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What the hell happened to the environmental movement?

This post was originally published on Earth Day, 2009. The responses I received from it were tremendous, both positive and negative. Were I to write it again today, I would include a discussion of Carbon Offsets and Eco-Guilt.

There is a real challenge in the environmental movement. On one hand, the science is on our side, but on the other hand, there is a growing group within the movement committed to dogma and willing to sacrifice facts for pseudoscience. So, this Earth day, we once again bring you “What the hell happened to the environmental movement?”


473px-rachel-carsonForty-seven years ago, a brilliant, passionate scientist who understood the power of public outreach, noticed a decline in songbird populations, discovered a trend of decreasing egg shell thickness, and correlated this effect with the increase in the use of DDT as a pesticide. After thoroughly and rigorously verifying her results and conclusions, she did something revolutionary; she wrote a book. The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement in America. Its simple, elegant prose made the complex interaction between humankind and the environment accessible to a public that had limited exposure to scientific writing. Like other works of literary science, Silent Spring, wove the scientific method into a narrative; observations, questions, conflicts, discoveries, joy and sorrow. To struggle and to understand, never the last without the first. The beauty of her words still echo with that same power today.

And the public responded, how could they not? Her work was so thorough, so clear. All the evidence meandered downstream, building momentum as the floodwaters rose towards a conclusion that could not be ignored: natural systems are failing and the fault is ours.

And so, from such auspicious beginnings, the environmental movement was born. What the hell happened?

It seems that every year, the environmental ethic becomes more and more mired in the pseudo-scientific woo that Rachel Carson would have found absurd. Complementary and alternative ‘medicine’, organic food, consumer product branding, anti-pharm, anti-business, anti-government fear mongering. Forgive the incorrigible pun, but we no longer see the forests for the trees, and the environment is dying because of it.

To be absolutely clear, when I say environmentalism, I mean the realization that the human species is causing long term harm to ecosystems at a local and global scale and that solutions to this problem must be based on the best available scientific data and implemented under multi-source observation with the understanding that all proposed solutions will not succeed and a willingness to continuously observe and adapt these solutions to new data until a lasting solution is found.

Yet I look at self-identified environmentalist today and I see them praising practices – ethanol fuel, corn starch-based disposable plastics, all-natural organic products – as the solution, even though the data show these to have no real lasting effect. I see them damning progress that I know to be effective – genetically modified foods, nuclear power, centralized recycling – for dogmatic reasons that have no basis in environmentalism. It’s almost as though the movement has written a codex, a set of beliefs that we must all agree on, that are not part of the environmental ethic at all. We refuse to look at data and instead latch on to feel-good, reason free woo that allows us to validate our ideals without doing anything.

In part, it’s societal. As a culture, Americans have become more and more detached from scientific knowledge. Somehow we’ve developed an innate mistrust of science. I’ve talked about this phenomenon before. David has gone to great length to explain how some perceived environmental positives are actually net negatives. The peddlers of environmentalist woo are just as guilty of ignoring real science as global warming denialist.

usda-organic-logo-main_fullThe organic food movement particularly irks me, not because there’s anything wrong with growing organic food, but the way it’s now presented is noxious. Organic food has become enmeshed in the “all natural is better” paradigm, a paradigm which simply does not hold up under scrutiny. There are definite pros to organic farming – limited pesticide use, better care of livestock, less waste production – but these are often outweighed by the negatives – more land required, more expensive crops, lower crop yields. Using exclusively ‘organic’ practices, the planet only has enough arable land to feed 4 billion people. And while organic food may be healthier for individuals (and that’s a qualified maybe), cheap, commercially grown produce is healthier for society, because it makes produce available to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

Which raises a critical point. The ability to turn down food is a luxury only the richest in the world have. And that’s fine. If you have the ability to chose what kind of food to eat, more power to you. But don’t assume that gives you the right to tell other people what to eat.

I couldn’t hope to say it better than Nobel Peace Prize winner and agriculture expert, Norman Borlaug, when asked if organic farming is better for people or the environment:

borlaugharrar1943That’s ridiculous. This shouldn’t even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have–the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues–and get them back on the soil, you couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it’s up to them to make that foolish decision. But there’s absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can’t tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it’s better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It’s a free society. But don’t tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That’s when this misinformation becomes destructive…

There is a much darker side to the organic food movement, and that is the irrational resistance to genetically modified crops. Reason # 7 to go organic on Organic.org, a pro-organic food website, is avoid hasty and poor science in your food. This is an absurd claim that shows they either don’t understand the science or are committed to propaganda.

The human population is expanding at an exponential rate, and our food output will only be able to keep up with that growth if we are willing to adapt our crops to the demand for food. Genetic modification is the only way to keep up with this growing demand.

GM crops are better for the environment. Drought resistance means there’s less demand on fresh water supplies. Pest resistance means fewer pesticides need to be applied. Improved nutrient uptake means fewer fertilizers need to be used, less nutrient run-off into aquifers, less eutrophication in water bodies. There’s an environmental cascade that happens when crops are more efficient that benefits all aspects of the biosphere.

And the downside to GM – mutant frankencorn that will reap havok throughout the world – is the same issue facing all agriculture, organic or otherwise, and facing all industry that specializes in transplanting species. You see, all crops are genetically modified. Wild corn, wild wheat, wild bananas look nothing like the food we’ve come to expect. They were genetically modified over hundreds to thousands of years trough selective breeding, choosing the best and culling the worst.

As far as ecosystems are concerned, a thousand years is no time at all. Evolution works on much longer time scales, so whether you genetically engineered your crops through 500 years of selective breeding or overnight in a lab, the ecosystem response is the same. When talking about environmental impacts, there is functionally no difference between organic crops and GM crops.

Finally, consider this: organic food feeds the rich, genetically modified food feeds the poor.

600px-nuclear_symbolsvgThe biggest environmental crisis of our time (apologies to David) is energy. Much like arable land, our current reserves of fossil fuel are limited. The exploitation of these fuel sources has caused more damage to the biosphere than any other human endeavor. There are alternative energy solutions coming down the pipeline, and in the end, solar power has to be the answer, but the technology is not there yet, and we can’t afford to wait.

There is an alternative energy already developed, able to replace our dependence on fossil fuels now. The technology is here, today. Not tomorrow, not in a decade, but now. We look at nuclear power and we are terrified. Why? On a whole it is safer, cleaner, and more efficient the fossil fuels. The waste produced is minuscule compared to the vast plumes belched out by fossil fuel burning power plants. Yes, nuclear waste is hazardous, persists for thousands of years, and causes long term damage to human health, but the same is true for carbon dioxide.

Nuclear power will not be the ultimate solution, that title must go to solar power (which is, in itself, simply the harnessing of nuclear power produced by the biggest reactor in our solar system), but we need a stop-gap, and we need it now. Until cleaner alternative energy sources become efficient enough to power the world, we need to replace fossil fuel with nuclear energy.

The harm from fossil fuels is being done, now, and we have the technology to stop it. We are prevented only by our own unwillingness and fear.

recycle_logoMy final example may seem like a minor one, in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates an important point. The environmental movement has become focused on the individual: this is what you can do, here’s how your actions help, think locally act globally. In the abstract these are good ideals to hold, personal responsibility is the root of civic responsibility, but when this edict gets in the way of environmental progress, we have a problem.

Central sorting facilities for recycling and trash is the most efficient way of recycling waste for communities larger than 100,000 people (author’s disclaimer: this statistic was presented to me in a talk given by a highly respected conservationist whom I trust, I have no text document to back it up, grain-of-salt rules apply). That includes most counties in the United States. But how many of your have centralized plants and how many have curb-side recycling?

Most counties with recycling programs in the U.S. require each person to sort their trash and recycling. Why? Because it’s a personal action. It let’s you be the one taking doing the work, fighting the good fight, saving the earth. But if you didn’t have to sort you trash, if the county did it for you, what would that mean for you? That is precisely the mentality behind curb-side recycling, and many other individual action edicts that permeate the environmental movement. But it is flawed. It is flawed because centralized recycling does a better job. It’s more efficient, catches more recyclables, and doesn’t care what you think. Because, while you may loyally sort your trash every week, your neighbor might not.

Centralized recycling removes that variable, and does a better job sorting trash than you do. It is better for the environment. But it’s bad for your ego. And that’s where we went wrong.

Dawn Redwood

Dawn Redwood

Somewhere between 1962 and today, this became an us against them movement. We are fighting to save the world from polluters, big business, big industry. We’re the planeteers, they are the bad guys. But guess what? That’s not the way it is. We’re all the bad guys, we’re all the polluters. We’re big business, big industry. We are all in this together. We live or die by our ability to come together as a species and decide yes, we value the planet we live on. We value it for many different reasons, but we all find value in it.

Throughout this post I have presented various reason for and against several practices, most of these reasons have been environmental, but some have been issues of human health, poverty, and economics. Because, in order for us to come together, we have to find common grounds. You motives may mean nothing to someone struggling to feed their family, keep their job, make the right health decision, and their motives may mean nothing to you. In order to achieve a common goal, we have to be willing to understand and address all sides of the issues, otherwise we all fail.

Dogma, pedantry, arrogance, and ignorance have no place in the environmental ethic. We cannot afford to let ideology usurp knowledge in affecting change.

Happy Earth Day.

~Southern Fried Scientist


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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