Source: BBC Radio 4: Analysis
Date: 25/01/2010
Event: Justin Rowlatt presents Analysis: Are Environmentalists Bad for the Planet?
Also see: January 31: BBC Radio 4: Roger Bolton discusses feedback to: Are Environmentalists Bad for the Planet?

  • Tom CromptonChange Strategist, WWF
  • Lord Anthony Giddens: Sociologist
  • John Gummer: Conservative member of the House of Lords, former Environment Secretary
  • Professor Mike HulmeProfessor of Climate Change, UEA
  • Martin Palmer: Theologian
  • Jonathon Porritt: Former chairman of FoE, the Green Party and the Sustainable Development Commission
  • Justin Rowlatt: BBC presenter and "Ethical Man"
  • John Sauven: Greenpeace director
  • Andrew Simms: Policy director, New Economics Foundation
  • Solitaire Townsend: Co-founder and Chief Executive of Futerra Sustainability Communications

Justin RowlattA couple of years ago I was given a very unusual job. I became the BBC’s Ethical Man.  My family and I were asked to spend an entire year exploring what we could do to tackle global warming. We gave up the car, stopped flying for a year, turned down the thermostat - everything we could think of to cut our carbon emissions. Because I thought that was what tackling global warming was all about. But the more time I’ve spent talking to people in the green movement, the more I’ve come to suspect that cutting carbon emissions isn’t the top priority for all green campaigners. What worries me is that the political objectives of some greens seem to override their interest in solving global warming. Solitaire Townsend runs a city PR firm, but one which specialises in communicating a single issue: 

Solitaire Townsend: I was making a speech to nearly 200 really hard core, deep environmentalists and I played a little thought game on them. I said imagine I am the carbon fairy and I wave a magic wand. We can get rid of all the carbon in the atmosphere, take it down to two hundred fifty parts per million and I will ensure with my little magic wand that we do not go above two degrees of global warming. However, by waving my magic wand I will be interfering with the laws of physics not with people – they will be as selfish, they will be as desiring of status. The cars will get bigger, the houses will get bigger, the planes will fly all over the place but there will be no climate change. And I asked them, would you ask the fairy to wave its magic wand? And about 2 people of the 200 raised their hands.
Justin Rowlatt: That is quite shocking. I bet you were shocked, weren’t you? 

Solitaire Townsend: I was angry. I wasn’t shocked. I was angry because it really showed that they wanted more. They didn’t just want to prevent climate change. They wanted to somehow change people, or at very least for people to know that they had to change.

Justin Rowlatt: I noticed early on in my year of living ethically that all sorts of the advice you get from greens has little if anything to do with tackling global warming. Organic food, for example, is often more carbon intensive to produce than super-efficient industrial agriculture; locally produced goods can sometimes have a higher carbon foot print than imported goods. Greens are concerned about these other objectives because the environmental movement has been around a lot longer than the climate issue indeed most of its preoccupations and themes predate it, says the sociologist Lord Anthony Giddens.  
Anthony Giddens: Greens have their origin in the idea of conservation. But I think as the movement has flourished, it’s picked up on other notions for example issues like passivism, radical decentralisation, what they call ecological wisdom, the wisdom of the earth. You know - interesting values, but to me nothing much to do with climate change really. Just a sort of historical residue of the way in which the Green Movement developed. 

Justin Rowlatt: The movement originated as a response to the experience of industrialization in the nineteenth century. The term “green” was only adopted after the Second World War when the development of new and more pernicious technologies prompted the flourishing of the modern environmental movement, initially in Germany. Professor Mike Hulme is the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and is now Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia. Like me he’s concerned that some of the belief systems popular amongst environmentalists might work against the effort to tackle climate change. Concepts like the precautionary principle – a key idea developed by modern greens. 

Mike Hulme: The idea of precaution is one that has emerged particularly strongly in Western societies over the last 40 years; that the burden of proof on anyone wanting to introduce any new form of technology is to demonstrate that it is safe rather than the onus is on those who challenge the technology to show that it is dangerous. These are quite deeply held instincts that make people, I think, resistant to certain forms of technological solution. 

Justin Rowlatt: The precautionary principle enshrines a very conservative attitude to risk – technologies should be rejected unless it can be proved that they will not harm the biosphere or humans.  Its central place in green thinking explains why the campaign against nuclear power - and, more recently, genetic engineering - became such a key focus for the movement.  For decades many environmentalists 
were almost solely preoccupied with trying to shut down the nuclear industry. But the scale and urgency of the challenge of tackling global warming is a game changer says Lord Giddens – and it forces not just the green movement but all politicians to reconsider their priorities.

