Wednesday, 17 April 2013 17:21

The repentant environmentalist: Part 3

Mark Lynas, the Rational Environmentalist Mark Lynas, the Rational Environmentalist From Channel 4's 'What the Green Movement Got Wrong: The Debate'

In the final part of The Repentant Environmentalist, Jonathan Matthews looks at how the bogus PR packaging of Mark Lynas and his claims to have ditched ideology for hard science are part of a well established formula for attacking the environmental movement.

'For a lot of people, it was an 'Oh fuck' moment. They realised they'd been lied to, at a very profound level, by the very people they'd trusted.' That's what Mark Lynas told the Observer about his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, in which he apologised for founding the anti-GM movement.

Lynas said he thought 'millions' had now seen the speech. But despite his new found celebrity, the Observer's profile painted him as a lonely figure - one of the 'few' with the courage to not just change their minds but to do so in public. He was also portrayed as if he were the victim of the environmental movement - a movement, the article said, that Lynas had been used to seeing 'as the brave, scrappy underdogs. But the more he looked, the more little David began to resemble Goliath.'

The Observer is far from alone in being entranced by the runaway narrative of the environmental heretic who ditched ideology for hard science. But the portrayal of Lynas as the lone repentant environmentalist standing up to the green Goliath is in reality just the latest reincarnation of an all too familiar line of attack.

The well trodden path

This winning formula has been exploited before in the GM debate, most obviously in the case of Patrick Moore, who ever since he was flown to New Zealand by the biotech industry to promote GM to a Royal Commission, has helped generate countless articles about the 'Greenpeace Founder' who supports GM crops.

Like Lynas, Moore knows all about bigging up his past as a means of gaining credibility in a debate in which he would otherwise lack standing. His 2011 autobiography, for instance, is titled Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout, even though it was published almost three decades after he quit the organisation. 

Moore also plays the victim card. According to Greenpeace's Tamara Stark, 'Patrick behaves often as if he has been hurt by the organisation.' And the similarities with Mark Lynas don't stop there.

Moore's arguments for GM crops are astonishingly similar to those now advanced by Lynas. To take just a few examples, Moore accuses environmentalists of pursuing both an 'anti-science' and an 'anti-corporate' agenda. He also, like Lynas, complains about the high cost of GM regulation, and just like Lynas he castigates environmentalists for opposing golden rice. It is, in fact, hard to find any arguments deployed by Lynas in favour of GM crops that haven't also been used by Moore.

But the rhetoric of their attack on the green movement was smelted and honed long before Patrick Moore adopted it.


The environmental movement has been under attack since its inception. Monsanto and the other chemical corporations launched their campaign of vilification against Rachel Carson before Silent Spring had even been published. Monsanto also published a parody of her book that suggested a world in which Carson's environmental concerns triumphed would be one of mass starvation. Rachel Carson was also repeatedly accused of being a communist.

Someone else who saw the movement Carson engendered as an attack from the left, was Ayn Rand, the Russian-born American novelist and champion of unregulated free markets. In the late 1960s Rand railed against environmentalism as 'an artificial, PR manufactured issue, blown up by the bankrupt left who can find no other ground for attacking capitalism'. 

The 'collectivists have found - in ecology', Rand wrote, 'a new excuse for the creation of more controls… more harassment of industry by more irresponsible pressure groups'. Environmentalism was also for Rand an assault on science and technology by the 'enemies of reason': ‘Make no mistake about it: it is technology and progress that nature lovers are out to destroy.'

Although unrestricted technology, like unbridled capitalism, was critical to Rand's vision of a neoliberal utopia, she also saw it as the key to how the green movement could be defeated. An issue like pollution, Rand argued, should be accepted as a problem, but only as 'a scientific, technological problem - not a political one'. The way to outsmart the 'ecologists', according to Rand, was by convincing people that environmental problems could be 'solved only by technology' and not by regulation.

Although Rand and her circle were isolated voices at the time, as significant victories started to be clocked up by the green movement of the 1970s, industry dollars began to spawn front groups charged with undermining environmentalists and the regulations they helped inspire. And with the rapid growth in corporate power of the 1980s, as neoliberalism moved from the fringes to its ascendancy, this counter movement really hit its stride.

