Leading Article: Were we conned?

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The Independent Online
A NEW health hazard has emerged in Shetland: worry. Dr Derek Cox, director of public health for Shetland, has accused Greenpeace of irresponsible scaremongering. He says his attention is now turning from oil to 'the hazards associated with strains and anxiety, fears and uncertainty in the population'.

Clearly, reaction to the grounding of the Braer was overdone. Already the sea looks normal, the beaches are clean and the air smells fresh. Hydrocarbon readings near the wreck are said to be substantially below those routinely recorded in London. What was billed as a major ecological disaster has almost vanished from sight in little over a week.

Nature has also taken care of the Gulf more effectively than expected. When Saddam Hussein blew up Kuwait's oil wells two years ago, the black smoke and floods of oil created scenes from an imagined hell that were expected to defy human efforts for many years. Yet scientists reported in Nature last August that most of the oil had evaporated or been digested by microbes, that levels of cancer-producing chemicals on the sea-bed were lower than in estuaries around Britain and the United States, and that shellfish off Bahrain were less contaminated than before the conflict because of the drop in routine pollution.

Have we been conned by hysterical environmentalists? Can nature protect itself much better than we thought? The answers have to be cautious. In the first place, the long-term effects of oil pollution remain to be studied, particularly in the case of the Braer, which was the first sinking tanker to spray its cargo over land. While bacteria have proved remarkably effective natural cleansers, some oil obviously enters the lower end of the food chain and moves up into the human body, with effects that are still unpredictable. The extent of the damage to wildlife and endangered species is also uncertain.

Second, the Shetlanders were lucky that the Braer was carrying light crude, which evaporates relatively quickly, and that the storms which hampered salvage proved wonderfully effective in diluting the oil and washing the beaches. The next victims of an oil spill may be less lucky.

If there is a lesson, it is not that we should be complacent. Everything that has been said about the need for much stronger safety measures remains valid. Nor can there be any dispute with the broad trend towards concern for the environment. The costs of pollution are nowhere more tragically demonstrated than in the former Communist empire, where the effects on human health have been devastating. The costs of broader neglect around the world could be global.

No, what the Braer tells us is something about the role of single-issue pressure groups such as Greenpeace. They are a necessary phenomenon. When orthodoxies need to be challenged, it is often only those with tunnel vision and a streak of fanaticism who can muster the energy and courage to make a noise. Many of the great changes in history have been wrought by people regarded as nutcases in their time. The suffragettes were often a pain in the neck, and their contribution to history is disputed, but their views, once seen as eccentric, are now orthodoxy.

Even those who are wrong can be useful. The policy prescriptions of the nuclear disarmers would have been disastrous if followed during the Cold War, but they enriched the debates on nuclear deterrence with their moral concerns and kept up pressure for negotiation.

The greens are an example of a pressure group that is broadly right. They have fought their way with skill and courage from the eccentric fringe to mainstream orthodoxy. The danger now is not that they will be unheard, but that they will come to be regarded as infallible by themselves and others. The fact that their main theme has been validated does not make them right on every issue.

The saner ones among them are aware of this, but in the long and variegated columns of green marchers the single-issue fanatics are still visible, as intolerant, self-righteous and divorced from reality as ever, incipient totalitarians who, if given the chance, would quickly close off the space for dissent that they themselves have enjoyed. From having provided the driving energy of the movement in its early stages, they now risk bringing it into discredit by the simplicity of their views. Environmentalism is moving from the streets into the laboratories. Many of the issues it raises are of extreme complexity, surrounded by huge areas of uncertainty. A vigilant green movement is still needed but a little more humility would make it more effective.