Title: Ecology matters

Key words: ecological integrity, biosphere, asthma, dietary changes, antioxidants, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, green movement, direct action, environmental issues,

Date: April 2001

Category: Nutrition and the environment

Type: Article



Ecology matters

Have environmental campaigners been playing on public gullibility and guilt and is the propaganda now wearing thin?

ON 5 January 1993, Britain awoke to news that an oil tanker was drifting without power off Shetland. The Braer finally caught on the rocks of Garth's Ness, and the country became swamped by breathless predictions from environmental campaigners that here was disaster in the making. In fact, the immense power of the stormy sea ensured that this "wildlife disaster", as one early headline in The Times had it, was almost an ecological nonevent. It is an outcome that should not have been at all surprising, as there was plenty of mainly reassuring evidence from past spills - many of them involving heavier, longer-lasting oil that reached shorelines.

Nearly four years earlier, on Good Friday 1989, the Exxon Valdez ripped open and spilt oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Jeff Wheelwright, a former science editor of Life magazine, was more interested than most. He already had it in mind to write a book about the place, having become fascinated by its ecological response to what was arguably a bigger perturbation: an earthquake that had rocked Prince William Sound (eerily, also on Good Friday) a quarter of a century before.

Wheelwright's Degrees of Disaster, subtitled "Prince William Sound: How Nature Reels and Rebounds", has a knife edge to tread. Despite the instances of possibly long-term harm, Wheelwright persists in what he calls his "incongruous optimism". For him: "The spill altered [the Sound's] ecological spin, but not its ecological integrity, or not for long ... The lesson gave me hope about the broader threats to the biosphere. Nature would recover if we would ease up a bit."

The physical damage following oil spills (and the same is true with acid rain and forest death) turned out to be much less than expected. What matters, though, is damage of a different kind. William Cronon, professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the new wave of historian-geographers helping us to see how the natural world has accreted extra meaning (one is tempted to say moral power) as the years have passed. "The Exxon Valdez represented more than just an ecological or economic calamity," he says in Oxford History of the American West. "It also threatened the much less tangible spiritual values that America's `last great wilderness' had come to represent." People see environmental issues as in part spiritual or emotional concerns.

There are several examples of the way many modern people are inclined to discount the evidence of their own eyes or of science when they defend environmental "victims" from industrial "villains". We have, for instance, been given heart-rending accounts of the asthma epidemic that is routinely claimed to have been caused or seriously worsened by the traffic fumes that are supposedly choking our cities. Anthony Seaton, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University Medical School in Aberdeen, points out features of the epidemic that do not fit the standard account. In a paper last year for Thorax, the journal of the British Thoracic Society, he notes that the epidemic is worldwide. It afflicts urban and rural people, and clean and dirty cities, more or less alike. The two obvious villains - ozone formed by the effect of sunlight on pollutants, and nitrogen dioxide - have remained pretty constant in British cities. And in rural areas they have not increased anything like as fast as asthma cases. Instead, Seaton has proposed an elegant hypothesis that dietary changes - probably a reduced intake of antioxidants such as vitamins D and E, which mop up potentially damaging chemicals in the body - are a significant culprit.

Victims and villains

These examples give us a handle on the way the modern world sees ecological and environmental issues. If a "victim" (Prince William Sound say, or a child's respiratory system), and a proposed "villain" (the oil industry, say, or city traffic) fit our dominant cliche´s, then it is hard to shift opinion. The relationship of humans with the natural world has been a preoccupation for centuries, and all the more so since the Industrial Revolution. We feel we have been robbing nature of its innocence, and pushing our manmade ugliness into every corner of the natural scene.