Anthony Giddens: It’s different from any political issue we’ve had to face before because the emissions, greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming - once they’re in the atmosphere, we don’t know how to get them out again and they’re likely to be there for centuries. So it’s quite different for example from global poverty. You can say global poverty’s very bad, and it is. If you still have global poverty in 2050, it’s still very bad. But in the case of climate change, if we don’t make radical interventions now, by 2050 the world looks pretty catastrophic. So it’s quite different from other forms of political issue. It has a here and now quality to it, which demands a sort of marriage between a little strand of utopianism - but with a big dose of realism.

Justin Rowlatt: The urgency and scale of the climate issue fundamentally alter the risk calculation in relation to technology. In the face of such a catastrophic danger might it be sensible – even prudent – to take some risks?  John Gummer is a Conservative MP and former Environment Minister.  He is also a passionate green campaigner.  He says greens of all political hues need to take a more practical approach to technology if it can deliver the carbon cuts that tackling global warming requires.  And that means a reassessment of the green attitudes to the risks of nuclear power - one of the very few low-carbon technologies that can provide dependable electricity on an industrial scale.   

John Gummer: You can understand why quite a lot of people have a worry about it. I mean after all people wanted to stop Stephenson’s rocket on the basis that it would kill all the cows as it went past because it was moving too fast. But, on the other hand, if you had stopped Stephenson’s rocket, just imagine what a different world you’d have had. Genetic modification could be very damaging, but it could be very important. Let’s stop demonising it. It’s a kind of medieval attitude towards knowledge and the same is true about nuclear power. I think it’s an important interim technology. It’s not perfect, it’s got all sorts of disadvantages, but the fact of the matter is if you don’t have it, you’re going to say to people that they’ve got not to have the energy that they need.

Justin Rowlatt: So climate change sets the familiar nuclear debate in a completely new context. Indeed nuclear power might be considered a kind of admittedly very imperfect carbon fairy.  So here’s my little thought game:  in the face of the catastrophic risk posed by global warming might greens be willing to consider the use of nuclear power as an interim technology as we move towards a low carbon world? That’s what the British government is proposing with its plans for ten new nuclear power plants.  I posed the question to Greenpeace director John Sauven. 

John Sauven: Well, I think we’ve made our position quite clear on this. What were going to be doing is pushing first energy efficiency, second renewables, third supporting some of the other technologies that are around in terms of the need to be tested to find out whether they work or not as a priority because  But you haven’t answered my question. Would you try and stop low carbon nuclear power stations being built in Britain. Well, by promoting what we think are better priorities, we are by implication trying to stop what we think shouldn’t be a priority and promoting what we think should be a priority.

Justin Rowlatt: But promoting alternatives is one thing. Actively opposing something is obviously. 

John Sauven: Well, we're quite clear. We’ve actively opposed nuclear power. 

Justin Rowlatt: One of the points about Greenpeace is that you go beyond the simple arguments and you’ll take direct action you’ll actively try to disrupt, for example, the building of coal-fired power stations. Would you do the same for nuclear power stations? 

John Sauven: Well, er, I can’t say what we will or will not do in the future. 

Justin Rowlatt: Why not?! 

John Sauven: In terms of direct action. We don’t have any plans for direct action so I don’t know the answer to that. 

Justin Rowlatt: But in principle you must discuss your attitudes to these things. 

John Sauven: Well we’ve made our position on nuclear power quite clear. We will do all in our power to oppose nuclear power, but what I’m saying is that most of our effort, most of our concentration is actually going on, promoting what we think should be on the Government's agenda in terms of how to build a low-carbon economy and that means energy efficiency, renewable energy and so on.

Justin Rowlatt: Nuclear power might cut carbon emissions but of course it brings with it the risk of a Chernobyl style disaster. Perhaps, by expecting Greenpeace to be less equivocal about its position on nuclear power – I’m being something of a climate change fundamentalist – allowing my desire to tackle global warming to override all other environmental concerns. But I suspect that their lack of willingness 
to embrace nuclear power is based on a prejudice against the high tech. Jonathon Porritt has been chairman of Friends of the Earth, the Green Party and the Sustainable Development Commission. He thinks my approach is a little naive. 

Jonathon Porritt: The idea that there are huge numbers of environmental activists out there who are anti-technology is just a myth that the nuclear industry and the GM industry love to persuade people like you that that’s the story. It’s not, it is not.  And I’ve made it very clear you can’t do this business about creating a sustainable world for 9 billion people without massive investment in new technology.

Justin Rowlatt: But, Jonathon Porritt warns against putting too much faith in the potential for nuclear power or indeed any technology to solve global warming.

Jonathon Porritt: But is it true to say that it’s the emission of greenhouse gases that is the root problem behind climate change?  You see I don’t believe that.

Justin Rowlatt: Well that is what the science says though, isn’t it?

Jonathon Porritt: Yeah, but that’s not the root problem. The root problem is the model of economic growth that drives a particular pattern of economic activity that creates the emissions that lead to the climate impacts. And I think you have to go further upstream, if you 
like, in looking to the root problem in climate change; and going further upstream means going to the heart of the growth economy that we have today.

Justin Rowlatt: So for Jonathon Porritt while carbon is the initial target, the real problem lies much deeper.  It is the emphasis our societies put on relentless economic growth. Andrew Simms is a green thinker and policy director of the New Economics Foundation, a policy institute which argues our economy needs to be reinvented to meet the needs of people and the planet. 

Andrew Simms: If you have as a background the promise of never ending growth, the scale of technological improvements and efficiency gains you have to achieve to get that carbon curve, that climate curve down to something remotely safe is off the scale of anything that’s ever been achieved and takes you right to the limits of so-called determined efficiency. That’s to say that the laws of economics, which are manmade, come bang up against the laws of physics. If you don’t tackle some of the learnt ways of behaving, some of our patterns of consumption and shopping, all the gains you make by improving how you insulate your homes, the energy efficiency you use with different bits of kit and consumer durables - these will be drowned out by the infinitely growing amounts of stuff that we consume.

Justin Rowlatt: I can see that the simple mathematics suggests that never ending growth is an impossibility. Resources like the supply of copper or the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb carbon are finite.  We cannot continue to increase our use of them forever.  
But that’s where markets come in.  The market system is very adept at dealing with scarcity - prices rise, encouraging people to use less of scarce resources, and simultaneously encourage them to innovate and find new ways of doing things. But the green critique of growth does not just depend on the limits to growth imposed by the physical world. Environmentalists also believe that growth-orientated 
economies have some very profound effects on people too.

Jonathon Porritt: There’s so much unhappiness in our society. 

Justin Rowlatt: Jonathon Porritt again.

Jonathon Porritt: There is so much disaffection; there are so many people who are deprived of what you might consider the basic entitlements in our society. We have so many people still living in poverty. We have massive problems around issues like mental health. We just need to look at all of that and say does this represent a happy society here in the UK today? And for me, it absolutely doesn’t. 

Justin Rowlatt: Although the societies that we live in here in the West are the societies that people around the world aspire to live in. You know people will go on extraordinary journeys to leave the poor countries they live in to come and try and get a bit of the wealth that we’ve got here, which suggests that people around the world are choosing the kind of society that we live in now. They think it will make them happier.

Jonathon Porritt: Yes and I’ve got no illusions about that. We’ve created a model of progress that is now worldwide. So that everybody in the world thinks that living the average Western lifestyle is the way in which it ought to be for everybody in the world today. So that’s hugely powerful, hugely seductive, and we’ve unleashed that pent up aspiration for a more consumption-driven prosperity around the world. And were not going to undo that. That’s what drives China and India and Brazil and Indonesia. But the truth of it is we’ve still got to look very rigorously at the degree to which that model of progress really is improving lives today.

Justin Rowlatt: This strain of green thinking says we need to be saved from our own unfulfilling lifestyle.  But is the problem the urge to buy or is it what we consume and the impact it has on the environment? Is it capitalism or carbon?  Here’s Solitaire Townsend again.

Solitaire Townsend: If status and greed and consumption - if those are truly the cause, then we’re doomed. I don’t think they are. I think it’s the way that we fulfil those desires that are the problem. Actually if you look through human history we’ve fulfilled those desires in numerous different ways from tattooing our faces to binding feet – not all of them have been fabulous but not all of them have been high impact. People will pay as much for a massage as they’ll pay for a pair of shoes. Fulfil those desires for status, for social acceptability, for desirability in low impact ways and you’re onto a winner. 

