Environmentalism for the 21st Century

As we begin the 21st century, environmental thinkers are divided along a sharp fault line. There are the doomsayers who predict the collapse of the global ecosystem. There are the technological optimists who believe that we can feed 12 billion people and solve all our problems with science and technology. I do not believe that either of these extremes makes sense. There is a middle road based on science and logic, the combination of which is sometimes referred to as common sense. There are real problems and there is much we can do to improve the state of the environment.

I was born and raised in the tiny fishing and logging village of Winter Harbour on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, in the rainforest by the Pacific. I didn’t realize what a blessed childhood I’d had, playing on the tidal flats by the salmon spawning streams in the rainforest, until I was shipped away to boarding school in Vancouver at age fourteen. I eventually attended the University of BC studying the life sciences: biology, forestry, genetics; but it was when I discovered ecology that I realized that through science I could gain an insight into the mystery of the rainforest I had known as a child. I became a born-again ecologist, and in the late 1960’s, was soon transformed into a radical environmental activist.

I found myself in a church basement in Vancouver with a like-minded group of people, planning a protest campaign against US hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska. We proved that a somewhat rag-tag looking group of activists could sail a leaky old halibut boat across the North Pacific Ocean and change the course of history. By creating a focal point for opposition to the tests we got on national news and helped build a ground-swell of opposition to nuclear testing in the US and Canada. When that bomb went off in November 1971 it was the last hydrogen bomb ever detonated on planet Earth. Even though there were four more tests planned in the series, President Nixon canceled them due to public opposition. This was the birth of Greenpeace

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Flushed with victory and knowing we could bring about change by getting up and doing something, we were welcomed into the longhouse of the Kwakiutl Nation at Alert Bay near the north end of Vancouver Island. We were made brothers of the tribe because they believed in what we were doing. This began the tradition of the Warriors of the Rainbow, after a Cree legend that predicted one day when the skies are black and the birds fall dead to the ground and the rivers are poisoned, people of all races, colors and creeds will join together to form the Warriors of the Rainbow to save the Earth from environmental destruction. We named our ship the Rainbow Warrior and I spent fifteen years on the front lines of the eco-movement as we evolved from that church basement into the world’s largest environmental activist organization.

Next we took on French atmospheric nuclear testing in the South Pacific. They proved a bit more difficult than the US Atomic Energy Administration. But after many years of protest voyages and campaigning, involving loss of life on our side, they were first driven underground and eventually stopped testing altogether.

In 1975 we set sail deep-sea into the North Pacific against the Soviet Union’s factory whaling fleets that were slaughtering the last of the sperm whales off California. We put ourselves in front of the harpoons in little rubber boats and made Walter Cronkite’s evening news. That really put Greenpeace on the map. In 1979 the International Whaling Commission banned factory whaling in the North Pacific and soon it was banned in all the world’s oceans.

In 1978 I was arrested off Newfoundland for sitting on a baby seal, trying to shield it from the hunter’s club. I was convicted; under the draconianly named Seal Protection Regulations that made it illegal to protect seals. In 1984 baby sealskins were banned from European markets, effectively ending the slaughter.

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Can you believe that in the early 1980’s, the countries of Western Europe were pooling their low and medium level nuclear wastes, putting them in thousands of oil drums, loading them on ships and dumping them in the Atlantic ocean as a way of “disposing” of the wastes. In 1984 a combined effort by Greenpeace and the UK Seafarer’s Union put an end to that practice for good.

By the mid-1980’s Greenpeace had grown from that church basement into an organization with an income of over US$100 million per year, offices in 21 countries and over 100 campaigns around the world, now tackling toxic waste, acid rain, uranium mining and drift net fishing as well as the original issues. We had won over a majority of the public in the industrialized democracies. Presidents and prime ministers were talking about the environment on a daily basis.

For me it was time to make a change. I had been against at least three or four things every day of my life for 15 years; I decided I’d like to be in favor of something for a change. I made the transition from the politics of confrontation to the politics of building consensus. After all, when 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.

