The Reformation of Environmentalism – Part 2

by | Apr 10, 2012

The way in which the environmental movement splits over the issue of splitting the atom for energy is a fascinating phenomenon. I have compared this in-fighting and factionalisation — with some poetic licence, of course — to the Reformation of Western Christianity. On the one hand, we have those who say that the Church’s doctrine besets its attempts to do God’s (Gaia’s) work. On the other, those who want to remain with the tradition.

The issue is only superficially about choices of technique — nuclear versus renewable sources of energy. Like the Reformation, the schism is generated by the turbulence going on around those engaged in the battle, and is more an attempt to navigate political and social chaos for temporal ends than it is an attempt to get souls into heaven. As argued here often, environmentalism, to the extent that it has been absorbed by the political establishment, is much more a response to the political climate than it is a response to a crisis developing in the atmosphere. The crisis is in politics, not in the skies.

John Vidal nails his own theses to the metaphorical door in today’s Guardian.

Apart from a few gratuitous insults on either side, the dispute that has rumbled on for a few years has so far been largely technocratic and conducted with political and personal respect. In the latest skirmishes, the four former heads of Friends of the Earth (FoE) politely wrote to the prime minister advising him to drop nuclear power on cost and other grounds; whereupon the hacks also wrote to No 10 saying this advice undermined government climate change policy. Over the next month Porritt, Burke & co will issue four or five more intellectual blasts, and will convene a press conference, and we can expect the hacks to respond.

Until now it has been a classic “fundi” and “realo” split with the pros’ (the realos) desperation to address climate change set against the antis’ (the fundis) conviction that nuclear takes too long, is too expensive and won’t actually work.

But now, the dispute is getting personal and much closer to the political bone with the fallout potentially damaging the whole idea of “environmentalism”. First we have Lynas suggesting that nuclear protesters are not really environmentalists at all, then Monbiot doubted Burke’s commitment to the environment – despite his 40 years’ active service. Now, in an extraordinary exchange of emails between Monbiot and Theo Simon – who is one half of the renowned radical protest band Seize the Day – all opponents of nuclear power are said to have made their arguments “with levels of bullshit and junk science”.

Imagine that… Environmentalists, getting technocratic and accusing each other of peddling bad science, and of not adhering to the principles of environmentalism. And imagine that, Vidal, accusing other campaigners and journalists of being ‘hacks’, and hurling ‘gratuitous insults’at each other. (But no doubt, that same invective is acceptable, when used to diminish critics of environmentalism.) If it shows us nothing else, it shows the intellectual dishonesty at work here. Neither pro- or anti-nuclear environmentalists seem able to reflect on the substance of antipathy towards nuclear energy.

Vidal offers a synopsis of the exchange between the now pro-nuclear George Monbiot, and the anti-nuclear campaigner and musician, Theo Simon. Vidal quotes Simon:

We need more than ever to champion a vision of the kind of creativity which a democratic revolution would rapidly liberate. Nuclear … can give no ultimate assurance of it’s safety or its costs. Neither can it demonstrate the kind of long-term resilience which may prove necessary if runaway climate change does, in spite of our efforts, develop. Resilience is to my mind something which we should be designing into our energy production plans now, as the future is so uncertain for our children. Nuclear requires a stable and continuous technocratic society to exist for centuries.

I always find it amazing when environmentalists invoke ‘democracy’. It is even more surprising to hear an environmentalist complain about nuclear energy needing ‘a stable and continuous technocratic society’. Environmentalism has entirely failed to develop into a democratic movement, and indeed far more often than not demands that political action to ‘tackle climate change’ should happen in spite of popular opinion, and in lieu of a mass political movement or democratic contest to legitimise any such action. And, of course, the action that is demanded is almost without fail the construction of large, powerful, far-reaching political authorities at the supranational level, beyond the reach of democracy. What are these global bureaucracies, if the aren’t an attempt to build a ‘continuous technocratic society’? Environmentalists are hopelessly naive, and seem incapable of reflection on their own ideas. Vidal concludes:

We are starting to get to the heart of what it means to be green today. One vision can justify a corrupt and odious state if it can make an odious technology work to overcome a terrible danger. The other argues that there are far better ways to achieve the same end without the resulting damage to society and the long-term dangers that the technology entails. The questions raised are profoundly difficult and need to be debated, but personal attacks are inflammatory and really help no one.

