A new film on Channel 4 disses the greens while dodging the issue of power.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th November 2010.
So Channel 4 has done it again. Over the past 20 years, it has broadcast a series of polemics about the environment, and most of them have been fiercely anti-green(1). On other issues Channel 4’s films attack all sides. Not on the environment.
Last night it aired yet another polemic: What the Green Movement Got Wrong. This one was presented by two people who still consider themselves green: Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas. It’s not as rabid as the other films. But, like its predecessors, it airs blatant falsehoods about environmentalists and fits snugly into the corporate agenda. The film is based on Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline(2). He argues that greens, by failing to embrace the right technologies, have impeded both environmental and social progress. Not everything he says is wrong, but his account is infused with magical thinking, in which technology is expected to solve all political and economic problems. This view, now popular among green business consultants, is sustained by ignoring the issue of power.
The film starts, for example, by blaming greens for the failure of environmental policies. But, as a paper published in the journal Environmental Politics shows, green movements have continued to grow, reaching more people every year. What has changed is that a powerful counter-movement, led by corporate-funded thinktanks, has waged war on green policies(3). “This counter-movement has been central to the reversal of US support for environmental protection, both domestically and internationally.” A similar shift has taken place in other countries.
Many of the thinktanks were set up in the 1970s by businesses and multi-millionaires seeking to limit employment rights and prevent the distribution of wealth. After the collapse of Soviet communism, their funders’ attention switched from the red menace to the green menace. This lobby had access to money and government that the greens could only dream of. For environmentalists to blame each other for the lack of progress is to betray a startling absence of context.
But Brand’s vision depends on forgetting the context. He maintains that we will save the biosphere by adopting nuclear energy, GM crops and geo-engineering, and paints a buoyant picture of a world running like clockwork on these new technologies. Without a critique of power, his techno-utopianism is pure fantasy. Nuclear electricity may indeed be part of the solution, but the real climate challenge is not getting into new technologies, but getting out of old ones. This means confronting some of the world’s most powerful forces, a theme with no place in Brand’s story.
Similarly, though the world has had food surpluses for many years, almost a billion people are permanently hungry, while enough grain to feed them several times over is given to animals and used to make biofuels. This is not because technology is lacking, but because the poor lack economic and political power. The film’s proposal – that we should switch to technologies which tend to be monopolised by large conglomerates – could exacerbate this problem.
Brand’s attempts to avoid conflicts with power are understandable: he founded a corporate consultancy called the Global Business Network(4). But the ideology he has embraced has brought him closer to the corporate lobby groups than he might be aware.
For example, the film maintains that, as a result of campaigning by groups such as Greenpeace, the pesticide DDT was banned worldwide. The result was that malaria took off in Africa, “killing millions”. Just one problem: DDT for disease control wasn’t banned (if you don’t believe me, read Annex B of the 2001 Stockholm Convention(5)) and Greenpeace didn’t call for it to happen(6). The ban story was a myth put about by lobbyists to discredit the greens(7). In the film, Stewart Brand says he wants greens to admit it when they’re wrong. I challenged him to admit that he got the DDT story wrong before the film aired. I received no reply(8).
Brand and Lynas present themselves as heretics. But their convenient fictions chime with the thinking of the new establishment: corporations, thinktanks, neoliberal politicians. The true heretics are those who remind us that neither social nor environmental progress are possible unless power is confronted.
Environmentalism is not just about replacing one set of technologies with another. Technological change is important, but it will protect the biosphere only if we also tackle issues such as economic growth, consumerism and corporate power. These are the challenges the green movement asks us to address. These are the issues the film ignores.
2. Stewart Brand, 2010. Whole Earth Discipline. Atlantic Books, London.
3. Peter Jacques; Riley Dunlap; Mark Freeman, 2008. The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism. Environmental Politics, 17:3, 349-385. DOI: 10.1080/09644010802055576.
6. Greenpeace has repeatedly contacted the lobbyists circulating this myth to explain that it didn’t call for a ban on DDT for disease-control purposes, but they keep repeating it.
8. Email sent at 11.22am on 3rd November, and, to other addresses, later that afternoon.