All social movements evolve from an earlier period of polarization and confrontation during which a minority struggles to convince society that its cause it is true and just, eventually followed by a time of reconciliation if a majority of the population accepts the values of the new movement. For the environmental movement this transition began to occur in the mid-1980s. The term sustainable development was adopted to describe the challenge of taking the new environmental values we had popularized, and incorporating them into the traditional social and economic values that have always governed public policy and our daily behavior. We cannot simply switch to basing all our actions on purely environmental values. Every day 6 billion people wake up with real needs for food, energy and materials. The challenge for sustainability is to provide for those needs in ways that reduce negative impact on the environment. But any changes made must also be socially acceptable and technically and economically feasible. It is not always easy to balance environmental, social, and economic priorities. Compromise and co-operation with the involvement of government, industry, academia and the environmental movement is required to achieve sustainability. It is this effort to find consensus among competing interests that has occupied my time for the past 15 years.

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Not all my former colleagues saw things that way. They rejected consensus politics and sustainable development in favor of continued confrontation and ever-increasing extremism. They ushered in an era of zero tolerance and left-wing politics. Some of the features of this environmental extremism are:

Environmental extremists are anti-human. Humans are characterized as a cancer on the Earth. To quote eco-extremist Herb Hammond, “of all the components of the ecosystem, humans are the only ones we know to be completely optional”. Isn’t that a lovely thought?

They are anti-science and technology. All large machines are seen as inherently destructive and unnatural. Science is invoked to justify positions that have nothing to do with science. Unfounded opinion is accepted over demonstrated fact.

Environmental extremists are anti-trade, not just free trade but anti-trade in general. In the name of bioregionalism they would bring in an age of ultra-nationalist xenophobia. The original “Whole Earth” vision of one world family is lost in a hysterical campaign against globalization and free trade.

They are anti-business. All large corporations are depicted as inherently driven by greed and corruption. Profits are definitely not politically correct. The liberal democratic, market-based model is rejected even though no viable alternative is proposed to provide for the material needs of 6 billion people. As expressed by the Native Forest Network, “it is necessary to adopt a global phase out strategy of consumer based industrial capitalism.” I think they mean civilization.

And they are just plain anti-civilization. In the final analysis, eco- extremists project a naive vision of returning to the supposedly utopian existence in the garden of Eden, conveniently forgetting that in the old days people lived to an average age of 35, and there were no dentists. In their Brave New World there will be no more chemicals, no more airplanes, and certainly no more polyester suits.

Let me give you some specific examples that highlight the movement’s tendency to abandon science and logic and to get the priorities completely mixed up through the use of sensationalism, misinformation and downright lies.

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

The Brent Spar Oil Rig

In 1995, Shell Oil was granted permission by the British Environment Ministry to dispose of the North Sea oil rig “Brent Spar” in deep water in the North Atlantic Ocean. Greenpeace immediately accused Shell of using the sea as a “dustbin”. Greenpeace campaigners maintained that there were hundreds of tonnes of petroleum wastes on board the Brent Spar and that some of these were radioactive. They organized a consumer boycott of Shell and service stations were fire bombed in Germany. The boycott cost the company millions in sales. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl denounced the British government’s decision to allow the dumping. Caught completely off guard, Shell ordered the tug that was already towing the rig to its burial site to turn back. They then announced they had abandoned the plan for deep-sea disposal. This embarrassed British Prime Minister, John Major.

Independent investigation revealed that the rig had been properly cleaned and did not contain the toxic and radioactive waste claimed by Greenpeace. Greenpeace wrote to Shell apologizing for the factual error. But they did not change their position on deep-sea disposal despite the fact that on-land disposal would cause far greater environmental impact.

During all the public outrage directed against Shell for daring to sink a large piece of steel and concrete it was never noted that Greenpeace had purposely sunk its own ship off the coast of New Zealand in 1986. When the French government bombed and sunk the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, the vessel was permanently disabled. It was later re-floated, patched up, cleaned and towed to a marine park where it was sunk in shallow water as a dive site. Greenpeace said the ship would be an artificial reef and would support increased marine life.

The Brent Spar and the Rainbow Warrior are in no way fundamentally different from one another. The sinking of the Brent Spar could also be rationalized as providing habitat for marine creatures. It’s just that the public relations people at Shell are not as clever as those at Greenpeace. And in this case Greenpeace got away with using misinformation even though they had to admit their error after the fact. After spending tens of millions of dollars on studies Shell recently announced that it had abandoned any plan for deep-sea disposal and will support a proposal to re-use the rig as pylons in a dock extension project in Norway. Tens of millions of dollars and much precious time wasted over an issue that had nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with misinformation and fundraising hysteria.

To make matters worse, in 1998 Greenpeace successfully campaigned for a ban on all marine disposal of disused oil installations. This will result in hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars in unnecessary costs. One obvious solution would be to designate an area in the North Sea for the creation of a large artificial reef and to sink oil rigs there after cleaning them. This would provide a breeding area for fish and other marine life, enhancing the biological and economic productivity of the sea. But Greenpeace isn’t looking for solutions, only conflicts and bad guys.