Vidal makes an interesting claim. It’s not simply that nuclear power is environmentally dangerous, it’s that in order to overcome the danger, it is necessary to build state apparatus which are inherently prone to ‘corruption’ and ‘odiousness’. He paints too polarised a picture of the debate forming within the environmental movement, and paints one half of it too rosy. Amongst the other impulses driving environmentalism and its opposition to various other possible choices of technique are things like this little gem:

Giving society cheap, abundant energy… would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

The quote is from neo-Malthusian, Paul Ehrlich.

I wonder, then, what makes Vidal believe that nuclear power leads us inevitably towards a corrupt government, and what makes Simon believe that it takes us inevitably towards ‘continuous technocratic society’?

First, there is the obvious contradiction, mentioned above. Simon is not as against ‘continuous technocratic society’ as he protests. Take for instance, his claims in his letter to Monbiot:

In my opinion, the boundaries drawn around my behaviour by the duty of care and the precautionary principle that stems from it are in line with the biological interests of my species and with maintaining the integrity of the biosphere. In other words they are as inviolable as the 7 planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (and used by Mark in “The God Species” as the springboard for his own reactionary ideas). That means I have to create ways to live within them and still thrive. That means, like it or lump it, I’m going to have to do it without nuclear.

You can read my review of Mark Lynas’s ‘The God Species’ at Spiked. Meanwhile, Simon continues…

At COP15 I concluded that capitalism (yes Mark, I’m an unashamed anti-capitalist!) could not respond effectively to the challenge of climate change, because it’s primary motive will always be profit and competitive advantage, even where planetary well-being is concerned. At the very least, a large degree of state intervention and socialised initiatives are needed, and this in turn requires a big degree of political control being exerted over capital, which may or may not be possible. It’s that uncertainty which is the difficult bit. I don’t think that you believe we can find the political will or the social base for a meaningful green revolution to occur in time to reduce UK emissions by other means than re-embracing nuclear. I also think that you have forgotten that you yourself are a subjective factor in determining the political landscape, as am I. What is necessary is to encourage and empower a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding. Your current commitment to nuclear in Britain cuts across that agenda, and to paraphrase your email to me, potentially undoes all your other good work.

I’m not interested here, in arguing either way, whether or not Simon’s desire for state intervention can be legitimised through a democratic process. It seems painfully obvious, however, that the ‘left’ has failed monumentally in absorbing environmentalism, to build ‘a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding’. Hence, the ‘left’ (if it includes those parts of the political establishment which have gone green) has turned away from democracy, to emphasise instead technocratic approaches to climate change — including attempts to engage the public with its objectives by ‘communicating climate change’, which invariably involve scaremongering. Simon has the ‘large degree of state intervention and socialised initiatives’ he wants. He just didn’t get them by building ‘a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding’.

There is an extraordinary technocratic flavour to Simons argument. It talks about balancing ‘biological interests’, and justifying state interventions on that basis. I would suggest that this is the fundamental mistake he makes. Individuals aren’t equipped to make decisions about their ‘biological interests’ at the level of ‘species’, only global bureaucracies informed by ‘the worlds top climate scientists’ are. And so in reducing politics to a matter of biological survival, Simon creates the basis for the ‘continuous technocratic society’ he claims to object to. Let me suggest then, that it is not nuclear power, but renewable energy, and demands for austerity and asceticism from the environmental movement that give rise to technocracy. Even Mark Lynas’s revision of Ehrich’s Malthusianism, and ‘limits to growth’ still locates the basis for political authority (i.e. technocracy) in the necessity of survival, in the face of a (mostly imagined) environmental crisis.

So let’s be blunt about it, you’re either going to get an odious state regulating the nuclear energy industry, or you’re going to get an odious state regulating whatever environmentalists want to regulate, lest your desires, ambitions, or interests threaten to trespass beyond ‘planetary boundaries’. After all, it is desires, ambitions, and interests which, in a democratic society, are negotiated in politics. Environmentalism sweeps them to one side, and suspends normal politics, to emphasise the need for survival. Your own sense of your own interests — whether they are best served by socialism or capitalism — is diminished, on the basis that the issue is the interests of the ‘species’.