The 19th century saw the beginnings of the science of ecology, which is the business of observing and discussing the relations of organisms with each other and their environments. Anna Bramwell, a historian of the green movement's intellectual origins and off shoots, describes an "ecologism" that parallels the science. In her book Ecology in the Twentieth Century: a History, ecologism is characterised as the culture and politics that have been spawned by ecological insights. As people explored the rules that describe how the natural world gets its living, it was natural enough that they would begin to draw lessons from ecological ideas as they formulated the rules by which human beings should live. In particular, at the core of green political ideas, which are far more diverse than might be supposed, there are common themes: we should seek to cooperate more and compete less; we should live within our ecological means; we should live in harmony with nature.

There is an immense difficulty here. Ecology deals with how organisms live or die by their environmental fitness. It is fair to see other organisms as never manipulating their environments: they change them unconsciously, it is true, but they are passive and "innocent" players whose "fitting in" depends on their being useful, or at least not dangerous, to the world about them. Daniel Botkin, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, highlights the issue in his book Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century. He stresses how organisms, including people, have always been seen as having their place in some sort of divine order.

Our problem has always been to establish the place of humans. The human enterprise, for good or ill, is necessarily manipulative. Humans are destined by their brain power to alter the world around them on a scale and in a way never seen before. We are bound to be intrusive, and certain to make mistakes.

Ecologism derives from a rather partial reading of ecology and has generated a popular view that nature is fragile, stable and harmonious. From this perspective, many greens find it offensive that our species acts dramatically, introduces change, and disrupts the pre-existing order. Modern ecological insights from people like Wheelwright and Botkin interpret nature rather differently. From this perspective, the natural world is seen as having important elements of robustness, flux and tension. Humans are simply a new force in an already dynamic system, and luckily one with at least the potential for intelligent management of its own activities.

Acts of faith

But ecologism's appeal was never much about science and certainly not about management. In important ways, ecologism is a faith, and it provides us with many reminders of a medieval and post-medieval world in which faith mattered. One could see Greenpeacers as crusaders, with the industrialist cast as the infidel. Greenpeace offers its supporters the chance to fund brave and glamorous adventures (inflatables pitted against whalers; abseilings against smokestacks), and in exchange to wear something very like the medieval pilgrim's token: to put a rainbow sticker in their car windows.

The antiroad protesters and those who demonstrate against exporting live animals are quite like the flagellants who mobilised hysteria and dissent in 14th-century Europe. Then, the world was rocked by hideous plagues which in places killed half the population. People from top to bottom of society believed that they were being punished for ungodliness; today people feel they will suffer for offences against the natural world. When ragged bands of ardent, rootless, indigent religious extremists pitched up in 14th-century towns, people of every class threw caution to the wind and joined them in orgies of self-punishment. The near hysteria and wide social mix of modern direct action similarly display the fury of the impotent, a desire for atonement, a temporary dissidence.

There has been a long tradition of dissent in England, from John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, to Tony Benn, the radical sage of modern parliamentary politics. It was usually socialist and included a slim but potent strand of agrarian communism and ideals about community that was still alive and well among "alternativists" in the 1970s. In E. P. Thompson's Witness Against the Beast, an account of William Blake and his world, we see another strand of English protest in the 17th and 18th centuries. It loathed the sterile scientism of the Enlightenment, which was the source of the dehumanisation of man and would lead to the mechanisation of the world.

Though Thompson suggests that many of the historical protest ideas and groups are now viewed as "quaint historical fossils", it is just as easy to see their spirit as still active. We have, for instance, the modern idea of a "holistic" science, which is both antireductionist and anti-Enlightenment. The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill's account of English radical ideas, describes the emphasis that 17th-century radicals placed on personal experience and revelation. This again seems to mirror the world of the modern protester, in which a person's beliefs justify direct action, however little they are supported by evidence. This is combined with what looks very like a revival of 17th-century antinomianism - the belief that faith, or in the modern case a cause, releases believers from ordinary civic duty. Thus modern protesters, acting in the name of dumb animals, feel free to assault the homes of calf exporters.

