Is being green a religious belief?


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.


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Excellent post. Thank you.

I really don't understand the war on plastic bags, logical reasoning would dictate that something which doesn't perish for thousands of years should be the pinnacle of sustainability; not single shot biodegradable nonsense alternatives.

...and if they end up in landfills, then I'm sure by the time resource becomes scarce, the means will be present to recover and recycle beyond our currently perceived point of grave (i.e. dig the feckers back up!).

IIRC, there were cases in Greece (Kokkinakis v Greece and I can't remember the other one) that ruled that sincerely held beliefs like vegetarianism are covered under the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in the same way religions and non-religions are (although the case had nothing to do with this directly). There was another similar case, but I can't remember the title. Although they were in Greece, I understand this sets a precedent for all of Europe. I'll try to look up more details (it was some time ago), but it could be that a deeply held belief such as environmentalism may well be covered by the ECHR.…

This needs more investigation!

Yes, this is an excellent point. Moreover, various anti-environmentalist groups (especially on the American right) have tried to claim that environmentalism is a religion.

There's also a disturbing irony in this case in that the company's defense was that Nicholson's attitudes about the environment were based on scientific facts. We're in the odd situation where someone can't be discriminated against for religious beliefs but can be discriminated against if they accept agreed upon science.

A most excellent post, Frank. Hear, hear.

Wise words.

By Tom Chivers (not verified) on 23 Mar 2009 #permalink

Nice post Frank. For ages now I've been annoyed that the choice available to almost all farmers and consumers is between organic and factory farmed, it's a rotton choice between two scientifically dubious systems. On one side you've got the Soil Association and their unrealistic mysticism and on the other corporate whores like the Centre for Consumer Freedom...somewhere in the middle there is a better way.

I certainly agree with Joshua that it reflects badly on our society when unreasonable beliefs based on superstition get more legal protection than beliefs rooted in empirical evidence. The privilaged position of religeon is something that I'd like to see ended in my lifetime, but I have little expectation that it will.

On plastic shopping bags I have to say that I'm on the side of introducing a charge for them, they may not do much real environmental damage but they do account for quite a lot of the visible litter in the streets and countryside. Besides that I find the eco-bags easier on the hands, they're far less inclined to turn to cheese wire when I've put a few bottles in the bag!

Paul - regarding farming, you've hit the nail right on the head. It pains me that consumers are forced to choose from a set of dud options.

I've been told that the world's largest organic farmer is Gallo wines, but they don't seek labelling status because they want to be able to use a proportional amount of pesticides when necessary. This measured approach - mindful of environmental impact without falling into arbitrary rules - is exactly what needs to be encouraged.


This is my first time reading your blog, and I'm enjoying myself immensely. You've made some excellent points, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. More well informed decisions and less dogma? Yes, please.

To be honest, this kind of consideration just flummoxes me. Why, I ask myself over and over again, is this so hard? The American corn industry is a superb example: growing an immense monoculture in a bed of highly-concentrated nitrogen has been proven to be, in almost every way, bad -- yet we persist. The list goes on. It's pretty frustrating.

I do want to voice some dissent over your portrayal of biodynamic farming, however. Do some people embrace occult, neo-Druidic practices? Sure. I wont argue that the practices you list are voodoo, but -- unless I've been wildly mislead -- they aren't core practices of biodynamic farming. If you've not already, take a look at Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Of all the systems I've looked at, biodynamic farming seems like one of the most successful in terms of overall health of the land and the food being created, and is certainly lower in chemicals use -- and all because people are trying to mimic how plants and animals actually grow and live naturally, rather than forcing them into monoculture or feed lots.

Thanks for your time!

Good post, but we should avoid the (usually media inspired) idea that there are two stark choices for food production (organic v bio-dynamic), or other environmental subjects.

My local farmers market doesn't have any 'organic' producers. It does have a (dwindling) number of excellent local producers, doing great meat and veg, at pretty good prices (my local beef is cheaper than Sainsburys, and its hung for 21 days). It would be great if they were organic, but I know that they care for their animals, grow stuff that that you won't find in Tesco's, etc, and are as local as I can get.

Like Ross, I'm a bit mystified why you simply condemn 'organic' as some mystic rubbish. Although its true that some of the Soil Association approved inputs are a bit dappy, even though DEFRA report you cited is actually pretty positive about organic with regard to biodiversity and soil quality. Pesticide run-off is far less, and there is obviously less reliance on fossil-fuel based fertilizers - something which will become more important as the price of oil increases over time. There is also some evidence organic produce has higher nutritional value than non-organic . Even biodynmic farmers (while talking a fair amount of bollocks) are at least fanatical about their soil, and therefore end up with really good soil quality. Considering the problems with soil worldwide, they could do a lot worse.