Simon’s prose is incoherent, absurd, and contradictory. The pro-nuclear green argument isn’t much better. It only offers a future in which the lights stay on for slightly longer. It doesn’t allow a public debate about which technique is best, nor what the priorities for our energy policy should be. We don’t get to decide between, perhaps a bit of environmental damage on the one hand, and energy that is affordable on the other. We don’t get to discuss what institutions or regulatory frameworks are necessary for the operation of various techniques of producing energy. And we don’t get to argue about what we want to use energy for.

Vidal and Simon end up with their dystopian views of ‘odious’ and corrupt governments presiding like monoliths over the rest of us because it is the vision they desire, just not precisely the vision they are arguing for. That is to say that they presuppose the inevitability of technocratic and undemocratic society because they desire a society run along technocratic, not democratic lines. They complain about technocracy and democracy, because they confuse their own will for ‘democratic’ will, and the decisions they make for the decisions that panels of experts would make; forgetting that what makes institutions either democratic or technocratic is the way they function, not the decisions they produce. And for their part in all this, the pro-nuclear environmentalists have not overcome this short-sightedness and failure to reflect on their own ideas and ambitions. Environmentalism’s Reformation won’t make any difference to those of us who don’t share their faith.


  1. geoffchambers

    Great article. This is the best argument I’ve seen for the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of environmentalism. These people are going to tear each other apart for our entertainment, ignored by everybody except us perverse eco-watchers. (Mind you, the Socialist First International did the same thing; which didn’t stop them having a rather more than fleeting effect on history).

    On Theo Simon’s problem with nuclear energy “taking us inevitably towards continuous technocratic society”: I don’t think his problem is really with technocracy (I don’t think he distinguishes from technology, or “techno”). It’s rather that he realises (correctly) that only a technically competent society of the kind we have can guarantee the safety of nuclear plants and their waste over the coming centuries. He doen’t trust our society to go on being technically competent, and anyway, he doesn’t want it to be. No doubt he’d like it to be just competent enough to keep his sound systems working, and no more.

    There’s an interesting insight into the minds of environmentalists on Theo’s website at
    After a typical 80s biography (Marxism, drugs, out-of-work actor) he ends up “trying to be a low-income yuppie with a failing marriage and a prestigious position in a cheese-processing factory near Yeovil”. Then he says:
    “Walking down the lane to work each morning, it occurred to me that the survival of life on Earth was probably more important than paying off my overdraft. I left the factory (and the overdraft) behind, and started working on music..”
    We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Unsatisfactory personal relationships, boring job … surely there must be something more? … Crikey! The world’s going to end! …

  2. geoffchambers

    What’s John Vidal up to, stirring it like this? The headline about “vicious words” is hardly justified by the correspondence between Monbiot and Simon, who both sign “with love”. (It seems from Theo’s’s love letter to George that it was he who sent their private correspondence to Vidal, taking advantage of the fact that George is on paternity leave and won’t be replying for a while. Bitchy, but hardly vicious).

    Vidal may have issues with Monbiot which have nothing to do with nuclear. Monbiot has sworn not to fly, and famously took a £600, 16-hour train trip to Copenhagen at his own expense. Vidal, has, in the past 12 months, been to Abu Dhabi, Germany, Ghana, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and Senegal. (His last two trips were financed by Oxfam and Greenpeace).

  3. Lewis Deane

    I second Geoff, – here here! – and the analogy with Christianity becomes more clear when one reads these peoples statements and their display of petty egoism and narcissism – exactly parallel to the petty crying over meaningless sins and supposed sinfulness of others ad nauseam in the New Testament (they ended their letters ‘love..’, too) as if each ‘transgression’ and ‘reprimand’ was of some cosmic importance rather than the pathetic goings of one among a thousand sects that history (and Saul) happened to chance upon. Or, in Monty Python’s perfect and exact satirical analogy, an argument between The Peoples Front of Judea and The Judean Peoples’ Front etc. (Reading Gibbon, yes all six books!, should be compulsory – or, at least, at school, his main chapter on the historical beginnings of that notorious sect!)

    I mean the absolute puffed up narcissistic stupidity of this:

    ‘the boundaries drawn around my behaviour by the duty of care and the precautionary principle that stems from it are in line with the biological interests of my species and with maintaining the integrity of the biosphere’

    And the inevitable gag reflex of this:

    ‘We need more than ever to champion a vision of the kind of creativity which a democratic revolution would rapidly liberate.’


