The fact that belief in climate change in the US tends to correlate with political affiliation should tell you that we are not objectively interpreting the science as much as we are following the values of our chosen peer group. Because in a world where we follow the evidence, it’s an extraordinarily unlikely outcome.
The truth is that the science of what is happening is as settled as science ever is. That isn’t to be conflated with the challenges of predicting the future. However sophisticated the predictive models get, they are still speculative. And it isn’t to be understood as believing all the headlines written by journalists too lazy to check the original sources (no, all insects are not about to die out—at least, the research that prompted those headlines does not provide any such evidence).
We know enough to understand that we should be taking serious action. The fact that the only groups advocating action at the moment are demanding questionable strategies doesn’t change that. If you’re in a vehicle heading towards a cliff and the passenger on the back seat advises that you crash the car to avoid going off the cliff, you would be wise to ignore their advice. But you’re still heading towards the cliff and you need a plan of your own.
We are so far behind in this, in significant part, due to the remarkable failure of the environmentalist movement to do its job. In fact, rather than persuading people to prioritise the issue, environmentalists have been pushing us backwards. There’s no point being judgemental about it. Largely leaderless groups follow gut instinct not sound strategy. But while being passionate and well-meaning, the movement has done exactly the wrong things in order to achieve its objectives.
This article isn’t about playing the blame game (which is actually, as you’ll see, one of the movement’s bad habits). I simply wish to argue that we need an alternative. Ironically, that alternative is most likely to come from the people the eco-warriors most revile.
Why Has the Environmentalist Movement Faltered?
It’s not as though the environmentalist movement has failed at everything. Indeed, it has had some remarkable successes. Environmentalists raised the issue of the ozone layer’a depletion. Governments came together and agreed to give companies just enough time to innovate and replace the CFC gases that provide beneficial products but are too toxic to live with. Unsurprisingly, when faced with such a deadline, the private sector came up with the goods. The hole in the ozone layer is en route to repairing itself.
This was the best approach. It tackled the problem while working to retain the benefits to society of the products causing the trouble. Environmentalists helped raise the issue. Others then had to develop the best solution. And that’s a pretty good process. We’ve seen other successes, too. The banning of lead in petrol. The complete clean-up of what was a huge problem with acid rain. And there are individual groups within the movement that excel in understanding specific issues in depth and what needs to be done.
But the broader movement fails for a number of reasons. I will briefly explore three of them.
1. The Promotion of an Austere Lifestyle at the Expense of Practical Solutions
We need to reduce the climate change impact of our activities. Quite radically. There are some big system things we can do that will make an impact. Then there are some really hard things that might adversely affect people’s quality of life in significant ways. Any smart strategy would start with the low-hanging fruit, and hope that we could do enough to avoid having the negative impact of the latter measures.
Take the area of food production, for instance. If you analyse the emissions that come from food, there are systemic issues you can address. According to the FAO, we currently waste a third of all food produced. This waste comes early in the production process in developing countries (due to lack of refrigeration and transport infrastructure) and at the consumer level in developed societies (we buy stuff, let it go off, and then throw it out). That’s a system problem that could be addressed without people being made worse off in any way.
Then there’s the energy use embedded in the production of animal feeds and other related processes that could usefully be moved to clean energy. The emissions generated in creating beef in the US are considerably lower than the global average, which suggests there are efficiencies that can be made worldwide. And, even more radically, there’s now the prospect of lab-grown meat that would significantly reduce environmental impact whilst providing a high quality product. There’s a lot more, but you get the point. These are all demonstrably good things from an economic, human well-being, and environmental standpoint. So any movement with a smart strategy would begin there.
On the other hand, it is exceedingly difficult to change people’s diets—to influence what people, given freedom and lots of options, choose to eat. But that is where environmentalists start. We are told we should be eating less meat, or preferably no meat. We’re told we should be avoiding butter. And sugar. And maybe carbs, depending upon which guru you’re listening to. Indeed, in a recent “report,” the EAT Lancet report, a group of researchers proposed a “global diet,” which they said would mean 10 billion people could exist on the planet without starving. Imagine that. 10 billion people. All eating the same diet. Sound like utopia to you? No, me neither.
Forget your individual food cultures, developed over hundreds of years. Forget how important food is in defining places and giving a sense of identity. One approved diet. That diet has miniscule amounts of meat grudgingly permitted per week. Just one egg (so no-one’s going to be eating cake or omelettes ever again). And lots of vegetables and pulses, of course. Recent research has found that only one in five people who voluntarily adopted a vegan or vegetarian diet had stuck with it by the end of one year. And that’s people who choose to follow it. That stuff is hard. Who on earth believes you could compel people to follow such a diet because a bunch of researchers said they should? Environmentalists, that’s who.
Elsewhere, we now see the future of road travel taking shape. Electric vehicles, powered by clean energy, mean that people can retain the huge convenience of personal travel without either the global emissions or the local air pollution. Not good enough for environmentalists, who are still saying everyone should either be cycling or using public transport.
