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Newsletter 17th August 2007

The politics of environmentalism

The environmental movement has achieved much over the last few decades. Much of this can be dated from the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, and the formation of Greenpeace in 1971 marks the effective birth of organised, high profile activism. From these beginnings, in less than half a century, environmentalism has become mainstream. In the industrialised world, air and water quality has improved tremendously, recycling rates have steadily improved, and European farmers are paid for conservancy work rather than just growing food. By any standards, this degree of change is a major achievement.

But successful organisations don’t just fold when they have achieved their aims: they find new causes and new goals. Having established their influence, they are loathe to lose it. The original term NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) has increasingly been replaced by CSO (Civil Society Organisation). Under this guise, these unelected bodies are viewed by politicians as legitimate representatives of public opinion. However, worldwide membership of Greenpeace is believed to be less than 3 million, well down from its peak in the early 90s. The nature conservancy body with by far the largest membership in the UK is the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), with around one million members. Clearly, these are significant organisations, but such membership numbers still categorise them as minority groups.

But their continued influence belies the figures. In the USA, things are different; business lobbies are very powerful and environmentalists do not take priority. In Europe, this is certainly not the case. The doors of politicians and policymakers are wide open to environmentalists, with businesses often having much less access. And the results are clear to see in the spread of ever more stringent and precautionary legislation.

The furore created over GM crops resulted in a complex and barely-workable legislative framework, with no evidence that the public is any the safer for it. The REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Approval of Chemicals) regulation is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, demanding safety testing of a wide range of chemicals in everyday use (and requiring the use of tens of thousands more laboratory animals). And current proposals for revision of the already tough European directive on pesticides would see decisions being made on the basis of hazard rather than scientific risk assessment. Avoidance of all risk seems to be the aim, with no weighing of this against the benefits. To make matters worse, decisions are made by politicians rather than on the advice of experts.

They have achieved so much in part because they are believers in a cause, and don’t necessarily let facts get in the way of achieving their ends. Greenpeace infamously prevented Shell from doing the environmentally sound thing of sinking the Brent Spar oil rig in the ocean and forced them instead to dismantle it on shore. In this case, they apologised later for giving false information, but were apparently still pleased to have achieved their victory. In the case of agriculture, all sorts of partial, selective or misleading data is quoted while anything not supporting the case is ignored. A prime example was a Greenpeace/Soil Association study claiming that GM crops were a failure in North America, on the basis of interviews with a few dozen disgruntled farmers and activists, while acreage was actually growing rapidly year on year.

The reason we have reached this position is that the values of the environmentalist movement are also part of the makeup of many politicians and civil servants. At the same time, there seems to be increasing distrust of business and the profit motive. No matter that it is overwhelmingly the private sector that creates wealth and – directly and indirectly – funds the revenue streams which governments need, the business lobby is seen as intrinsically selfish and greedy. On the other hand, environmental lobby groups, as well as enjoying their unwarranted position as the voice of public opinion, are deemed to have pure and unselfish motives.

This, of course, is a caricature. In practice, a wary and distrustful population does not believe everything which Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth may say, but they tend to distrust governments and businesses even more, at least according to public opinion surveys. But this imbalance tips the scales in favour of the NGOs (sorry, CSOs) and their influence on policy. We have even seen recently that Friends of the Earth Europe receives half its funding from the European Union, and then spends this money lobbying the very institutions who provided it.

Big Environmentalism represents vested interests every bit as much as does the business lobby. Their motives may be different but they are no purer. At heart, they want power and influence so that they can shape policy to their liking. They are politicians by any other name, but they remain unelected. Despite the good things the movement has helped to achieve in the past, their influence now is surely too strong if we want rational, balanced policymaking to be the norm.