Does the environmental movement still speak for the environment? Or are the greens in danger of being left behind, trapped in their own ideological fortress, as the world outside changes rapidly?
These are the questions asked by What the Green Movement Got Wrong. Before the programme even airs, it is mired in controversy, with environmentalists in the major campaign groups already crying foul before most of them have even seen what the documentary contains.
My view, as one of the contributors to the film, is simple: the greens can dish it out, but they can't take it. This is a real debate and the environment movement needs to tackle it head-on rather than asserting that all challenges must be part of some imagined evil conspiracy. Unless we can have a constructive debate about what environmentalism is seeking to achieve, its potency as a force for good in the world is in danger of being diluted by a religious-style adherence to the campaigns of the past.
Take nuclear power. The origins of the modern environmental movement are intimately bound up with its anti-nuclear campaigning – but it is by no means clear that this has been beneficial to the environment. Nuclear power has not caused a single species to go extinct. Instead it is of enormous benefit in helping industrialised, densely-populated, power-hungry societies to generate much-needed electricity without emitting carbon.
Green anti-nuclear campaigning has already added to the atmospheric stock of carbon dioxide, probably to the tune of more than a billion tonnes. Why? Because nuclear plants which were opposed by greens in the 1970s and 1980s were instead replaced by coal plants.
In hindsight that was obviously a mistake, but it is one that today's environmental lobby groups seem determined to repeat. German per-person carbon emissions are several tonnes higher than those in France, because France mainly deploys nuclear power. Yet the German greens are still demonstrating against nuclear in their thousands, having apparently learned nothing from the past. This is one important area of debate that the Channel 4 film highlights.
The documentary follows me as I visit Chernobyl, site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, and discover that wildlife in the area is thriving, and that the effects of the radioactive contamination on people are much less serious than previously thought. That is what the science says, yet many green groups continue to spread myths about tens of thousands of people dying because of Chernobyl when the actual death toll so far – according to a major UN report published in 2006 – has likely been only around 65.
For the record, I am not in favour of nuclear power because I have been bought off by industry lobbyists, but because I think that climate change is such an important issue that outdated environmental ideology should not stand in the way of a massive potential source of zero-carbon power. I feel that my position on nuclear makes me more of an environmentalist, not less of one.
Perhaps the other most controversial topic dealt with in the film is GM crops. The programme's key contributor is the US environmental writer Stewart Brand, who suggests that western-led opposition to GM a decade ago led to the Zambian government rejecting US food aid (which contained GM corn) in the midst of a hunger emergency. Greenpeace emphatically rejects this assertion, but surely this is a debate that needs to be aired openly and honestly – and not painted as just another ill-motivated attack on the environmental movement.
In response to fears about what the programme might say, Southern-based groups on 2 November 2010 sent an angry letter to Dorothy Byrne, the Channel 4 commissioner who is responsible for the film. The letter asserts that the documentary is part of 'corporate-led campaigns which are motivated by profit alone' and insists that GM is a 'western imposed idea'. The irony here is that none of the signatories to the letter have actually seen the film, thereby aptly illustrating Stewart Brand's point – southern groups are simply repeating what they have been told by Greenpeace HQ in London.
In actual fact, the film looks at the development of what poverty campaigners call 'pro-poor GMOs', developed by public institutions and aimed at improving the nutrient content of basic subsistence crops in Africa. The African contributor to the film, Dr Florence Wambugu, has been attacked by anti-GM activists as somehow representing nefarious corporate interests, but her work is funded not by Monsanto but by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the intellectual property rights to many of the crops she helps develop are held by the Kenyan state.
No one is arguing that GM crops are somehow a silver-bullet solution to world hunger, but that, as Oxfam puts it, 'modern biotechnology might play a role in helping to achieve global food security' if GM is used to benefit subsistence farmers. An outright rejection of the technology, as green groups still insist should be our position, is both illogical and potentially harmful to the interests of poorer peoples and the environment.
A real debate is needed about these and other issues that greens campaign on. In this age of rising global temperatures, declining biodiversity, accumulating toxins, fractured ecosystems and rapidly-increasing economic growth and global population, we need a strong and successful environmental movement more than ever. But it must be a movement which is informed by sound science, and not by outdated prejudice.