Last week the Independent newspaper reported on the case of Tim Nicholson, a UK executive claiming religious discrimination after losing his job because of his beliefs on climate change. Nicholson had been head of sustainability at Grainger plc, a residential property investment company, but claims his attempts at implementing environmental and corporate social responsibility policies were blocked by fellow executives.
This case is noteworthy because it reveals several things – that someone could be fired for doing their job too enthusiastically, that Grainger plc possesses an asinine attitude toward their carbon footprint (on one occasion flying a member of staff to Ireland to return the CEO’s Blackberry), – but most striking is the ruling that a ‘philosophical belief in climate change’ was on par with religious belief such Christianity or Islam. This may be a boost for environmentalism, but it comes at the expense of science.
There are few subjects that inspire such fervour as environmentalism. It’s the overarching topic of our time, weighing on the minds of my generation like the threat of nuclear war did our parents’. Dare I say even more so: we are demanded to consider everyday decisions such as the food we eat, the transport we use and the clothes we wear in the context of their environmental impact. Thus the threat of climate change permeates our lives in a way that the threat nuclear war never could, because we are all held responsible. It is a war in which we are all conscripts.
It’s no surprise then that it’s a subject that finds impassioned speakers. But it’s exactly this passion that threatens to deny us the tools we need to fight climate change and environmental degradation. Caught up in the desire to do good, and taught that individuals can play a significant role in this fight, we find ourselves with an army desperately lacking in generals. The result is a pandemic of meaningless and even counter-productive ‘environmental’ activities carried out by well-meaning citizens. My question is: why is the green movement so poor at rooting out these practices?
Take, for example, the current status of plastic bags in the UK. On a tide of public sentiment, plastic bags disappeared from supermarkets, having gone from handy carrying implement to badge of pariah status almost overnight. And yet, the evidence for harm to the environment of these small bags is surprisingly thin. Newspapers whipped the public into action with pictures of innocent turtles choking on these petrochemical jellyfish-impersonators, despite the fact that very few of the UK’s plastic bags would ever end up in the sea. We were told in grave tones that plastic bags persisted in landfill for thousands of years, without the caveat that this inert quality makes them vastly more suitable and less problematic for landfill than, say, kitchen scraps, which rot to produce swollen boils of harmful methane. That’s not to say disposable plastic bags aren’t great for the environment, or that we shouldn’t try to reduce their use, but if we truly want to play a role in bettering the world we should be basing our decisions on what the evidence shows is effective, rather than making easy but largely meaningless sacrifices led by emotive newspaper campaigns.
The politics of being green have, from the beginning, been entwined in greater ideas of social responsibility, grassroots democracy, emancipation and anti-militarism. And along the way, this desire for betterment of the world developed from an evangelism into Puritanism. People are judged daily on a vague criteria of goods and ills, and scorn poured on those found wanting. It’s considered obscene to leave the tap running whilst we brush our teeth, but our indirect water consumption (in everything from manufactured goods to foodstuffs) doesn’t rate a mention. Flying too is considered a shameful activity to be carried out only when absolutely necessary, even though fuel consumption per passenger per air mile is comparable to that of driving. Food miles are held up as an indicator of energy consumption, without factoring whether shipping food from foreign climates is more energy efficient than using heated greenhouses. This kind of moral pressure is a hallmark of the green movement, and it’s an effective stick for changing behaviour (lest we forget, degrading the environment is one of the Vatican’s seven sins for the 21st century). Witness too the overwhelming demand for Anya Hindmarch’s cotton sack – environmentalism as a badge of pride, even if the message isn’t too subtle:
But the more we rely on leading by morality, the less capable we are for making a logical case for environmentalism.
