Greener on the other side

ECOLOGY: Should we believe the doomwatchers? A new breed of eco- thinkers claims that things aren't so bleak
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The Independent Culture
KERMIT got it wrong. For the past quarter of a century it has, in the West, been quite easy to be green. Happily able to campaign virtually unhindered - unlike, say, Ken Saro-Wiwa - environmentalists in the developed democracies have also had a remarkably free intellectual ride. Apart from a brief, defining debate in the early 1970s, there has been little challenge to their ideas.

For most of this time, opponents - misreading the environmentalists' gathering strength - could not be bothered to engage them. For much of the rest, dissent was swamped in the green infatuation that swept through Britain at the turn of the decade. Environmentalism even escaped the Thatcherite intellectual assault; the iron lady, after all, briefly transformed herself into a green goddess. It was only after both she and the Berlin Wall had fallen that the far right - searching for someone to hate in place of the communists - focused on ecologists, and by then environmentalism was fast running out of cerebral stream. Meanwhile, many of the environmental pressure groups grew strong, prosperous, intellectually lazy and morally self-congratulatory.

This year, it looked as if they were finally going to be tested, chiefly by the appearance in both Britain and the United States of some well-publicised "contrarian" books. But these proved disappointing, and at times dishonest, often effectively endorsing the environmentalist consensus while pretending to attack it, and producing little that was new.

The contrarians discredit doomwatching. They point out, for example, that the world still has plenty of mineral resources, that it could feed at least twice its population, and that the rate of population growth is decelerating. This is all true, but not very original. I made all these points myself in a book published 17 years ago - and can claim no prescience, for I was merely reporting what was even then an emerging consensus.

Faced with the task of making the commonplace seem controversial, they mobilise an army of apparently infinitely recyclable straw men. It works like this: first set up an outrageous "green" proposition; support it with a quote, if you can find one, from an unrepresentative or marginal figure; assert that this is the general position of all greens; and finally knock it down using the very arguments deployed all along by mainstream environmentalists.

Wilfred Beckerman is both the most distinguished British contrarian (being an Oxford don, rather than a journalist) and the most blatant exponent of this technique. He opens his book Small is Stupid: Blowing the Whistle on the Greens (Duckworth pounds 20) with the claim that "During the last decade the environmentalist movement has renewed its attack on the desirability of economic growth", and goes on to demolish "the widespread view that economic growth must be abandoned".

But neither the "renewed attack" nor the "widespread view" are anywhere to be found. The only evidence that Beckerman can produce for either is a seven-year-old anti-growth quote from the redoubtable but idiosyncratic Teddy Goldsmith (founding editor of The Ecologist and elder brother of Sir James). In fact - after a debate 20 years ago, when anti-growth fundament- alists were trounced by more realistic greens - the environmentalist mainstream has increasingly promoted its own message as being the best way to increase jobs and achieve longer-lasting economic growth.

At least Beckerman managed to produce one statement, however unrepresentative, in support of this outdated analysis; often he fails even to do that. He appears to believe, for example, that greens want "a large operation, at astronomic cost, to ensure the survival of every known and unknown species" - something I have never seen advanced by any environmentalist, either in his book or anywhere else.

Stephen Budiansky devotes the central thesis of Nature's Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management (Weidenfeld pounds 20) to demolishing a similar and equally unrecognisable myth. Greens, he says, believe nature is pristine, enforce an "environmentalist taboo" against meddling with it, and regard it as "heresy" to focus conservationist efforts on what matters most rather than trying to save everything.

In fact, the environmentalist mainstream rejects these views as firmly as he does, and has been articulating Budiansky's counter-thesis - that humanity has always modified nature and the only sensible course is to go on managing it for the maximum benefit - for at least 15 years. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the major player in this particular field, has been arguing this utilitarian case since the late 1970s, and putting it into practice by involving local people in managing and exploiting wildlife reserves, rather than making them inviolate.

It is hard to believe that Budiansky, who is an established writer in this field, does not know this, but neither the organisation nor its work gets a single mention in his text. Indeed he quotes the World Conservation Strategy - the seminal work produced by the WWF and other conservation bodies in 1980 to formalise this approach - to buttress his imagined case against environmentalists without ever mentioning its authorship, even in his book's copious references.

Richard D North has produced the best and most honest of the contrarian books, Life on a Modern Planet: A Manifesto for Progress (Manchester University Press pounds 25). He does at least acknowledge, as the other contrarians do not, that the environmental movement is diverse, but this is not explained until page 264 of a 304-page book, and even then he makes the fundamentalist minority appear the mainstream.

He takes apart environmentalist propositions - sometimes accurately, sometimes not - but fails entirely to apply the same close scrutiny to industry and government, whose views are accepted almost without question. It does not help his credibility that the book is partly financed by ICI, and that he devotes 40 pages of the book to rebutting environmentalist attacks on chlorine, the foundation of the firm's fortunes. Nor does his assertion of the "pretty tolerable - if not quite perfect - safety of almost everything we breathe and drink". The one in seven British children who suffer from asthma, which is at least aggravated by pollution, and the 10,000 who die every year from inhaling particles from burning fuel, might justifiably quarrel with that, but neither problem is mentioned in the book.

It is all a great missed opportunity. The environmentalists still await a proper challenge. In the meantime, they appear to have been fortunate even in their critics.