This is when the rhetoric and tactics were honed that aggressively demonised those who challenged big business and the deregulatory agenda.

Language of attack

The coining of abusive terminology was a key weapon, and the king of anti-environmentalist spin was Ron Arnold, who later told the New York Times, 'We created a sector of public opinion that didn't used to exist. No one was aware that environmentalism was a problem until we came along.' 

In 1984 Arnold became the Executive Vice-President of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. The Center's main focus had previously been on opposing gun controls, but it shifted when the Center's founder, the tax felon Alan Gottlieb, realized the fundraising potential of opposing environmentalism: 'For us the environmental movement has become the perfect bogeyman.'

His side-kick Arnold, a self-professed former environmentalist, sought to marginalise the green movement with inflammatory rhetoric, declaring it to be 'anti-humanity', 'anti-civilization', 'anti-technology', as well as 'eco-terrorism'. Arnold also claimed environmentalists were often communists, and he inverted their David and Goliath clashes with giant multinationals by declaring: 'They have all the money, all the paid staff, what they don't have is science, truth or the interests of humanity, or even the environment at heart.'

By the mid-1990s Patrick Moore was beginning to draw heavily on Arnold's backlash rhetoric, accusing environmentalists of being 'anti-human', 'anti-technology', 'anti-science', 'anti-free enterprise' and 'anti-civilization.' He also accused the green movement of having moved to the 'ultra-left' and of using environmentalism 'to cloak agendas that have more to do with anti-corporate and class warfare.' And Lynas has followed in his wake criticising ‘much of the green movement for entrenching itself on the far left’.

Patrick Moore, the Sensible Environmentalist
Patrick Moore, the 'sensible environmentalist'


As well as drawing his rhetoric from Arnold, Patrick Moore also acknowledges Ayn Rand and her circle as pioneering critics of the green movement. Like Rand, Moore derides environmentalists as irrational technophobes, and according to Wired magazine 'offers an alternative philosophy that not only accepts but celebrates humankind's growing ability to alter the planet'. 

This celebration of human power over nature is very much the perspective of another Ayn Rand fan who helps connect Moore and Lynas - Stewart Brand. Lynas acknowledges Brand as a major influence, particularly through his book Whole Earth Discipline, which Lynas says gave him a 'eureka moment' about GM.

According to the Financial Times, Brand is so enamoured of GM that he 'gushes about the technology in a way that might raise a blush even in a spokesman for Monsanto'. Like Moore (the 'Sensible Environmentalist') and Lynas (the 'Rational Environmentalist'), Brand (the 'Ecopragmatist'), is often portrayed as another eco-warrior who's radically changed his mind. But while this 'convert' image has doubtless helped Brand's book attract a slew of publicity, it's bogus.

Brand has said that if he’d known about it '30 to 40 years ago I think I would have said to all the genetic engineering stuff - hot dog!' And the rightwing free marketeer Matt Ridley confirms: 'Stewart Brand, who I know and admire... [is] not a 'convert' to these views. He has always been strongly pro-GM food'. Not surprisingly, Ridley tells us that he 'adored' Whole Earth Discipline, in which Brand lacerated the green movement for failing to embrace technologies like GM. 


The use of the plural in 'technologies' is important. Many people watching Lynas make his Oxford speech may have assumed he had changed his mind about GM specifically, but this is far from the case. Lynas and Brand enthusiastically embrace not just GM intensive agriculture, but nuclear power, fracking, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and even geoengineering.

They argue that rather than recoiling in horror over the ways we are dramatically altering the planet's eco-systems, we should instead celebrate our godlike powers by intervening still more radically in order to enable us to sustain endless economic development and the spread of modern consumerist societies without making the planet completely uninhabitable.

So although Lynas presents his remarkable change of heart on GM as being all about the science, in reality it forms part of a radical change of ideological perspective. As Paul Kingsnorth notes, for business-friendly neo-environmentalists like Brand, Moore and Lynas, 'New technologies, global capitalism and western-style development are not the problem but the solution.'

Their technocratic vision assumes another world - a truly better, fairer world - simply isn't possible.

Science or ideology?

