Naughty, that.

  5. Sceptical Guardian Reader

    Ben, I largely agree with what you (and your commenters) say on this site; I am dubious about the impact of AGW and the measures many greens advocate. However, the channel 4 documentary ‘What the green movement got wrong’, made me optimistic.
    Athough I work in the Oil and Gas industry (amongst other things) I believe there is a role in society for people who want to protect “the environment”. Sometimes the greens are right, for example overfishing may risk depleting fish stocks without regulation. But as you and others have pointed out often the green response to human endeavour is often emotional and hysterical.

    In short: I’m glad Mark Lynas et al found their moderate voices.

  6. Ben Pile

    SGR, I think the most important thing is that we don’t need special politics to deal with environmental problems. I think several of the participants of the film were trying to rescue the idea that we do.

    Of course the moderated positions of Lynas and Brand are more positive than Monbiot, Parr and Bennett from the debate. But what I don’t understand is, if they can see the mistakes they have made in the past, why do they still emphasise the environment, rather than development. I.e. people, rather than ‘nature’.

    Conventional politics has dealt with environmental problems in the past, without the help of environmentalists. The Clean Air Act, for e.g.

  7. Philip

    “why do they still emphasise the environment, rather than development”

    Is it not just that they still see GW as the overwhelming problem, more important than hunger, aids, water, trade, or even nuclear waste, and past development as the root cause of GW?

  8. geoffchambers

    Round two of Moonbat is proving a bit of an embarassment for the great man, largely because of his attitude, rather than anything wrong with his arguments. He’s a magnet for ad hominems, an insufferable pedant with a sign reading “kick me I’m an a***h***” pinned to his back. He’s posted his correspondence with Brand on his own site, and it’s a gem of unconscious humour. The only value I can see in the exercise for him is that he’s taken the heat off the global warming story – though maybe at the expense of tearing the green movement apart.

  9. Alex Cull

    Those who, like myself, appreciate a little irony will have liked an item on Channel 4 News earlier this evening. British biotech company Oxitec have developed a GM mosquito which has been trialled successfully in the Cayman Islands and promises to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti, which carries dengue fever, by up to 80%.

    The story is here (text and video): http://www.channel4.com/news/gm-mosquito-released-into-wild

    Dr Luke Alphey of Oxitec argues that the Aedes aegypti mosquito has spread worldwide because of humans, and so its ecology is artificial. He says this: “All through the Americas and southeast Asia where dengue is well known and a major problem, it’s not even a native species.” And it also does away with the need to use insecticides. “From the point of view of human health and the environmental safety – then it is an extremely safe and extremely targeted technology.”

    However, Pete Riley of campaign group GM Freeze begs to differ and is concerned about the effect on wildlife if the mosquito is less abundant: “They can’t ignore these questions,” he said. “If there are going to be changes to the local eco-system, they need to find out.” “If you take mosquitoes out of the system – which is the intention of Oxitec – then what effect will that have on the rest of the food chain, other predators and predator prey relationships, which could be significant and surprising?” [This last sentence is from listening to the video – the C4 transcript is a bit garbled.]

    It’s a bit like the DDT/malaria/humans-vs-wildlife debate (and also the Greens-vs-GM phenomenon) in a nutshell. Ironical – dengue fever has spread largely because of human activity (Wikipedia mentions population movements during and since World War II), and so it – and Aedes aegypti – exists now in many areas where it didn’t exist before. But Pete Riley is concerned about possible disruption of the ecosystem by taking out the mosquito! Disruption of what, exactly? What fragile “system” is he worried about? (Reminds me of that earlier CiF thread about the “balance of nature”.)

  10. Sceptical Guardian Reader

    Pete Riley is clearly a total moron and a misanthrope, who just wants to piss on a really prommising piece of technology.

  11. Dominic

    But you are forgetting! Humanity is a disease, a cancer…

  12. geoffchambers

    My apologies if it’s a real addiction you’d rather be without. But since you’re good at it, why not? Your interventions frequently come as a nasty surprise to the science-minded warmists like BlueCloud, since you make a far wider attack on the environmentalist philosophy than they are used to, and you’ve got the facts to hand.
    I remember ex-Guardian Environment Editor David Adam coming here to discuss in a spirit of genuine curiosity, before backing off in horror, waving the garlic and muttering, “But you’re deniers!”
    The interest of CiF has always seemed to me the possibility of influencing opinion at the Guardian. I reasoned that they can’t all be dyed in the wool warmists; everyone on the staff gets reined in by the fact that global warming is (absurdly) editorial policy, and I’ve sometimes felt sorry for some poor religious or gardening correspondent whose harmless platitudes in favour of the poor or the earthworm, accompanied by some obligatory words about global warming, caused his or her article to pop up at Guardian Environment and get shot down by angry denialists. Surely some of them must start asking questions, if only about the sensibleness of a policy so displeasing to so many readers.
    Just as I was thinking my belief was hopelessly optimistic, today at
    there’s a sensible non-sensationalist article about climate change by the science correspondent Alok Jha. Small fissures in the edifice, maybe.

  13. geoffchambers

    The Alok Jha article has provoked some anguished cries from the Greens, who are deeply upset by evidence that things might not be as bad as they thought. The first is your friend BlueCloud:

    Complacency has no place in our strategy for dealing with climate change.

    The idea that we can replace the thousands upon thousands of species that make up some of the most complex ecosystems in the world is just crazy. We haven’t even catalogued and identified them yet.

    Am I reading the daily Mail/Express website by mistake? Why on earth would the Guardian print this denialist propaganda? This is just the type of report they need to continue burning fossil fuels… disgusting!

  14. Dominic

    From the thread at CiF Ben links to above:

    SteB1 12 Nov 7:34

    ‘The world simply cannot sustain consumption on the level of the most develped countries. It is physically impossible.


