Correspondence with Stewart Brand – Second Tranche

These are the letters generated by our ongoing tussle

From George Monbiot to Stewart Brand, 10th November 2010

Dear Stewart,

thank you for your emails and sorry for taking a while to reply: I had to check your claims before responding to them. Before I go on, let me remind you of some of things you say in your book:

“Every interview with a public figure should include the question “What have you been wrong about, and how did that change your views?” The answer will tell us if the person is intellectually honest or a tale spinner with delusions of infallibility.”

“Fessing up aids learning.”

“Failure to acknowledge a mistake is paralyzing.”

Are we to assume that this advice applies only to other people?

I have now given you several opportunities – before, during and after our televised debate – to admit that you made a mistake when you claimed, in relation to the control of malaria, that “DDT was banned worldwide”. Instead of doing so, you have dug a deeper hole for yourself.

It’s not a complicated matter. A worldwide ban cannot take place without an international instrument. The only instrument I’m aware of that regulates DDT at the global level is the 2001 Stockholm Convention. This does not ban its use for disease control. Rather, DDT is banned for agricultural purposes, not least because spraying it indiscriminately encourages resistance in malarial mosquitoes. If there is another instrument, please name it and quote the relevant text. If there isn’t, all you need to do is to admit that you got it wrong. As the passages I’ve quoted from your book suggest, there’s no shame in doing so. The shame lies in sticking to a claim when it has been shown to be false.

Instead of answering my challenge, you begin your emails by selectively quoting two articles which make broad and generalised allegations (several of which turn out to be false), but which provide no evidence for a global ban. I took the trouble of reading these articles in full, and found that both of them, in sections you don’t quote, make it clear that there was no global ban. That hardly helps your case.

Then you take the extraordinary step of turning for help to Patrick Moore. Moore, as I am sure you are aware, represents a number of polluting and destructive industries, and helps them with their battles against environmentalists. For example, he fronted the logging industry’s campaign against people trying to stop the clearcutting of old-growth forests in western Canada. He has been a prominent spokesman in the movement denying that manmade climate change is taking place, and has frequently been criticised for failing to declare his commercial interests. He is the source of a number of lurid myths about the environment movement.

For example, in the Great Global Warming Swindle, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2007, he made the following claim:

“When I left Greenpeace it was in the midst of them adopting a campaign to ban chlorine worldwide. Like I said, ‘you guys, this is one of the elements in the periodic table, you know; I mean, I’m not sure if it’s in our jurisdiction to be banning a whole element.'”

But Greenpeace has never campaigned to ban chlorine worldwide. Instead it has campaigned against certain organo-chlorines, like dioxin, and sought – successfully – to stop chlorine being used to bleach woodpulp in Ontario and British Columbia because of the pollution it was causing in rivers and lakes.

This alone should make you wary of calling on Patrick Moore as an expert on what has and has not been banned worldwide.

True to form, this master of spin tried to help you out by inventing a whole new concept in international law: a “de facto worldwide ban”. What a marvellous weasel phrase that is – and how little it helps your case! Either there has been a worldwide ban or there hasn’t. If there has, show me where and when.

It may be true, in some places and at some times, that DDT has been hard to obtain for the purposes of disease control when it was believed to be the most effective option, though you have yet to show me hard evidence even that this is the case – which is a very different matter from a global ban. If it is true, however, I regret it. Like you, I believe that eliminating malaria by the most effective means has to be a global priority. In 1989 I got into trouble with a friend in Manaus whose house I was staying in when I let officials come in and spray his walls with DDT. I thought it was the right thing to do; he did not.

Patrick Moore also sent you an extract from his book in the hope that it might deliver you from the fix you’re in. I checked out some of the claims he makes in this extract, and immediately found that they are exaggerated and inaccurate.

For example, he maintains that

“DDT was even discontinued for use in malaria control by the World Health Organization and USAID”

and that

“the WHO and USAID refused aid to countries that used DDT for malaria control”

These claims are untrue. Not only did these agencies not refuse aid on these grounds, they never stopped using DDT for malarial control, where they believed this was the best option. In many cases it was not the best option. As the malaria expert and former WHO Global Malaria Programme Coordinator Allan Schapira points out in the Lancet:

“indoor residual spraying is an effective intervention, provided a programme infrastructure can be set up and maintained to include trained sprayers, supervisors, managers, stocks, equipment, and vehicles, that roads allow access to every village at the right time at least once a year, and that insecticides are not diverted to agriculture. … In view of the difficulties encountered in maintaining indoor residual spraying, WHO has invested substantially in exploring other methods, especially insecticide-treated bednets. These nets have been effective in many rigorous trials, especially to reduce childhood mortality in Africa. Few trials have compared insecticide-treated nets and indoor residual spraying, but results so far suggest that the methods are more or less equal in efficacy. … In the choice between indoor residual spraying and insecticide-treated nets, a WHO study group convened in 2004 noted that the decision should, in most cases, be based on operational factors. Because long-lasting insecticidal nets can be managed easily with minimum risk of diversion of insecticide, for most high-burden countries that have not developed an infrastructure for indoor residual spraying, the priority will be to ensure coverage of at-risk populations with such long-lasting nets.”