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Exotic Species

There has been a recent flurry of sensationalist warnings about the threat of exotic species. Zealous cadres of conservation biologists descend on wetlands to rip foreign weeds from the bog, declaring that “a rapidly spreading invasion of exotic plants and animals is destroying our nation’s biological diversity.” It’s amazing how a word that was so good, as in “exotic paradise” and “exotic pleasure” is now used to describe an alleged biological Holocaust.

I was inspired to write about exotic species when I heard a news story from Washington D.C. in the spring of 1999. The citizens of the Capitol were distressed to find that a family of beavers had taken up residence there and were busy felling the Japanese cherry trees that adorned the banks of the Potomac River. It became a national emergency of sorts and a great effort was made to trap every last beaver; only then were the townspeople put at ease. There was no mention made of the fact that the beaver is a native North American species whereas the cherry trees are exotics, imported from Japan. Yet there was no question which species the public favored.

In fact, the reason we dislike certain species and like others has nothing to do with whether or not they are exotic. By playing on people’s natural suspicion of all things foreign, environmentalists confuse the issue and give the public a misleading picture. There are actually thousands of exotic species that are not only beneficial, they are the mainstays of our daily lives. Food crops like wheat, rice, and cabbage are all exotics when grown in North America. Vegetables that originated in the Americas such as beans, corn and potatoes are exotics when they are grown in Europe. All around the world, agriculture is largely based on species that originated somewhere else. This is also the case for domestic animals, garden plants and street trees.

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

There are also hundreds of native species of plants and animals that we consider undesirable. For centuries we have referred to them as weeds, pests, vermin and disease. There are also many exotic species that fall into this category. And, of course, there are many native species that are considered extremely beneficial, especially those that provide food for a growing population. The point is, both exotic and native species can be desirable or undesirable from a human perspective, depending on how they effect our lives. Our almost innate dislike of rats and spiders has nothing to do with whether or not they are native or exotic, it is due to the possibility of deadly disease or a fatal bite. And even though dandelions in the lawn are hardly a life-and-death issue, millions are spent each year to rid lawns of these “weeds”.

Certain exotic species have resulted in severe negative impacts. The most notorious case involved the introduction of European species of animals to Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands when Europeans colonized these regions beginning about 225 years ago. Many native species, flightless birds and ground-dwelling marsupials in particular, were not able to survive the introduction of predators such as rats, cats and foxes. As a result, hundreds of native species were eliminated. Another well known exotic is Dutch elm disease, a fungus that actually originated in Asia, came through Europe and on to North America where it has resulted in the death of many native elms in the US and Canada.

There can be no doubt that we should always be careful when considering the introduction of a new species, and that regulations are needed to prevent undesirable accidental introductions. At the same time we must not lose sight of the fact that introduced species play a vital, indeed essential, role in modern society. Each species must be evaluated on its own merits. The introduction of some species may be desirable in one region and yet undesirable in others. Islands are particularly susceptible to introductions because they are isolated and their native species are not subjected to as wide a variety of predators and diseases. When rats are introduced to islands that support large bird rookeries there is often a precipitous decline in bird populations due to predation on eggs and nestlings.

There is really no difference when considering the use of an exotic species of tree for managed forests. The main reason we tend to use native species of trees for forestry in North America is because they are the best available in terms of productivity and wood quality. In other regions this is not the case. Radiata pine from California has been very successful in New Zealand, Australia, and Chile. Eucalyptus from Australia is the forestry species of choice in many parts of Brazil, Portugal and South Africa. Douglas-fir from Oregon has become the number two species of softwood produced in France. And Chinese larch is a favorite for reforestation in Scotland where forest cover was lost centuries ago to sheep farming.

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

The Invisible Poisons

Beginning with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s scare tactics about the use of the pesticide Alar on apples, the environmental movement has been very clever at inventing campaigns that make us afraid of our food. They conjure up invisible poisons that will give us cancer, birth defects, mutations, and otherwise kill us in our sleep. We will all soon be reduced to an hermaphroditic frenzy by endocrine mimicking compounds as we approach the Toxic Saturation Point.

