Greens get real

Once there was cause for alarm about the environment, but no longer, claims Gregg Easterbrook; the greens can now go home. Not so.
August 19, 1997

It is hard not to be impressed by Gregg Easterbrook's book, in all its elegant and learned 700-page gigantism. Here is a man with something to say and ample wherewithal to say it. It brims with confidence and pokes the environmentalist (like this one) firmly in the eye.

All the environmental problems you care to think of, and many you would rather not, are wheeled out and skilfully disembowelled; from the A of acid rain through biotechnology, chemical hazards, desertification, forest die-back and global warming, to the Z of a Dr Karl Zinsmeister's obscure opinions on farming. But if you thought the patient was sick, be reassured. Examine the entrails and exult: be shown toxic waste dumps heaving with wildlife; radiation leaks which are safer than an X-ray; squadrons of spotted owls in woods where they are allegedly extinct; acid rain improving the breeding performance of trout; and air so pure, even in an LA gridlock, that our grandparents would gasp.

Not that there has been no abuse of the planet. The human is an intemperate and often ignorant animal, guilty of all manner of ecological misdemeanours during its short tenure of the world. But any sin humanity has committed against nature-or, with the exception of nuclear war, is yet capable of committing-is small beer compared to nature's own slings and arrows and the earth's self-inflicted wounds. Killer asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, tumultuous upheaval of the earth's tectonic plates: all have wiped out thousands of species and brought rapid or even instantaneous environmental change. Yet life goes on. The earth is robust, able to laugh off the soundest thrashing with the largest cosmic stick.

If the line of argument sounds familiar, that is probably because it is-popularised by a small and clever group of right-wing journalists writing witty books about the red-green conspiracy. Easterbrook is certainly as readable as any. But just as you settle back to enjoy him as the best of contrarians, he pulls you up short. The world may be safe and getting safer; yet still "ecological consciousness is a leading force for good in world affairs. Without the imperatives of modern environmentalism-without its three decades of unstinting pressure on government and industry-the western world today might actually be in the kind of ecological difficulty conventional wisdom assumes it to be in."

This differs from much contrarian analysis, because it acknowledges that there has been serious cause for concern-and therefore a purpose to environmentalism. But it is over. Relax, greens, and go home; your day is done: "The western world today is on the verge of the greatest ecological renewal that humankind has ever known; perhaps the greatest that the earth has known."

Not so fast. In the real world, much is getting worse. In Britain, car travel is booming: it has nearly doubled since 1970. Rail travel costs nearly twice as much as then, motoring significantly less. More of our food comes air-freight and shrink-wrapped. More kids have allergies and asthma, fewer men have viable sperm counts. The ozone layer gets thinner and the fish in our seas get fewer. Deserts grow and forests shrink. Eight of the ten warmest years on record were since 1980.

Not much of an ecological renewal there, although in many of these cases-perhaps, as Easterbrook claims, in most-we have the technology to begin one. The last 20 years have seen huge leaps in resource-conserving and clean production, and more is on the way. We know what to do and how to do it, yet still we turn our backs.

We know that most of the world's cities are rendered immeasurably nastier by the minority who clog the streets with cars, in preference to less polluting public transport. Yet still we lavish the polluters with public subsidy-as in the west London borough where I live, which in the last five years has spent over 200 times more in catering for motor vehicles than for cyclists.

We know that in Britain we pay hundreds of millions of pounds each year to remove pesticides and other agro-chemicals from our drinking water. We could save that money, transform our countryside, reap huge benefits for wildlife and animal welfare and improve public health, if we supported organic farming. This is no secret; yet last year Britain spent several hundred times more on chemical farming than it did on biological.

It is common knowledge that British households could cut energy use by over a quarter with no disadvantage. We also know that we have the highest incidence of hypothermia of all European countries (although we are by no means the coldest), and that home insulation saves money and means fewer hospital beds filled by the old and cold. We know it; yet still domestic energy consumption rises.

