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Discussion > Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist

I was going to post this on unthreaded, but then decided that as it's a long post it shouldn't clog unthreaded up.

Anyway, I've just started reading this book, by Paul Kingsnorth, and was taken by this lengthy offering from him, as it rather sums up my view of things - namely that "environmentalists" have rather lost the plot in their obsession with CO2. It's a long quote, but in the context of a book running to almost 300 pages I'm confident it's not sufficiently long to involve a breach of copyright. In any event, drawing attention to it might do the author a favour by encouraging people to read it. OK, it's a little florid, perhaps, and his travels round the world which inspired him are a bit different from my climbing of hills (which inspired me), and he should also realise that a hedgerow was put there by humans, but leaving all that aside, if you readit, you'll get the gist.

"I became an 'environmentalist' because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the world beyond the human: to beech trees and hedgerows and pounding waterfalls, to songbirds and sunsets, to the flying fish in the Java Sea and the canopy of the rainforest at dusk when the gibbons come to the waterside to feed. From that reaction came a feeling, which became a series of thoughts: that such things are precious for their own sake, that they are food for the human soul and that they need people to speak for them to, and defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs. And because we are killing them to feed ourselves and we know it and we care about it, sometimes, but we do it anyway because we are hungry, or we have persuaded ourselves that we are.

"But these are not, I think, very common views today. Today's environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wide world. In this country, most of us wouldn't even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called 'sustainability'. What does this curious, plastic, word mean? It does not mean defending the non-human world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world's reach people - us - feel is their right without destroying the 'natural capital' or the 'resource base' that is needed to do so.

"It is, in other words, an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for 'the planet'. In a very short time - just over a decade - this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA [written before Trump!] and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in-between. The success of environmentalism has been total - at the price of its soul.

"Let me offer up just one example of how this pact has worked. If 'sustainability' is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of 'sustainability' is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten an unacceptable erosion of our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and holidaying in Weston-super-Mare and other such unthinkable things. All of the horrors our grandparents left behind will return like deathless legends. Carbon emissions must be 'tackled' like a drunk with a broken bottle: quickly and with maximum force.

"Don't get me wrong: I don't doubt the potency of climate change to undermine the human machine. It looks to me as if it is already beginning to do so, and that it is too late to do anything but attempt to mitigate the worst effects. But what I am also convinced of is that the fear of losing both the comfort and the meaning that our civilisation gifts us has gone to the heads of environmentalists to such a degree that they have forgotten everything else. The carbon must be stopped, Like the Umayyad at Tours, or all will be lost.

"This reductive approach to the human-environmental challenge leads to an obvious conclusion: if carbon is the problem, then 'zero carbon' is the solution. Society needs to go about its business without spewing the stuff out. It means to do this quickly, and by any means necessary. Build enough of the right kind of energy technologies, quickly enough, to generate the power we 'need' without producing greenhouse gases and there will be no need to ever turn the lights off; no need to ever slow down.

"To do this will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet's ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where the enrgy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world's wildest, most beautiful and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect.

"And so the deserts, perhaps the landscape always most resistant to permanent human conquest, are to be colonised by vast 'solar arrays', glass and steel and aluminium, the size of small countries. The mountains and moors, the wild uplands, are to be staked out like vampires in the sun, their chests pierced with rows of 500' wind turbines and associated access roads, masts, pylons and wires. The open oceans, already swimming in our plastic refuse and emptying of marine life, will be home to enormous offshore turbine ranges and hundreds of wave machines strung around the coastlines like Victorian necklaces. The rivers are to see their estuaries served and silted by industrial barrages. The croplands and even the rainforests, the richest habitats on this terrestrial Earth, are already highly profitable sites for biofuel plantations designed to provide guilt-free car fuel to the motion-hungry masses of Europe and America.

"What this adds up to should be clear enough, yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business as usual: the expansive, colonising, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the lates phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted and the non-human. It is the mass destruction of the world's remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this 'environmentalism'.

" A while back I wrote an article in a newspaper highlighting the impact of industrial wind-power stations (which are usually referred to, in a nice Orwellian touch, as wind 'farms') on the uplands of Britain. I was emailed the next day by an environmentalist friend who told me hoped I was feeling ashamed of myself. I was wrong; worse, I was dangerous. What was I doing giving succour to the fossil-fuel industry? Didn't I know that climate change would do far more damage to upland landscapes than turbines? Didn't I know that this was the only way to meet our urgent carbon targets? Didn't I see how beautiful turbines were? S much more beautiful than nuclear power stations. I might think that a 'view' was more important than the future of the entire world, but that was because I was a middle-class escapist who needed to get real.

"It became apparent at that point that what I saw as the next phase of the human attack on the non-human world a lot of my environmentalist friends saw as 'progressive', s'sustainable' and 'green'. What I called destruction they called 'large-scale solutuions'. This stuff was realistic, necessarily urgent. It went with the grain of human nature and the market, which we now know are the same thing. We didn't have time to 'romanticise' the woods and the hills. There were emissions to reduce, and the end justified the means.

