Deep Green: What the Greens got right

by Rex Weyler

January 18, 2011

An activist dripping in ‘oil’ protests at the World Energy Congress (WEC) in Montreal – urging participants to move beyond oil. Image: François Pesant / Greenpeace.

Deep Green is Rex Weyler’s monthly column, reflecting on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace’s past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.

“Ecology is a subversive subject.”

Paul Sears, BioScience, July 1964

Last November, British television’s Channel 4 aired ‘What the Green Movement Got Wrong’, attacking environmentalism while supporting nuclear power, DDT, genetically modified crops and geoengineering. The diatribe was laced with bias, misrepresentation and outright errors.

One of the show’s contributors, Adam Werbach, is a former member of Greenpeace International’s Board of Directors. Werbach reported that the Channel 4 producers misled him about the content of the documentary, misrepresented his ideas and used his comments to support points of view he opposes.

Willing contributors included Florence Wambugu, lobbyist for biotech giants Monsanto and DuPont, and Stewart Brand, consultant for ExxonMobil, Cargill, Dow Chemical, General Electric, and Bechtel – a virtual Who’s Who of socially predatory and ecologically-destructive companies.

Propaganda as news

“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

The errors and biases of this show have been exposed by George Monbiot at The Guardian, The Weather-Makers author Tim Flannery, Greenpeace scientist Dr. Doug Parr, Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo and many others. Naidoo points out that the focus on GM foods to solve hunger, for example, undermines the real solutions, such as improving soil fertility and providing access for the poor to land, water and agricultural financing.

Other obvious errors:

Nuclear Power: Climate blogger and nuclear power promoter Mark Lynas claimed on the show “Nuclear power is … a massive potential source of zero-carbon power.”

Zero carbon? Dead wrong. Nuclear power is among the most carbon-intensive forms of energy. Why?

Start with cement, a massive carbon-consuming product. Add mining, milling, enriching and transporting uranium; forging high-alloy steels for pressurised containment vessels; construction of complex plants; and handling, shipping, reprocessing and storing radioactive waste. All of these stages require fossil fuel supplies.

Mark Jacobson at Stanford University compared the lifetime CO2 emissions of energy sources in a Review of Global Warming Solutions. He found wind and concentrated solar emit 3 to 11 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity. Nuclear electricity emits between 68 and 180 grams per kWh. Mr. Lynas was wrong.

Nuclear energy is not zero-carbon – it’s a carbon hog! It also presents unsolved problems with security, weapons proliferation, radioactive emissions, decommissioning and waste storage.

DDT: Stewart Brand claimed that the ‘green movement’ is responsible for millions of malaria deaths because environmentalists – including Greenpeace – campaigned for and won a worldwide ban on DDT, resulting in malaria epidemics. Brand, repeating a myth created by corporate interests to sabotage environmentalism, was wrong on all counts.

First of all, Greenpeace has never conducted a campaign to ban DDT worldwide and has never opposed the use of DDT for disease control. Never. Secondly, there is no worldwide ban on DDT, and never has been. The only international instrument to regulate DDT – the 2001 Stockholm Convention – restricts agricultural use so as to avoid producing DDT-resistant mosquitoes, and never mentions a ban for disease control.

“Brand and Lynas present themselves as heretics,” wrote George Monbiot at The Guardian, “but their convenient fictions chime with the thinking of the new establishment: corporations, think tanks, neoliberal politicians. The true heretics are those who remind us that neither social nor environmental progress are possible unless [political] power is confronted.”

Save the Climate

A hot air balloon floats over the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, as delegates prepare to meet for UN Climate Negotiations COP16 in nearby Cancun, Mexico.
Image: Luis Pérez / Greenpeace

What environmentalists got right

“Love of the wilderness is … an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need.”

Edward Abby, Desert Solitaire

Historically, ecologists and environmentalists have offered thousands of genuine solutions and critical ideas to help humanity achieve peace and sustainability. The problem is not that ecologists offer no solutions. The problem arises because those solutions are not convenient for those who want to concentrate wealth and political power.