Similarly, we know that international travel is hugely beneficial. The more you travel, the more you appreciate the cultural diversity and natural beauty of the world. And, shocking though some find it, sometimes people do just want some guaranteed sunshine to frolic on the beach. Reducing the impact of air flight is a difficult problem because of the physics involved, but then we thought the same about clean cars 30 years ago. People are working hard on that problem. But environmentalists insist the answer is that everyone should just stop flying. The most extreme activists already talk about holidaymakers engaging in “genocide against future generations.” They remain puzzled as to why they’re not winning more friends and supporters.
The purpose of tackling these issues should be to protect the planet and the essential life-support systems it provides to humans. But, by preference, doing so in a way that preserves individual freedoms and quality of life. Maybe we’ll fail. It’s a real possibility. Maybe we’ll be forced down the line into something more austere because we messed up and something goes badly wrong. But in the meantime, nobody will support or vote for the people who seem to prefer that outcome as their solution of first preference.
2. A Focus on the Science of Ecology at the Expense of Persuasion and Strategy
Climate change is a problem we all share. A good strategy for tackling it would start with consensus-building for action among all political persuasions, and across all cultures and nations. But the environmentalist movement is ideological, and it believes in adopting an aggressively confrontational “Us versus Them” approach.
For certain problems, “Us versus Them” remains a powerful rallying cry. We all know about the unifying power of the threatening “other.” It is why political leaders under duress often seek to conjure such an “other,” even if it doesn’t exist. For environmental problems, however, this approach is about the dumbest and most counter-productive strategy available.
And yet, environmentalists insist that business in general, and oil companies in particular, are the enemy. The “richest one percent” are the enemy. The political Right is the enemy. The greedy capitalists are the enemy. And we will only achieve a sustainable future when “We” the forces of goodness rise up and defeat “Them.” It is as if environmental activists assume that none of the people in these groups have children of their own or a stake in the future.
This antagonistic tendency has always been a feature of the environmentalist movement, but only in recent decades has it broken along party political lines. Maybe that was because of the rise to prominence of Al Gore as the US’s environmental campaigner-in-chief. He was powerful and eloquent (even if he didn’t get all of his facts right, he got the most important ones right), but he was also patently partisan. And that gave his conservative opponents an incentive to retreat into their own political bunker.
But, whatever the cause, the environmental movement has forgotten how to build a consensus, and why that ought to be an important campaign aim. Recently, we have seen the rise of the so-called “Extinction Rebellion” group in the UK (an emergence currently replicating in other countries), which makes impossible demands to justify breaking the law. It demands targets so severe that they could only be achieved by creating great suffering and hardship. And behind their approach lies a fairly ugly ideology. Consider these words, uttered by one of the group’s founders, and promoted by its official Twitter account:
[Extinction Rebellion] isn’t about the climate. You see, the climate’s breakdown is a symptom of a toxic system of that has infected the ways we relate to each other as humans and to all life. This was exacerbated when European ‘civilisation’ was spread around the globe through cruelty and violence (especially) over the last 600 years of colonialism, although the roots of the infections go much further back.
As Europeans spread their toxicity around the world, they brought torture, genocide, carnage and suffering to the ends of the earth. Their cultural myths justified the horrors, such as the idea that indigenous people were animals (not humans), and therefore God had given us dominion over them. This was used to justify a multi-continent-wide genocide of tens of millions of people. The coming of the scientific era saw this intensify, as the world around us was increasingly seen as ‘dead’ matter — just sitting there waiting for us to exploit it and use it up. We’re now using it up faster than ever.
So the problem isn’t that we’ve been so successful as a species that we’re having to deal with the unintended consequences of scale. The problem is toxic Europeans. Nobody else, we are invited to infer, was being cruel and exploitative until they arrived and despoiled paradise. Most of the concerned young people joining Extinction Rebellion are probably not aware of this position. But it explains why nobody in the founding group is particularly concerned with appealing across party lines. This is just ideological self-indulgence and, sadly, it is not a trait confined to the Extinction Rebellion group.
That self-indulgence is also apparent in how the wider movement routinely uses children as PR props. Whether it’s the young people sent to shame Dianne Feinstein into supporting the Green New Deal, the idolisation of teenage activist Greta Thunberg, or the blatant manipulation of very young children by Extinction Rebellion (which held a “blood of our children” demonstration, at which children aged 10 and 6 spoke), the line is that young people are rising up.
The older generation has betrayed the younger generation. Us versus Them. So the voices of children must be heard. Children who are correctly considered incapable of consenting to sex, or voting, or driving, are nevertheless capable of delivering wisdom about complex scientific matters and proposed public policy solutions. And if, like Dianne Feinstein, you stand respectfully against this sort of manipulation, then the anger of the usual Twitter gods will be forthcoming.
Not that there’s anything wrong with young people like Greta Thunberg making themselves heard. I was a relatively young campaigner myself in my time. But it’s the way the movement has now leapt up, amplified, and occasionally created this phenomenon artificially using children significantly younger that the almost-young-adult Thunberg.
Campaigners ensconced in their echo chambers think this is a hugely powerful device. To many observers, however, it simply looks like adults exploiting children for political ends. Yes, we need to fix these problems for the sake of our children. That’s not the same as exposing children to the pressures of these issues by putting them in the front line.
