Debating 'What the Green Movement Got Wrong'

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What the Green Movement Got Wrong


"What were you thinking?" said the voice on the telephone late last week as I was settling in for the night. The caller was Ben Stewart, the head of media for Greenpeace in the UK. He had just seen an announcement for a new environmental documentary to be launched on Channel 4 in Britain and in "over a dozen countries." The title of the documentary: What the Green Movement Got Wrong. Stewart was calling because I was featured prominently in the documentary as one of a handful of lifelong greens who now had come to believe that the environmental movement had gone terribly wrong and was, among other sins, causing mass starvation through its actions. It's fair to say that I cursed a bit at hearing the news.

A few months before I had been encouraged by Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, the author of Whole Earth Discipline, the co-founder of Global Business Network, to participate in a British documentary that was exploring his views and looking at inspiring ideas for protecting people and the planet. As a supporter and friend of Brand's, I participated and gave a wide-ranging interview on the challenges and promise of the environmental movement. Brand is absolutely sincere in his beliefs that the environmental movement needs to embrace technologies like genetically modified foods and nuclear power, even as some environmentalists have tried to paint him as a paid industry shill.

It's no secret that I have critiques of the environmental movement. Here's one quote from me in the film, referring to the challenge of climate change, "After decades of work, after billions of dollars spent, the environmental movement has failed to achieve job one, which is to protect the planet." Some people have told me that it's not fair to point the finger at the environmental community, but I'm one who believes that accountability breeds performance. In December 2004 I gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club in which I declared environmentalism dead, and proceeded to give a step-by-step autopsy of the movement in the wake of its failure to secure passage of any legislation to combat climate change. Six years later, we're no closer to building the public support necessary to lower the cost of clean energy, so I'm still frustrated. But somewhere between my interview and the final cut of the film, the title of the documentary changed from The Stewart Brand Documentary to The New Environmentalists to What the Green Movement Got Wrong. The filmmakers, Darlow Smithson Productions, transformed the documentary into a withering critique of the environmental opposition to nuclear power and genetically modified foods.

In one scene they interspersed heart-wrenching photos of starving children in Zambia, their emaciated mouths crying out for help, with a story of how the environmental movement blocked the delivery of food aid to Zambia from the United States because the grain was genetically modified. To clear up the story, I might mention that the environmental movement doesn't run the country of Zambia. Greenpeace has since published a letter that it sent African governments at the time encouraging them to accept food aid despite fears that genetically modified seeds would 'pollute' local seedstock.

Mark Lynas, an author and former activist, describes his transformation to the belief that nuclear energy will be a part of the climate change solution. He says changing his mind on nuclear power was like admitting he was a pedophile. In the film he tours Chernobyl and notices that the abandoned local town has no more radiation than you would experience on a cross-country flight. It's a worthy endeavor to discuss whether environmentalists should change their positions on nuclear energy and genetically modified food; but it's not helpful, in my opinion, when environmentalists are portrayed as all-powerful zealots that have wreaked havoc on the planet.

Over the next few days I endeavored to get my pieces cut out of the documentary, with modest success. The producers changed the narration to explicitly say that all of the contributors did not have the same views. They also expanded the opportunity for a live debate following the show in which Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth had the opportunity to refute the more fantastic claims made in the broadcast. Stewart Brand let me know he was disappointed in my decision.

There's no doubt that the environmental movement, like most social movements that grew up in the boomer ideology of the 1960's and 1970's, needs to rethink its most basic assumptions. Brand says in the film, "All of these years we've been good at protecting nature from civilization, but the situation now is that won't really do the job." He's right. Environmentalists need to start seeing people as the solution, not the problem.

Perhaps nothing is more damaging than a legacy view among some greens that humans are locusts on a perfect earth, eating more than their fair share, and doomed to destroy our species while bringing down lions, tigers, and bears in the process. There is a profoundly conservative streak in modern environmentalism. You hear it in ideas of localism, which are beautiful concepts that can hide a bitter streak of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) and xenophobia. It's wonderful that you want to get everything within fifty miles of your home, but if everyone in the developed world went local, global trade would grind to a halt, slowing the forces pulling billions of people out of abject poverty.

If the environmental movement hopes to be relevant in the future it needs to build a plan for a planet with 8.9 billion people (the projected population in 2050), embrace innovation and technology, and engage corporations as partners in solutions. I'd rather slaughter sacred cows than paper tigers.

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Adam Werbach is the co-founder of sharing startup Yerdle, formerly the chief sustainability officer for Saatchi & Saatchi and the president of the Sierra Club. He is the author of Strategy for Sustainability: A Business ManifestoHe lives in San Francisco and Bolinas, California.

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