No need for environmentalists? A different form of environmentalism, perhaps: new strategies for old goals. And the movement has changed. It is an unfortunate fact for caricaturists such as Easterbrook, but the contemporary environmental campaigner bears little resemblance to the bearded doomsayer of his vignettes. There is good cause for optimism-and to portray the entire environmental movement as a ragged band of incorrigible pessimists is wide of the mark. If anything, it is the reverse.

The latest stage of environmentalism, the so-called "third phase," is designedly optimistic. There are solutions and it is the job of the concerned to popularise them. "The world has changed significantly since the mid-1980s," argues Chris Rose, head of campaigns at Greenpeace, in a paper published earlier this year. "The then conventional model of campaigning in which 'issues' were raised and defined through the media, in order to get results delivered through the political process, is no longer sufficient." Business has become an important factor in environmental campaigning. Governments have retreated from responsibility-and even where they do try to act, the public increasingly questions their competence. Popular faith in public institutions is in decline, with an inverse rise of "unpolitics" and "disorganisations," where outcomes are determined with public involvement and without the leadership of politicians.

Greenpeace is a case in point. Their greenfreeze refrigeration units, based on hydrocarbons, were dismissed five years ago by the UK department of the environment as "ill-considered," if not positively dangerous. Today this is becoming the dominant technology for air conditioning, coolers and domestic fridges. There is the Smile car, a 3-litre model with a difference: a small engine, which takes it 100km on 3 litres of fuel (or about 100 miles per gallon). There are low energy light bulbs; chlorine-free paper; and unbleached organic cotton fabrics. And there is the huge potential of photo-voltaic solar energy, which could power the earth-and the studious neglect of most energy suppliers.

"Greenpeace tries, through technical and mainly market mechanisms, to force the development and uptake of innovative, usually suppressed technologies which contribute significantly to reducing or eliminating environmental problems," says Rose. No sound of the doomsayer there.

This is the authentic voice of contemporary thinking greens, a voice heard also from Britain's most successful new environmental organisation, Forum for the Future, founded by three of our leading campaigners (Sara Parkin, Jonathon Porritt and Paul Ekins) with exactly this intent. It is the central message of another triumvirate of heavy-weights, Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins and Ernst von Weizs??cker, in their new book Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use. "Factor four... means that resource productivity can-and should-grow fourfold. The amount of wealth extracted from one unit of natural resources can quadruple. Thus we can live twice as well-yet use half as much."

Few in business or government now deny the environmental imperative-although as we saw last month in New York (and again in Gordon Brown's first budget), many still refuse to act. But the environmentalist's job has changed. No longer just warning; now helping to achieve. And the new task-some measure of recent successes-is to ensure that green considerations are now fully integrated into decision-making. That does not mean the old campaigning role has been completely superceded; it has, rather, become more sophisticated.

Take politics. Environmental and quality of life issues showed as serious second order public concerns in all the opinion polls before the recent election-not up there with health, crime, jobs, education and the economy, but prominent in the next layer. Yet despite unprecedented lobbying by campaign groups, the environment hardly featured as an issue-because politicians chose not to let it.

Take institutional investment, where the term "fiduciary duty" is taken to mean profit-maximising behaviour, irrespective of environmental or social impact. Or personal investment, where the rules for professional advisers carefully steer around any suggestion that ethics could feature alongside yield and risk as criteria which might influence consumer decisions.

Take international trade, where three years after the signing of the Gatt at Marrakech, domestic environment and consumer standards are being challenged under the WTO, and discussions in its committee on trade and the environment remain deadlocked.

Take energy markets, where profit equates to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Or take national accounts which, in the ultimate absurdity, remain heedless of the value of environmental capital.

In all these areas and more, environmental factors are separated from decision-making and considered-if they are considered at all-when everything else is settled. In other words, too late to make a difference. The new environmental agenda is integrationist: decision-making is better when the environment is taken into account. It is not atavistic; it speeds up progress.

"Love Nature? Learn science and speak logic" is Easterbrook's epigrammatic critique. It is aimed at environmentalists. Ironically, it summarises their case.
A moment on the earth

Gregg Easterbrook

Penguin 1996, ?9.99