What’s Wrong with the Environmental Movement: an interview with Patrick Moore

Published January 1, 2004

As a cofounder of Greenpeace, Dr. Patrick Moore is one of the godfathers of the modern environmental movement.

Since the mid-1980s, however, he has become critical of the movement’s direction, especially its commitment to confrontational tactics. Since leaving Greenpeace, Moore has focused on developing consensus-based solutions to environmental problems.

In 1991, he founded Greenspirit (http://www.greenspirit.com), a consultancy focusing on environmental policy and communications. In 2000, he published Green Spirit: Trees Are the Answer, a photo book that illustrates how forests work and how they can play a role in solving the world’s energy problems.

In this interview with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Moore discusses the past, present, and future of environmentalism.

CEI: What did you consider the greatest threat to the environment when you helped found Greenpeace? Which trend or event convinced you that the organization you cofounded had been taken over by extremists, and what prompted you finally to leave it?

Moore: Greenpeace evolved in the late 1960s and early ’70s because of concern over nuclear testing and the threat of nuclear war. Greenpeace’s first campaign was a voyage from Vancouver to Alaska to protest U.S. underground hydrogen bomb testing in November of 1971. We did not stop that test, but it was the last hydrogen bomb ever detonated. In retrospect, we felt that because this had happened at the height of the Cold War and Vietnam, it was a major turning point in the global arms race, and we had been directly involved.

In June 1985, the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French commandoes in Auckland Harbor [New Zealand]. I happened to have been on the boat that day but was not a crew member. I was an international director visiting and welcoming the boat. It was on its way to a protest against French testing. The commandoes bombed it, sinking it and killing a photographer on board. That became a pretty big international incident.

But it was also about that time that I was moving away from Greenpeace. The parting of ways occurred partly because I had become aware of the concept of sustainable development–or sustainability–when I attended a meeting in Nairobi that marked the tenth anniversary of the Stockholm Environment Conference, in 1982. That’s where I first heard this term, sustainable development. Over the next few years, I came to realize that this was the next logical step.

My transition at that time was from the confrontation approach to the consensus approach, from environmental activism to sustainability. At the same time, Greenpeace was beginning to adopt positions that I felt were too extreme and not based on science. The very first issue that came along those lines was their opposition to aquaculture.

We had been campaigning on all sorts of marine issues: to end whaling, to prevent dolphin killing, and to end driftnet fisheries and deep sea trawlers. We had been against many different types of things, and personally I saw aquaculture as sustainable development that we could be in favor of.

It seemed to me that sustainable aquaculture was a solution, whereas Greenpeace has more or less to this day remained opposed to many forms of aquaculture. I think they are way off base. First World environmental activists are campaigning against shrimp farming in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of people depend upon it for their livelihood.

CEI: You’ve noted that “Sustainability is very much about what it is we want to sustain rather than some absolute or ideal state of being,” yet many environmental activists today pursue such an “absolute or ideal state of being” with a quasi-religious fervor. What do you think motivates this mindset?

Moore: Ideologues have always been like that. Sustainability is not a Utopia or Garden of Eden. Sustainability is a work in progress, and we will always be attempting to move closer to a sustainable state. As I said in my book, nothing is sustainable indefinitely. Even the sun, our main source of energy, will burn out one day. If you become more humble when using this term, you start thinking in terms of 50 to 100 years rather than in two months or a year.

I find it difficult to accept the environmentalist movement’s anti-wood, anti-forestry policy. Trees are among our most abundant renewable energy resources. Environmental activists say they’re in favor of renewable energy, just not trees and hydro-dams, which together account for 95 percent of renewable energy in the world. The environmentalists like photocells, but I view them as expensive roofing tile. They would have us tear down dams and stop cutting trees, which would push us toward more toward fossil fuels and more CO2 emissions. Their policy on forestry is logically inconsistent with their policy on climate change and renewable energy.

CEI: You’ve said that, today, the environmentalist establishment has become trapped by its own devotion to confrontation as a tactic, which has led them to adopt extreme positions as their more sensible proposals have gained wide public acceptance. What examples would you give of environmentalist positions that have become so mainstream that we don’t notice them anymore and extreme positions that green activists push today, but which aren’t based on science?

Moore: Reduction of toxic materials and waste streams going into water and air. No one argues anymore that it is OK to put toxic waste into rivers.

On the other hand, our detection methods have become so sophisticated that we must accept the fact that low levels of nearly everything are going to be found everywhere. Dioxin is a classic example. Dioxin is produced both through natural phenomena, like forest fires, and also through industrial processes, like steel recycling. It is, therefore, ubiquitous. You can find dioxin in practically every food product we eat, especially meat, as it accumulates in fat.

You can find dioxin everywhere in the world, from the polar ice caps to the equator; some people take that as evidence that we are destroying the planet. The more logical analysis is that dioxin is naturally occurring. Any time something organic burns, dioxin is created. Humans have drastically reduced the amount of anthropogenic dioxin emissions by making incinerators more efficient. There is this issue of getting things in perspective and recognizing that the poison is in the dose and that the word “toxic” is relative.

What I really see as the problem is the fact that the environmental movement has become very propaganda-oriented. If you take a term used quite frequently these days, the term “genetic pollution,” otherwise referred to as genetic contamination, it is a propaganda term, not a technical or scientific term. Pollution and contamination are both value judgments. By using the word “genetic” it gives the public the impression that they are talking about something scientific or technical–as if there were such a thing as genes that amount to pollution.

They use it in terms of GM and in their anti-salmon farming and anti-aquaculture campaigns. If, for example, a fish escapes from a farm and interbreeds with a wild fish of the same species, they call that genetic pollution. They don’t realize that what they are saying in terms of science would be the same thing as saying that if a white person married a Chinese person, that would be genetic pollution.

The primary signature of propaganda is to take a word that was previously an objective descriptor–a term like “clear cut,” as it is used in forestry, meaning that you cut all the trees down in a certain area–and you load it up with all sorts of negative associations like devastation, desecration, sacrilege, end of virginity. A very similar word like clearing–a clearing of the forest–has a positive connotation. Another example is GM. It is a very descriptive, objective term, but when you attach to it such terms as “Frankenfoods,” “killer tomato,” and “terminator seed,” you are basically trying to make it so that when people hear GM, the “scary” part of their brain comes on.

CEI: Decades of over-aggressive fire prevention and logging restrictions have made U.S. national forests fire tinderboxes. Yet many environmental groups denounce forest thinning efforts to prevent fires–such as the Healthy Forests Initiative–as political favors for the logging industry. How dangerous is it to do nothing, especially for communities for which this is, literally, a life-and-death issue? What do we need to do to return heavily fire-damaged forests to a healthy state?

Moore: The single biggest challenge on federal lands is catastrophic wildfire, coupled with disease and insects.

Before people settled the United States, nature took care of itself; forests either burned lightly or heavily. One has to bear in mind that fire keeps forests in a state of health. While the wettest rainforests are not threatened by catastrophic wildfires, dry and semi-wet forests do face a threat, as they are choked with timber and deadwood. Ninety million of 190 million acres of federal forest lands are at high risk for catastrophic fire. And in 2003, we saw these fires happening again.

Here in British Columbia, we have the same problem: Our forest lands are not being managed properly for fire resistance. A story in the New York Times detailed how a fire spread quickly in a forest that was not managed. However, when it reached managed forest land that had been thinned and made fire resistant, it just stopped. It demonstrates how easy it is for professionals to fire-harden a forest and make it fire resistant.

Unfortunately, we have a 50 to 100 year backlog, which is estimated will cost between $50 and $100 billion to fix. Even if we adopt an aggressive program, it will take us 25 to 30 years to resolve the situation.

Some naysayers complain that the only reason Bush is proposing this plan is to “give favors to his friends in the forest industry.” But International Paper, Georgia Pacific, and Weyerhauser are not interested in opening up federal lands to timber harvesting, as it would lead to increased competition. Big timber is lukewarm toward this proposal–they don’t want to see all this fiber coming into market. Rather, it has been a grassroots movement and the Western governors and mayors pushing this thing through.

This is more of an East/West division than a Left/Right division. People in the West have become educated about the fire issue and a large majority in the West favors the President’s plan. Those in San Francisco and Los Angeles are against the President’s plan, as they do not have to deal with fire. This goes back to the constitutional dysfunction of the majority of politicians being in the East and the majority of federal lands being in the West.

This article first appeared in Monthly Planet, published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is reprinted here with permission. The full text of the publication is available on CEI’s Web site at http://www.cei.org.