A bitter pill for tougher greens

Criticism of environmentalists is no bad thing, says Geoff Mulgan
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The Independent Online
The 1990s has become the decade of backlashes. After feminism, we got the anti-feminist backlash. After civil rights and affirmative action, we got Charles Murray and the argument that race and IQ are linked. And now we have the greenlash: a wave of books and articles claiming that the environment is safe after all, and that growth remains our only guarantee of cleaner cars and purer water.

None of the backlash arguments has yet delivered a knockout blow. Wilfred Beckerman's Small is Stupid (Duckworth), for example, is unfortunately itself both small and stupid: sloppily written, intellectually weak, philosophically naive in its treatment of issues such as intergenerational equity. Richard North's Life on a Modern Planet (Manchester University Press) is more substantial, but ultimately rests on faith in the restorative powers of technology that has no more grounding than the worst green doom-mongers.

But the significance of the backlash lies less in the quality of individual books than in the fact that it is ushering in a mood of much greater scepticism. In some respects this is deserved. Many green campaigners have played fast and loose with facts, and most have exploited fear and hysteria, the sense that dark, mysterious and malign forces are at work. Indeed, their tone of urgency and imminent apocalypse is what has helped translate low-level fears about lead in the air or bad water into a remarkable global political consensus that against all odds started to set serious targets for CFCs and emissions.

But we can now see more clearly that excessive rhetoric can have corrosive effects: sooner or later if the apocalypse doesn't materialise people feel cheated.

And green issues suffer from a larger problem of trust and truth. It has proven as hard for even the best scientists to make firm judgements on the real state or pace of global warming, or the disappearance of species, as it has been fully to understand the nature of the human immunodeficiency virus.

Unsurprisingly, the public is confused: one recent survey found that 41 per cent believe that "even scientists do not understand what they are talking about when it comes to the environment" and 45 per cent report confusion on environmental issues.

The other decisive factor in undermining trust has been the long history of government and corporate dishonesty on environmental issues. The long- term consequence of extreme official economy with the truth on everything from Windscale to dioxins has been to destroy the credibility of governments and business. Remarkably, four to five times as many British people now believe scientists from green organisations as much as they do government or business scientists. The green movement has been extraordinarily successful in destroying official credibility.

But looking ahead, what is really at issue is whether the green argument will turn out to be a passing fashion, or whether it represents something far more fundamental. Most of the polling evidence suggests that although recession has pushed the environment down the list of public concerns, the underlying trend has continued hardening with each successive generation. Mori's index of green consumerism, for example, remains higher now than in 1990, and its index of green activism is double what it was in 1989.

But in spite of this underlying current in their direction, the green organisations have, so far, been more effective mobilising on whales or dolphins than in shifting the mundane policy machine on things such as water regulations or environmental health. Some of the leading greens are aware of this, but many still seem to prefer the more heroic (and often more morally dubious) role of combating development in the poor South than engaging in the minutiae of the policy process in the rich North.

Wiser greens should welcome the backlash. With maturity comes tougher scrutiny, higher standards of philosophical thinking and the need to be more careful about forecasts and claims. This is all to the good. A tougher debate will, in the long-run, strengthen the greens. There's nothing like a good dose of articulate hostility for sharpening up the reflexes and honing the arguments.