Environmentalism for the 21st Century: How I see the future of environmentalism
As we begin the 21st century, environmental thinkers are divided along a sharp fault line. There are the doomsayers who predict the collapse of the global ecosystem. There are the technological optimists who believe that we can feed 12 billion people and solve all our problems with science and technology. I do not believe that either of these extremes makes sense. There is a middle road based on science and logic, the combination of which is sometimes referred to as common sense. There are real problems and there is much we can do to improve the state of the environment.
I was born and raised in the tiny fishing and logging village of Winter Harbour on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, in the rainforest by the Pacific. I didn’t realize what a blessed childhood I’d had, playing on the tidal flats by the salmon spawning streams in the rainforest, until I was shipped away to boarding school in Vancouver at age fourteen. I eventually attended the University of BC studying the life sciences: biology, forestry, genetics; but it was when I discovered ecology that I realized that through science I could gain an insight into the mystery of the rainforest I had known as a child. I became a born-again ecologist, and in the late 1960’s, was soon transformed into a radical environmental activist.
I found myself in a church basement in Vancouver with a like-minded group of people, planning a protest campaign against US hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska. We proved that a somewhat rag-tag looking group of activists could sail a leaky old halibut boat across the North Pacific Ocean and change the course of history. By creating a focal point for opposition to the tests we got on national news and helped build a ground-swell of opposition to nuclear testing in the US and Canada. When that bomb went off in November 1971 it was the last hydrogen bomb ever detonated on planet Earth. Even though there were four more tests planned in the series, President Nixon canceled them due to public opposition. This was the birth of Greenpeace
Flushed with victory and knowing we could bring about change by getting up and doing something, we were welcomed into the longhouse of the Kwakiutl Nation at Alert Bay near the north end of Vancouver Island. We were made brothers of the tribe because they believed in what we were doing. This began the tradition of the Warriors of the Rainbow, after a Cree legend that predicted one day when the skies are black and the birds fall dead to the ground and the rivers are poisoned, people of all races, colors and creeds will join together to form the Warriors of the Rainbow to save the Earth from environmental destruction. We named our ship the Rainbow Warrior and I spent fifteen years on the front lines of the eco-movement as we evolved from that church basement into the world’s largest environmental activist organization.
Next we took on French atmospheric nuclear testing in the South Pacific. They proved a bit more difficult than the US Atomic Energy Administration. But after many years of protest voyages and campaigning, involving loss of life on our side, they were first driven underground and eventually stopped testing altogether.
In 1975 we set sail deep-sea into the North Pacific against the Soviet Union’s factory whaling fleets that were slaughtering the last of the sperm whales off California. We put ourselves in front of the harpoons in little rubber boats and made Walter Cronkite’s evening news. That really put Greenpeace on the map. In 1979 the International Whaling Commission banned factory whaling in the North Pacific and soon it was banned in all the world’s oceans.
In 1978 I was arrested off Newfoundland for sitting on a baby seal, trying to shield it from the hunter’s club. I was convicted; under the draconianly named Seal Protection Regulations that made it illegal to protect seals. In 1984 baby sealskins were banned from European markets, effectively ending the slaughter.
Can you believe that in the early 1980’s, the countries of Western Europe were pooling their low and medium level nuclear wastes, putting them in thousands of oil drums, loading them on ships and dumping them in the Atlantic ocean as a way of “disposing” of the wastes. In 1984 a combined effort by Greenpeace and the UK Seafarer’s Union put an end to that practice for good.
By the mid-1980’s Greenpeace had grown from that church basement into an organization with an income of over US$100 million per year, offices in 21 countries and over 100 campaigns around the world, now tackling toxic waste, acid rain, uranium mining and drift net fishing as well as the original issues. We had won over a majority of the public in the industrialized democracies. Presidents and prime ministers were talking about the environment on a daily basis.
For me it was time to make a change. I had been against at least three or four things every day of my life for 15 years; I decided I’d like to be in favor of something for a change. I made the transition from the politics of confrontation to the politics of building consensus. After all, when a majority of people decide they agree with you it is probably time to stop hitting them over the head with a stick and sit down and talk to them about finding solutions to our environmental problems.
All social movements evolve from an earlier period of polarization and confrontation during which a minority struggles to convince society that its cause it is true and just, eventually followed by a time of reconciliation if a majority of the population accepts the values of the new movement. For the environmental movement this transition began to occur in the mid-1980s. The term sustainable development was adopted to describe the challenge of taking the new environmental values we had popularized, and incorporating them into the traditional social and economic values that have always governed public policy and our daily behavior. We cannot simply switch to basing all our actions on purely environmental values. Every day 6 billion people wake up with real needs for food, energy and materials. The challenge for sustainability is to provide for those needs in ways that reduce negative impact on the environment. But any changes made must also be socially acceptable and technically and economically feasible. It is not always easy to balance environmental, social, and economic priorities. Compromise and co-operation with the involvement of government, industry, academia and the environmental movement is required to achieve sustainability. It is this effort to find consensus among competing interests that has occupied my time for the past 15 years.