  4. Lewis Deane

    And, by the way, Geoff, Simon’s problem with a ‘continuous technocratic society’, his technophobia, is theological – man and all his works are ‘sinful’ and are, therefore, hateful and should not be continued. Perhaps as an historical hangover of the long shadow of that ‘notorious sect’, that by the bye, but these people truly do live in a Manichean world. The true logic of which is – this world (ie man) is hateful and must be destroyed – but there is no other world – therefore there must be nothing – as opposed to their apparent logic!

  5. geoffchambers

    Lewis Deane
    Agreed about “the absolute puffed up narcissistic stupidity” and the religious nature of the exchange. “George’s Epistle to the Theodolites” followed by “Theo’s Epistle to the Monbiotians”.
    Funnily, I didn’t even notice how weird Theo is. I just took it for granted I suppose that he should express himself like that – as natural as the Latin of some Papal Nuncio wagging a finger at Luther, to continue Ben’s analogy.
    Because Theo has a very good case. How can a campaigning left-wing journalist like George possibly support the anti-democratic nature of the planning process? It doesn’t matter whether they’re protecting unspoilt countryside with its bat sanctuaries or a popular fairground with its dodgems – they’re engaged in the kind of civil protest activity which any democrat opposed to the machinations of big government must support.
    For years now, George and his ilk have given up any effort to persuade. They speak as if they are already in power, directing a world government project designed to reshape the next few centuries. The sole purpose of the Climate Change fantasy seems to be to give these people the illusion that they are running the world. The problem is that it’s an illusion shared by an entire generation of political and media personalities.
    George is due back from paternity leave on the 16th. Let’s hope a fortnight of sleepless nights changing nappies will have worn away the luvvy veneer, and he’ll revert to the sneering Savonarola role we all love.

  6. Lewis Deane

    Geoff, of course, these are analogies and analogies are only profound in so far as they mock. That is why the Life of Brian was probably the best satire since The Master And Margarita (Bulgakov) – because it brought the absurdities of the late seventies face to face with itself. But, also, that we are not completely the captives of temporary centuries and their concerns but of a much longer history and, without knowing about that history and not having the curiosity (the only sin!) to find out about that history, we repeat the same mummery. As Marx put it, history repeats itself, once as tragedy and then again as comedy. And now as mere buffoonery!

  7. Vinny Burgoo

    Geoff (#2), do you have a quick way of finding out where John Vidal (or any other journalist) has travelled to in the last 12 months?

    At the end of last year, I had a look at Vidal’s Road To Durban series in the Guardian. It was obvious that he had repackaged stuff from earlier trips to make them seem recent. Worse, it seemed very likely that some of the material implied to be based on recent face-to-face interviews was about people he had never met in places he had never been.

    If you know of a handy guide to where journalists have been and when, I’d be very grateful for a pointer.

  8. geoffchambers

    Vinny Burgoo
    I just clicked on Vidal’s name and looked at his articles in the past year. He’s just come back from Senegal where he was staying on a Greenpeace boat. He was in Ghana to visit his old nanny, and in Durban with Fiona Harvey. He started his African trip in Egypt, and says things on the way like “here in Uganda”
    His East African articles all carry the footnote “Travel and accommodation was supported by Oxfam, and the African Investigative Journalism Conference at Wits University”.
    Nothing wrong there. I’m all for journalists getting out and about. As long as they don’t tell us we must stay at home and read nothing but peer-reviewed science.
    If you look at Guardian Environment as a whole (and the editor has made it clear that that’s how it should be seen – as a coherent effort to change the world) you see the truth of Ben’s point in the article that it’s not about nuclear energy (or about third world poverty, or polar bears etc) but, as in the Reformation, “is more an attempt to navigate political and social chaos for temporal ends.”
    And as the Reformation was driven by technical progress (printing and literacy) so the Green movement is a child of technology. Vidal goes to Durban because he can, cheaply and easily (with a bit of help from the money old ladies put in Oxfam’s collecting boxes for starving children). Suddenly, anyone can make charts and graphs proving that everyone is responsible for everything. This is very exciting for a certain kind of person, and its precisely these kinds of information-obsessed people who are heavily concentrated in the media and other decision-making structures of our society.

  9. Lewis Deane

    ‘Theodolites’! I like that, GeoffChambers!

  10. Lewis Deane

    I think better expressed, geoffchambers, even if they are running the world, it’s still a delusion. The ‘minds’ of all ‘ruling classes’ are stuffed full of their own paper write ups. When the day after tomorrow happens, as it inevitably does, look at them grin, like Ceaucescu making a speech!

