Dick Taverne recently argued in Prospect that Greenpeace had joined the anti-science camp. Not soby Stephen Tindale / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Greenpeace bashing has become part of the intellectual zeitgeist. In December, Prospect ran Dick Taverne’s forceful polemic against the organisation. In April, we had Michael Shaw Bond on the NGO backlash, which seemed to be fostering rather than explaining it. Elsewhere in this issue you can find Philippe Legrain arguing that “Greenpeace is scarcely accountable to its 2.5m members.” For much of the 1990s the fashion was to write off politics and laud the contribution of “civil society.” Now perhaps the roles are reversed: we’ve done anti-politics; now let’s do anti-Greenpeace.
Taverne makes some odd claims. He compares Greenpeace to animal rights activists “whose bigotry has led them to abandon all concern for the law, life or property.” In fact, Greenpeace takes non-violent direct action based on the Quaker concept of “bearing witness” against acts which one condemns. Balaclava-clad hit squads carrying out violent attacks are not in this tradition. He also suggests that “Greenpeace is in some ways our equivalent of the religious right in the US.” Fundamentalism and environmentalism are said to share an “anti-science dogma.” Greenpeace is accused of employing “the logic of those who burned witches.” You can turn this around-the alternative to science is portrayed as superstition or paganism; and the term “anti-science” deployed in the manner of de Torquemada uttering the word “heretic.”
But is there any substance to the charge that Greenpeace has “moved decisively into the anti-science camp”? Greenpeace has never based its campaigns solely on science. Cartesian science strips everything down to cold logic: there is no room for ethics or emotion. We believe, in contrast, that there is a moral basis for our defence of the natural world. Moreover, science has a record of overconfidence in the ability of the environment to withstand our assaults-from the insistence that overfishing could not deplete the north Atlantic cod stocks, to the claim that use of chemical pesticides would not lead to loss of wildlife. Scientific claims should be assessed rationally, not treated as beyond criticism.
One of Greenpeace’s central campaigns over the past decade has been on climate change. This has been a largely science-based campaign, pushing politicians towards action on the basis of the analysis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by the world’s top climate scientists. The anti-science has come from the climate sceptics, generally connected to the free-market right. Greenpeace’s proposed solution is hardly anti-science either. You…