Not all my former colleagues saw things that way. They rejected consensus politics and sustainable development in favor of continued confrontation and ever-increasing extremism. They ushered in an era of zero tolerance and left-wing politics. Some of the features of this environmental extremism are:
Environmental extremists are anti-human. Humans are characterized as a cancer on the Earth. To quote eco-extremist Herb Hammond, “of all the components of the ecosystem, humans are the only ones we know to be completely optional”. Isn’t that a lovely thought?
They are anti-science and technology. All large machines are seen as inherently destructive and unnatural. Science is invoked to justify positions that have nothing to do with science. Unfounded opinion is accepted over demonstrated fact.
Environmental extremists are anti-trade, not just free trade but anti-trade in general. In the name of bioregionalism they would bring in an age of ultra-nationalist xenophobia. The original “Whole Earth” vision of one world family is lost in a hysterical campaign against globalization and free trade.
They are anti-business. All large corporations are depicted as inherently driven by greed and corruption. Profits are definitely not politically correct. The liberal democratic, market-based model is rejected even though no viable alternative is proposed to provide for the material needs of 6 billion people. As expressed by the Native Forest Network, “it is necessary to adopt a global phase out strategy of consumer based industrial capitalism.” I think they mean civilization.
And they are just plain anti-civilization. In the final analysis, eco- extremists project a naive vision of returning to the supposedly utopian existence in the garden of Eden, conveniently forgetting that in the old days people lived to an average age of 35, and there were no dentists. In their Brave New World there will be no more chemicals, no more airplanes, and certainly no more polyester suits.
Let me give you some specific examples that highlight the movement’s tendency to abandon science and logic and to get the priorities completely mixed up through the use of sensationalism, misinformation and downright lies.
The Brent Spar Oil Rig
In 1995, Shell Oil was granted permission by the British Environment Ministry to dispose of the North Sea oil rig “Brent Spar” in deep water in the North Atlantic Ocean. Greenpeace immediately accused Shell of using the sea as a “dustbin”. Greenpeace campaigners maintained that there were hundreds of tonnes of petroleum wastes on board the Brent Spar and that some of these were radioactive. They organized a consumer boycott of Shell and service stations were fire bombed in Germany. The boycott cost the company millions in sales. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl denounced the British government’s decision to allow the dumping. Caught completely off guard, Shell ordered the tug that was already towing the rig to its burial site to turn back. They then announced they had abandoned the plan for deep-sea disposal. This embarrassed British Prime Minister, John Major.
Independent investigation revealed that the rig had been properly cleaned and did not contain the toxic and radioactive waste claimed by Greenpeace. Greenpeace wrote to Shell apologizing for the factual error. But they did not change their position on deep-sea disposal despite the fact that on-land disposal would cause far greater environmental impact.
During all the public outrage directed against Shell for daring to sink a large piece of steel and concrete it was never noted that Greenpeace had purposely sunk its own ship off the coast of New Zealand in 1986. When the French government bombed and sunk the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, the vessel was permanently disabled. It was later re-floated, patched up, cleaned and towed to a marine park where it was sunk in shallow water as a dive site. Greenpeace said the ship would be an artificial reef and would support increased marine life.
The Brent Spar and the Rainbow Warrior are in no way fundamentally different from one another. The sinking of the Brent Spar could also be rationalized as providing habitat for marine creatures. It’s just that the public relations people at Shell are not as clever as those at Greenpeace. And in this case Greenpeace got away with using misinformation even though they had to admit their error after the fact. After spending tens of millions of dollars on studies Shell recently announced that it had abandoned any plan for deep-sea disposal and will support a proposal to re-use the rig as pylons in a dock extension project in Norway. Tens of millions of dollars and much precious time wasted over an issue that had nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with misinformation and fundraising hysteria.
To make matters worse, in 1998 Greenpeace successfully campaigned for a ban on all marine disposal of disused oil installations. This will result in hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars in unnecessary costs. One obvious solution would be to designate an area in the North Sea for the creation of a large artificial reef and to sink oil rigs there after cleaning them. This would provide a breeding area for fish and other marine life, enhancing the biological and economic productivity of the sea. But Greenpeace isn’t looking for solutions, only conflicts and bad
There has been a recent flurry of sensationalist warnings about the threat of exotic species. Zealous cadres of conservation biologists descend on wetlands to rip foreign weeds from the bog, declaring that “a rapidly spreading invasion of exotic plants and animals is destroying our nation’s biological diversity.” It’s amazing how a word that was so good, as in “exotic paradise” and “exotic pleasure” is now used to describe an alleged biological Holocaust.
