Green madness: how the green movement lost its way and alienated the public

Like it or not (I obviously don’t) the green movement has failed. It has failed to inspire the public to care about the environment we all depend on, it has failed to make the public understand the gravity and scale of our current environmental problems, and it has failed to get politicians to do anything at all.

The important question is why?

And unfortunately the answer is too much for any single blog post. Even one as long as this. One could blame the well organized and well funded denial machine. They certainly must share part of the blame.

One could equally blame the media, for being unable to separate fact from fiction, and consistently prioritizing unimportant stories ahead of stories about the deteriorating health of our planet’s life support systems. This too would be accurate. Once could also blame the public for being unable to separate fact from fiction, and consistently preferring unimportant stories instead of stories about the deteriorating health of our planet’s life support systems. Even this would be accurate.

All of these factors and many more play a role in why the green movement has failed to get its message across. But that isn’t what this post is about.

This post is about the green movement itself and how it has alienated the public. Because while the factors I listed above have absolutely played a role in the green movement’s failure to effect change, they don’t tell the whole story.

Part 1: Genetically modified food

Probably no clearer example of this alienation comes to us from Greenpeace in Australia. Recently a group of Greenpeace protesters broke into a research facility and destroyed a trial crop of genetically modified wheat. Amongst other things, this trial was attempting to determine the safety of this strain of genetically modified wheat.

Why did Greenpeace destroy the wheat? Because according to GreenpeaceGenetically modified food has never been proven safe to eat“.

Think about that for a second.

How are scientists supposed to determine if this genetically modified wheat is safe, Greenpeace destroys the trials that were designed to address that specific question? Greenpeace’s position here has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with ideology.

But not only is Greenpeace’s action based on ideology, it was actively anti-science, and anti-scientist.

It is anti science because such research provides valuable information as Christopher Preston, an agricultural scientist at the University of Adelaide, explains:

These trials are not just about the development of genetically modified crops that may at some future time be developed commercially, but frequently provide spin-off information that is of use in our understanding of gene action in the environment. This important information is also lost.

Valuable data was destroyed. This will set back the development of new ideas, which will cost farmers money. Ideas that are needed as the world struggles to feed over 7 billion people.

Not only data was destroyed, but possibly careers were destroyed as Christopher Preston again explains:

All the research staff working in my program are on short-term contracts, which is the nature of scientific careers these days. They need to continually produce research to further these careers.

For them, the loss of a field trial could mean the difference between a new grant and leaving science.

For postgraduate students, the situation is even more difficult. Typically, current postgraduate students only get two field seasons to complete their research. The loss of a field trial can have an enormous impact on their ability to complete their degrees on time.

But being anti-science and scientist is only the least offensive aspect of Greenpeace’s action.

Most importantly Greenpeace’s actions are anti-human. The genetically modified wheat they destroyed was designed with a lower glycemic index and a higher fibre content. Both are features which could improve human health  and save lives in the developed and developing world. If human population continues to grow, then so does the pressure on our food production systems. Can we feed 7 billion people? What about 8, 9 or 10 billion? It is irresponsible to ignore the potential solutions that genetic modification provides.

Professor Mark Tester, a plant scientist at the University of Adelaide, sums up the situation:

[Genetic modification] technology is not a magic bullet but it does offer new opportunities to improve the quality and quantity of wheat. One cannot make any generalisations about [genetic modification] or any other technology – it all depends on how it is used… One cannot say that all [genetic modification] is good or that all [genetic modification] is bad but it is one of many tools in our toolbox to try and help protect the environment and feed people around the world.

Yet Greenpeace, blinded by ideology, was unable to comprehend this. They destroyed the field trial, and in doing so were anti-science, anti-scientist, and anti-human.

And they were even anti-Greenpeace, or rather anti-their-own-stated-goals. There are many legitimate reasons to oppose genetically modified food, things like patent law, and other policies are incredibly troubling (note this isn’t a scientific problem but a political one), but in recklessly attacking genetically modified food they draw attention away from these legitimate issues and focus it on the one area that is relatively free from controversy (the research designed to answer questions we all have, like is it safe?).

In it’s opposition to Genetically modified food Greenpeace is not alone. A large part of the green movement is also ideologically opposed to genetically modified food.

But, while this sad story highlights how Greenpeace and the green movement have alienated the public, it is not the only story.

Part 2: Nuclear Power

Take nuclear power for instance, At the same time Greenpeace states (correctly) that climate change threatens our very way of life, that unless something drastic is done many will die and everyone else will suffer greatly, and (incorrectly) that, no matter what, nuclear power must be opposed at all costs:

Greenpeace has always fought — and will continue to fight — vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants.

As discussed in episode 21 of Irregular Climate, it makes absolutely zero sense to adopt a policy of dismantling nuclear power plants. One needs only look at Germany, which is generally seen as an environmental leader, to see why such a policy is exactly the wrong thing to do.

After the Fukushima  disaster, Germany pledged to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by the year 2022. Currently nuclear power supplies about 25% of Germany’s electricity.  The best case scenario would be if Germany is able to replace all of this electricity with renewable sources. But even if Germany is able to accomplish this amazing feat, it would do nothing to reduce its GHG emissions. Germany would be replacing one form of carbon-free energy with another, and  all that massive investment and deployment of renewables won’t reduce Germany’s emissions, because Germany wont be replacing its dirty coal power plants and will still be burning massive amounts of coal.

And that is the best case scenario.  More likely Germany will not be able to replace all of its nuclear power with renewables and will fall back on burning more coal.

In fact the International Energy Agency estimates that even a slowdown of the expansion of nuclear power will increase global emissions by 30%. Were the world to follow Germany, and Greenpeace’s advice emissions would rise even more.

Greenpeace’s position on nuclear power is not unique in the green movement, it is the rule rather than the exception. It is almost like the mainstream green movement is more worried about the potential, but highly unlikely, threat that nuclear power poses, than the certain threat of climate change.

Or as George Monbiot recently put it:

Sometimes it seems to me that greens are putting renewables first, climate change second. We have no obligation to support the renewables industry – or any other industry – against its competitors. Our obligation is to persuade policy makers to bring down emissions and reduce other environmental impacts as quickly and effectively as possible. The moment we start saying we won’t accept one technology under any circumstances, or we must use another technology whether it’s appropriate or not is the moment at which we make that aim harder to achieve.

The position of Germany, Greenpeace and the green movement flies in the face of their stated aims of combating climate change and reducing GHG emissions.

Such contradictions, understandably, confuse and alienate the public.

Part 3: The bigger problem

The green movement is against two technologies that could provide answers to some of the myriad of problems we face as human populations continues to grow: genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. These examples might be the most prominent, but they are not the only ones, and they are a symptom of a larger problem, perhaps best described by Hans Rosling and his magic washing machine:

There is a general trend of opposing new technology within the green movement. This opposition, as Hans Rosling describes in the video above is predominantly directed at people who live in developing countries. They cannot have the washing machine! Or much of anything else, apparently.

To support this position many greens present a romanticised version of the third world, where people are freed from the burdens of a modern technological life. Of course these same greens seem unwilling to give up these supposed burdens themselves. Or as Hans Rosling states: “Even the hardcore in the green movement use the washing machine!”

Of course people living the the third-world, don’t see things the same way. As Hans Rsoling emphatically  says “If you have democracy people will vote for the washing machine!” Inevitably this alienates people in the third world, and people who care about the third world.

This anti-technology position lends itself,  inevitably, to an anti-development position. Without access to technology little development is possible.

But this leads to what is perhaps the biggest problem with the green movement. It is perceived as being part of the radical left, of being anti-capitalism.

Often-times this perception is inaccurate, but sometimes it is explicit. As this article titled: No, Greens must not cosy up to capitalism. They must resist it by Patrick Curry in the Guardian makes clear:

 the principal driver of the accelerating eco-crisis – anthropogenic climate changebiodiversity crash, destruction and degradation of wild habitat, and a virtual holocaust of animal species – is precisely capitalism… Any green movement worth its name must therefore resist industrial capitalism, however hopeless that may appear, and the only serious questions concern how.

Of course this perception is not entirely the fault of the green movement. It should be abundantly clear to everyone that there is a concerted effort by some special interests to brand the green movement as a radical left-wing conspiracy. To brand greens as watermelons, green on the outside but red on the inside. A grand communist plot.

Yet as absurd that sounds there is a surprisingly large percentage of the public (generally on the right-wing) that believes this to be true. These people are automatically alienated, and worse, frequently they become actively hostile to the very notion that we should care and protect the environment we all live in; the environment that sustains us.

You would think then, that a major priority of the green movement would be to counteract this alienation and hostility. But that is not what has happened. Instead, as special interests have pulled the right-wing away from caring about the environment, the green movement has helped the special interests and pushed the right-wing away.

Green issues are now seen as almost entirely left-wing issues, particularly in North America. Anti-right-wing rants are now common among the green movement.  Unsurprisingly, there is a very large number of people who are alienated by this.

Part 4: The root of the problem and a solution

The green movement his failed. It has not inspired the public to care about the environment we all depend on, it has failed to make the public understand the gravity and scale of our current environmental problems, and it has failed to get politicians to do anything other than talk.

The root of the problem with green movement, lies in the failure of the green movement to understand the reality of the Anthropocene. That is to say they do not understand that humans are currently the dominant force shaping the planet.

There are over 7 billion people on the planet and our population is still increasing. Ideological rejections of new technologies; of potential solutions, will only lead to suffering. There are no more easy answers, no more perfect solutions. It is no longer a choice between a good option and a bad one.

Risk cannot be eliminated, that is simply not possible. But if we adopt the right polices we can minimize the risk.

This is what  the green movement fail to understand. They are incapable of risk management. The see nuclear power as risky so they oppose it. Yet compared with the enormous risk of climate change, the risk of a nuclear disaster is negligible, and the worst case scenario of a nuclear meltdown is infinitely more manageable than what scientists say is all but certain due to climate change if we continue on our current emissions path.

Nuclear power is far from perfect, but it can provide us with part of the answer to deal with climate change. The same is true with genetically modified food. It is far from perfect and there are many legitimate issues (more political that scientific) that should be addressed, but again, it can provide us with part of the answer of how to feed a growing human population.

The solution to the problems within the green movement are simple.

The green movement needs to drop its ideological positions. It needs to view the world as it actually exists and not as it wishes it existed.

This means embracing science. It means following the data wherever it leads, even if that means admitting you were wrong in the past. Because as we approach the limits of the planet, having a thorough understanding the natural systems that sustain us becomes critical.

It also means understanding the nature of risk, and that eliminating risk is not possible. We can only, if we adopt the correct polices, minimize the risk.

But equally as important, the green movement needs to expand along the political spectrum. It needs to grow beyond the left-wing of the political spectrum and into the right. There is, after all, no reason why the right-wing shouldn’t care about the environment, they are forced to live in it as well.

In short, we need a new green movement. One that is not bound by ideology, but is instead firmly rooted in reality.

These solutions might be simple but, none of them will be easy. However the current path the green movement has chosen will only lead to failure. And that is something we can no longer afford.

13 thoughts on “Green madness: how the green movement lost its way and alienated the public

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  1. Dan: I have to say that I really don’t like this post at all.

    Partly because, of all the stakeholders who should be criticized for failing to act on climate change, the “green movement” would be last in line.

    But more because I think you’ve missed the woods for the trees. I don’t think there really is such a thing as “the green movement”. There are lots of different groups struggling to make sense of the relationships between humans and the biosphere, all focussing on different parts of the puzzle, and sometimes coming to contradictory conclusions. The examples you pick on are not necessarily evidence of a “movement that has failed”, but of people struggling to keep up with a challenge that’s now so big and so urgent that it defies understanding. For example:

    – nuclear power is dangerous, and poses a massive risk to communities who live close to nuclear power plants, a risk that is, at least locally, much greater than any other means of generating power. However, it’s only really in the last few years that it’s become clear that that the global risks of GHGs completely dominate the local risks of nuclear accidents. So the story here is really one of different groups weighing up local versus global risks and coming to different conclusions. As many of those involved in environmental activism got their start by campaigning on local issues, it’s not surprising that they’ve been slow to shift attention to global risks *when these risks are in conflict*. And given the appalling track record that nuclear operators have on being open and honest about safety, it’s not surprising that environmentalists are opposed. Nuclear plant operators seem to behave as badly as the worst polluters on the planet.

    – While GMs may be a useful technology in helping to feed the world, the track record of companies pushing GMs has been abysmal. GMs have been deployed almost universally as a way of further industrializing and centralizing food production, via massive deployments of herbicides and pesticides. Many environmentalists are quite rightly outraged by this. While I don’t condone the destruction of scientific labs, I can see exactly where that impulse comes from. The problem is that much of the research on GMs isn’t value-free at all – it’s funded and exploited by companies like Monsanto, and as long as such companies show complete disregard for the environmental impact of their technologies, they’ll be targeted by protesters. It’s disingenuous to pretend that the science of genetically modified foods is value-neutral, when there’s a huge for-profit machine driving that science forward without adequate safeguards.

    – the argument that “the green movement” has become too tied up with left-wing politics is also way off base. They’ve been portrayed that way, particularly in the US, because of a particular brand of extreme libertarianism that views any form of environmental protection as a socialist plot. But if you look at what the platforms put forward by Green parties across Europe, Australia and Canada, there’s no left-right ideology at all, but rather a very different take on how social, environmental and economic priorities interact, leading to a set of policies that look nothing like either traditional left-wing nor right-wing thinking. Plenty of people in the labour movement (or at least what’s left of it in the US) dislike “greenies” as much as the current US tea party does. It’s just that the former have very little voice right now in US politics.

    And describing the environmentalists as anti-technology is purely a red herring. It’s a version of the (primarily US-based) narrative that portrays environmentalists as dirty hippies.

    So what you’re really saying is that you want a new movement that’s no longer rooted in the passion that people bring to local environmental issues, but is instead based on the cold rationalistic calculations of scientists. You want to take the heart out of it. I don’t see how that can be successful as a movement. Scientists aren’t generally successful at inspiring social change…

    1. Steve thanks for your comment; I was quite sure that this post would disagree with some people. But hopefully it can generate some useful discussions.

      First off, I agree that the green movement is not first in line to be criticised. Even though I think they have made many mistakes I can at least agree with their goals (for human civilization to stay within the limits of our planet). To avoid collapse. I certainly cannot say that about some other people, and they should be first in line for criticism. But in all my years of blogging I have rarely written about the mistakes of the green movement and frequently spoken out about the Merchants of Doubt (BTW everyone needs to read the book Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway) that could public understanding. And I suspect that in the future I will continue to spend more time criticizing the merchants of doubt than the green movement. But every once in a while it is valuable give a critical look at your ‘team’. Especially when the game is not going in your favour.

      But you hit on a very important point. The green movement is not a single uniform group of people all marching to the same drum. I didn’t get into the many facets of the larger green movement manly in an admittedly failed effort to keep this post short. You are absolutely correct in pointing out that there are many different aspects to the green movement.

      However, I do think that within those various aspects there is a convergence of positions on many topics like nuclear and GMs. It certainly is not universal, but there is a strong condemnation of both those technologies.

      Ok on to your specific points. First up nuclear power

      nuclear power is dangerous, and poses a massive risk to communities who live close to nuclear power plants, a risk that is, at least locally, much greater than any other means of generating power.

      I think this is a massive overstatement. Nuclear power is safe (not a hundred percent, but not far off either). There have been 3 major incidents with nuclear power, 2 of which caused massive long term problems for those living nearby (Chernobyl and Fukushima), and 1 which caused some short term panic (probably justified) but little long term issues (Three Mile Island). From my perspective that is not bad record.

      So the story here is really one of different groups weighing up local versus global risks and coming to different conclusions.

      I find that statement hard to square with the statements from Greenpeace I quoted above. And such absolute statements are frequent in regards to nuclear power from green groups. There certainly is a local vs. global element involved but it is deeper than that for many I think.

      And given the appalling track record that nuclear operators have on being open and honest about safety, it’s not surprising that environmentalists are opposed.

      I agree that nuclear operators are doing themselves no favours and there is a legitimate cause for concern here. Ok that is probably an understatement. But this should not translate into “no nuclear power ever!”, yet far too often it does.

      Ok on to GMs:

      While GMs may be a useful technology in helping to feed the world, the track record of companies pushing GMs has been abysmal.

      Again agreed, but this isn’t so much a scientific problem as a political one. We can and should criticise Monsanto. They deserve it. But we need to be careful that our criticisms are focused on the problem and not directed at ‘innocent bystanders’. Attacking all GMOs instead of the terrible polices of Monsanto et al. Is exactly what makes protesters, who want to do the right thing, attack a trial of GM wheat. Wheat that contained no foreign genes and offered a lower glycemic index and higher fibre content.
      If we demonize all GMOs (or nuclear power) because of the bad decisions of Monsanto (or nuclear operators) we essentially close the door on tools that can help us create a better future.

      Ok last point, is the green movement tied up in left wing politics?

      In many ways yes I think it is. It isn’t as simple as a yes/no answer. I agree that there is a significant attempt by some to portray the green movement as a communist plot (again I remind everyone to read the Book Merchants of Doubt; it contains a good history of where this claim comes from). But I think by in large the green movement (especially in North America) is tied up on the left. On the climate front one needs to look no further than Joe Romm at climateprogress. It seems he takes every possible opportunity to jab at the right. And even though these jabs are often justified they also serve as a means to alienate right leaning people who might also care about the climate.

      That being said, thank you for bringing up the politically hard to define Green party of Canada (as well as those in Europe and Australia, but I know them less well). However if they become more prominent I do foresee battles as many members of the green movement come into conflict with the more pragmatic approach of the green parties. How the parties react to this will be interesting to watch. For a negative glimpse of what this might be like take a look at Elizabeth May’s recent stance on Wifi and smart meters.
      But I do think that in many ways the green parties way of thinking represents a large part of the way forward for the green movement(unless the parties cave as Elizabeth May did in response to smart meters). As do people like you and the bloggers I have listed on my sidebar.

      Again thanks for the comment. Keep the insightful and respectful criticism coming! It is the only way I will learn:)

    2. Ok I forgot to address one last thing. Your point about passion. I am absolutely ok with people having passion. It is in fact essential, but that passion needs to be strongly attached to reality, otherwise it becomes a liability.

      I see you, and the other bloggers on my sidebar as prime examples of people who are very passionate but who at the same time remain firmly rooted in reality.

  2. There are politics and there is science. (Interesting that politics are plural and science is singular, eh?) In politics, you have to affiliate with people whose views you do not find, on the whole, reprehensible, and with whom you agree on a few matters of importance, or at least that you can convince of that.

    So there really is a question of whether you are writing from the point of view of science or that of politics. They aren’t really the same, and the advice of one means little to the other. In a way, that’s the problem. If you are saying you’d like more respect for science within politics, I totally agree. But you pick examples where there really is a valid argument on both sides and coming down is not exactly a no-brainer.

    Is genetic engineering adequately controlled? A very difficult question. If not, it isn’t enough to say “that’s a political problem and shouldn’t be taken out on the scientists”. Because once some nasty biological agent is in the field, there is no changing your mind. You have to live with it for who knows how long. Millions of years, maybe. GMOs can introduce irreversible changes in the environment overnight. Is Monsanto careful enough about this? Every single corner of Monsanto? And their competitors? I don’t know. I have heard terrible stories about Monsanto. Are they true? I don’t know that either and don’t presume to judge them one way or the other, but there are definitely people who believe those stories. What is the ethical action on their part?

    Is Germany making a terrible mistake by going first in stopping nukes? I think so too.

    But you can’t shrug off Fukushima. Fukushima is a whole prefecture. 2 million people lived there a year ago. Is it ruined forever? For how long?

    High radiation readings are being found all over Japan. Releases are, if I understand correctly, ongoing. Do we need nukes? Some people think so. I know a very competent solar energy engineer who does not think so.

    I agree, there definitely is a need for a new or revived movement, and one which respects science and engineering. Alex Steffen calls it the Bright Green movement, and I consider myself among the Bright Greens.

    But respecting science and technology doesn’t mean we should unwittingly accept every innovation brought into the world by every corporation or government or whatever. The default has been to find out about scary things after they are already deployed. There is a real argument for putting the brakes on the most radical inventions, and stopping certain directions of research is something that may or may not have merit in that context.

    It is a way of respecting science and technology to claim that its deployment as engineering should be very slow and careful. There are those who would have you “get out of the way of progress”, but the question is who gets to decide what “progress” is, you or the money machine?

    In short, your examples are deep and interesting questions, not slam dunks like fluorine in water.

    I think what we need more than anything is a hopeful vision. To a real treehugger, our time is one of great and mounting tragedy. They have a point. Fortunately for me, my case of biophilia is modest and I face every day with fear rather than horror. But we can’t promise the world a sad future and have a hope of leading anything.

    The post-fume world is going to be wonderful. Much better than this stuff. What we need to do is come up with a vision and explain how and why. And I don’t think coming up with better than what we’ve got is all that hard, even in relatively civilized BC.

    1. In short, your examples are deep and interesting questions, not slam dunks

      I agree that we should not accept them blindly, but importantly we should not to reject them blindly either (as many have done).

      That is my main criticism.

      I hope to be a bright green (Kermit thought it wasn’t easy being green but being bright green is even more difficult), because the current dull greens have alienated me, even though I agree with them on the big picture points they make.

  3. Dan,

    as far as Fukushima is concerned I think we could say “probably will cause massive long term problems for those living nearby”. It’s also not a great example of a fault with nuclear power, as the disaster was caused by a once-in-a-thousand-years event striking a plant not designed to cope with that.

    1. The reason that fukushima happened was that the design didn’t properly account for the tsunami risk. Unforeseen events has been the cause for all the major nuclear accidents. In that sense it is a typical accident. the disasters hit on average much more frequently than you would expect from the design goals.

    2. I think we can say that unforeseen events are the cause of most accidents – what we do after the accidents is what matters.

  4. Great post. I totally agree that there are a lot of environmental issues that have been completely mishandled by the green movement. Everywhere you turn today you hear RECYCLE RECYCLE RECYCLE. Remember when REDUCE and REUSE were in the vocabulary?

    Government is also at fault however. They create all of these green strategies, and then make it impossible for citizens to implement them. Municipalities fight when individuals want to put up wind generators, utilities fight when customers want to sell power back to the grid. It’s ridiculous.

  5. Apropos the subject of your post – Greenpeace has been very active in Japan after the disaster pushing nuclear doom and gloom with their ‘experts’ who appear to have no qualifications in the fields they are commenting on. As someone from a Physics background it is annoying beyond belief to spend an hour on the net trying to track down the qualifications of a “Greenpeace Radiology Expert” to find that their qualification is that they graduated from the Technical University of Delft, and that they have no papers or publications to their name.

    1. Well the end result was pretty obvious in tonight’s NHK news – talking about a maximum renewables housing development the newscasters commented that such developments would help in replacing nuclear power. No mention of fossil fuels.

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