Corporate promoters like Brand, Lynas and Channel 4 insist on high-tech, complex solutions such as nuclear power, biotechnology and geo-engineering because those ventures promise more wealth and centralised control for the wealthy. They attack the genuine solutions offered by ecologists because those solutions require less reckless consumption and more community power. Nevertheless, over the decades, ecologists and environmentalists got a lot of things right. Here are some examples:

Poisons have unintended consequences: Rachel Carson was right. The overuse of DDT and other biocides killed wildlife, damaged human health, and undermined disease control by creating resistant insects. A public relations campaign financed by Philip Morris tobacco company mocked her. Meanwhile, DDT use expanded to agriculture. The world experienced a brief reduction of malaria followed by the return of DDT-resistant mosquitoes and new epidemics, as Carson warned. In 1969, the World Health Assembly acknowledged that eradicating malaria with DDT was not feasible.

Lead, mercury and other heavy metals are toxic: In 1923, General Motors and Standard Oil (ExxonMobil / Chevron) introduced leaded gasoline. Harvard toxicologist Alice Hamilton warned them of the public health dangers in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

GM and Standard Oil launched a public relations campaign, smeared Hamilton, and persuaded the New York Times to print “there is no measurable risk to the public.” Meanwhile, leaded gasoline’s neurotoxic effects caused mental deterioration, madness, antisocial behaviour, sickness and death among the public.

The US finally banned the toxic gasoline in 1995, 70 years after Hamilton’s warning, as oil companies continued to sell it elsewhere. Africa finally banned leaded gasoline in 2006. Ms. Hamilton had been right; GM and Exxon, wrong. Millions suffered. Similar tragedies with mercury poisoning and other heavy metals have claimed thousands of victims.

Radiation kills: Channel 4 attempted to minimize the Chernobyl nuclear accident health impact, but as ecologists and medical doctors have warned, ionising radiation causes DNA damage, mutation, replication errors, early aging and cancers, including leukaemia, thyroid, liver, lung, myeloma and so forth.

There is no safe dose. Any increase in radiation results in an increase in risk. Twenty-eight rescue workers at Chernobyl died from radiation sickness. Medical researchers traced a certain link between Chernobyl radiation and 1,800 thyroid cancer cases. Thousands of others died from Chernobyl’s radiation. How many? It is not the environmentalist’s job to count the dead for the nuclear apologists. One death is too many. Radiation kills. We were right.

CO2 will heat the planet: Swedish physicist Svente Arrhenius reported in 1896 that carbon dioxide from hydrocarbon combustion would heat the planet. He estimated that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from pre-industrial levels would cause a 5°C temperature rise. Current estimates range from 3° to 7°C, depending on successful mitigation and feedback factors. Arrhenius was right. Ecologists were right. Greenpeace first voiced concern in 1979. Meanwhile, oil companies financed a campaign to deny this simple, physical science.

Laws of Ecology: In the 1970s, Greenpeace published its first ecology manifesto, The Declaration of Interdependence. We suspected that the next century’s battle would be to reconcile human enterprise with nature’s rules. The Declaration included three ‘Laws of Ecology’: Interdependence, Stability through Diversity, and Consumption Limits. Pardon the immodesty, but we were right then and we’re still right today.

    * Interdependence: Life forms remain interdependent. We co-evolve and co-survive in complex, dynamic ecosystems. Predator and prey collaborate in the genetic process; all organisms share nutrient and energy cycles in a habitat. Ecologist Gregory Bateson was correct that the ‘survival unit’ in evolution is not the individual, nor a single species, but species within an ecosystem.

    * Stability through Diversity: In an ecosystem, species diversity provides stability in dynamic homeostasis. Since the 1960s, ecologists and naturalists – Rachel Carson, Edward Wilson, Yvonne Baskin and others – have warned of species loss risk. Norman Myers calculated in the 1970s that the human-caused extinction rate was 100 times the natural rate. Few listened, and society’s response has proven ineffective. By 2000, extinction rates reached 1,000 times natural rates, and today the figure approaches 10,000 times. Myers also warned that habitat destruction reduced evolution’s capacity to generate new species. Human activity is now causing the greatest diversity collapse since a meteorite hit the Earth 64 million years ago, weakening the entire planetary ecology.