I was inspired to write about exotic species when I heard a news story from Washington D.C. in the spring of 1999. The citizens of the Capitol were distressed to find that a family of beavers had taken up residence there and were busy felling the Japanese cherry trees that adorned the banks of the Potomac River. It became a national emergency of sorts and a great effort was made to trap every last beaver; only then were the townspeople put at ease. There was no mention made of the fact that the beaver is a native North American species whereas the cherry trees are exotics, imported from Japan. Yet there was no question which species the public favored.
In fact, the reason we dislike certain species and like others has nothing to do with whether or not they are exotic. By playing on people’s natural suspicion of all things foreign, environmentalists confuse the issue and give the public a misleading picture. There are actually thousands of exotic species that are not only beneficial, they are the mainstays of our daily lives. Food crops like wheat, rice, and cabbage are all exotics when grown in North America. Vegetables that originated in the Americas such as beans, corn and potatoes are exotics when they are grown in Europe. All around the world, agriculture is largely based on species that originated somewhere else. This is also the case for domestic animals, garden plants and street trees.
There are also hundreds of native species of plants and animals that we consider undesirable. For centuries we have referred to them as weeds, pests, vermin and disease. There are also many exotic species that fall into this category. And, of course, there are many native species that are considered extremely beneficial, especially those that provide food for a growing population. The point is, both exotic and native species can be desirable or undesirable from a human perspective, depending on how they effect our lives. Our almost innate dislike of rats and spiders has nothing to do with whether or not they are native or exotic, it is due to the possibility of deadly disease or a fatal bite. And even though dandelions in the lawn are hardly a life-and-death issue, millions are spent each year to rid lawns of these “weeds”.
Certain exotic species have resulted in severe negative impacts. The most notorious case involved the introduction of European species of animals to Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands when Europeans colonized these regions beginning about 225 years ago. Many native species, flightless birds and ground-dwelling marsupials in particular, were not able to survive the introduction of predators such as rats, cats and foxes. As a result, hundreds of native species were eliminated. Another well known exotic is Dutch elm disease, a fungus that actually originated in Asia, came through Europe and on to North America where it has resulted in the death of many native elms in the US and Canada.
There can be no doubt that we should always be careful when considering the introduction of a new species, and that regulations are needed to prevent undesirable accidental introductions. At the same time we must not lose sight of the fact that introduced species play a vital, indeed essential, role in modern society. Each species must be evaluated on its own merits. The introduction of some species may be desirable in one region and yet undesirable in others. Islands are particularly susceptible to introductions because they are isolated and their native species are not subjected to as wide a variety of predators and diseases. When rats are introduced to islands that support large bird rookeries there is often a precipitous decline in bird populations due to predation on eggs and nestlings.
There is really no difference when considering the use of an exotic species of tree for managed forests. The main reason we tend to use native species of trees for forestry in North America is because they are the best available in terms of productivity and wood quality. In other regions this is not the case. Radiata pine from California has been very successful in New Zealand, Australia, and Chile. Eucalyptus from Australia is the forestry species of choice in many parts of Brazil, Portugal and South Africa. Douglas-fir from Oregon has become the number two species of softwood produced in France. And Chinese larch is a favorite for reforestation in Scotland where forest cover was lost centuries ago to sheep farming.
The Invisible Poisons
Beginning with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s scare tactics about the use of the pesticide Alar on apples, the environmental movement has been very clever at inventing campaigns that make us afraid of our food. They conjure up invisible poisons that will give us cancer, birth defects, mutations, and otherwise kill us in our sleep. We will all soon be reduced to an hermaphroditic frenzy by endocrine mimicking compounds as we approach the Toxic Saturation Point.
Meanwhile, the National Cancer Institute of Canada conducted a joint study with U.S. counterparts beginning in 1994 to investigate the possible relationship between pesticide residues in food and cancer in humans. The findings published in the peer-reviewed journal “Cancer” in 1997, concluded that it could not find “any definitive evidence to suggest that synthetic pesticides contribute significantly to overall cancer mortality”, a careful way of saying they found zero connection. And yet, the article pointed out, over 30 percent of cancers in humans are caused by tobacco, a natural substance. And another 35 percent are caused by poor diet, mainly too much fat and cholesterol and not enough fresh fruit and vegetables. The main effect of the environmental campaign against pesticides is to scare parents into avoiding fresh fruit and vegetables for themselves and their children.
