Environment360: Why Are Environmentalists Taking Anti-Science Positions?
On issues ranging from genetically modified crops to nuclear power, environmentalists are increasingly refusing to listen to scientific arguments that challenge standard green positions. This approach risks weakening the environmental movement and empowering climate contrarians.
From Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
to James Hansen’s modern-day tales of climate apocalypse,
environmentalists have long looked to good science and good scientists
and embraced their findings. Often we have had to run hard to keep up
with the crescendo of warnings coming out of academia about the perils
facing the world. A generation ago, biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and systems analysts Dennis and Donella Meadows’ The Limits to Growth
shocked us with their stark visions of where the world was headed. No
wide-eyed greenie had predicted the opening of an ozone hole before the
pipe-smoking boffins of the British Antarctic Survey spotted it when
looking skyward back in 1985. On issues ranging from ocean acidification
and tipping points in the Arctic to the dangers of nanotechnology, the
scientists have always gotten there first — and the environmentalists
And yet, recently, the environment movement seems to have been turning up on the wrong side of the scientific argument. We have been making claims that simply do not stand up. We are accused of being anti-science — and not without reason. A few, even close friends, have begun to compare this casual contempt for science with the tactics of climate contrarians.
That should hurt.
Three current issues suggest that the risks of myopic adherence to ideology over rational debate are real: genetically modified (GM) crops, nuclear power, and shale gas development. The conventional green position is that we should be opposed to all three. Yet the voices of those with genuine environmental credentials, but who take a different view, are being drowned out by sometimes abusive and irrational argument. ...
The environmental movement is a diverse coalition of people. You can't make a blanket statement about any movement this large. There are two significant groups that make up this coalition that I expect explain this inconsistency between embracing science on some things and not on others.
First, I think there is a segment that is simply anti-technological, anti-21st Century living. They have a natural aversion to much of 21st Century existence and want to return to a far less technological (read "natural") existence. That climate science (and the frequently attached moralism about the evils of consumerism) would dovetail with their ideology of bucolic bliss is a welcomed happenstance. It gives legitimization to their cause against those who embrace the modern socio-economic order. GM crops and nuclear power do just the opposite. These would enable the current despised structures to continue and grow. Thus, their embrace of climate change science has little to do with a rigorous understanding and commitment to science.
Second, there is another segment that sees economic freedom as unjust and destructive and wants more centralized control over the global economy. Climate science can be effectively be used to support that vision. The case is made that our current competing economies are leading us to global catastrophe. Political and economic freedom need to be curtailed on a global scale by centralized authorities who will rationally manage world affairs. GM crops and nuclear power offer the opportunity to adapt to current challenges without a significant reordering of the world order. Once again, the commitment is not so much to science as it is to using science as debate tool to achieve an ideological end.
I'm not saying that these are by any means the only two groups backing environmental measures. I am saying that these are two groups that do have meaningful influence on what happens within the environmental movement.
An author who makes a case in book length form, similar to what Fred Pearce is making here, is Seymour Garte in Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet. He is another scientist who is fully persuaded about anthropogenic global warming. He is optimistic about solutions but sees the anti-science, anti-technology, crowd as a real problem.