3. A Selective Approach to Scientific Data and Evidence
Maybe nuclear power should be part of the power mix for the low-carbon world. It’s not a straight forward solution and the costs must be considered and weighed. But the debate about nuclear power in environmentalist circles isn’t pragmatic, it’s ideological. Nuclear power is out. And what about genetic engineering? There are all sorts of ways that food production can be optimised by the sensible and restrained use of that technology. But again, many activists and campaigners have decided that this is beyond the pale. Positions like these are not adopted because we’re holding the facts under review or waiting for the evidence—they are articles of faith.
What Are the Alternatives?
Environmentalist solutions tend to focus on the “what must be done for the planet” but ignore “what must be done for people.” Their preferred solutions therefore put at risk the human progress we’ve made to date, which includes halving extreme poverty, improving global life expectancies, and immeasurably improving people’s lives compared to those of their grandparents. And environmentalist solutions tend towards authoritarianism, even though such approaches always end badly and centrally controlled societies have never been remotely eco-friendly.
So far, the political centre-Right and (depressingly, I have to add) even parts of the usually-alive-to-scientific-evidence Intellectual Dark Web, have been content to criticise the extremes of the environmentalist Left. They have embraced their tribe’s default opinion that this issue probably isn’t a big deal, it probably won’t be as bad as they say, and we probably can’t do anything about it anyway. That is hardly the rigorous analysis we see applied to other issues. And it is wishful thinking.
When businesses are analysing risk, and they encounter an issue about which they don’t know the full facts, they tend to flag that issue as a higher risk until they do. And, unsurprisingly (except to environmentalists), businesses are currently among the most effective entities now taking a lead on the environment. Some of the leading companies have adopted stringent science-based targets for reducing their own impacts. It’s not an easy problem to solve. But because businesses are pragmatic entities, used to managing change and strong on innovation, they are well placed to do it.
So you get companies like IKEA and Unilever, disrupters like Tesla, and a whole lot of others on the journey, including companies the campaigners love to hate, like Walmart and Nestlé. You get companies like Maersk, committed to developing zero-carbon shipping vehicles for 2030, because although the environmentalists never talk about shipping (not as sexy as plastic straws) it has a significant impact.
Not one of these companies is an agent of the Left. They are seeking ways to create wealth that benefits their customers and the world, but they are doing so in a way that is sustainable in the long-term. The centre-Right should be drawing inspiration from their approach, and embracing their solutions. And when the leading companies have demonstrated what is possible, it is appropriate that governments then establish those improved approaches as the new minimum standard. Consumers can still choose what to buy, and how to live their lives. But the negative impact of those choices is significantly reduced.
Yes, there are a ton of problems to be solved. Clean energy is needed, but there are innovation barriers still to be overcome. That isn’t an insurmountable obstacle if you’re committed to the end goal. And, as much as some on the Right may hate it, we do need to have a stab at evolving this wonderful thing we call capitalism. Because the system as currently configured rewards the short-term too much, and incentivises companies dumping costs on society where they can get away with it. The corporate responsibility movement has made some real progress in understanding how companies, by engaging with their legitimate stakeholders, can be responsive to the expectations of society and remain commercially successful. But the system works against them, not with them at the moment. That’s surely a problem we can solve together. It is far more likely that we will achieve sustainability if we work together to reduce the impact of our choices than by seeking to deny them.
But isn’t all the real impact now coming from China, making anything we do irrelevant? It is not irrelevant by any stretch, because we’re learning vital lessons about how to create wealth without impact. And the technologies that help us do that will set the new standards worldwide. Nevertheless, we need to focus on where the biggest problems are globally. It is understandable that people, to date, have been most aware of the developed world’s historic responsibility for emissions. However, the major growth in fossil fuel consumption in China is something that needs to be addressed.
There’s no one simple solution to that. We want Chinese people to continue their rise from poverty to prosperity. But even with the current state of technology, this is a problem that could be solved if the will were truly there. The Paris Agreement was arguably a failure in that regard.
In the 1990s, while American motor manufacturers were spending most of their time lobbying against increased fuel efficiency standards, Japanese companies were investing in the next generation of technology that they realised would be needed, given what we knew even then about the environment. Lo and behold, within a generation a Japanese car company, unthinkably, became the number one car company in the US.
The case study of the Toyota Prius is instructive. When it was first marketed, it was sold on its environmental credentials. It didn’t sell well. However, when they changed tack and sold it as the high-tech car of the future, suddenly it became the eco-car that movie stars wanted to be seen driving. One might argue that the same marketing pitch is now serving Tesla well, for all its chaotic leadership issues.
In other words, the new sustainable future needs to be sold on the benefits to people, and needs to be developed by folks who care about those benefits. But the clock’s ticking. It’s time to step up.
Mallen Baker hosts a podcast, the Mallen Baker Podcast for change makers and commentary videos on YouTube. For the last 20 years, he has been working with businesses on corporate responsibility and sustainability. He started adult life campaigning in the environmental movement, and is a former co-chair of the UK Green Party. You can follow him on Twitter @mallenbaker