The same kind of scare tactics are now being employed in the campaign against biotechnology and genetically modified foods. Even though there is no evidence of negative human health effects and environmental concerns are blown completely out of proportion, great fear has been whipped up in the public. Large corporations are in retreat and governments are scrambling to get control of the issue. Unfortunately, some biotechnology companies and associations continue to belittle public concerns and resist disclosure of food ingredients. There is no escaping the fact that this is a new technology and that it must be introduced carefully and sometimes slowly. And public concerns, even when unfounded, must be taken seriously.
To simplify matters, the debate on biotechnology is about whether this science is, in the balance, positive or negative for human health and the environment.
It is unfortunate that the term “biotechnology” has come to be synonymous with “genetic engineering” or “GMO’s”. Biotechnology is a very broad term used to describe all aspects of new technologies applied to living things. This includes advances in human and veterinary medicine, pest control, crop production and nutrition. Unlike some other aspects of biotechnology, genetic modification is a form of biological rather than chemical intervention. In other words, genetic engineering is an organic science.
It amazes me that in a few short years the molecular biologists that were hailed as crusaders in a new genetic revolution are now reviled and characterised as mad scientists in the grip of greedy corporations bent on destroying the environment. At the WTO conference in Seattle in 1999 we were warned that “entire countries will be held in biological bondage. Genetic engineering will become a biological weapon used for agro-terrorism.” The public is given a fearful impression with images of Frankenstein foods, killer tomatoes, and terminator seeds. Is it any co-incidence that all three of these images are taken directly from scary Hollywood movies? I believe that the campaign of fear now waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic. In the balance it is clear that the real benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the hypothetical and often contrived risks claimed by its detractors.
Certainly any science or technology can be used for destructive purposes. We already have the ability to annihilate ourselves with physics, in the form of nuclear weapons, with chemistry, in the form of chemical weapons, and with biology, in the form of deadly microbes. I suppose it might be possible to increase the effectiveness of biological weapons with genetic modification, but as far as I am aware there is no need to do so. The ones we have already are more than capable of wiping us out.
But the programs of genetic research and development now underway in labs and field stations around the world is entirely about benefiting society and the environment. Its purpose is to improve nutrition, to reduce the use of synthetic chemicals, to increase the productivity of our farmlands and forests, and to improve human health. Those who have adopted a zero-tolerance attitude towards genetic modification threaten to deny these many benefits by playing on fear of the unknown and fear of change.
Many in the anti-biotech movement focus on the issue of corporate control. This is an entirely different subject than the science of genetic modification itself. Corporate control in the form of monopoly can occur in any sector. But, for example, just because Microsoft is alleged to have a monopoly over computer operating systems doesn’t mean we should all throw our computers in the garbage or demand that computers be banned. The technology itself must be analysed and judged separately from the institutional framework that is used to deliver that technology. And, unless we wish to dismantle all the laws relating to intellectual property there will continue to be proprietary rights in new developments, thus requiring an element of control. This is generally accepted as beneficial in that it encourages innovation and competition.
The so-called “precautionary principle” is constantly invoked as an argument for banning genetic modification. Whatever the precautionary principle means, it is not that we should stop learning and applying that knowledge in the real world. We will never know everything and it is impossible to create a world with zero risk. The real question, as so ably put by Indur M. Goklany in “Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically Modified Crops”, is whether the risks of banning genetic modification are greater or less than the risks of pursuing it. Of course, if we pursue genetic modification, or any other new technology, it must be done with great care and caution. This results in the adoption of a precautionary “approach” or a precautionary “attitude” rather than treating it as a “principle”. The daily example of crossing the street is sufficient to explain the difference between the two interpretations. If we would only cross the street when we had a 100% certainty that nothing would go wrong during the crossing we would never leave the curb. But that doesn’t mean we should cross without pausing and looking both ways before venturing into the roadway.
Concerns have been raised that GMOs will cause genes to be transferred from our food into our bodies, thus “polluting” our genetic make-up. There is no logical reason why genes from genetically modified organisms should effect our genes any more than those from the trillions of bacteria and the plates full of food that pass through our system every day.
Having commented on these general concerns about GMOs, let me turn to the many benefits that will be available from a responsibly managed program of genetic modification.
From an environmental perspective there are three main areas of positive impact on ecosystems. First, genetically modified crops will generally result in a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides. This will result in a dramatic reduction to the impact on non-target species. For example, when chemical or biological sprays are used to combat pests of the butterfly family (Lepidoptera), all species of butterfly and moth are killed. By contrast, when Bt cotton or Bt corn are grown, only those butterflies or moths that try to feed on the crop are severely impacted. Reducing chemical sprays also results in a cost saving to the farmer.