(hat tip: Tim Lambert)

Here’s what USAID says:

“USAID has never had a ‘policy’ as such either ‘for’ or ‘against’ DDT for IRS [indoor residual spraying]. The real change in the past two years has been a new interest and emphasis on the use of IRS in general – with DDT or any other insecticide – as an effective malaria prevention strategy in tropical Africa.”

That wasn’t hard to find – it took me 20 seconds on Google – so why does Patrick Moore continue to spread this myth?

USAID also says that the use of DDT spraying “to prevent malaria is an allowable exception under the Stockholm Convention” and that the decision about whether or not to use DDT “is based on cost-effectiveness; on entomological factors; on local building materials; and on host-country policy.”

In other words, you have yet to show me any hard evidence of anything, let alone the claim that there was a worldwide ban. You can go on wasting my time and yours if you like, by seeking to defend something that is evidently false, or you could show a little of the intellectual honesty you call for in your book by accepting that you got it wrong. At the moment you are making yourself look like “a tale spinner with delusions of infallibility.”

In the meantime, all this has got me thinking. You call yourself an environmentalist and claim to be trying to reform the environmental movement for its own good. Yet you repeat and then try to defend a myth circulated by corporate lobbyists about the environment movement – that it obtained a global ban on DDT, killing millions – even when you are unable to produce evidence to support it. Then you turn for help to one of the environment movement’s most entrenched enemies. Why should we continue to believe you when you claim that you’re on our side?

Like Patrick Moore, you trade on your credentials as a founder of the early environment movement. Like Patrick Moore, you now work as a corporate consultant. By the way, who does your company now represent? The list of corporations Sourcewatch gives as its clients – including ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Cargill, Dow Chemical, Shell and BP – makes my hair stand on end. But is it correct? And why have you ceased to carry this list on your website? Like Patrick Moore, you attack the environment movement in ways that suit corporate interests: calling us, in effect, to drop our campaigns for regulation and democratic control in favour of technofixes.

When I first came across your work, I took it at face value. As I read more, I began to wonder if you are not, as you claim, pioneering a new form of environmentalism, but a new form of corporate consultancy. You seem to be seeking to shape the environmental debate to suit the businesses you work for. Our correspondence does nothing to dispel this impression. Can you disabuse me of my suspicions?

You are more dangerous than the other corporate-sponsored adversaries of the green movement. You don’t deny that climate change is happening. You don’t get abusive, you remain polite and charming, you sound reasonable at all times. You are, as a result, a more effective operator than them: you have persuaded a lot of influential people that you are working for the good of the planet. I fear that the campaign you are running is the most insidious and subtle exercise in corporate propaganda I have yet encountered. As a result, no one, until now, has called you out on it. With this response, that changes.

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot

From Stewart Brand to George Monbiot, 10th November 2010

Thanks for getting back to me.

Gosh.

Greenpeace made it clear they sought total eradication of DDT and worked hard to get it. They seem to want credit now for failing. You and I continue to disagree on the interpretation of “official” vs. “de facto” ban, and I guess we can leave it there.

I’m amazed and intrigued by the fictional character you’ve attached my real name to—the sinister corporate pawn. Greenpeace and others are fostering that meme lately, so it’s worth addressing.

At 10:50 AM +0000 11/10/10, George Monbiot wrote:
By the way, who does your company now represent? The list of corporations Sourcewatch gives as its clients – including ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Cargill, Dow Chemical, Shell and BP – makes my hair stand on end. But is it correct? And why have you ceased to carry this list on your website?

I’ve no idea who the current corporate clients of GBN are. I see that Sourcewatch item is four years out of date.

I work halftime for GBN and halftime for the nonprofit I co-founded, The Long Now Foundation. My GBN work in recent years has been almost entirely for government—the government of Singapore a couple times and some national security clients in the US government. The only corporate gig I’ve had in recent years was last spring for Natura— an intensely Green cosmetics company in Brazil.

Bear in mind that GBN is a research and consulting company specializing in scenario planning. We consult TO clients; we don’t represent their interests or ideas to the world. I understand that lobbying organizations like Greenpeace and FOE might think that everybody lobbies, but we don’t.