  11. geoffchambers

    I had another look at Theo Simon’s website to see what kind of opponent Monbiot sends his love to. (Most people who disagree with Monbiot are treated as “scumballs” and “bullshitters”).
    There’s a video of a song of his called “Flying” about being separated from the one you love. (This is a favourite subject for popular songs. Classic examples are Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” and Les Barker’s “Dachsunds with Erections Can’t Climb Stairs”). Theo’s song concentrates, not on the difficulty of getting to the beloved, but on the amount of noxious gas the singer will emit on her way there. (Perhaps she should lay off the vegan diet).
    Apart from the capital offence of rhyming “bicycle” and “recycle” the song also has a spoke interlude starting “official figures say…”.
    Call me old-fashioned, but in my day anarchist songwriters didn’t normally quote official figures as a guide to how one should lead one’s life.
    So the Great Green Debate seems to come down to whether you should believe only the official figures on CO2, like Theo, or those and the official figures on nuclear power, like George.

  12. Vinny Burgoo

    GC: … like “here in Uganda”

    Vidal did visit Uganda (and failed to spot its biggest COP17-related story: the imminent oil and gas boom) but you can’t always trust him or his subs when they say that he went somewhere. Here’s the blurb from his Road To Durban series:

    Before the talks, John Vidal embarked on a journey between Africa’s two most industrialized countries – South Africa and Egypt. The route included one of Africa’s poorest nations (Malawi), its newest (Southern Sudan), its hungriest (Ethiopia), visiting some of its most remote tribes (in Uganda and Kenya), highest mountains (Uganda) and coastal areas (South Africa).

    Nope. A hop around East Africa and the visit to his nanny were sandwiched between two trips to South Africa, one of which probably took in Egypt on the way. He didn’t visit Ethiopia and if he visited Malawi he never got around to writing about it. (And it isn’t one of Africa’s poorest nations: it’s mid-table. And the Masai are hardly a remote tribe. And is Egypt really more industrialized than Nigeria? Apart from that …)

    The subs probably included Ethiopia because in one of the articles Vidal writes about visiting a Kenyan town just over the border to report on what he describes (parroting a stale and always dodgy FEWS NET claim) as the Horn of Africa’s worst drought for sixty years. A vet tells him how the current drought differs from the natural droughts of yore.

    He reels off the signs of climate change that he and others have observed …

    Nope. The whole two-paragraph encounter was lifted from an article Vidal wrote in 2009. He made one change and it compounds the dishonesty: ‘reeled off’ in the original became ‘reels off’.

    I spotted that weirdness because I remembered reading the original article but there’s a clue in the text. When Vidal was supposed to have been there, the rains had already arrived, ending the drought. (You’ll be pleased to hear that the region has just had a bumper harvest.)

    So we have a time-travelling vet talking to a man who isn’t there in the middle of a future calamity that has already ended. He won’t be there again last May. Oh how I wish he’d go away.

    In another article, Vidal interviews a researcher in Khartoum, except of course he didn’t. He didn’t even go to Sudan. The visit was constructed from the executive summary of a two-year-old report from an NGO. He paraphrased parts of it and used other parts as reported speech. ‘None of this surprises Sumaya Zakieldeen … Zakieldeen agrees that …’ Perhaps next year he’ll go the full Hari and have her pat him on the knee and laugh at his jokes.

    Zimbabwe. The quote about the 25,000-household ‘community response to climate change’ came from Oxfam material about a 25,000-people project it had set up to provide training and farmable land for the landless, especially those left widowed or orphaned by AIDS. (Oxfam does mention climate change in some of its fund-raising efforts but that’s clearly targeted spin.)

    That’s about it for the places Vidal didn’t visit last year. Those he did visit gave him scope for different and perhaps more important types of weirdness, but I’ve gone on long enough.

    Belated on-topicality: The Reformation parallel. Er … It’s a bit over my head, but weren’t the early Protestants motivated to some extent by an urge to democratize the Church? Pro-nuclear climactivists are, like their former brethren the antis, as undemocratic as they come.

    I’m more at home with simpler analyses. Guardianista-type environmentalism is primarily motivated by self-congratulation and post-colonial guilt. Which would make the pro-/anti-nuclear schism …

    Oh, good. I’ve run out of space.

    VB (info junkie)

  13. Ben Pile

    Nice work, Vinny!

    weren’t the early Protestants motivated to some extent by an urge to democratize the Church?