Second, and perhaps the most important environmental benefit of genetic modification, is the ability to increase the productivity of food crops. Along with other advances in technology, chemicals, and genetics, GMOs will often result in increased yields due to pest resistance, drought resistance, more efficient metabolism, and other genetic traits. It is a fact of arithmetic that the higher the yield of food per unit of land, the less land must be cleared to grow our food. Intensive agricultural production, much of which can be achieved through genetic modification, is a powerful tool to reduce the loss of the world’s natural ecosystems. The less land that is required to grow our food, the more that can be retained as forest and wilderness, where biodiversity can flourish. There is no doubt that when natural ecosystems such as forest are converted to agriculture there is a huge loss in biodiversity. Genetic modification could mitigate or even help reverse the continued loss of forest, particularly in the tropical developing countries where this trend is most severe.
Third, the development of herbicide tolerant varieties of food crops allows the adoption of low and zero tillage systems. This results in a considerable reduction in soil erosion, both conserving native soils and reducing the amount of chemical fertiliser inputs.
During a recent visit to Southeast Asia I took part in a seminar on biotechnology in Jakarta, Indonesia. There I met five farmers from South Sulawesi who had just completed a trial of Bt cotton on their farms. They reported that yields had risen from the normal 600 kilos per hectare to an average of 2500 kilos per hectare, a four times increase in yield. At the same time they had reduced pesticide applications from eight sprayings to one spraying, and the single spraying was for a secondary insect pest, not the bollworm that the cotton was now protected against. And yet, environmental NGOs, supported by the Indonesian Minister of the Environment, are trying hard to thwart the efforts of these farmers. Indonesia imports over $1 billion in cotton each year, mainly from Australia. Bt cotton could help Indonesia to be more self-sufficient in cotton production. It could also improve the lot of farmers, reduce chemical use, and result in reduced clearance of natural forestland for agriculture.
There is a tendency to treat medicine and nutrition as separate subjects when in fact food is simply our most important medicine. This is brought home by considering one of the recent advances in genetic modification, the golden rice. Whereas normal rice contains no carotene, by splicing a gene from daffodils into rice plants, it has been possible to produce rice that contains carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A is necessary for eyesight and every year about 500,000 people, mainly children in India and Africa, go blind due to vitamin A deficiency. The golden rice has the potential to eliminate this human tragedy when it is introduced in a few years. At a recent conference on biotechnology in Bangkok, a Greenpeace spokesperson claimed that there was “zero benefit from GMOs”. How can anyone suggest that 500,000 children saved form blindness is a “zero benefit”.
Genetic modification promises to bring a wide range of advances in human health and nutrition. As summarised by Professor Philip Stott of the University of London these include:
Foods with increased digestibility, less saturated fats, cholesterol-reducing properties, and the potential for heart and cancer health benefits.
High-performance cooking oils that will maintain texture at raised temperatures, reduce processing needs, and create healthier products from peanuts, soybeans, and sunflowers.
Edible crops that carry vaccines against diseases such as cholera, hepatitis and malaria.
Crops with reduced allergenicity, e.g. peanuts.
Crops with better storage and transport characteristics through delayed ripening and fungus/pest protection. These include bananas, pineapples, raspberries, strawberries, and tomatoes.
New subsistence crops that will extend agriculture into marginal areas such as saline soils, soils poor in nutrients, and drought-affected regions.
How can a policy of zero-tolerance for genetic modification be justified in the face of these overwhelming benefits? The bankruptcy of the anti-biotech movement position is illustrated by the example of the so-called “Terminator seeds”. When Monsanto proposed to produce a genetically modified soybean variety that produced no viable seeds, environmental groups vilified the company for condemning farmers to dependence on corporate seeds. Yet, the same environmental groups raise fears that viable seed from genetically modified plants might be harmful to the environment if they spread into the wild. So its damned if you do and damned if you don’t. These groups have made it clear that they are against all genetic modification, and they will invent any argument to support that position, regardless of logical inconsistency or demonstrated fact.
Global climate change is another area where extreme statements are made, in this case on both sides of the debate, when there is little in science to defend them. Some things are quite certain. Carbon dioxide levels are rising and our consumption of fossil fuels and deforestation in the tropics are probably the main causes. There is a lot of evidence that the earth’s climate is warming: the glaciers in Alaska are retreating and great egrets are visiting northern Lake Huron. But here the consensus ends.