    The developed world went into overdraft a very long time ago and they are digging deep into everyone elses savings as well. This was not just for a select few to enjoy in a short time frame, it was there for all people, not just those alive now, but future generations. It is like a parent building up a gigantic debt that they will pass onto their children. What we have been spending now, wasn’t all ours. Is that to difficult for you to understand. What the hell is anti-human about that? I will tell you what is anti-human, and that is pretending that these issues don’t exist just so you can carry on as normal – sticking 2-fingers up to future generations’.


    Your references…?

    Hence my interest in the GFN, EF, WWF etc.

  15. Ben Pile

    Just a quick reminder that you can use markup language in these comments.

    i for italics. blockquote for quoting. b for bold. and ‘a href=”URL”‘ for links. Use the greater than and less than for tags, and be sure to close the tags with the ‘/’ character.

  16. Dominic

    Noted. I was not sure – thanks for the tip.

  17. George Carty


    I think the misanthropic Malthusianism of SteB1 is exposed by the way he refers to the “developed” world going into overdraft, rather than the “Western” world.

  18. E. Smith

    The only reason environmentalism has such a high current prominence is their promotion of global warming / carbon trading to the exclusion of real environmental problems. Britain’s major solution to the fictional catastrophe ahead will be nuclear power which is utterly preposterous from an environmental point of view.

    Environmentalists have received vast sums of money from big business, billionaire trusts and banks in recent years and their opinions cannot be taken seriously. That’s why they have taken apparently contradictory stances.

  19. Dominic

    @George Carty

    Without disagreeing, I was under the impression that ‘developed’ was the preferred synonym for ‘Western’ these days. Now we can talk of ‘developing’ economies, not the ‘Third World’.

    It hardly matters in the context of the claim that:

    ‘The world simply cannot sustain consumption on the level of the most develped countries. It is physically impossible’.

    Physically impossible. Quite a claim.

  20. James Cox

    Likei some the articles pointed to. Why is a continuing obsession with Malthus. I thought we had all dealt with him a long time ago. Human “growth” or “change” – carbon heavy or otherwise – works arithmetically, and therefore cannot be a zero sum game.
    Land, or more broadly natural resources, which is what Malthus was primarily concerned with, can only be understood in geometric terms based on the current efficiency of its use, at any point in history “roman” or otherwise, places humans directly in conflict with their their own environment. The conclusion being is that “we are bad for ourselves” and philosophically this cannot be true.
    Human, tastes, or preferences and increasing complexity cannot be understood using a crude, wage (subsistence), population (consumption), and land mass (bio-weight), type of political or economic construct. Lets move on from this is old hat theory that is both universally defunct, and ultimately uninteresting binary nonsense.

  21. Dominic

    @James Cox


    Now who’s going to tell the Optimum Population Trust and the WWF and all the other anti-humanist greens?

  22. James Cox

    This a bit far feched but, the neo – Malthusian approach to cutting emissions (generally) by “reducing” populations, reminds me of the Tory cuts to public services that I just saw on the news (stay with me). I think it is probable we can look forward to a world of “many” public services in the short term at least. All, will be subject to “fair” and “equal” reductions in their spending, to the point where many may not be able to function, at all. While just “a few” services that actually function, seems a much more preferable outcome that none that do. But they are committed to a nominal percentage figure for all services.
    My tenuous argument here is like Neo-Malthusians, there are some shared blanket assumptions about “resources” (which could mean any number of things, political, Hydrocarbons, social services blah blah blah). With both theses attempts at political change, political endeavour is reduced to a doctrinaire type of politics. A “more” or “less” type of simplistic analysis of literally “everything” as it “right now”.
    Like neo- Malthusianism this allows neither the good “practise” of politics, as there is wide spread stagnation, rather than possible improvement, and like neo – Malthusianism you’re a left theoretically a bit dry. Is there political “content” in neo – Malthusanism. Or worse if it does exist is worth avoiding. Can anyone tell me?

  23. James Cox and Joe Tucker-Jones

    How do we uncouple carbon and “developmet”, or “growth?. If we can answer this, then all this spittle fleck, among Alfa males, pounding their chest, might finally end, we can move move on (Present writers excluded). I hate men arguing among themselves in the name of intelectualism. It bores the shit out of me. “

  24. Grumps

    Did anybody read Malthus ??

    Everything there is about people having too much sex: getting sick because of having too much sex or having sickly children because of the parents having too much sex or not having time to work because of being lazy and having sex all the time etc. etc. etc. … the book is huge and terribly boring, I grant you that, but it’s not about limited resources: it’s about immoral and degenerate nations suffering the consequences of their immorality and degeneracy when the resources they rely on become scarce, while abstinent and thus moral and healthy nations manage to survive scarcity.

  25. Ben Pile

    Grumps, I think you’re right to point out that Malthus looks at poverty and the fecundity of the lower classes as a moral issue, their lot being God’s punishment for their sin. And there are certainly much that this view shares with neo-Malthusianism. There’s a lot of discussion about the ethics of environmentalism on this blog, including population-environmentalism. It’s not being ignored.

    However, I think there are a few differences between old and new environmentalism of this kind. God and sin do not figure in today’s environmental ethical calculations, though there are certainly mystical equivalents. For instance, see the latest posts on Polly Higgins’s campaign to create a crime of ‘ecocide’.

  26. George Carty

    Another point is that neo-Malthusians predict a global population collapse resulting from a sharp decrease in the earth’s food production capacity (due to desertification in the case of AGW alarmists, or due to a lack of so-called “petroleum based fertilizer” in the case of peak oil doom mongers). This is completely absent from the original 19th century form of Malthusianism.



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