Way back when I was just a novice environmentalist, Greenpeace seemed like a good idea. It published a decent newsletter, was drawing attention to otherwise neglected issues, and, while understandably suspicious of technology, seemed to have more than a grudging respect for science as a tool to preserve those things worse preserving. It was one of the few NGOs that received what little I could afford to donate to charitable causes. I don’t regret supporting them in the 80s, and not just because I shared the group’s desire to save the whales.
I still want to save the whales. I no longer support Greenpeace.
It’s one thing to present a reactionary response to anything that smacks of corporatism or lends itself to the centralization of power, seeing as any technology or plan so characterized tends to be bad for the health of ecosystems. But civilization long since passed the point of no return on the path to the Anthropocene. It’s no longer about choosing between good and bad options. It’s about minimizing the damage. This is something Greenpeace doesn’t grok any more, if it ever did.
Take nuclear power. Greenpeace was built on an anti-nuke platform, although it was largely in response to nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. Members quickly embraced an anti-nuclear power position, though, and today they’re about as resolute on that one as anything else.
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.
I, too, have problems with the nuclear power industry, mostly because its just too damn expensive and time-consuming to build, but also because of the political (as opposed to practical) challenges posed by waste disposal. But it’s the height of folly to demand the dismantling of nuclear plants with years or decades of useful life left in them until there’s enough renewable capacity to take up the slack, and/or we’ve made commensurate reductions in our consumption patterns. It’s also foolish to oppose any efforts to look into safer, potentially cheaper variations on the nuclear theme, like liquid fluoride thorium reactors, that could offer acceptable options in decades to come.
The fact is, we’re going to need every arrow in our quiver to address climate change, and there’s little doubt that existing nuclear power reactors will have to play a role. We can debate the economics and regulatory burdens of expanding that role, but blanket opposition to any and all forms of nuclear fission is irresponsible given the threat posed by a warming planet.
Similarly, there’s a long list of reasons why we shouldn’t trust Monsanto and the rest of the agri-chemical transnationals who are responsible for pushing genetically modified crops on the world’s farmers. So far, they have proven useful for the seed companies’ bottom lines and precious little else. But given the fact we are headed for somewhere close to 10 billion humans by the end of the century, it is now abundantly clear that the first wave of the Green Revolution is maxed out and will not be up to the task of supplying enough food. Not without some help from GM crops tailored to grow in places that used to be unsuitable or are loaded with essential nutrients that evolution didn’t manage to pack in on its own.
On this subject Greenpeace does not agree and has even gone to so far as to destroy research that might help get us closer to genuinely useful, as opposed to merely profitable, GM varieties of wheat. [UPDATE: In t his case, the variety being tested contained no foreign genes and offered a lower glycemic index and higher fiber content, both good ideas from a nutritional point of view and hardly worrisome from a health perspective.] Why? Because we don’t know enough about the technology yet?
“GM has never been proven safe to eat and once released in open experiments, it will contaminate. This is about the protection of our health, the protection of our environment and the protection of our daily bread.”
Just because history hasn’t painted a rosy picture of GMOs or nuclear power thus far is no reason to reject it wholesale. Yes, we should be vigilant and skeptical — very skeptical in many cases. But we just might need one or both of them in some form to survive the rest of the 21st century.
These sort of things are not self-evident. One needs to have done more than cursory research into the subject matter to get a grip on them. But we’re not talking quantum chromodynamics. An organization such as Greenpeace has the resources to study them and figure out that the most responsible and reasonable approach is not binary. It’s complicated. Sometimes the best response is “yes, but only if…” or “no, unless…” I know it’s tough to launch a public relations campaign with sophisticated or complex messages. But opposing science and research is not the sort of strategy that will be useful in the coming years. And it’s time more of us called them on it, publicly. It would nice if Greenpeace could be a force for good again. Saving the whales was great. But as they say: What have you done for me lately?