Meanwhile, the National Cancer Institute of Canada conducted a joint study with U.S. counterparts beginning in 1994 to investigate the possible relationship between pesticide residues in food and cancer in humans. The findings published in the peer-reviewed journal “Cancer” in 1997, concluded that it could not find “any definitive evidence to suggest that synthetic pesticides contribute significantly to overall cancer mortality”, a careful way of saying they found zero connection. And yet, the article pointed out, over 30 percent of cancers in humans are caused by tobacco, a natural substance. And another 35 percent are caused by poor diet, mainly too much fat and cholesterol and not enough fresh fruit and vegetables. The main effect of the environmental campaign against pesticides is to scare parents into avoiding fresh fruit and vegetables for themselves and their children.

The same kind of scare tactics are now being employed in the campaign against biotechnology and genetically modified foods. Even though there is no evidence of negative human health effects and environmental concerns are blown completely out of proportion, great fear has been whipped up in the public. Large corporations are in retreat and governments are scrambling to get control of the issue. Unfortunately, some biotechnology companies and associations continue to belittle public concerns and resist disclosure of food ingredients. There is no escaping the fact that this is a new technology and that it must be introduced carefully and sometimes slowly. And public concerns, even when unfounded, must be taken seriously.

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

To simplify matters, the debate on biotechnology is about whether this science is, in the balance, positive or negative for human health and the environment.

It is unfortunate that the term “biotechnology” has come to be synonymous with “genetic engineering” or “GMO’s”. Biotechnology is a very broad term used to describe all aspects of new technologies applied to living things. This includes advances in human and veterinary medicine, pest control, crop production and nutrition. Unlike some other aspects of biotechnology, genetic modification is a form of biological rather than chemical intervention. In other words, genetic engineering is an organic science.

It amazes me that in a few short years the molecular biologists that were hailed as crusaders in a new genetic revolution are now reviled and characterised as mad scientists in the grip of greedy corporations bent on destroying the environment. At the WTO conference in Seattle in 1999 we were warned that “entire countries will be held in biological bondage. Genetic engineering will become a biological weapon used for agro-terrorism.” The public is given a fearful impression with images of Frankenstein foods, killer tomatoes, and terminator seeds. Is it any co-incidence that all three of these images are taken directly from scary Hollywood movies? I believe that the campaign of fear now waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic. In the balance it is clear that the real benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the hypothetical and often contrived risks claimed by its detractors.

Certainly any science or technology can be used for destructive purposes. We already have the ability to annihilate ourselves with physics, in the form of nuclear weapons, with chemistry, in the form of chemical weapons, and with biology, in the form of deadly microbes. I suppose it might be possible to increase the effectiveness of biological weapons with genetic modification, but as far as I am aware there is no need to do so. The ones we have already are more than capable of wiping us out.

Environmentalism for the 21st Century

But the programs of genetic research and development now underway in labs and field stations around the world is entirely about benefiting society and the environment. Its purpose is to improve nutrition, to reduce the use of synthetic chemicals, to increase the productivity of our farmlands and forests, and to improve human health. Those who have adopted a zero-tolerance attitude towards genetic modification threaten to deny these many benefits by playing on fear of the unknown and fear of change.

Many in the anti-biotech movement focus on the issue of corporate control. This is an entirely different subject than the science of genetic modification itself. Corporate control in the form of monopoly can occur in any sector. But, for example, just because Microsoft is alleged to have a monopoly over computer operating systems doesn’t mean we should all throw our computers in the garbage or demand that computers be banned. The technology itself must be analysed and judged separately from the institutional framework that is used to deliver that technology. And, unless we wish to dismantle all the laws relating to intellectual property there will continue to be proprietary rights in new developments, thus requiring an element of control. This is generally accepted as beneficial in that it encourages innovation and competition.

The so-called “precautionary principle” is constantly invoked as an argument for banning genetic modification. Whatever the precautionary principle means, it is not that we should stop learning and applying that knowledge in the real world. We will never know everything and it is impossible to create a world with zero risk. The real question, as so ably put by Indur M. Goklany in “Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically Modified Crops”, is whether the risks of banning genetic modification are greater or less than the risks of pursuing it. Of course, if we pursue genetic modification, or any other new technology, it must be done with great care and caution. This results in the adoption of a precautionary “approach” or a precautionary “attitude” rather than treating it as a “principle”. The daily example of crossing the street is sufficient to explain the difference between the two interpretations. If we would only cross the street when we had a 100% certainty that nothing would go wrong during the crossing we would never leave the curb. But that doesn’t mean we should cross without pausing and looking both ways before venturing into the roadway.