End not nigh, says an old ecologist

'The Greens are robbing us of the pleasure of living'
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The Independent Online
THE Green movement is about to receive a broadside in the shape of a damning book by one of its most informed insiders.

Richard D North, the former editor of a pioneering Green magazine, Vole, argues that environmentalists have debased debate and made a major contribution to the West's self-doubting, pessimistic culture of contempt and blame.

He says they have repeatedly distorted the truth, exaggerated mankind's threats and damage to the environment and, again and again, got it plain wrong.

The Greens are not taking this lying down. One of the first things they point out is that North, who was the Independent's environment correspondent for four years until 1990, was paid several thousand pounds by ICI, world- wide maker of chemicals, while he was writing the book.

``The book must have been seriously compromised by that,'' said Chris Rose, programmes organiser with Greenpeace. He finds it peppered with ``feckless, specious rhetoric'' and condemns it as ``an exercise in cynicism''.

But the 48-year-old author, described by one leading Green journalist as "the Paul Johnson of the environment", and whose colourful career has sometimes been blighted by severe money worries, declares his industrial sponsorship openly in the new book, Life on a Modern Planet - a Manifesto for Progress.

``I'd rather take ICI's money than Greenpeace's any day,'' he said. ``ICI produces products people want in a heavily regulated environment. Greenpeace churns out an extremely skewed vision of the world in a totally unregulated environment.''

The book sets out to debunk many of the threats which Green organisations have given the highest of profiles, and pooh-poohs some of their most successful campaigns. Thus... whaling would have ended without the Green campaigning which led to a moratorium, because the great marine mammals were becoming so rare. North says the whalers would have given up or gone broke, allowing whale populations to recover.

On tropical rainforests, North points out that ``very few people have found much use for it as it stands ... and large areas could be used perfectly well for other purposes''. He accepts that the jungles contain a vast diversity of millions of plant and animal species, some of which could form the basis of important drugs and other useful products. The answer is to ensure that the 10 per cent of the forest richest in biodiversity is kept pristine.

His main theme is that people have every reason to be optimistic about the future. The earth's population is almost certain to reach 10 billion halfway through the next century (it is 5.7 billion now), and our main preoccupation should be with growing the global economy to ensure decent life chances for the majority of those people.

Attacks on the Green movement so far have come mainly from right-wing economists who lack understanding of the science underlying many environmental concerns. But North has been immersed in the issues for nearly 20 years, and his enemies do not dispute that he has read widely and deeply, travelled extensively and spent hundreds of hours talking to experts.

He accepts that there are severe environmental problems such as over- exploitation of soil, forests and fresh water. But these are almost all confined to the developing world and they can be solved.

The Green movement, he says, is guilty of sapping the West's faith in itself and in progress, and thereby actually harming people's quality of life. ``This is the cheap, easy dissidence of the well-governed, and it contributes to a destructive culture of contempt,'' he said during one of the brisk, circular country walks he takes around his Herefordshire home almost every day.

``They encourage people to feel alienated in a culture which has achieved so much. I like the West, I admire it, I believe in the Enlightenment.

``We've allowed ourselves to be robbed of the pleasure of living in the modern, industrial world and much of the pleasure which comes from the natural world. We've been made to believe that only wilderness represents true, beautiful nature when most of the world is a manscape. But nature can co-exist with man and still be beautiful and exciting.''

He rejects the argument that environmentalists have to exaggerate to get anything done. ``The one thing we have here in Britain which we can share with the world is a high quality of debate, of good-tempered, fair- minded argument. I'm fed up with the shrieking.''

Always a sceptic, North became a critic of the Greens, especially Greenpeace, after talking to civil servants and scientists from universities, government and industry.

Leading environmentalists and Third World development experts will debate his arguments at a seminar in London on 9 March.

Chris Rose of Greenpeace said: ``There is a deep and well-founded belief that Western industrial society is doing serious damage to the world and that's not how people want the planet to be. They really don't want ozone holes, air pollution, vanishing hedgerows, and Greenpeace is an expression of that.''