Battling the Environment

by | Oct 11, 2013

The Institute of Ideas’ annual Battle of Ideas meets again next weekend, at the Barbican Centre in London.

On the Sunday, I’ll be discussing ‘What is Environmentalism’ with Mark Lynas, Joe Smith, and Caspar Hewett, and with Timandra Harkness in the chair.

What is ‘new environmentalism’?
Sunday 20 October, 3.30pm until 4.45pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

Like most ideologies or political movements, environmentalism has always contained different strands and shades of opinion. But in recent years, there has been increasing debate within the movement about what its core values are, which issues it should pursue and how. Since Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the founders of the US-based Breakthrough Institute, wrote their influential 2004 essay, ‘The Death of Environmentalism’, many attempts have been made to redefine the environmental perspective. Most significantly, a growing number of environmentalists now make arguments in favour of nuclear power, GM technology and even fracking, and have questioned the policies designed to protect the climate and natural environment. Accordingly, some environmental organisations are now criticised by people who could be found supporting them just a few years ago. This fresh dimension to the green perspective and reflection on environmentalism’s failures has been dubbed ‘new environmentalism’.

But what has driven this change? Have new environmentalists responded to criticism from without the environmental movement, or to scientific developments and political failures? What possibilities exist for new environmentalism to make a difference and what institutions does it need? More profoundly, what might that change look like – what do new environmentalists think constitutes the Good Life, and how does this compare to the way of life imagined by environmentalists previously?

The full timetable is outlined here —

As you can see, there’s something for everyone. However, readers may be particularly interested in the following:

The crisis of innovation: Dude, where’s my flying car?
Saturday 19 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 1 Battle for technological progress

The 20th century saw great leaps forward in technology and innovation – from the mass production of cars to nuclear power to moon landings – and ended on something of a high with the internet. Can we expect even more from this century or have we reached a technological plateau? Were those breakthroughs just ‘low hanging-fruit’, as economist Tyler Cowen has argued, and are we going to have to work a lot harder to get ahead from now on? Certainly we have been waiting a good twenty years for long-heralded leaps forward in growth and productivity. Are there prototype innovations that just don’t reach a mass market because the costs are prohibitive? Would innovation be liberated if it was freed from the necessity of making a profit or, conversely, do we need the discipline of the market to weed out the mad inventors and pipe-dreamers and reward the genuine entrepreneur? Is the state be standing in the way of innovation, suffocating it with too much red tape and regulation and stifling dynamism with rules about health and safety or minimum wages? Do we need to free the market before it can deliver the goods?

Technology and sustainability: kill or cure?
Saturday 19 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 1 Battle for technological progress

When we think about technology it is usually as a promise. New advances in medicine, say, that will cure a killer disease. New breakthroughs in engineering that might make planes lighter, faster and more economical. New developments in computing that will let us roll up electronic newspapers or ‘think’ an email. Some may protest that they don’t want the benefits of these new technologies or deny that they represent any kind of progress. Most, however, would concede that these are good things even if they are not things they want.

But what about technology that promises what we want but threatens other things we want as well? The controversial technique of fracking has created an energy glut in America that has destroyed the market in renewable energy, which was such an important part of the vision for a sustainable economy. But cheap energy is at least good for economic growth and for household bills. What about GM crops? They hold out the promise of an end to starvation and of prosperity for poor farmers; but they also threaten what has been called ‘seed slavery’ and unquantifiable harms to natural ecosystems. Even the internet is a double-edged sword. Some see the rise of online purchasing where everything is just a click away as driving levels of consumerism and debt that we simply cannot pay back. But others argue the internet has enabled collaboration between small-scale producers and even individuals (crowd sourcing) that allows them to compete with massive corporations.

Computer modelling: all about the image?
Sunday 20 October, 9.30am until 10.15am, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

Computer modelling is magic that turns empirical observations into our imaginary future. How many of us will need pensions, artificial hips, or houses in 2050? How much will sea levels rise or incomes fall? Plug enough data into a computer model, and out pour figures and graphs. But from pensions to climate, the line between projecting a trend and predicting the future is often blurred. What assumptions went into constructing the model of reality that underlies the mathematical model? Any projection assumes a host of factors will stay the same, or change predictably. In the real world, things are less consistent.

We need some kind of guide to how the future will probably turn out, if we are to plan anything that takes a few years to bring to fruition. Building power stations, for example, or training doctors. But we also need a good idea of how closely to trust that guide. The precision of graphs and numbers can stamp complex, informed speculation with undue scientific authority. So what are the limitations of mathematical modelling? Should we be more sceptical of its authority? And how much does it matter if some of the details are wrong?

Science journalism: the tyranny of evidence?
Sunday 20 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

When the Independent gave front-page coverage to the discredited scientist Andrew Wakefield’s suggestion that government policy was responsible for a recent measles outbreak in Swansea, the paper was roundly condemned as irresponsible. Similarly, energy secretary Ed Davey has attacked some sections of the press for giving ‘an uncritical campaigning platform’ to anyone sceptical of the consensus view on climate change. Meanwhile, the media are often accused of misinterpreting studies, overstating casual links, inappropriately extrapolating from research results and failing to report details such as sample size or the institution carrying out the study. And eminent scientists have called for supporters of homeopathy and ‘obesity deniers’ to be deprived of the oxygen of publicity. Science reporting is mentioned a number of times in the Leveson report, which recommends a set of guidelines to ensure scientific accuracy, with penalties for reporting that is not up to a required standard.


  1. mpcraig

    The main heading for some of those topics is interesting in itself: i.e. “Battle over Scientific Information”

    Some other topics I’d like to see:

    Open Peer Review: Opening science to the public?
    Postmodern Science: What is it’s place?
    The Precautionary Principle: Turning the burden of proof upside down?

    All in all, sounds like preparation and research is the key to be effective. Good luck.

  2. Roberto

    … With penalties for reporting that is not up to a required standard?

    That sounds like a proven recipe for trouble.

    It would be fine if it were my standard they were following. Not so good otherwise.

    In the absence of standards we all agree on, leave it up to the market and the bloggers/journalists, not lawyers. That’ll sort it out, eventually.


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