Climate change is a wonderful example to demonstrate the limitations of science. There are two fundamental characteristics of climate change that make it very difficult to use the empirical (scientific) method to predict the future. First there are simply too many uncontrollable variables — the empirical method works best when you can control all the variables except the one you are studying. Second, and even more significant, is the fact that we have only one planet to observe. If we had 50 planet Earths and increased the carbon dioxide levels on 25 of them, leaving the other 25 alone, we might be able to determine a statistical difference between the two samples. With only one Earth, we are reduced to complex computer models of questionable value, and a lot of guesswork.
Climate change is not about scientific certainty; it is about the evaluation and management of risk. I think it is fair to say that climate change poses a real risk, however small or large. When faced with the risk the logical thing to do is to buy and insurance policy. Unfortunately we have no actuarial science on which to base the size of the insurance premium; this is where the guesswork comes in. Is it worth reducing fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent to avoid global warming? Should we add the risk of massive nuclear energy construction to offset carbon dioxide emissions? What does “worth doing away” really mean? Is it possible that global warming might have more positive effects than negative ones?
Biodiversity and Forests
The Rainforest Action Network, an eco-political group based in San Francisco, recently published on their Web page that “the International Botanical Society recently released the results of an extensive study showing that, at current rates, two-thirds of the world’s plant and animal species will become extinct by the year 2100.” The International Botanical Society is nowhere to be found on the Internet.
More seriously, in March 1996, the World Wildlife Fund held a media conference in Geneva during the first meeting of the UN Panel on Forests. They stated that there are now 50,000 species going extinct every year due to human activity, more than at any time since the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. Most significantly, WWF stated that the main cause of these extinctions is “commercial logging”. This was largely due, according to WWF director-general Claude Martin, to “massive deforestation in industrialized countries.” The statements made at the media conference were broadcast and printed around the world, giving millions of people the impression that forestry was the main cause of species extinction.
I have tried to determine the basis for this allegation, openly challenging the WWF to provide details of species extinctions caused by logging. To date it would appear that there is no scientific evidence on which to base such a claim. WWF has provided no list of species that have become extinct due to logging. In particular, the claim of “massive deforestation” in industrialized countries runs counter to information provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. According to the FAO, the area of forest in the industrialized world is actually growing by about 0.2% per year, due to the reforestation of land that was previously cleared for farming.
In May 1996, I wrote to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in his capacity as President of WWF. I stated in part:
“Myself and many colleagues who specialize in forest science are distressed at recent statements made by WWF regarding the environmental impact of forestry. These statements indicate a break with WWF’s strong tradition of basing their policies on science and reason. To the best of our knowledge, not a single species has become extinct in North America due to forestry.”
Prince Philip replied:
“I have to admit I did not see the draft of the statement that (WWF spokesperson) Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud was to make at the meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forestry in Geneva. The first two of his comments (50,000 species per year and the dinosaur comparison) are open to question, but they are not seriously relevant to the issue. However, I quite agree that his third statement (logging being the main cause of extinction) is certainly contentious and the points that you make are all good ones. All I can say is that he was probably thinking of tropical forests when he made the comment.”
Since this exchange of correspondence, WWF has changed the way they characterize the impact of forestry in relation to species extinction. At their “Forests for Life” conference in San Francisco in May 1997, there was no mention made of forestry being the main cause of species extinction. Instead, WWF unveiled a report stating that “three quarters of the continent’s forest ecoregions are threatened with extinction, showing for the first time that it is not just individual species but entire ecosystems that are at risk in North America.” The word ‘extinction’ is normally used to mean that something has been completely eliminated. It is entirely beyond reason to suggest that three quarters of the forested areas of North America will become ‘extinct’ yet this is what WWF is proclaiming to the public.
I have been a subscriber to National Geographic since my father first gave it to me as a gift when I was in school. I have always looked forward to the latest edition, with all the wonders of the world between its covers. Lately, however, even this stalwart of objective science has fallen prey to the prophets of doom who believe a human-caused “mass extinction” is already underway.
The February 1999 special edition on Biodiversity – The Fragile Web, contained a particularly unfortunate article titled “The Sixth Extinction”. This refers to the fact that there have been five main extinction events during the past 500 million years, the two most severe of which are believed to have been caused by meteor impacts. It may well be that all five were of extra-terrestrial origin. During the most recent mass extinction, 65 million years ago, 17 per cent of all the taxonomic families of life were lost, including the dinosaurs. An even greater extinction occurred 250 million years ago when 54 per cent of all families perished, including the trilobites. (family is a term used in taxonomy, two levels up from individual species, for example the cat family, the lily family, and the hummingbird family. Each family contains many, sometimes hundreds, of individual species).
