Taking the Romance out of Environmentalism

Cover of "The Skeptical Environmentalist:...

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My latest Green Chain column for the Record-Bee.

Just after 7 p.m. on Sept 5, 2001, Mark Lynas, a writer and a member of the Green Party in Britain stepped into the Borders Bookshop in Oxford and “pied” former Greenpeace member Bjorn Lomborg with a sponge cake topped with whipped cream.

Lomborg was at the bookstore to talk about his just completed book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. The general thrust of the book was that environmental problems are highly correlated with poverty, thus making people wealthier and healthier would mean fewer environmental problems. This finding did not sit well in the green community.

“Pies for lies,” said Lynas as Lomborg wiped whipped cream out of his eyes.

Last month, Mark Lynas, the righteous green, did something extraordinary. He apologized for being wrong about genetically modified (GM) crops.

He did not apologize half-heartedly as you or I did when our mothers made us say we were sorry to our sisters for putting their Barbie dolls in the toilet. No, he meant what he said and he said it quite publicly in a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference:

“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

“As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

So, he and his cohort—and there is no use sugar-coating this—spread lies. “This was also explicitly an anti-science movement,” he said. “We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag…”

He admitted assuming using GM “would increase the use of chemicals.” What he found instead was that “pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.”

He believed “[T]hat GM benefited only the big companies.” He discovered “billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers” because of what they did not need to use.

He had heard GM seed contained “Terminator Technology” to keep farmers from saving seed for the next crop. He discovered that hybrid crops “did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.”

He had assumed that poor farmers did not want GM. What he found were farmers breaking local laws to get GM seed “because farmers were so eager to use them.”

He had “assumed that GM was dangerous.” When he looked into it, “It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding…”

The path Mark Lynas took to embrace GM (and nuclear power) is similar to the one Bjorn Lomborg took.

Lomborg, an associate professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, turned against the shibboleths of the green movement as the result of a project he began with his students to disprove Julian Simon. Simon, an economist, argued that the environment was on the whole getting better. Knowing that simply could not be true, Lomborg and his students gathered data. The more sources and statistics Lomborg and his students combed through, the more they found themselves agreeing with Simon’s heresy, and less with green dogma. The book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, was the result; it had 2,900 references to allow others to check the work.

These heretics, and others such as Patrick Moore and Stewart Brand, looked at their beliefs, weighed those against the facts and changed their minds. Such thinking marked the philosophical movement of the 18th century, which we now call the Enlightenment. It emphasized using reason to scrutinize previously accepted doctrines and traditions.

Others, the Romanticists, responded to the Enlightenment’s reason by emphasizing emotion over rational science and rejecting its search to understand the workings of nature. Romanticism placed the individual’s perceptions at the center of the universe and Nature was, according to one textbook, “a revelation of Truth, the ‘living garment of God’…” Little wonder that primitivism, worship of nature, and mysticism were hallmarks of Romanticism.

Who knows, with these defections we may be seeing a new Enlightenment.




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