Crimes Against Nature

A new Channel 4 series would be laughable, had it not been given three hours of prime time TV.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 26th November 1997.

Neither the BBC nor Channel 4 have run a series on the environment for at least four years. Despite a massive public appetite for environmental protection, green programmes have been actively excluded from the schedules. But this month, both companies are bringing one out. These are not, however, series about the horrors of environmental destruction, but about the horrors of the environmental movement. It is a backlash without a frontlash.

This is not to say that there is no case to be made, nor to suggest that environmentalism should be exempt from the most sceptical examination. The BBC2 series, Scare Stories, which started on Thursday, is interesting, provocative and largely correct in its critique of misleading environmental claims about human population growth. But the Channel 4 series, which begins on Sunday, is a rather different proposition.

Against Nature argues that greens in First World countries are responsible for the deprivation and death of millions of children in the Third World. What impoverished people in the South need are vast hydroelectric projects like India’s Narmada Dam, whose construction has been suspended because of campaigns by First World environmentalists. In their callous disregard for human welfare and their fetishism of nature, greens, it maintains, are not merely conservative, but fascist, drawing their inspiration from precisely the same ideologies as the Nazis.

It would be laughable, had it not been given three hours of prime time TV.

Against Nature, the producers tell us, “highlights the absence of scientific rigour behind notions like the greenhouse effect and global warming”. Yet the series makes the most elementary scientific mistakes. Sulphur dioxide, for example, is described as a “greenhouse gas”. In reality, it counteracts the greenhouse effect. Ecosystems such as oceans and forests, the series says, produce millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide. In reality, the oceans are net absorbers of carbon dioxide, and forests absorb as much as they produce.

Indian peasants, according to the programme makers, RDF, desperately want the Narmada Dam to be built, in order to get fresh drinking water. But the Narmada Dam, despite the claims of officials, has no drinking water component, as a World Bank report has pointed out. It will divert water away from peasant villages and towards the sugar plantations of the richest and most politically powerful people in the state. As most of Gujurat’s development funds have been siphoned off for the £7 billion project, the pressing needs of its impoverished citizens have been neglected. It will displace, directly and indirectly, up to 600,000 people.

Its construction was halted not, as the series claims, by Northern environmentalists, but by the Indian Supreme Court, in response to a suit filed by a local people’s movement. Indeed, since 1988, hundreds of thousands of local people have been protesting against the Narmada Dam, and the drowning of villages, risk of floods, corruption and fraud it involves. Thousands have pledged to stay in their homes and drown, rather than submit to forced resettlement. Northern environmentalists became involved when the peasant activists asked them for help in trying to persuade the World Bank to withdraw from the project. The Bank commissioned an independent review, whose damning evidence forced it to pull out.

This case highlights the most dangerous of Against Nature’s flaws: its astonishing and frankly racist assumption that environmental controls in the South are the result of environmental campaigning in the North. Though Channel 4 has somehow managed to overlook it, India possesses the largest environmental movement on earth, engaging tens of millions of people. Like the movements in Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and scores of other Southern countries, it has inspired and guided modern environmental campaigns in the North.

This transfer of ideas and tactics has catalyzed a British environmental movement concentrating on precisely those areas in which environmental and social justice concerns overlap. New trunk roads are less equitable than new public transport, because 34 per cent of British people have no access to a car. New superstores are less equitable than affordable housing. Conventional farming forces the poorest people in Britain to subsidise the richest. Pollution hammers the poor hardest, as it is they who end up downwind. We environmentalists want development, but of the kind that benefits those who need it most, rather than only those who have plenty of it already. Against Nature, by contrast, selective, unquestioning, and just plain wrong, sides with the dispossessors against the dispossessed.