Hard Choices: Environmentalists and the Forests

Published April 4, 1995

More than twenty years ago, I was one of a dozen or so activists who founded Greenpeace in the basement of the Unitarian Church in Vancouver. The Vietnam war was raging and nuclear holocaust seemed closer every day. We linked peace, ecology, and a talent for media communications and went on to build the world’s largest environmental activist organization. By 1986, Greenpeace was established in 26 countries and had an annual income of over $100 million.

In its early years, the environmental movement specialized in confronting polluters and others who were damaging public lands and resources. Groups such as Greenpeace played a valuable role by ringing an ecological fire alarm, awakening mass consciousness to the true dimensions of our global predicament.

By the 1980s, the battle for public opinion had been won: Virtually everyone inside and outside politics and industry expressed a commitment to environmental protection and good stewardship. Environmentalists were invited to the table in boardrooms and ca ucuses around the world to help design solutions to pressing ecological problems.

Rather than accept this invitation to be part of the solution, many environmentalists chose instead to radicalize their message. They demanded restrictions on human activity and the uses of natural resources that far exceed any scientific justification. T hat tactical decision created an atmosphere in which many environmentalists today must rely on sensational rhetoric and misinformation rather than good science. Programs have gone forward without input from more knowledgeable environmentalists and other e x perts; the public debate has been needlessly polarized as a result of the movement’s unwillingness to collaborate with others less radical.

In addition to choosing a dubious tactic, the environmental movement also changed its philosophy along the way. It once prided itself on subscribing to a philosophy that was “trans-political, trans-ideological, and trans-national” in character. Non-violen t direct action and peaceful civil disobedience were the hallmarks of the movement. Truth mattered and science was respected for the knowledge it brought to the debate.

That tradition was abandoned by many environmental groups during the 1990s. A new brand of environmental extremism has emerged that rejects science, diversity of opinion, and even democracy. These eco-extremists tend to be:

  • Anti-technology and anti-science. Eco-extremists entirely reject machinery and industry; they invoke science as a means of justifying the adoption of beliefs that have no basis in science to begin with.

  • Anti-free enterprise. Although communism and state socialism have failed to protect the environment, eco-extremists are basically anti-business. They have not put forward an alternative system of organization that would meet the material needs of soci ety.

  • Anti-democratic. Eco-extremists do not tolerate dissent and do not respect the opinions and beliefs of the general public. In the name of ‘”speaking for the trees and other species,” we are faced with a movement that would usher in an era of eco-fasci sm.

The international debate over clearcutting offers a case study of eco-extremism in action. Groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have mounted major campaigns against clearcutting, claiming that it is responsible for “deforestation” on a massive sc ale in Canada and elsewhere. In fact, no such deforestation is taking place in Canada or the U.S., and a ban on clearcutting could do more harm than good.

It is an ecological fact that many types of forest ecosystems thrive most successfully when they are periodically cleared and allowed to regenerate. Fire, volcanic eruptions, windstorms, insect attacks, disease, and climate change (ice ages) destroy massi ve areas of forests, part of a natural cycle of forest destruction and renewal that has existed since long before modern humans arrived on the scene.

The use of hype and myths by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club is symptomatic of the larger problems facing the modern environmental movement. Confrontation too often is preferred over collaboration, and eco-extremism has shoved aside the earlier spirit of t olerance and concern for the fate of humanity. The results have been harmful to the movement as well as to the environment we seek to protect.

As an environmentalist in the political center, I now find myself branded a traitor and a sellout by this new breed of saviors. My name appears in Greenpeace’s “Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations.” But surely the shoe belongs on the other foot: The eco-extremists who have taken control of the nation’s leading environmental organizations must shoulder the blame for the anti-environmentalist backlash now taking place in the U.S. and elsewhere. Unless they change their philosophy and tactics, the pros p ects for a protected environment will remain dim.

Patrick Moore is an expert on forest and energy issues, having earned a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of British Columbia in 1972. He was a founding member of Greenpeace and served for seven years as a Director of Greenpeace International.