    I don’t think democracy as such was a concern of Luther’s theses, or of many in the C16th. I guess the concern for the laity is broadly speaking ‘democratic’. To the same extent, pro-nuke greens seem to want to keep the lights on in a begrudging sort of way; but they don’t really trust people to make their own decisions about energy policy, or the right amount of energy to use.

  14. geoffchambers

    Vinny Burgoo
    That’s really important. Journalists are allowed to propagandise and ignore contrary evidence all they like, but not make things up and pretend they’ve been to places they haven’t. Have you thought of the Press Complaints Commission? I really think you should.
    Vidal is editor of Guardian Environment. He could hardly remain if your accusations were confirmed. Maybe Ben here would like to write it up. If not, I’d take it to Bishop Hill. It would certainly make waves.

  15. Alex Cull

    @ Vinny, ditto what Ben and Geoff said. And as in the case of Johann Hari, if he’s done it once, he might well have done it a number of other times. Time for some forensic googling…

  16. geoffchambers

    On second thoughts, it might be quicker and more effective to go straight to the Graun, either writing to the editor, or to the CommentisFree editor, if any of the articles in question come under that heading.
    I found two that might:
    “At Durban, the big emitters will no doubt fail us again on climate change” (24 Nov 2011) and
    “Somalia famine: another year, another crisis (21 Jul 2011)
    (The CommentisFree team really is independent and fairminded. I recently got all the comments on a climate change article wiped out, even though I’m banned from commenting).
    Whatever route you take, the Guardian is not likely to take it lightly, and Oxfam and the African Investigative Journalism Conference at Wits University won’t be happy about having financed Vidal’s scissors and paste jobs.

  17. Alex Cull

    John Vidal was interviewed in Durban at the beginning of December by Amy Goodman from Democracy Now, and he describes the journey.

    Egypt, Uganda and Kenya get definite mentions (“We started in the north, in Egypt”. “…went to Uganda.” “… we went to Kenya”). South Sudan does as well, but interestingly only in a general sense (“Then you go down to the south, in the Southern Sudan”.) He doesn’t actually say “And then we went to South Sudan”. Ethiopia is similarly described: “Just to the north of Kenya, you have Ethiopia”. Malawi is only mentioned by Amy, right at the beginning, but then she’s just quoting what’s in the Guardian.

    Just wondering, as Africa is a vast place – could Malawi have been a brief stopover (for refuelling?) between Kenya and South Africa? I.e., it enabled him to claim that the route included Malawi, but his experience might have been as a transit passenger, with no time for fact-finding, interviews, etc? (“Sitting on the tarmac at poverty-stricken Lilongwe while we take on more fossil fuels” he could have tweeted, perhaps.)

    He certainly clocked up a few air miles last year, didn’t he. To Ghana at the end of September/start of October (?) to visit the midwife, then to the African Investigative Journalists’ Conference in Johannesburg, 31 October – 2 November. And then the “terrifying journey of reality” from Egypt to South Africa, starting 18 November, ending up at Durban and then presumably back to Blighty for a well-earned rest.

    Just for fun, here’s an article of his from 2007 about Ryanair’s iniquitous plans to make air travel cheaper and more abundant for the plebs.

  18. Vinny Burgoo

    Geoff, Alex,

    Vidal got a bit carried away with his ‘Cairo to Cape’ conceit, that’s all. It’s too trivial to make a big fuss about, especially when there’s so much else wrong with the series – exaggerations, misattributions, omissions, credulity, reliance on biased or ignorant sources … The usual stuff. The sort of thing you expect from the Guardian. No point in complaining about that.

    Talking of reliance on dodgy sources, here’s part of an e-mail Vidal sent to a cryologist during the Times Atlas fiasco:

    … we would treat anything sent to us by any organistaion [sic] that in the past has provided us with duff info or which we know has a particular agenda or axe to grind with extreme caution, and possibly we would not not use it at all.

    Oh yeah?

    And talking of duff info, here’s my favourite Vidalism: in his review of 2011, he said that tigers were doing unexpectedly well in Africa, with the population in the Virungas increasing by 100 since 2003.

    (The article was quietly corrected the next day. Gorillas, of course, not tigers. The census was actually in early 2010, so the news had nothing to do with 2011. Wrong beast, wrong year. Good old Grauniad.)