Once back in 1987 I worked at Shell in London for three months because they were co-sponsors of a three-year series of conferences I organized on the subject of organizational learning. Volvo and ATT were the other co-sponsors.

Let’s see what else. I’ve had zero contact with anyone in commercial agricultural biotech. With nuclear I DID have a GBN gig—decribed in my book—with Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization, a government organization. And as a private speaker I’ve been hired to speak to several professional nuclear audiences—Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), Westinghouse, and Candu in Canada. My role there was the ironic one of explaining that they’re all environmentalists now in light of greenhouse gases and climate change, and I had suggestions how they might act accordingly. Some of those talks are online. I’ve never been paid to speak FOR the nuclear industry and wouldn’t accept it if it was offered. The NEI did want to give me and James Lovelock a prize (non-monetary) last year. We both refused. (I suggested they give the prize to Gwyneth Cravens, and they did.)

I don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to nuclear companies. I do care that we get abundant, constant greenhouse-gas-free electricity somehow. Or we cook. That’s a serious matter.

By happenchance I’ve had a public and transparent career since I was 30. It’s pretty easy to research for anything sinister (and the opposite). There’s a thorough outline at my website.

Like Adam Werbach I’m trying to make the environmental movement stronger through constructive, public criticism of a few areas I think need revision for us to remain effective in this century. Clearly you think I’m doing it wrong, but I don’t.

–Stewart

From George Monbiot to Stewart Brand, 10th November 2010

Dear Stewart,

Thank you for your prompt reply. You say:

“You and I continue to disagree on the interpretation of “official” vs. “de facto” ban, and I guess we can leave it there.”

I’m sorry, I can’t leave it there. You have made the most serious possible allegation against the green movement: that it was responsible for killing millions of people. I have shown you unequivocally that your allegation is false. That applies both to your original claim: that DDT “was banned worldwide” and to your subsequent claim, that there was a “de facto ban” on DDT. I note that you haven’t engaged with any of the evidence I’ve put forward, but have simply thrown as much dust into the air as you can. If we can’t trust you to be honest about an issue as clear as this, why should we trust you on any other?

The myth you continue to spread originated with a corporate-funded campaign called “Africa Fighting Malaria”. Its stated purpose was to try to “divide our opponents and win”. In other words, to try to break up the green movement. You can see how and why this campaign was devised from a document lodged in the tobacco archive:

http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/xvp83c00

Just as they hoped, you are using this myth to create divisions within the green movement.

You say:

“I’ve no idea who the current corporate clients of GBN are.”

You are a co-founder and practice member of this organisation, and you don’t know who its clients are? If this is true, it suggests – at the very least – a lack of curiosity on your part. Having been challenged on this point, would it have been hard for you to find out? I look forward to seeing the list I have asked you to give me.

Could you please tell us what your holding in GBN is? And who sponsors The Long Now?

I’m not suggesting that some sinister tycoon met you in a back alley one day, slipped you a wad of notes and said “Herr Brand, you and me, ve vill destroy zhose commie green scum. Here iz ze money – you know vat to do.” I’m suggesting that you have absorbed the corporate mindset and have come to see the world from the point of view of the powerful. I would also suggest that it can’t do GBN’s business any harm for its practice members to be attacking environmentalists who want companies to be subject to regulation and democratic control.

Soon after I began to challenge you, someone sent me the transcript of a recording he had made of a talk you gave a few days before in Vancouver. It included the following passage:

“The Rockefeller Foundation, I know one of the Rockefellers, and they’ve been an astounding dynasty, not only wonderful people, generation after generation. But really smart philanthropy, generation after generation.”

My correspondent commented:

“He missed the source of that great Rockefeller wealth, monopolistic oil – the climate toxin. Apparently he has not read another appreciation of the Rockefellers “Thy Will Be Done – The Conquest of the Amazon. Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil.” A good Baptist Christian tale of not so wonderful people taking over the lands of other people.”

Your book is full of such paeans to the rich and powerful. It seems to me that you have come – perhaps unwittingly – to adopt the outlook and the antagonisms of the corporations and the powerful people to whom you have got too close.

The film you made is stuffed with myths about the environment movement, several of which, like the DDT story, were devised and promulgated by corporate-sponsored lobbyists. It features Patrick Moore, a constant baiter of the green movement, who has fronted campaigns for a series of destructive and polluting corporations. You now call on him in your defence over the DDT issue, and take the stories he tells you at face value, when a few minutes of checking would have shown them to be false. What are we supposed to conclude from this?

Because you are unable to be honest about the simple issue on which I challenged you, I find it hard to accept your assurances on any other. Why should I believe you, when you can’t make a simple admission that you got the DDT story wrong?

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot