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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Green Games

Cover of "The Skeptical Environmentalist:...

Cover of “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World” Cover via Amazon


Here is today’s Green Chain column for the Lake County Record-Bee.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” – John Maynard Keynes.

It appears we are witnessing the crumbling of the green movement, as we know it. Dr. James Lovelock, who postulated the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ of earth operating as a self-regulating organism, is the latest to stray, if not exactly leave the faith. The list non-orthodox greens grows continually and now includes Mark Lynas, the author of The God Species and Stewart Brand, the author of the iconic Whole Earth Catalog.

Perhaps the first to change his mind and leave the Greens was Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. He felt those in the environmental movement had made their point,

“[W]hen a majority of people decide they agree with you it is probably time to stop hitting them over the head with a stick and sit down and talk to them about finding solutions to our environmental problems,” Patrick Moore says.

Greens have always been fractious, and similar to the Tea Party on the right, they hate compromise. Former Greenpeace director Paul Watson berated Patrick Moore in an email: “you’re a corporate whore, Pat, an eco-Judas, a lowlife bottom-sucking parasite…” And, Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist took a pie in the face from then true believer, Mark Lynas.

At the heart of the disagreement sits the use of technology. “There is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism,” writes freelance journalist Keith Kloor, “It is a battle between traditionalists and modernists. Who prevails is likely to be determined by whose vision for the future is chosen by a new generation of environmentalists.”

Traditionalist Greens say, “Stop!” Technology is the Problem. The Worldwatch Institute says we should not simply stop growing our economies, but we must actually contract: “The rapidly warming Earth and the collapse of ecosystem services show that economic ‘degrowth’ in overdeveloped countries is essential and urgent…. Degrowth can be achieved through policies to discourage overconsumption, raising taxes, shortening work hours, and ‘informalizing’ certain sectors of the economy.” The goal, Rik Scarce writes in his book “Eco-Warriors,” is to arrive at “a steady-state relationship with all of nature’s creations, wherein human attitudes and actions dominate no one and no one thing. Their alternative seeks to guarantee life, liberty, evolution, and happiness for humans and non-humans alike.”

Modernist Greens say that technology has a role in making the world greener and more livable for all creatures, including humans. Stewart Brand says “If Greens don’t embrace science and technology” they risk becoming irrelevant.

The modernists are in favor of cities, people, and technology (including genetically engineered food).

Cities, people, and technology are…good? What is happening? Has the world gone crazy?

Perhaps the world is crazy. (Not exactly a news flash now, is it?)

As you know, I have argued on these pages that people, cities, technology, and economic growth have not only improved our lives here in the United States, but have improved the environment. Economic growth using non-renewables has overall been beneficial. The author of “The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley notes that technology takes less land and uses materials other species do not want:

“[E]conomic development leads to a switch to using resources that no other species needs or wants…. Contrast Haiti, which relies on biomass (wood) for cooking and industry, with its much (literally) greener neighbour the Dominican Republic, which subsidises propane for cooking to save forest…. [E]conomic growth leads to a more sparing use of the most important of all resources – land.”

Is economic growth and technology a wonder cure? A panacea that works with no side effects? No. But, then everything has its upsides and downsides.

If we humans continue to move from rural to urban (cities are denser), drill and mine for our energy rather than grow it, continue to wring more food and fiber from each acre, and develop incentives for conserving water and our fisheries, we will yet leave a better place for our (and Nature’s) children and grandchildren.

Matt Ridley sums it up well:

“Seven billion people going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.”


  • Johnston, Ian. ‘Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock: I was ‘alarmist’ about climate change. msnbc.com. http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/04/23/11144098-gaia-scientist-james-lovelock-i-was-alarmist-about-climate-change
  • “If Greens don’t embrace science and technology and jump ahead to a leading role in both, they may follow the Reds into oblivion.” Brand, Stewart. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary · “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Maynard_Keynes
  • Kloor, Keith. “The Limits to Environmentalism” Discover.com http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2012/04/27/the-limits-to-environmentalism/
  • Assadourian, Erik. “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries.” Worldwatch Institute, STATE OF THE WORLD 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity
  • Moore, Patrick. “Confessions of a Greenpeace founder.” 2011. Vancouver Sun. http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/Confessions+Greenpeace+founder/4073767/story.html#ixzz1BErUqcWL
  • Scarce, Rik. Eco-Warriors: understanding the radical environmental movement. 1990. Noble Press, Chicago, IL
  • “Seven billion people going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.” Comment by Matt Ridley. Hickman, Leo. Does consumption need tackling before population? http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/apr/26/royal-society-report-consumption-population#block-17

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