The first two pages of the article contain a photo of Australian scientist, Dr. Tim Flannery, looking over a collection of stuffed and pickled small extinct mammals. The caption under the photo reads: “In the next century half of all species could be annihilated, as were these mammals seen in Tim Flannery’s lab at the Australian Museum. Unlike the past five, this mass extinction is being fueled by humans.” To be sure, mention is made later in the article that the Australian extinctions were caused by the introduction of cats and foxes when Europeans colonized the region over 200 years ago. This resulted in the loss of about 35 animal species, mainly of flightless birds and ground-dwelling marsupials that were not able to defend themselves against these new predators. This is hardly a “mass extinction” and the cause was a one-time introduction of exotic species. The rate of extinction of Australian mammals has slowed considerably in recent decades, partly because the most vulnerable species are already extinct, and partly because people started caring about endangered species and began working to prevent them from going extinct. In Australia today there are programs to control wild cats and foxes, some of which have resulted in the recovery of native animal populations.
The use of the Australian example to justify claims that we are experiencing a mass extinction is put into focus by Brian Groombridge, editor of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species when he states, “around 75% of recorded extinctions . . . have occurred on islands. Very few extinctions have been recorded in continental tropical forest habitat, where mass extinction events are predicted to be underway.” It is clearly misleading to point to the specific and exceptional case of extinctions caused by the introduction of new species to islands as evidence of a worldwide mass extinction. The National Geographic article goes on to quote biologist Stuart Pimm; “It’s not just species on islands or in rain forests or just birds or big charismatic mammals. It’s everything and it’s everywhere. It is a worldwide epidemic of extinctions.” Yet nearly every example used in the article involves islands such as Australia and Tasmania, Mauritius, Easter Island, and the many islands of the South Pacific.
On pages 48 and 49 of the Sixth Extinction article there is a graph depicting the number of taxonomic families that have existed on earth for the past 600 million years. The graph shows that despite the five great extinctions that have occurred during this period, the number of living families has risen steadily, from around 200 families 500 million years ago to over 1,000 families today. This tendency to diversify over time is one of the major features of evolution. The line of the graph is a thick, solid one until it reaches the present day whereupon it turns abruptly downward as if to indicate a loss of families due to the “mass extinction” now underway. But the line does not remain thick and solid; it turns fuzzy right at the point where it turns down. I wrote to National Geographic and asked, “Why does the line turn fuzzy? Is it because there are actually no known families that have become extinct in recent times? I do not know of any families of ‘beetles, amphibians, birds and large mammals’ that have become extinct as implied in the text.”
The reply to my inquiry came from Robin Adler, one of the researchers who worked on the article. She thanked me for “sharing my thoughts on this complicated and controversial issue” but offered no answer to my question about the graph. Instead she asked me to “Rest assured that . . . the many members of our editorial team . . .worked closely with numerous experts in conservation biology, paleobiology, and related fields. The concept of a “sixth extinction” is widely discussed and, for the most part, strongly supported by our consultants and other experts in these areas, although specific details such as the time frame in which it will occur and the number of species that will be affected continues to be debated.”
Nowhere in the National Geographic article is there any mention that the “sixth extinction” is a controversial subject; it is presented as if it is a known fact. It is clear from the reply that the “mass extinction” is actually in the future (“the time frame in which it will occur”). In other words there is no evidence that a mass extinction is actually occurring now, even though the article plainly implies that it is. The reply also refers to the sixth extinction as a “concept” implying that it is just an idea rather than a proven fact. Perhaps a better title for the article would have been “No Mass Extinction Yet, Maybe Someday.”
It is very frustrating when a trusted institution such as the National Geographic resorts to sensationalism, exaggeration, and misleading illustrations. There is enough bad science and misinformation in the popular press as it is. One can only hope that the present tendency to ignore science and logic, rightly referred to as a “bad intellectual climate” by environmental philosopher Henry H. Webster, will eventually come to an end.
Trees Are The Answer
If trees are the answer, you might ask, what is the question? I believe that trees are the answer to a lot of questions about our future. These include: How can we advance to a more sustainable economy based on renewable fuels and materials? How can we improve literacy and sanitation in developing countries while reversing deforestation and protecting wildlife at the same time? How can we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere, carbon dioxide in particular? How can we increase the amount of land that will support a greater diversity of species? How can we help prevent soil erosion and provide clean air and water? How can we make this world more beautiful and green? The answer is, by growing more trees and then using more wood, both as a substitute for non-renewable fossil fuels and materials such as steel, concrete and plastic, and as paper products for printing, packaging and sanitation.