    Alex: A blog about that video and the Road To Durban series said that Vidal was shocked to find that climate change had forced Egyptian farmers to water their crops with sewage (something they have been doing for decades, if not centuries) but I can’t find him saying anything like that anywhere. Any ideas? He doesn’t say it in the video or, I think, in any of the RTD articles.

    That Ryanair article is a nice find. A hypocrite calling others hypocrites. Who’d a thunk?

  19. Vinny Burgoo

    I forgot to mention that, as far as I can tell, John Vidal was the first to apply the term ‘denier’ in print to those who deny (or are said to deny) the existence or possibility of anthropogenic global warming. It was in an anti-Exxon item called ‘Dug out’ in his eco soundings column in The Guardian on 8th August 2001. Before that, people had talked a lot about denying and denial but had, it seems, been careful to keep away from ‘denier’ because of its Holocaust associations.

    The quote:

    Exxon/Esso, the company thought by some to have eaten George Bush’s brain, is more than just an oil giant and denier of global warming.

    (Alex, I also forgot to say that there would have been no need to refuel in Malawi.)

  20. Alex Cull

    @ Vinny, I haven’t been able to find the source yet, for the reference to John Vidal being shocked about the Egyptian farmers and sewage. But…

    While trawling through YouTube on the lookout for that, I found a video posted by the Overseas Development Institute in January this year:

    He’s talking about adaptive strategies for climate change, and it’s quite entertaining (at one point he refers to himself as a “natural-born sceptic”) but at the 6:34 mark my amusement turned to horror, when I listened to him describe with approval a dreadful human rights abuse perpetrated by the Cuban regime on their own people:

    John Vidal: “The best [laughs] – best – adaptive one I ever saw was in Cuba, where they nicked Al Gore’s film – what was it called?… um…

    Female voice off-camera: “An Inconvenient Truth”.

    John Vidal: Yeah… Yeah. And they just put it on the television. You know, they didn’t pay Al Gore, or anything like that. And they didn’t just do it once, they did it seven days in a row. And then they did it the next week, and they did it the next week. And they didn’t pay, they just did it, put it on the thing – “This is what is happening”, “This is climate change”. And let people understand for themselves, that unless they changed, or unless Cuba was prepared to change, then you would have more hurricanes, more, er, tropical storms, more droughts, whatever, whatever, whatever. And that just seemed to me a sort of fantastically good way of adapting a country to – was basically just taking the best information, providing people with the best information there is.

  21. Alex Cull

    The internecine struggle between green orthodoxy and the nuclear heresy is also being fought down under, as per this account of a difference of opinion between Jim Green of FoE Australia and Barry Brook of the BraveNewClimate website:

    (Barry Brook, you may remember, was one of the more sensible voices to be heard during the Fukushima panic last year.)

    The schism in environmentalism over nuclear power is now well underway. It is sad that the other side seem to have decided in their righteousness that they are allowed to play dirty and go after individuals, using the same cherry-picking abuse of science that is all too familiar in climate change denial.

    Martin Luther once said: “When the devil wants to cause offense against the true doctrine and faith, he does not do so through insignificant people, who do not rate highly with the world, but through those who are the very best, the wisest, the holiest, and the most learned.”

    Denialism, of course, is the work of the devil, in this allegory. The “insignificant people, who do not rate highly with the world” are surely the likes of us – the heathen bloggers and commentators. And the “very best, the wisest, the holiest and the most learned” are without doubt the fallen greens (orthodox or nuclear, depending) who were once solid keepers of the faith but have now become sadly corrupted and apt to do the devil’s work.

  22. Myrrdin Seren

    This seems like a really pertinent essay by Pascal Bruckner at City Journal:-


    “…in a secular society, a prophet has no function other than indignation. So it happens that he becomes intoxicated with his own words and claims a legitimacy with no basis, calling down the destruction that he pretends to warn against. You’ll get what you’ve got coming!—that is the death wish that our misanthropes address to us. These are not great souls who alert us to troubles but tiny minds who wish us suffering if we have the presumption to refuse to listen to them. Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy. It is a short distance from lucidity to bitterness, from prediction to anathema.”


  23. Vinny Burgoo

    Alex, some belated notes about that ODI video:

    When people around the world tell this ‘natural-born sceptic’ that their problems are due to climate change, he accepts that their problems are due to climate change, which has barely started yet.

    He acknowledges that DFID, Oxfam and others sometimes ‘very cleverly’ add the words ‘climate change’ to the titles of aid projects that aren’t about climate change.

