As an environmental scientist, I am regularly asked why I seem so critical of environmental activists and environmental NGOs. My answer is simple: because the people who should be speaking out when environmental activists and environmental NGOs make ridiculous claims are failing at the task. As an example, this weekend the news was highlighted by an environmental protest that snarled traffic in Vancouver. The protestors were members of Extinction Rebellion Vancouver. One of the Extinction Rebellion’s “demands” is:
Act Now: Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
Read that demand again because it should be the first thing anyone talks about when discussing Extinction Rebellion. They are demanding that we GET TO NET ZERO EMISSIONS BY 2025. “Net Zero” means we have to replace every ambulance, fire truck, bus, train and/or transport truck with a non-fossil fuel version. It means we eliminate the essential tools necessary to feed our community, protect the elderly and aid the ill. Moreover, they aren’t asking for this in 10 or 20 years; they are DEMANDING it be done in 4 years.
As I have written previously, Extinction Rebellion’s demands represent nothing less than magical thinking. There is only one means to accomplish their goals in that time frame and that would be to eliminate the vast majority of the human population. Absent genocide, their demands are impossible.
Reading the commentary about the protest, I could not find a single member of the activist community calling out Extinction Rebellion Vancouver for making such ridiculous demands. Where are the serious thinkers in the NGO community arguing that neither magic, nor genocide are acceptable means to achieve our climate goals? The answer is they are either missing or don’t exist.
That is why you see me asking these questions on social media. I am a pragmatic environmentalist with the education and expertise to recognize when activists are making impossible demands. Absent high-profile activists doing this, someone must bring the discussion back from “let’s use magic” to “let’s find what we can do to achieve our goals”.
So where are the environmental leaders who should be doing this task? My suggestion is that they don’t exist. To my mind, today’s environmental movement leaders are the students I helped teach in the 1990’s. These students were brought up in an academic environment I remember well. It was one where universities were building new schools and departments of Environmental Studies and those schools, like my own, were dominated by social scientists and historians with little-to-no interest in the natural sciences and few-to-no required natural science classes in their course loads.
The result is a generation of students who were not taught environmental science. Most lack the ability to crunch the numbers and understand why policies may or may not work in the real world. They use words like “toxic” without understanding what those words mean. When I talk about specific gravity and how it affects the behaviour of an oil spill in freshwater environments and why that differs from a similar spill in saltwater their eyes glaze over. It may as well be Greek to them. Absent a grounding in environmental science they are left to trust their guts on these topics and their guts often get it wrong because this topic is complex and sometimes the informed response is counter intuitive.
That is how relatively intelligent and well-educated activists can “demand” the impossible. They lack the wider experience (and scientific education) necessary to even recognize that their demands are impossible. They let their hearts make their decisions. They seek to “Move the Overton Window” while making a splash in the media; getting “likes” on their social media feeds; and generating donations to pay for their continued activism.
Consider this tweet from Naomi Klein:
When people engage in the fiercest forms of land, water, and planet protection, they do so from a place of love. If they’re trying to stop a pipeline, it’s not because they hate cylindrical metal things. It’s because they love their water. And they’re willing to fight for it.
This is about the fight against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX). A project that will reduce the risk to our aquatic environments. By fighting the pipeline, they increase the risk to our shared waters. Their love may be real, but their actions will not help achieve their goal. This reminds me of that old expression about good intentions and where they lead us.
Let’s consider some more examples where NGOs should have known better.
Most of you are too young to remember that in the early 1990’s Greenpeace was engaged in an all-out campaign to get the element chlorine banned from use in industrial products. As a Chemistry graduate student at the time this made no sense to me. Chlorine is responsible for preventing hundreds of millions of waterborne infections a year and Greenpeace was trying to get it banned.
What was even more ridiculous to me was that an international organization decided it was possible to ban an element from environmental chemistry. Seriously, it reminded me of the famous Steve Martin “Hostages” sketch where he suggested that a hostage taker demand that the letter “m” be stricken from the English language. His argument, in the sketch, was you had to make one crazy demand when you were in a hostage situation so if you got caught you could plead insanity. Except Greenpeace wasn’t trying to plead insanity, they actually wanted governments to ban the use of chlorine. I suppose no one walked them through the chemistry of table/road salt.
But enough with the 1990’s, let’s look at the present. In 2021, Greenpeace is fighting to prevent the poor in Southeast Asia from getting access to a cheap and effective means to prevent blindness in children. According to UNICEF, approximately 1.15 million children die ever year from conditions associated with vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Golden Rice was designed to address this problem. It is a strain of rice that has been genetically modified to be rich in Vitamin A. Golden Rice will provide a cheap and effective dietary mean to address VAD. Yet Greenpeace has been actively fighting Golden Rice because it goes against their general fight against genetically engineered foods.
Greenpeace has no data to suggest that Golden Rice itself causes specific harm; they fight it because it is genetically engineered, and they don’t like genetic engineering of foodstuffs. Their fight has delayed the distribution of Golden Rice and is directly responsible for untold suffering in the developing world.
Want more examples? Most of my readers know my stance on the TMX. As I have repeatedly shown, the TMX will move existing oil production from Alberta more safely and with a lower greenhouse gas footprint. But fossil fuels are considered bad by the environmental community, so any project to move fossil fuels safely must be inherently bad and so they oppose the project. The result will inevitably mean more oil-by-rail, more emissions, more incidents and worse environmental outcomes.
How about BC LNG? The climate math makes it clear that BC LNG can help reduce global emissions. But once again we are talking about fossil fuels and if you take a parochial view you can claim that exporting LNG will increase our domestic emissions. The problem is that global warming doesn’t care about domestic emissions, it cares about total global emissions and BC LNG will decrease total global emissions.
It is not just the big-ticket items. Environmentalists have been getting it wrong for years on topics where life cycle analyses say one thing and their intuition says another. On topics from soccer fields, to ocean plastics, to BPA their intuitive approaches fail them. Heck they even got wrapped bananas wrong.
It wouldn’t be a big deal if all their uninformed opinions and direct actions were harmless, but they are not harmless. As I noted above, fighting Golden Rice results in hundreds of thousands suffering needlessly every year. Fighting the TMX will cost the economy while simultaneously putting our communities and watersheds at greater risk, while increasing overall GHG emissions to boot. Each action by Extinction Rebellion increases antipathy towards their cause and decreases the likelihood they will convince the greater public of the importance of their cause.
As a subject matter expert and pragmatic environmentalist, I simply cannot sit idly by while activists and activist NGOs demand policy alternatives that will increase the risk to human and ecological health because it makes them feel good and gets them “likes” on social media. If we are going to make the changes necessary to fight climate change and preserve the ecosphere it will take individuals with expertise and training to speak out when activists and NGOs demand the impossible while fighting against the good.