The worst parts of 'environmentalism' take place outside the environmental mainstream. Plastic bags are a pain, and I'm glad their being phased out, but its a Daily Mail form of being green, which is to say tokenistic and contradictory. The worst parts of the 'ideology' tend to come from anti brigade, be it about lightbulbs, AGW or food. Being green is not a religion, but it is more than a simplistic cost analysis - something which Patrick Moore forgot sometime ago.

Pedant: biodynamics isn't that new though previously it's been mostly restricted to German speakers, it was made up by Steiner, along with the schools, 'anthrosophical medicine', et al. Lovely people, unfortunately bizarre ideas.

. 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'.

I'm not entirely sure that this is completely accurate. Referring to the full set of producers standards available here, section 4.11, they allow the use of pyrethrins, rotenone, azadirachtin and spinosad (first formulated in 1988) in addition to various copper compounds. As for the use of copper, it is subject to tighter controls than any of the alternatives (maximum of 6kg/ha/year, with detailed recording and reporting requirements.) Which is not to say that their endorsement of copper sulphate is not problematic...

I'd strongly advise checking what the standards actually say before passing judgement on them. Yes, there is much to criticise, but there is also a lot of very good stuff too. If perfection is your pre-requisite for action, we're screwed anyway.

Thanks Dunc, that's a valid point. Your link doesn't work for me, the Soil Association's website is in dire need of a better URL structure, but I assume it was similar to this page.

I admit the error on my part, but this page again demonstrates the Soil Association's clumsy approach to science:

In the UK, organic farmers can use up to seven pesticides (ACOS, 2005), four of which are allowed on Soil Association farms, mainly to control insect pests and fungi (over 311 pesticides can be used in non-organic farming). They are either of natural origin (rotenone and soft soap) or simple chemical products (copper compounds and sulphur) compared to the more complex substances typically used in non-organic farming.

This somehow implies that
a) 'natural' chemicals are less harmful than synthetic ones and
b) simple chemical structures are less harmful than complex ones.
What kind of nonsense is this? I suppose elemental uranium, by virtue of being natural and incomplex, is also on their 'good' list.

Also, though I forgot to mention it above, the Soil Association is also opposed to GM, which is weird given that they're happy to allow agricultural crops which are in essence heavily mutated versions of wild ancestors, and that genetically modified crops hold great promise for reducing pesticide use.
Go figure.

No, it was a link to a page lining to the various complete sets of actual standards, including the complete producer's standards, which run to 376 pages. They seem to have changed their URL structure since I last linked to them, so I'm not sure what the problem is exactly... I think they're munging a session ID into the URL, which is a right pain in the arse.

Try going to Technical Resources, then "Standards", then "Soil Association organic standards online", and you'll find a link to the full producers standards in PDF form. The relevant section is 4.11.

One thing I've noticed is that their non-normative documentation and PR material is a lot worse than the actual normative standards themselves. I suspect this has something to do with marketing pressures...

The GMO argument is rather complex. I have no a priori objection to the technology itself, but there are a number of other issues, some of which are specific to particular applications. Firstly, whether the plant produces pesticides itself or whether you spray them on makes little difference with regards to evolved resistance (which is one of the objections to the use of pesticides, although not the only one). Secondly, I believe there are some concerns about the potential ecological impacts of gene transfer from transgenic crops to wild species. Thirdly (and more generally), it's a technology which, by it's very nature, tends to favour large-scale capital-intensive argi-business, and as such is viewed with a great deal of suspicion by many concerned with "food democracy" and social justice. One of the key things with "organics" is to stop seeing food production as an isolated black box with inputs and outputs, and to start seeing it as an integral part of the wider society.

As I've said on other blogs when discussing this subject, it's a deeply unfortunate historical accident that the first people to get sufficiently concerned about sustainability to actually do something about it happened to be a bunch of kaftan-wearing freaks who thought they could talk to fairies. However, that's the way it worked out, and until somebody else starts ponying up the time, money, and hard graft needed, we're just going to have to live with it.


You haven't read the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations, 2003 have you. It explicitly doesn't define a religion. You are jumping to conclusions and the Independent piece you link to doesn't put it as a religion either.

So how did you get to "the ruling that a 'philosophical belief in climate change' was on par with religious belief such Christianity or Islam" ??????!?

Sounds like the guy was trying to the do the job he was led to believe was expected of him and he didn't want to be part of greenwash and that company got rid of him because they didn't want to walkies their talkies. Perhaps h got a smart lawyer who hooked into the philosophical bit and new the discrimination legislation and regulations back to front.

Sounds like you just used it as an excuse for a rant instead of checking - not a way to sound science matey.