LEADING ARTICLE : The pea-souper that shrouds environmental debate

Click to follow
It is the fate of post-war generations to live with the knowledge that the survival of civilisation depends on our collective ability to regulate our planet's environment. Today we report a dramatic example, as the Malaysian government announces its plan to seed clouds with silver iodide crystals to produce rain to try to wash away the smog that has darkened the sky over Kuala Lumpur for two months. The delay of the monsoon in south-east Asia means that many of the big cities in the region are now permanently enveloped in an old-fashioned London pea-souper, thickened by smoke from forest fires across peninsular Malaya, Sumatra and Indonesia. This is not the only current example of local climate manipulation: this year, the authorities in China are also engaged in modern rain-making, adapting anti-aircraft guns to the purpose, trying to fill the dry Yellow River with water.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, we report the findings of a German government survey of the state of its woodland: it seems that the trees are recovering from the onslaught of acid rain, the great environmental cause of a decade ago. It would seem that the collapse of the dirty heavy industries of the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Central Europe, combined with strict emission controls on German industries and cars, has saved the green and pleasant bits of Bavaria.

So, is the big picture one of the industrialised nations getting their "green" act together, while the newly-industrialised countries struggle to deal with the environmental consequences of rapid economic growth? Unfortunately not; unfortunately in the sense that such a summary might imply a happy scenario of progressive improvement, as best environmental practice spreads along with high living standards around the globe.

The reality of the environmental crisis facing the world is a great deal more complicated than that. The outlook for the sustainability of life on this planet is also gloomier than such a vision of inevitable progress implies. The truth lies somewhere between two extremes. At one extreme are apocalyptic forecasts of imminent catastrophe - based not on science but on emotion and even millenarianism. At the other extreme is the complacent view that economic development is the best solution to environmental problems. Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia, is an abrasive proponent of this second argument. When Western politicians tried to lecture him about the need to preserve the rainforests in his country, he pointed out rather tartly that we in the West had already cut down our forests, so were in no moral position to tell him what to do. He might point out, too, that the pollution haze which has blocked out the sky in Kuala Lumpur is similar to the smogs which blanketed London until prosperity and clean-air legislation made the stars visible again. As Malaysia gets richer, it too will be able to afford cleaner local air.

The flaw in this argument is the remorseless growth both of the world's energy use and its population. A symbol of the increasingly hectic disorder of industrialisation is the Petronas Towers, which last year became the tallest building in the world - but still not tall enough to escape the thick smog of Kuala Lumpur: a monument to Malaysia's economic ambition and to the region's environmental crisis.

It looks, then, as if Robin Cook will have to upset Dr Mahathir again, as he did this week over human rights in the region, if Britain is to pursue a foreign policy which respects the environment as well as people's liberties. This is not a matter of the rich West pulling up the ladder of economic prosperity behind itself, because if Asia, Africa and South America are to pursue higher living standards which can be sustained for more than a generation, then the peoples of North America, Europe and Japan will be called on to change their lifestyles dramatically.

Hence the real significance of the acid rain story is how small-scale it is in the order of global priorities. The balance of scientific consensus is that the forests and lakes of northern Europe have been poisoned by industrial activity, although the chains of causation are more tangled than initially thought. The measures taken to clean up power station emissions and to fit catalytic converters to car exhausts may be beginning to reduce acid rain and improve the quality of the air that we breathe. But they have taken a long time, and are a small gust of fresh air in a growing whirlwind of pollution. Against the overriding challenge of exponentially- growing energy use, which is undeniably causing global climate change (even if the nature of that change is as yet unclear), slightly cleaner emissions in some of the richest and most energy-hungry countries of the world is a side-issue.

It is against this background that we must ask whether some environmentalists are in danger of hurting the very important cause which they profess to advance. Yesterday, a National Consumer Council report drew attention to the difficulty of knowing whether or not recycling bottles and paper is worthwhile: what matters is the amount of energy used throughout the whole life of a product, in its production, packaging, consumption and disposal. Recycling only happens at the end of the process.

It is the inability to distinguish between the important and the trivial which bedevils the "green" movement. Our schoolchildren are now indoctrinated by green propaganda, a largely unremarked development which could have a dramatic effect on popular values in years to come, except that far too much of it equates the dropping of crisp packets with the threat to the ozone layer. Green values are generally good ones to transmit to our children, but facts and science must be separated from emotion and polemic.