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Breaking ranks on environmental issues

This week saw the London premiere of Pandora’s Promise, a US-made documentary film first shown at this year’s Sundance festival.  It puts the case for nuclear energy while challenging the anti-nuclear stance of many environmentalists. Not surprisingly, this seems to have attracted a degree of controversy, not least because of two high profile British environmentalists who appeared in the film and also spoke at the premiere.

Stephen Tindale worked in various think tank and political roles (including as special adviser to the then Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Meacher) before becoming Executive Director of Greenpeace UK in 2001. He stepped down in 2005 because he thought his pro-nuclear stance was incompatible with the Greenpeace position.

Mark Lynas, like Tindale, was a long-term critic of nuclear energy until he had his own Damascene conversion. But this is not his only such change of mind on a key element of belief for most of the mainstream environmentalist movement. He has begun very publicly to speak in favour of GM crops, having previously played an active role in campaigning against them and even taking part in trashing of field trials.

Both Lynas and Tindale have come in for criticism from other environmental activists, some of whom clearly see them both as traitors to be despised. This reaction is the same as for Greenpeace member Bjorn Lomborg who suffered a full onslaught, including being investigated for fraudulent science, when he had the temerity to write The Skeptical Environmentalist, questioning what he called the ‘litany’ of encroaching disasters espoused by mainstream green groups.

This behaviour is worrying since it implies that there is only one ‘right’ set of opinions on a range of issues. The implication is that you either hold all these or risk being shunned by your former allies. This is not healthy and speaks of a narrow mindset which brooks no challenge. It runs the spectrum from the inevitable groupthink which discourages dissent to total hostility to criticism.

Lynas, Tindale and Lomborg are not the only high-profile figures to have had a change of heart on key tenets of faith for the mainstream environmentalist movement. George Monbiot, a long-standing contributor to the Guardian and James Lovelock, elder statesman of UK environmentalism, have both come to the conclusion that nuclear energy is part of the solution to what they see as the climate change crisis. What they once rejected they now see as a necessary evil.

These changes of heart nicely illustrate several points. The first is that conversions are, by and large, based on a gradual build-up of evidence which finally tips the balance of opinion for an individual. In most cases, this seems to have occurred quite gradually, although doubtlessly the final tipping point might be determined by something specific. Stephen Tindale, for example, seems to have seen the benefits of nuclear energy for some time before leaving Greenpeace because he felt his views were inconsistent with their policies (for more, see this clip from Pandora’s Promise).

Similarly, Bjorn Lomborg based his book The Skeptical Environmentalist on the research done by his graduate students to gather information on some of the key tenets of modern environmentalism. Expecting to find the evidence to support the view that many aspects of the environment were being badly damaged, he found a much brighter picture and so wrote his iconoclastic book.

Again in the case of nuclear, Mark Lynas seems to have had his change of mind over an extended period, “growing up hating nuclear power” but later concluding that it was actually the obvious answer to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and thereby fight what he sees as the real danger of climate change (Nuclear power support from former sceptic Mark Lynas).

Lynas is also well known for a dramatic change of heart on GM crops. He had a radical beginning, being part of the activist group Earth First!, cofounding the Corporate Watch magazine and taking playing a leading role in anti-Monsanto activities.  In 2001, he infamously threw a custard pie at the ‘treacherous’ Bjorn Lomborg. But his doubts about some of the iconic causes – and also the intolerance of radical activists – started during that decade, sparked by the 2000 May Day riots, which, despite his active involvement, he felt had been a disaster, displaying the violent side of protest.

His very public falling out with his erstwhile comrades can be marked from his defence of both nuclear energy and GMOs in a November 2010 Channel 4 documentary (What the Green Movement Got Wrong). But what really brought him into the public eye was a speech in support of GM crops in January this year at the Oxford Farming Conference. The Observer carried an insightful interview with him a couple of months later (Mark Lynas: truth, treachery and GM food).

George Monbiot has become a supporter of nuclear energy for pretty much the same reasons as Mark Lynas (nevertheless, he fell out with him following his 2010 Channel 4 appearance). James Lovelock, writer of apocalyptic books on how global warming will all but wipe out humanity, has always seen nuclear as one of the few technological options to minimise its impact. More recently, he has agreed that he had been too alarmist about the impact of global warming (‘I made a mistake’: Gaia theory scientist James Lovelock admits he was ‘alarmist’ about the impact of climate change). Given that he had previously written “Before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”, this is reassuring to know.

It would be good to think that the modern environmentalist movement has become a broad enough church to accommodate people who care passionately about the natural world and yet differ in their opinions on controversial topics. Unfortunately, these more open-minded individuals too often find themselves vilified and ostracised by the mainstream. The green movement has been very successful, but its lack of tolerance for dissent does not bode well for its future. 

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