|From: Foundation for Economic Growth
Treachery and Greenery
By The Economist
Jun 26, 2007, 20:05
Among the many targets of “The Life of Brian”, a satirical Monty Python film, is the tendency of radical left-wing political movements to splinter. The film’s would-be revolutionaries of the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea are too busy quibbling and accusing each other of treachery to cause much trouble for the occupying Romans.
The environmental movement—which, at least at first, shared many of its members with the far left—had until recently managed to avoid a similar fate. Over issues ranging from acid rain to deforestation, nuclear power to air pollution, the greens presented a unified front, arguing for better regulation of the various industries and human activities that damage the planet.
But that unity has started to crack. The first big doctrinal dispute was over the publication in 1998 by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician and self-described green, of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”. Mr Lomborg argued that environmentalists were exaggerating many of the problems the planet faced. Irate green loyalists demanded that Cambridge University refrain from publishing the book, and Mr Lomborg had a pie thrown in his face as he was giving a reading in an Oxford bookshop.
There have been several more schisms since then. Sometimes the disagreements are over priorities. In 2005 Britons saw David Bellamy, a noted naturalist and wildlife enthusiast, threaten to chain himself to a wind turbine to protest against plans to build a wind farm in Cumbria, a remote and unspoilt part of England. Mr Bellamy objected on the grounds that the turbines would ruin the natural beauty of the moorland. At other times, global problems are cast against local concerns. Diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide than do petrol ones, so some greens want to see the use of diesel fuel encouraged. But diesel also emits more carcinogenic particles, earning the ire of campaigners for cleaner urban air. Finally, there are arguments over basic facts. There is much debate among environmentalists as to whether plant-derived biofuels are a good thing (since they emit no extra carbon into the air) or a bad thing (since producing them can involve deforestation).
But perhaps the biggest rift is over nuclear power. Here, disagreements reach the most rarefied levels. James Lovelock, a chemist who invented the Gaia hypothesis (the earth is a balance of interdependent mechanisms) and is godfather to a generation of greens, provoked much anger and soul-searching in 2004 when he declared that nuclear power offered the only credible solution to climate change. Opposition to atomic energy, said Mr Lovelock, was based on “irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media”. Equally influential organisations such as Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace preach the traditional anti-atomic doctrine.
Life of Brian, 1979
“What have the greens ever done for us?”Caught in the crossfire, many of the green movement’s foot-soldiers are tormented by doubts. Many will tell you that their own attitudes have shifted from outright opposition to nuclear power a few years ago to grudging acquiescence as the scale of the climate-change problem has become apparent.
But while heresies, schisms and factions offer an amusing parallel between environmental politics and radical ones, green “splittism” is fundamentally different from the doctrinal disagreements that plague the far left. Henry Kissinger’s remark about student politics—that they are so vicious because the stakes are so small—applies equally well to hardcore Marxists. With little chance of ever achieving political power, they can afford internecine warfare.
Today’s greens have the opposite problem. Environmentalism has moved from a kooky obsession of beardy left-wingers to something that even George Bush, an oilman-turned-president, must at least pay lip-service to. Global warming dominates the news. The subject tops the G8’s agenda; a legion of economists and policy experts are grappling with questions of cost and viability while politicians polish their green credentials.
But politics is a dirty business, and getting things done often requires compromising high principles for the sake of practicality. The hard left was fractious because, fundamentally, their bickering didn’t matter. The environmental movement is becoming fractious because it does.
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