"...This desperate scrabble for ;'sustainable development' - in reality it was the same old. People I had thought were on my side were arguing aggressively for the industrialisation of wild places in the name of human desire. ...Motorway through downland: bad. Wind power station on downland: good. Container port wiping out estuary mudflats: bad. Renewable hydro-power barrage wiping out estuary mudflats: good. Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.

"So here I was again: a Luddite, a nimby, a reactionary, a romantic; standing in the way of progress. I realised that I was dealing with environmentalists with no attachment to any actual environment. Their talk was of parts per million of carbon, peer-reviewed papers, sustainable technologies, renewable supergrids, green growth and the fifteenth conference of the parties. There were campaigns about ' the planet'and 'the Earth', but there was no specificity: no sign of any real, felt attachment to any small part of that Earth."

Nov 3, 2018 at 1:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

To me the most telling words came towards the end
"I realised that I was dealing with environmentalists with no attachment to any actual environment."
So many university personnel now fit this bill.

Nov 3, 2018 at 2:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterSupertroll

Alan, sadly yes, you're undoubtedly correct. One more (shorter!) quote from the book (surprisingly, perhaps, Kingsnorth's views overlap a little with Delingpole's view of modern environmentalists as "watermelons"):

"...there was a reason for environmentalism's shift to the left, just as there was a reason for its blinding obsession with carbon. Meanwhile, the fact of what humans are doing to the world had become so obvious, even to those who were doing very well out of it, that it became hard not to listen to the greens. Success duly arrived. You can't open a newspaper now or visit a corporate website or listen to a politician or read the label on a packet of biscuits without being bombarded with propaganda about the importance of 'saving the planet'. But there is a terrible hollowness to it all; a sense that society is going through the motions without understanding why. The shift, the pact, had come at a probably fatal price.

"Now that price is being paid. The weird and unintentional pincer movement of the failed left, with its class analysis of waterfalls and fresh air, and the managerial, carbon-uber alles brigade, has infiltrated, ironed out and reworked environmentalism for its own ends. Now it is not about the ridiculous beauty of coral, the mist over the fields at dawn. It is not about ecocentrism. It is not about re-forging a connection between over-civilised people and the world outside their windows. It is not about living close to the land or valuing the world for the sake of the world. It is not about attacking the self-absorbed conceits of the bubble that our civilisation has become.

"Today's environmentalism is about people. It is a consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots and at the same time, with an amusing irony, it is an adjunct to hyper-capitalism; the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge; a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilsation from the results of its own actions; a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections It is our last hope.

"I generalise, of curse. Environmentalism's chancel is as accommodating as that of socialism, anarchism or conservatism, and just as capable of generating poisonous internal bickering that will last until the death of the sun. Many who call themselves green have little time for the mainstream line I am attacking here. But it is the mainstream line. It is how most people see environmentalism today, even if it is not how all environmentalists intend it to be seen. These are the arguments and the positions that popular environmentalism - now a global force - offers up in its quest for redemption. There are reasons; there are always reasons. But whatever they are, they have led the greens down a dark, litter-strewn dead-end street, where the bins overflow, the lightbulbs have blown and the dogs are very hungry indeed."

I couldn't agree more.

Nov 3, 2018 at 7:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

"I realised that I was dealing with environmentalists with no attachment to any actual environment."
So many university personnel now fit this bill.

Nov 3, 2018 at 2:04 PM | Supertroll

Actual Environment? Natural Environments changed over time, long before man turned up and adapted them. Our beautiful and varied British countryside is just a result of 2000 years of combined management and lack of management. The environments not currently managed, are those that currently serve no other more useful or economic purpose.

Some school and university personnel need to consider what their own homes and campuses were, before they lecture others.

Nov 4, 2018 at 8:56 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

golf charlie, now you're getting into interesting territory. The Lake District fells, where I've spent a lot of happy time, are arguably not natural in their current state. Some (e.g. Monbiot, I believe) argue that they're not natural at all, and have described them as "sheepwrecked".

I think it's reasonable to have a debate about where we draw the line, what constitutes wilderness, etc. However, I don't think it's reasonable to desecrate a wild landscape with industrial-scale turbines etc. There was a time not so long ago when pretty much environmentalist would have agreed with that. Now they look at people like me,saying that sort of thing, as though we're mad. Don't I know CO2 is evil? Don't I know that in order to "save" the planet we first have to trash it?

Quite apart from the question of aesthetics, or when is a wilderness actually a man-made landscape?, there is the question of how much CO2 is actually saved by manufacturing, transporting and installing these things, and the damage done to peat beds, roads driven across the wilderness etc. I had a thread going on this a while ago. The usual suspects tried to argue that the CO2 savings were nevertheless substantial, so the desecration of the wilderness was justified. I was far from convinced then, and I'm far from convinced now.

Nov 4, 2018 at 9:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

I do love the word "sheepwrecked" which is new to me. I think a related word "goatwrecked" would have great use in arid and semi arid regions of North Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, Mexico and Australia.