Chris Rose, Greenpeace's director of campaigns, talks about the organisation's culture as endorsing "the optimism of the action over the pessimism of the thought". He describes it as necessarily seeing issues in black and white, and "carrying out acts which are legitimated by the moral deficit they address, rather than the means which are used". This is thoughtful but perhaps casuistical stuff, and it looks traditionally dissident in the way it rationalises a dislike for conventional approaches to evidence and to the redressing of "wrongs".

Green fundamentalism is a powerful force because it fits well what the public at large wants to hear. Bob Lee, a sociologist at the University of Washington in the northwestern US, believes that antilogging campaigners feel no need to compromise in their defence of the spotted owl. Indeed, they cannot, because they are activists of the green religion of suburban America, in which the purity of wilderness is sacred.

Yet the angry fundamentalism of respectable, middle-aged, mortgaged, middle-class campaigners begins to look a little misplaced in the wake of twenty years of quite good science-based progress in environmental policy making. This was never more evident than last year, when the US Environmental Protection Agency produced a draft document, for worldwide consultation, on the risk posed by dioxins. Some dioxins are extraordinarily toxic to some species, and the document suggested very tentatively (and admitting that it was nothing like a unanimous view) that the risks from dioxins were slightly greater than had previously been thought.

Within weeks, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Women's Environmental Network held a press conference, heralded by a press release trumpeting the new findings. Tim Birch of Greenpeace said: "If the US government says dioxins are so dangerous then why isn't the UK government telling the British people the same thing? People's health continues to be threatened whilst the UK government allows dioxins to be released into the environment."

The public seldom realises the degree to which the campaigners rely on standard establishment science, produced at taxpayers' expense at the behest of government agencies. Often, the amount of attention campaigners are able to attract is proportional to the degree to which they distort, or are selective about, the official or academic information on which they rely. We have seen this in their campaigns about the threat to fish stocks in the North Sea and over leukaemia clusters around the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, as well as in the dioxin episode.

Towards reason

Environmental regulators have learnt to listen to environmental campaigners. They often find noises from the campaigners useful when trying to persuade politicians that things must move faster. In an imperfect world, there will always be room for whistle-blowing by campaigners, and even for a radical assertion that underlying attitudes need to change. So cosy can the relationship be that some campaigners fear they might be coopted into the official machine they are dedicated to fighting. But there are opposing pressures too. Regulators and campaigners have reason to fear a public backlash, seen already in the resentment at the high water bills that clean- ups are causing.

Probably a further rapprochement between campaigners and government will come as people demand more frankness from both sides. In effect, both will have to accept the scientific verdict. Chris Patten, then Britain's environment secretary, once remarked that there was more to be gained by being driven rather more quickly than was convenient by good scientific evidence than to find policy chaotically dictated by scare and drama generated by campaigners.

That was five years ago, and nowadays it is fair to say that environmental issues are squarely on the agenda, and that sound science - plus an element of precautionary action ahead of conclusive scientific evidence - is driving policy, more or less in public. The arrival soon of the Environment Agency, the super-quango that will embrace the National Rivers Authority and large- scale industrial regulation, could well promote a sense in the public eye that the environment has decent, open protection. As government and industry adopt more mature approaches to regulation, senior campaigners are re-examining the ways their own organisations might respond. They will almost certainly be more rational.

It is much less clear what the public will do with its displaced "religious" urges. It may be that essentially ethical and aesthetic issues come to the fore. So we could see more attention paid to animal rights and roads protest, which is more about landscape than emissions. Or perhaps the spotlight will turn onto the arms trade. The rights and wrongs of these causes depend more on personal taste than scientific evidence.

Of course, that does not make hysteria, paranoia, violence or martyrdom - and the new direct action protests have produced them all - any more attractive. But then nobody ever said that human life and government were wholly or even mostly a matter of sweet reasonableness.

Richard D. North

Author, Life On A Modern Planet: A Manifesto For Progress, Manchester Unniversity Press (Uk), St Martin's Press (Usa)