THE BOOK REVIEW

LIFE ON A MODERN PLANET Richard D North Manchester University Press, £25/£10.99
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The Independent Online
Greenpeace et al probably won't welcome this book, but the rest of us should. At last the case against the green movement is being argued, convincingly and very readably, by someone from the inside who knows his stuff rather than a passing politician or right-wing economist.

Richard D North is quite wrong, however, in his central but never explicitly stated message - that overall the greens have done more harm than good. This tract is one long, intelligent, provocative and very useful mistake which should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand "the debate."

There is the occasional attempt to shock, to be seen to be politically incorrect. My favourite example: ``The one characteristic which we can be sure of in Stone-Age cultures is that they have not had one important new idea since the Ice Age.''

But if you want fun cynicism la PJ O'Rourke, don't bother with this. It is an earnest, discursive book, chock full of references. Apart from chapter seven, devoted entirely to the chlorine industry, it is saved from dullness by a turn of phrase, a literary niftiness which long-term Independent readers may still remember - he was the newspaper's first environment correspondent.

North exposes the near-universal misconception that nature is fragile and delicately balanced. It is often in a natural state of flux and is extraordinarily tough and opportunistic, which is why it is quite effective at exploiting humanity and the massive environmental changes we have made.

He makes us face the fact that the really important, life-and-death environmental problems are in poor countries. The West already has the technology and the wealth to tackle pollution and find substitutes for finite natural resources, but in the Third World a lack of clean water and clean air, of fuel wood and fertile soil, are everyday killers of millions.

Green groups prefer, however, to channel much of their campaigning energy into minor threats to Westerners with the world's best healthcare and longest lifespans, or on exciting but less immediate threats such as man- made global warming.

The unique selling proposition of the Greens is that we live in a unique age - for the first time man-made environmental problems are becoming global rather than local. Our population and technologies for exploiting nature have reached a point where natural limits stand to be breached and the resulting waves of destruction could affect us all. North doubts this, claiming that technology can extend the limits. North is an unashamed cultural imperialist, a celebrant of the Enlightenment. ``The Third World is crying out for much which is at the heart of Western civilisation,'' he writes. "The poor of the world have a greater need of Western industrialists than of Western green dissent.''

His mistake is to misunderstand how central and valuable that dissidence is in our society. He may sincerely believe that Industry, Science and Government (the capitals express his reverence for them) are more sincere and effective environmentalists than the green campaigners themselves, but he will have to excuse most of the rest of us.

Criticism and dissidence are cheap and easy in a democracy and the campaigners have rarely been the first to identify a genuine environmental problem. But, often in alliance with an equally irresponsible media, they have started pushing and kept pushing on issue after issue until government and industry have been forced to act. What better, more recent example could there be than the scaling down of the roads programme?

Environmentalists clamour, exaggerate, quote selectively and question the good faith of their opponents - just like any other group of serious campaigners facing serious opposition. North seems surprised and hurt that they should behave in this way, and yet he is doing pretty much the same thing. Life on a Modern Planet is itself a welcome exercise in dissidence against fashionable green-ness.

Nicholas Schoon

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