    You’d think that someone who has studied climate change for so long would have absorbed its terminology and be a bit more careful about he how uses words like ‘adapt’. The whole (unlikely) shtick about Gore’s AIT being repeated every day for week after week on Cuban TV would have been mitigation, not adaptation. (And the more limited repetitions in early Feb 2007, when Vidal seems to have been in London for once, had more to do with the Cuban govt’s, erm, difficult relationship with the US than with adapting to climate change, or even with mitigating it.)

    Vidal ends by speaking in favour of what he calls ‘scientists’ working with what he calls ‘traditional forecasters’. Presumably, he’s thinking of the NGO vet in South Sudan whom he quoted in the Road to Durban series saying that looking at cows’ intestines is a pretty good way of forecasting the weather. This vet also said that poor harvests are pastoralists’ main problem. Neither statement need necessarily be absurd but, if not, explanations were needed, and Vidal didn’t give any. I nearly commented on this a week or so ago but decided that Vidal might have had an acceptable editorial reason for not including any explanations the vet had given him. But now it seems more likely that Vidal is just a sucker for woo.

    Or extispicy, as I’ve just found out it’s called.

    (The only scientific study of East African pastoralist extispicy I could find said that extispicists’ forecasts became more accurate when they were given subtle hints from meteorologists. Gosh!)

  24. Lewis Deane

    Vidal the ‘traveller’, haruscipater and hairdresser (or is that Sassoon!?)! Though extispicy is better, if a little discusting.

  25. Alex Cull

    @ Myrrdin Seren, enjoyed the article and liked the phrase “the Planet, the new paragon of all misery” – reading some environmentalist literature, it seems that once humans have upset the fragile balance of nature and diverted things from their rightful course, the result is almost universal unhappiness for Earth’s life forms as they yearn for a lost Eden of stability and calm!

    @ Vinny, Lewis, I’ve saved a transcript of Mr Vidal’s talk here:

    Another thing – he mentions “terrifying things going on in Ethiopia and elsewhere, with these vast, great, sort of, mechanised farming schemes, which are just absolutely, basically designed to rip communities apart and provide no protection or adaptation ability”.

    Vast mechanised schemes that rip communities apart – sounds a bit like the industrial revolution, doesn’t it.

    Just imagine – instead of those nasty satanic mills, in the early 19th century, we could have had community tree-planting instead. Which means that we could have been living in a more “ecologically sound” version of Kenya or Nepal, by now – instead of which, we’re languishing in this horrible, electrified, centrally-heated modern hell. Poor us!

    Unfortunately, 200 years ago there were no nice neo-colonialist outsiders around to give us proper guidance.

  26. Vinny Burgoo

    Alex, thanks for the transcript. (I hope you’ve got transcription software.)

    There’s a tiny grain of truth in Vidal’s daft comments about the Ethiopian agricultural schemes. Pastoralists are being encouraged to move to villages by the promise of schools, health centres and access to clean water and the former grazing lands of some of those who have signed up for ‘villagization’ have been leased very cheaply to foreign and joint-venture farming companies. The leases are cheap because the farming companies have to build a lot of infrastructure to make farming viable – roads, canals, towns. In such schemes, the infrastructure is usually handed to the government at the end of the lease.

    If Vidal prefers picturesque but precarious, unhealthy and illiterate pastoralism to development, jobs, foreign currency and a move towards improving local food supplies (the farming companies must sell some of their produce in Ethiopia) then I suppose such schemes are indeed terrible things but if that’s his preference he has no business trotting around the world moaning about poverty and hunger.

    Or climate change. I have no idea what kind of ‘protection or adaptation ability’ he thinks might help the pastoralists but presumably it’s not jobs or better education, health care and infrastructure, all of which increase resilience to harsh weather. Some people think that simply being more involved with the outside world does, too.

    … centrally-heated modern hell.

    Speak for yourself. It’s firewood and bottled gas here. (As it happens, I’m just off outside to cut down a tree.)

  27. Lewis Deane

    A different Sassoon:

    I lived my days apart,
    Dreaming fair songs for God;
    By the glory in my heart
    Covered and crowned and shod.

    Now God is in the strife,
    And I must seek Him there,
    Where death outnumbers life,
    And fury smites the air.

    I walk the secret way
    With anger in my brain.
    O music through my clay,
    When will you sound again?



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