Justin Rowlatt: Now obviously massages and facial tattoos aren’t going to replace the material economy any time soon.   But you do get the sense that concern about global warming is becoming a social status issue. People are much more likely to bashful than boastful about their foreign flights and adventures abroad nevertheless talking to some environmentalists you get the sense that even if we could suddenly switch to a world where growth without increased emissions were possible, they’d still have a problem with our urge to consume.

Andrew Simms: In societies where the norm is very individualistic, high levels of consumption, everybody out for themselves go-getting, that those people are less likely to do the good environmental things than in societies where the norms are much more communal, collective in the way that you tackle problems, people share difficulties. And what you see is that in those less self-centred economies, communities, societies, that people are more likely to do pro-environmental things. You’re more likely to get a self-reinforcing, positive spiral rather than a self-reinforcing negative spiral.

Justin Rowlatt: But is it really fair to say that less individualistic societies care more about the planet? John Gummer believes that only capitalism can provide the solution to global warming.

John Gummer: The most polluting societies we have known in modern history were the Communist societies, which were dedicated to equality. All those societies were dead because they didn’t produce any of the technological advances which you need to have if you’re going to solve the problems of today. Just ask how many new drugs for health purposes did the Communist society create? Very, very few - if any. All the developments were done in the capitalist societies. The market system, which is what we’ve got, is the only thing that’s strong enough and powerful enough to force through the changes which we need. What you have to do is to make sure the market is working properly, and the market doesn’t work properly at the moment and we have to make it work properly.

Justin Rowlatt: When you say it doesn’t work properly, what do you mean?

John Gummer: Well it doesn’t take into account the costs of climate change, for example. Therefore, the prices we charge are entirely distorted. You have to organise things, so that the proper price is paid. 

Justin Rowlatt: On that analysis, the answer is to find a way to fix the market, to address its failure to incorporate the impact of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere.  John Gummer believes we need to become less growth focused but crucially that we need to find ways of raising the price of polluting activities to reflect the harmful effects of greenhouse gases.  That way, the market becomes the source of the solution to the problem making it so expensive to pollute that carbon is squeezed out of the economy.  It sounds relatively simple but we should not underestimate the scale of the challenge here.  Effective carbon pricing would completely reorder our economies, changing the price of everything. It would mean profound lifestyle changes.  Energy intensive activities like flying and driving would become much more expensive.  That’s why introducing carbon pricing is such a political challenge.  Look at the problems President Obama is having getting even his very modest proposals for carbon markets through Congress. Like many greens, Jonathon Porritt says he supports the effort to harness the market to task of cutting carbon but he doesn’t believe that it will be enough.

Jonathon Porritt: I think you’ve got to be pragmatic about this. We’ve got to work with the grain of market forces now because that’s how our economy works, it’s how our political systems work, so we have to maximize those market based opportunities. But if we do that in such a way that we persuade people that’s all that is required, that’s dishonest. That’s basically selling people a lie. So my pragmatism works to the point where I hope we can get significant changes in people’s lives, but then I want them to go further than that and look to a different kind of economy, a different kind of society - one which I believe would be better for far more people than is the case today.

Justin Rowlatt: A different kind of society? This seems to be getting into a debate about who we are, about the nature of humanity.  More like a theological discussion than a practical plan for cutting emissions because moving to a different kind of society implies changing people’s values. One way to do this is through something called Identity Campaigning which seeks to steer us away from materialism and individualism by, for example, limiting advertising. One of its advocates is Tom Crompton, a strategist for the conservation charity WWF UK. 

Tom Crompton: What were saying is important here is an examination of those aspects of our collective identity which drive, which underpin a problem like climate change but which also are found to underpin a whole range of other problems - problems which you might sort of think of as bigger than self problems, if you like, from developing world poverty through to social exclusion at home. 

Justin Rowlatt: So this is about much more than just climate change?

Tom Crompton: Yes, I think the problems at the root of climate change are problems of collective identity – it’s a problem of who we see ourselves as being.

Justin Rowlatt: But at root, what you’re trying to do is change individuals which is a very radical project isn’t it? Changing who we are...

Tom Crompton: If you have a conviction that at heart people are concerned about these issues if that’s at the core of humanity, then the question becomes one of how you how you bring that to the fore. 

Justin Rowlatt: Helping people to access their better selves is a worthy project and I agree with Tom that tackling problems like poverty is important. But I can’t but help feel that the identity campaign that he champions carries a whiff of social engineering about it – it seems to imply an almost evangelical approach with green missionaries like Tom spreading the good news. It makes me feel rather uncomfortable and I’m not alone.

Solitaire Townsend: Do you want your identity changed? [Laughs.] I’m not sure that I do. 

Justin Rowlatt: For Solitaire Townsend this project of winning over hearts, minds and souls is unappealing and impractical. 

Solitaire Townsend: One: it’s going to take a really long time and I’m not sure what people’s plan are to do it. That’s a generational change, a multi-generational change. Two: you’re going to do it all over the world? And three: I think it sounds quite unpleasant. I think it’s something which most people would not be happy to think people were doing to them. I think people would far prefer for me to use marketing and advertising tactics on them to play with their sense of status, to play with their sense of social acceptability in order to make a smooth transition to a lower impact lifestyle without fundamentally changing who they are rather than have a bunch of environmentalists tell them they’re wrong and they need to be fixed. 

Justin Rowlatt: What I find even more worrying is that often the almost evangelical nature of some green campaigning is justified, or perhaps even disguised, by the urgency of the climate issue.  Environmentalists campaign on the basis that they are backed by “peer reviewed science” as if that validates whatever solution they are proposing. Indeed, the debate about how to tackle global warming can feel as if it is being conducted against the background of a relentless doomsday clock, ticking down the minutes and seconds until we are engulfed in some burning hell.  It is almost as if climate change is some kind of planetary retribution, forcing humanity to pay the price for its greed. For the theologian Martin Palmer, these religious undercurrents show how environmentalism has adopted a familiar Western 
response to crisis – millenarian claims that the end is nigh.

Martin Palmer: I think in the 70s and 80s the environmental movement believed that if it put the scientific facts – the data – in front of us, we would all wake up and reform ourselves and create a utopian, happy world. What then happened is the classic collapse of that utopian hope and you move into stage two and stage two is the apocalyptic. So for example, the world is going to be swamped by floods, 
struck by fire, destroyed by plague, everything will collapse, society will fall apart - it’s that use of fear that is the main indicator of this.  

Justin Rowlatt: Environmentalists argue that the science of global warming justifies the use of apocalyptic imaginary but for Martin Palmer who is a UN advisor on climate change and world religions, this is a dangerous route to go down because its leaves people feeling powerless and reliant on the green movement for salvation.

Martin Palmer: I think the core of what the environmental movement has done is it has taken, some might argue stolen, sin, guilt and fear from religion and has used those very strongly. The problem is that in good religion – if I can put it that way – that is always combined with a sense of hope, a sense of liberational salvation and a sense of personal responsibility but not the kind of responsibility that makes you feel as though you are a victim of the weight of your sins and guilt. Bad religion ignores the hope, salvation dimension of it and seeks to create a climate of fear which then means that those in control of creating that climate of fear are in control of those people and become dictators and there is a very strong – it’s very small – but there is a very strong green fascism in much of the environmental world. I’ve heard it said at meetings I’ve been at – that climate change is so important - democracy has to be sacrificed.

Justin Rowlatt: For Professor Mike Hulme there is no doubt that the fear climate change provokes provides environmentalists with an opportunity to drive forward their much wider political agenda.  

Mike Hulme: Some of the deep green movement would buy into this - that actually climate change is the best opportunity that we have got in order to get our political goal of a more egalitarian, localist, less consumer driven society onto the table. And we’ve seen over 40 or 50 years different tactics I suppose from some of these deep greens, eco-socialists if you like, to drive forward this idea and climate change is the latest and is an opportunity.  

Justin Rowlatt: You make it sound quite cynical - using climate change as a tactical device. It’s almost as if climate change is a sort of convenient truth.

Mike Hulme: I think all campaigning organisations, whether in civil society or whether in politics, will use agendas in order to further their particular goals. Whether you admire those other goals or not is a separate set of questions, but it seems to me this is the way in which climate change has emerged over the last 5 or 10 years 

Justin Rowlatt: I don’t have a problem with people campaigning for those other agendas for their vision of a better society – for me the problem comes if the fear of the consequences of climate change is used as cover to smuggle in other objectives for social and political change. That’s because many people already have a sense that there’ s something suspicious about the campaign to tackle global warming; they instinctively distrust the science and if they feel that the solutions people are proposing are less to do with carbon than pushing through a hidden agenda that will only serve to confirm their scepticism.