If the judge ruling the Nicholson case is right, and environmentalism is a religion, then surely its greatest church is Greenpeace. Of all the blog posts I’ve written, few have been so divisive and inspired such venom as when I pulled apart their numbers on the “Pacific trash vortex”, supposedly a floating carpet of filth twice the size of Texas. While the North Pacific Gyre exists and I don’t dispute its ability to collect and concentrate sea-borne garbage, I pointed out that Greenpeace compared sites measured with two different pollution survey methods, despite their own source document warning that it was inappropriate to do so. Remarkably, some argued that Greenpeace was right to bend the truth in order to raise awareness of the issue – but how can we ever work to improve the environment if we try and force the evidence to fit pre-existing theories? In case you think these are new concerns, let me say emphatically they are not. Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore left the organisation in 1986 after it supported a universal ban on chlorine in drinking water, explaining:
Ultimately, a trend toward abandoning scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas forced me to leave Greenpeace in 1986… We all have a responsibility to be environmental stewards. But that stewardship requires that science, not political agendas, drive our public policy.
Worst of all, the green movement – with noble and realisable goals on the reduction of environmental impact, increase of conservation, and so forth, has been marred by the phony practices carried out under its banner. Of all the caprices of good intentioned eco-warriors, none was more mis-sold to them than ‘organic’. It is a science built on an arbitrary moral judgement, and therefore, a pseudoscience. The largest organic labelling scheme, the Soil Association, considers any pesticide created after the industrial revolution to be inherently harmful, and pesticides used before this to be ‘good’. Thus whilst organic farmers cannot use pesticides designed to be harmless to non-target species or break down safely in the soil, they can use ‘traditional’ pesticides such copper sulphate, a substance with such broad toxicity it is known charmingly amongst agriculturists as a ‘soil-sterilant’.
As such, the EU has attempting to implement a ban on copper sulphate for over 10 years, but has run into fierce opposition from the organic lobby, who incomprehensibly claim that ‘no suitable alternatives’ exist. They do exist, of course, in the form of safer, more targeted, less persistent pesticides that must pass stringent safety tests to gain a licence, but because these are man-made, the organic lobby considers them universally harmful. Pity the poorer organic farmers of the world producing – whilst UK farmers have the benefit of sealed tractor cabins et al. to protect themselves from these organic toxins, smallholders abroad have to make to with a handkerchief over their face.
A major investigation by the UK Government found no conclusive evidence that organic farming produced less water pollutants, less soil pollutants, was more energy efficient, or produced more nutritious food than conventional farming. In addition, as organic is less productive, more land must be turned over to agriculture to deliver the same amount of food. Animals that become sick on organic farms can only be given medicine as a last resort. Unbelievably, the Soil Association requires that organic animals be preferentially treated with bogus therapies such as acupuncture and homeopathy over real, evidence-based medicine:
A producer who is about to TB test their herd would put aconite in the troughs to combat stress, while a producer about to castrate a bull calf would use aconite first for the fear, and then arnica for the bruising and pain.
This, if anything, is an indication that the interpretation of organic by the Soil Association is based on voodoo science and arbitrary notions of what is ‘good’. There was no reason that ‘organic’ had to be this way. The Soil Association could have laid down its principles based on practices that had been scientifically demonstrated to improve sustainability, environmental impact and animal welfare. Why didn’t it?
With the above in mind, is it any wonder that a new breed of hyper-organic is rising, called ‘biodynamics‘? This claims to be an ecological farming system, treating the farm as a single super-organism, but bears more resemblance to medieval witchcraft. Take, for example, the field preparation known as ’501′:
Crushed powdered quartz prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and buried into the ground in spring and taken out in autumn. The mixture is sprayed under very low pressure over the crop during the wet season to prevent fungal diseases.
Other preparations involve Shakespearean ingredients such as red deer bladder, cattle intestine, and skulls stuffed with oak bark.
This has to stop. The ambition and willpower and desire to do good by a majority of people cannot be allowed to go to waste on this nonsense a day longer. We can’t continue to argue environmentalism from ideology. What we need is a new era of environmentalism – to shed the adolescent view that being green is a moral high ground, and concentrate on tough choices of how best to grow and prosper in a way that least damages our world. It’s not enough to simply ‘be green’ – there isn’t just a green option and another option, there’s a spectrum. Each of us has to make careful decisions on what aspect of environmentalism is important to us, so we can choose the options that are the ‘most good’ as we see them. Sometimes that isn’t easy, and we won’t always agree on which is best for the environment. But these disagreements need to be informed by evidence, not ideology.