    * Consumption limits: This remains the most disturbing ecological fact for our society. Captains of industry and their paid pundits deny and ridicule this idea, but it remains absolutely true. We live on a finite planet. No species in any habitat can grow forever. Donella Meadows and her co-authors were right about Limits to Growth in their 1972 book of that name. We witness the evidence in degraded soil, drained aquifers, forest loss, global warming, and resource depletion.

No plan B

A young girl is amongst up to 100,000 people who took part in a demonstration on the Global Day of Action against climate change in Copenhagen just ahead of the UN climate negotiations held there in 2009. Image: Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

Peak oil: Ecologists and geologists have warned about oil depletion for decades. Geophysicist M. King Hubbert described the phenomenon in 1956. He was largely ignored. Global peak oil per capita occurred in 1979 and we have now arrived at the absolute peak – just as predicted.

Net Energy: Oil depletion and society’s oil addiction drives us toward lower-grade reserves, such as tar sands, with a low net energy, costing more energy to retrieve, returning less to society and emitting more CO2 pollution. Researchers such as Charles Hall at the State University of New York warned society about this in the 1970s.

Habitat Overshoot: In 1980, William Catton published Overshoot, explaining that humanity had ‘already overshot [Earth’s] carrying capacity’. He was right. No one in power listened. Humanity has now reached about 30% overshoot, using more resources each year than Earth can replenish. Newsflash: a species cannot grow out of overshoot.

Reduce consumption: William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia devised the ‘Ecological Footprint’ analysis to help individuals and communities gauge their role in global overshoot and reduce their consumption. Rees explained that our challenge is less technical and more ‘behavioural and social’. We hear of hundreds of large-scale industrial ‘solutions’ but the only genuine solution to habitat overshoot is this: Consume less stuff.

Biomimicry: We’ll find the keys to genuine sustainability in the patterns and laws of nature itself. We can design an authentically sustainable human society, but only by apprenticing ourselves to nature, as described by Janine Benyus, John Todd, Wes Jackson, Elaine Ingham, David Suzuki and many other ecologists.

Ecological Economics: In the 19th century, economist John S. Mill cautioned that industrial growth would eventually reach Earth’s physical limits and require ‘stationary state’ economics. Donella Meadows and colleagues (Limits to Growth), Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (The Entropy Law and Economic Process), Herman Daly (Steady-State Economics), Mark Anielski (Genuine Wealth) and others have since refined these essential and inevitable new ecological or biophysical economics.

It would take a very long book to introduce all the important, accurate and visionary ideas that ecologists, environmentalists and biophysical scientists have contributed to society: Organic farming, voluntary simplicity, transition towns, environmental rights, the conserver society and so forth. Ecologists such as Paul Shepard, Chellis Glendinning and Kathy McMahon examined the psychological impact of the ecology crisis.

Arne Naess introduced ‘Deep Ecology’ and ‘richer lives with simpler means’. Vandana Shiva, Mary Jo Breton, Rosemary Ruether and others describe the importance of feminism for ecology. Southern hemisphere nations such as Bolivia have raised the issue of environmental justice. Gregory

Bateson introduced the link between mind, cybernetics and ecology, and wrote “My knowing is a small part of a wider integrated knowing that knits the entire biosphere of creation.”

The anti-environmental sophists bark for their patrons like the medieval henchmen who burned scientists and healers at the stake and conducted inquisitions and programs. And like those agents of institutionalized ignorance, they will end up on the wrong side of history.

But being wrong isn’t the problem. The problem appears in the destruction and suffering caused by this deceit, misinformation and propaganda. Every day, as Earth spins through the heavens, species blink from existence, cancers and illnesses attack people, children starve and communities suffer.

We aren’t quibbling about facts here. We’re battling for lives.

Rex Weyler

By Rex Weyler

Rex Weyler was a director of the original Greenpeace Foundation, the editor of the organisation's first newsletter, and a co-founder of Greenpeace International in 1979.

Rex's column reflects on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future.

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