Nov 4, 2018 at 12:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterSupertroll

For me it came whilst doing green festivals and visiting organic farms in the late 1990's

A typical conversation would go
"Yeh, man we have to look after the environment, lets talk about it around the bonfire"
.... yes their idea of caring for the environment is to build huge unnecessary fires

Then around the fire with a big fat joint in their mouths they'd say
.."Oh yeh look at them big companies polluting my lungs"
... FFS what about what you are smoking ?

I realised that they had green hearts, but their brains were not grounded in the real world

... That's why political greens seem to so often conflict with real world maths.

Nov 4, 2018 at 10:16 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

"Large hydropower dams 'not sustainable' in the developing world
By Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent"

"A new study says that many large-scale hydropower projects in Europe and the US have been disastrous for the environment.

Dozens of these dams are being removed every year, with many considered dangerous and uneconomic.

But the authors fear that the unsustainable nature of these projects has not been recognised in the developing world.

Thousands of new dams are now being planned for rivers in Africa and Asia.

Hydropower is the source of 71% of renewable energy throughout the world and has played a major role in the development of many countries.

But researchers say the building of dams in Europe and the US reached a peak in the 1960s and has been in decline since then, with more now being dismantled than installed. Hydropower only supplies approximately 6% of US electricity.

Dams are now being removed at a rate of more than one a week on both sides of the Atlantic.

The problem, say the authors of this new paper, is that governments were blindsided by the prospect of cheap electricity without taking into account the full environmental and social costs of these installations.

More than 90% of dams built since the 1930s were more expensive than anticipated. They have damaged river ecology, displaced millions of people and have contributed to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases from the decomposition of flooded lands and forests.

"They make a rosy picture of the benefits, which are not fulfilled and the costs are ignored and passed on to society much later," lead author Prof Emilio Moran, from Michigan State University, told BBC News.

His report cites the example of two dams on the Madeira river in Brazil, which were finished only five years ago, and are predicted to produce only a fraction of the power expected because of climate change.

In the developing world, an estimated 3,700 dams, large and small, are now in various stages of development.

The authors say their big worry is that many of the bigger projects will do irreparable damage to the major rivers on which they are likely to be built.

On the Congo river, the Grand Inga project is expected to produce more than a third of the total electricity currently being generated in Africa.

However, the new study points out that the main goal for the $80bn installation will be to provide electricity to industry.

"Over 90% of the energy from this project is going to go to South Africa for mining and the people in the Congo will not get that power," said Prof Moran.

"The people that I study in Brazil, the power line goes over their heads and goes 4,000km from the area and none of the energy is being given to them locally."
..."Large hydropower doesn't have a future, that is our blunt conclusion," said Prof Moran."

With a modest re-write, most of those points could be made in some form or another about wind turbines. And yet here's the killer - the final conclusion:

""To keep hydropower as part of the mix in the 21st Century we should combine multiple sources of renewable energy," said Prof Moran.

"There should be more investment in solar, wind and biomass, and hydro when appropriate - as long as we hold them to rigorous standards where the costs and benefits are truly transparent."

The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

Maybe the authors of the study should carry out a similarly rigorous and political [i.e. determined to find them a bad idea] study of those other sources of "renewable energy" before coming to that conclusion?

Nov 6, 2018 at 8:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

Mark Hodgson & Supertroll

Sheepwrecked, goatwrecked, rabbitwrecked etc are all fine, what about Greenwrecked?

What did live and thrive on the higher and less productive ground in the UK before man introduced goats, sheep and rabbits?

The simple economics of survival have not changed over thousands of years, for man, domesticated animals and wild animals.

1.Somewhere warm and dry to live.
2. Source of water.
3. Source of food.

Once 1, 2 and 3 are sorted to survive, it is possible to thrive, and for Man, to plan and adapt so as to thrive even better. As man has thrived and multiplied, it has been NECESSARY to exploit the land that was not perfect for arable and livestock, resulting in more sheep goats and rabbits, with their ability to thrive.

Hunting wild animals for fun and entertainment became an official Nobleman's Sport with the Norman invasion and the seizure of vast areas of woodland as Royal Parks for hunting with bows and arrows.

As firearms developed with accuracy and reliability, large Country Estates had another leisure activity to offer their guests. Bits of woodland now offered other advantages, above being part of the view and a source of firewood and construction timber. Vast areas of woodland were saved from the plough to grow pheasant, and vast areas of moorland could support grouse.

None of this was of much consolation to Crofters and other small holders living at a subsistence level of agriculture.

The Forestry Commission planted trees all over nonproductive land, followed by those investing in Tax Avoidance.

What should this Green and Pleasant Land look like, and do Satanic Windmills really fulfil a useful role?

Nov 6, 2018 at 1:20 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Mark Hodgson,

Hydro Electric Power does not have to be on a large scale. Micro systems could be fitted on most canalised rivers with locks and weirs, and larger streams and unnavigable rivers.

Hydro is more reliable than wind and solar, and can be planned and managed

Nov 6, 2018 at 1:49 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Monbiot's preferred rural blood sport

Nov 6, 2018 at 5:31 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie