Thursday, 4 November 2010

What was wrong about "What the Green Movement got wrong"?

Channel 4 in the UK has just shown a very lengthy, two-part mockumentary provocatively titled "What the Green Movement Got Wrong" . Unlike a previous programme of this ilk, The Great Global Warming Swindle, it did not particularly challenge climate change, but rather tried to show that green campaigns, when successful, have done more harm than good. Three examples:

- malaria in African slums could be reduced by making the chemical toxin DDT available to spray inside houses "in small quantities", but campaigns by Greens in the 1980s to have DDT stopped from being heavily used in agriculture had led to outright bans of DDT in many countries. This in turn left people living in squalid shanty towns vulnerable to mosquito bites and malarial infection - all because of the greens. At least, that was what the scientist Dr Florence Wambugu, who had previously worked for agri-chemical giant Monsanto, was given free rein to argue. (The programme skated over the fact that Greenpeace dropped its opposition to small scale use of DDT nearly a decade ago).

The real solution to malaria - DDT powder or slum clearance?
  On the other hand, just how safe is DDT, even at low levels and especially over any protracted period? Rather than DDT, wouldn't proper investment in clearing the slums and providing decent accommodation to the people living there be better?

- genetically modified food: the successful green campaign in the European Union to ban the sale of genetically modified (GM) foods was contrasted with how widely used it is in the USA - 70% of foodstuffs in many regular restaurants in the USA are GM and declared "delcious" by a contributor. Meantime, African farmers were shown harvesting low nutrition sorghum, grown as it is resistant to drought. Much better if they could grow GM crops designed to provide better nutrition in such bad climatic conditions.

Yet, given the contrast between the health of the average American and that of the average EU citizen, perhaps the jury is out on this for now. And as for the farmers, would a better solution not be found in reforming the trade system that denudes Third World countries of its food? GM could have untold consequences for other crops.

- nuclear power: Mark Lynas, who has written powerful articles on global warming, including the book "Six Degrees", visited Chernobyl, wistfully reflecting on the dreadful legacy of the 1986 disaster. It was an old reactor, he concluded. The new ones would be much safer, he was sure. The nuclear industry had cleaned up its act since 1986 - the implication being that Chernobyl and Three Miles Island could never happen again.

More than that, because the greens had spearheaded a reaction to these disasters which led to the cancellation of planned nuclear reactors, governments instead commissioned more coal powered electricity, leading to millions of tonnes of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. A former Greenpeace activist, Patrick Moore, was put up to denounce the "anti-science" of the green movement. But there again, he is now a paid lobbyist for the nuclear power and logging industries, so could he be trusted to say anything else?

Another view, summarily dismissed in the programme, would be that given the hugely uneconomic cost of nuclear reactors, governments have shied away from building the things. The argument presupposes a choice limited to coal or nuclear, ignoring the clean alternatives - such as solar, wind and waver power- which greens argue for in place of both these different but dirty and dangerous forms of energy production. It is bizarre to hold the green movement responsible for the decisions of others.

Channel 4 devoted 2 hours to this misleading polemic. Like previous efforts in this field, it was full of holes, half-truths and dissimulation. Greenpeace set out the very real corporate lobby interests of those contributing to the programme in the guise of "new environmentalists", allegedly able to see the science and weigh up realistically what is needed for the future. Others in the green movement were portrayed as wild-eyed evangelists, proselytising for a mythical past and hostile to anything modern. "The greens can dish it out, but they can’t take it," Lynas smirks, evidently revelling in his self-assigned moniker of "turncoat".

Lynas may or may not still have as alarming views of our likely future as he has expressed often enough, but if he thinks his efforts this evening in any way will assist the long battle to stop global warming, he is sadly deluded. Even if a complaint to OfCom, the broadcast regulator, of being badly misled by the producers from one of the contirbutors is upheld, at least some damage will have been done.

Channel 4 has a remit to be controversial and, of course, any and all sides of any debate have a right to be aired. But there needs to be a distinction between what is presented as documentary fact and what is simply the personal opinion of individuals - in the latter case, where is the balance? Will the green movement now be given two hours to put a counter-case? Or will this supposedly objective film be left standing for unquestioned use as propaganda by those who wish to carry on as usual?

Everyone involved in this enterprise should be searching their consciences. Self-publicity and audience ratings can come at a high cost to others - and to the planet.

Channel 4 - what is it up to?


  1. The "greens" did not campaign against DDT use to fight malaria. They campaigned against the overuse of DDT in agriculture, which overuse led directly to the abandonment of the WHO campaign to eradicate malaria because mosquitoes had bred immunity to DDT.

    In fact, Environmental Defense, the original anti-DDT group, campaigned for years to get the Bush Administration to use DDT for indoor residual spraying in Africa. (No one has ever been able to explain the Bush administration's policy.)

    Malaria's spread is not a result of the necessary and good efforts of environmentalists to stop the abuse of DDT, but is instead a direct result of the pro-poison faction's overuse of the stuff, and their campaign to impugn the reputations of scientists to get people to do the wrong thing.

  2. Ed, thanks. The programme very decidedly jumped over that point. It seems a bizarre and illogical approach - both with DDT and with nuclear power, they blamed the greens for the decisions taken by others. It would be as if you pleaded with someone threatening you with a gun not to shoot you, and then they stabbed you instead, the stabbing was you own fault!