When the world’s leaders met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 at the Earth Summit they agreed that three issues are at the top of the international environmental agenda. These are; climate change, biodiversity, and forests. Of course there are many other important issues, including toxic chemicals and nuclear waste, but they are secondary compared to these “Big Three”, all of which are global in nature. Unfortunately, most scientists, activists, and policy-makers have specialized in one or the other of these critical areas of concern, and have not focussed as strongly on the profound inter-relationships among them. This has resulted in a situation where most of the environmental movement has adopted a position on forests that is logically inconsistent with its positions on climate change and biodiversity. The risk of climate change is mainly due to fossil fuel consumption and the emission of CO2. The risk to biodiversity is mainly due to the loss of forests caused by clearing for agriculture and cities. A large part of the solution to both these issues involves growing more trees and using more wood. The environmental movement has adopted a policy that is the opposite of this approach.
By considering forests in isolation from the other major issues, it may seem logical that we can save them by reducing wood consumption, that is, by cutting fewer trees. Greenpeace has appealed to the members of the United Nations to reduce wood consumption and use “environmentally appropriate alternatives” instead. The Rainforest Action Network is campaigning for a 75% reduction in wood use in the United States through its “wood use reduction program.” The Sierra Club has adopted a formal policy called “zero cut” that would put an end to commercial forestry on federal public land. All these campaigns can be summed up as “cut fewer trees – use less wood.”
There are two problems with this approach. First, just because people stop using wood for fuel or building houses doesn’t mean they will not need warmth or shelter. The fact that 6 billion humans wake up every morning with real needs for energy, food and materials must be taken into account. All the likely substitutes for wood: steel, concrete, plastic and fossil fuels, have far higher emissions of CO2 associated with their production and use. Using less wood will automatically result in the use of more of these non-renewable resources, and an inevitable increase in CO2 emissions. Second, much of the land that is used to grow trees could just as well be cleared and used for grazing, farming, and housing. If there is less demand for wood there will be less economic incentive to grow trees and retain forests. It is unrealistic to expect people to retain vast areas of the landscape in forests if they cannot use them. The best way to encourage people to retain and expand forests is to make the resources they provide, including wood, more valuable.
Environmentalism For the 21st Century
It’s easy to see that the mainstream of the environmental movement has fallen prey to misguided priorities, misinformation, dogmatism, and self-interest. Soon after I left Greenpeace in 1986, I found out that they had initiated a pension plan. I knew I had got out just in time. In the early days many of us realized that our job was to work ourselves out of the job, not to give ourselves jobs for life. I feel the same way about my efforts to promote sustainability, sustainable forestry, and the application of science and logic to environmental issues. I am sometimes amazed by the fact that this seems more difficult than my original work to promote awareness of ecology and the environment. Perhaps this time I do have a job for life. Still no pension plan, however!
What are the main features off a rational environmental policy for the 21st century? Some points to consider are as follows:
Wherever possible, we should move towards an economy that is based on renewable energy and material resources. Sustainability is not synonymous with renewability but it is strongly linked to it. Where we do use non-renewable resources they should be used wisely and recycled whenever practical.
We should learn to manage our population voluntarily. The UN Conference on Population, held in Cairo in 1994, concluded that the most effective way to manage population growth is the education and empowerment of women. This leaves no place for patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, or dictatorships.
We should develop a more globally unified analysis of the relationships among land use, energy and resource consumption, forests and biodiversity, and population. Policies that have global implications must not be logically inconsistent one with the other.
We should learn to be better gardeners at both local and global scales. With 6 or 8 billion mouths to feed this will require more intensive agricultural production including the use of fertilizer, synthetic pesticides, and biotechnology. It is a simple fact of arithmetic that the less land we need to grow our food the more is available for forest and wilderness.
Urban sprawl must be brought under control. We have allowed the automobile to determine urban form by default. 300,000 hectares of forest are lost in the United States every year, all of it due to 200 cities spreading out over the land. Denser, more livable, cities must be designed if population continues to grow.
Deforestation in the tropics must eventually be stabilized or reversed. This can be accomplished by the transfer of intensive agricultural practices, the establishment of fast-growing, sustainable fuel-wood plantations, and the management of population growth.
As an ecologist and environmentalist, not a political scientist or political activist, I have always shied away from strong opinions on poverty and class. But it seems unacceptable to me that so many hundreds of millions of people live at a material standard that we in the industrialized countries would not consider acceptable for a dignified life. I believe there is a great deal to be learned by exploring the relationships between ecology and politics. In some ways politics is the ecology of the human species. The two subjects have developed such completely different disciplines and terminologies that it is hard to think of them together. But I believe we must if we are to gain a truly holistic understanding of the relationship between ourselves and our society, and the Earth on which we ultimately depend.