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Constructive environmentalism

Greenpeace had its origins in Vancouver in the late 1960s, initially to protest against a US underground nuclear test on the Alaskan island of Amchitka. For Europeans, it came into prominence during the mid-70s, when a high-profile campaign against whaling started. From its Canadian beginnings, similar groups were set up in other countries, which then all came under the auspices of (Amsterdam-based) Greenpeace International in 1979.

From these beginnings, the organisation has become like many other multinational corporations, with subsidiaries adopting consistent positions on a range of issues, based on centralised policymaking. While still opposing nuclear weapons (and nuclear power) and whaling, a range of other issues are covered, including deforestation, chemical pollution, the Arctic, genetically modified crops and climate change.

Like any other organisation, Greenpeace can only focus its energies on a limited number of issues at any time. Not surprisingly, much of the current emphasis is on the closely-related topics of climate change and energy. But, while their argument for an expansion of clean, green energy has for now been broadly accepted by political and scientific Establishments across Europe, the message seems not to go down so well in developing countries. This week, for example, we read that India denounces Greenpeace in battle over energy.

To quote from the story: “India has branded Greenpeace a threat to its economic security amid fears that the environmental pressure group wants to derail the new government’s plans to expand coal-fired power generation to ease the country’s energy shortages….The report, presented to the office of Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, said that Greenpeace protests against nuclear and coal power, as well as lobbying campaigns against mining, had curbed India’s GDP growth by as much as 2-3 per cent.”

Greenpeace, of course, sees things differently. According to their director of communications “Greenpeace is not a threat to India’s growth and the economy…We campaign for growth that does not come at the expense of the environment. This is growth for who, and for whose benefit?”

The crux of the argument is therefore about the nature of economic development, with environmental and development NGOs tending to share a common vision of emerging economies adopting a different path of growth to that already travelled by today’s rich countries. Key aspects of this include greater respect for the environment, a move away from both fossil fuels and nuclear energy and a desire for a more egalitarian society.

At one extreme, this vision sees human beings as a threat to the planet and would like to see a smaller global population (a thread which runs through much of the environmentalist movement). Even its mainstream adherents would like to see today’s rural poor continuing to farm in traditional ways, but with greater food security and in more comfort. But this is not necessarily what those living in poverty actually want. Neither is it necessarily what is best for the environment in the longer term.

Traditional, extensive farming often does little to maintain soil fertility. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalisation, but low-yielding, degraded, eroded farmland is all too common. Promoting better practices has an important role, but there is little prospect of sustained improvement without better seeds, fertiliser and effective means of crop protection, and they cost money.

Educated people in productive jobs can help economies to grow while earning more to support their families. Those who are trapped in a life of manual labour on the farm, long journeys to fetch water and firewood and cooking on inefficient and polluting open fires cannot afford to send their children to school. Those who have piped water, clean cooking facilities and better farming methods can.

Some of these educated children will grow up and become part of the trend to rapid urbanisation; life may not be great in some developing country cities, but people continue to be attracted to them because of the greater opportunities they offer. These cities can only function properly if they have an assured power supply. It is a fact of life at present that coal, gas and nuclear are the only sources of energy which can provide a secure, affordable and reliable supply. To try to prevent their use in India or any other developing country is not just to slow the rate of growth, but also to reduce the future prospects of whole swathes of the population.

This is not to say that environmentalist NGOs do not have a role to play. It is partly thanks to them that air and water quality has improved markedly for many of us in Europe over the last half century. Governments always need lobby groups to make the case for certain action, but it is important that no one lobby dominates policy in a particular area.

Economic development enriches societies and individuals, but inevitably can have some negative consequences which can and must be tackled. Mining or drilling causes local disruption, but this can be contained and minimised. Burning coal pollutes the air, but flue gases can be cleaned using well-established technology. Roads and house-building encroach on wildlife habitats, but making agriculture more productive can allow other natural areas to be preserved.

In more prosperous societies, protection of the environment is a matter of higher priority than in countries where the focus is simply on subsistence. Greenpeace should continue to campaign for environmental protection, but not at the expense of economic development. Taking a stand against conventional and nuclear power stations is misguided. Working to minimise their impact on people and the environment would be better for everyone. 

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7 October 2015; Letter in The Times on the safety of low doses of radiation, as Chernobyl becomes a wildlife haven.