If anyone doubts that it is a change in ideological outlook that really informs Lynas' new perspective, then they should listen to what he himself has to say in a lecture he gave just over a year ago about his book The God Species. In the Q&A that follows the talk, Lynas says he has become more 'pragmatic' and now takes a more 'engineering approach' to things, adding:

I don't make any major scientific claims for this [the various technological approaches he has been presenting in the talk]. I don't claim that my thing on nuclear or cook stoves or anything else is based on science. I think the [planetary] boundaries [in The God Species] are based on science and half of the book is about that, but in terms of my stuff [i.e. the technological ways of meeting those boundaries] that comes from my own politics and my own subjective judgements.

This is honest and makes sense of his change of heart, but it's a million miles away from the junking-ideology-for-hard-science line that Lynas promotes so vigorously in his Oxford speech and elsewhere.

Stewart Brand, the 'Ecopragmatist'
Stewart Brand, the 'Ecopragmatist'. Photo: Jurvetson

'What the Green Movement Got Wrong'

In 2010 Brand and Lynas fronted a Channel 4 documentary 'What the Green Movement Got Wrong', in which Patrick Moore also appeared.

Among other things, the programme promoted a claim in Brand's book that the environmental movement had obtained a global ban on DDT, leading to the deaths of millions from malaria. In the studio discussion that followed, George Monbiot pointed out that this was a myth circulated by corporate lobbyists and he challenged Brand to either back it up or admit he was wrong. But Brand failed to come up with any credible evidence to support his DDT claim, even after turning to Patrick Moore for help. 

And this wasn’t the only bogus claim taken from Brand's book. As Adam Werbach notes:

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.

Yet in his book Brand names the head of Greenpeace at the time, saying people should know who was leading the organisation when the 'environmental movement went sociopathic.'

Golden genocide

Another emotionally potent weapon that all the repentant environmentalists flock to is golden rice. This is because of the association of the vitamin A deficiency it's designed to ameliorate, with blindness and death in children in the developing world.

It's a particular favourite with Patrick Moore, who has repeatedly used it to berate environmentalists - even accusing them of murder and of a crime against humanity.

The Skeptical Environmentalist
"The 'Skeptical Environmentalist'





Bjorn Lomborg, who achieved worldwide celebrity by branding himself The Skeptical Environmentalist, has also made use of golden rice, claiming opponents of GM have caused a '12-year delay' in its introduction during which time 'about 8 million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency.'

Mark Lynas also directly ascribes the deaths of children to opposition to golden rice. 'There are tens of thousands of kids who are dead who wouldn't be dead otherwise,' he told the Observer. 'Imagine if Monsanto had been culpable in the deaths of tens of thousands of children!'

Lynas, just like Lomborg, argues that these children's deaths were unnecessary because golden rice has been ready to use 'for over a decade' and it has only been held up by 'over-regulation'.

But these claims are simply untrue. As recently as 2008, a largely sympathetic article in the journal Science pointed out that golden rice still had a long way to go in its development. This is because it was created with Japonica cultivars 'that are scientists' favorites but fare poorly in Asian fields.' As a result, researchers were having to backcross golden rice lines 'with the long-grained, nonsticky Indica varieties popular among Asia's farmers'. These new varieties, the Science article pointed out, 'must not only produce enough beta carotene but also pass muster in terms of yield, seed quality, and appearance'. This laborious cross-breeding process and the accompanying field trials take years, and this has absolutely nothing to do with regulations requiring golden rice be proven safe.

After the publication of the Lomborg piece and the Observer article that quoted Lynas, the International Rice Research Institute, which is at the forefront of the development and evaluation of golden rice, felt it necessary to release a statement making it clear that contrary to the claims in these articles golden rice is still not ready to go into farmers’ fields, and probably won't be for at least another two years or more. The statement also pointed out that they've yet to prove that golden rice does actually reduce Vitamin A deficiency, and that community wide research would be needed before that became clear. Yet the golden rice section in Stewart Brand’s book is headed: Golden Rice Saves Lives, Prevents Blindness in Millions. 

Political engineering

In fact, all the repentant environmentalists present golden rice not only as if it were long proven and already available, but as if it were the only viable pathway for treating vitamin A deficiency. But among other approaches, vitamin A pills have been administered successfully to millions of Asian school children by the World Health Organisation for years, saving well over a million lives

There are also more sustainable long-term solutions that try to tackle the poverty, poor diets and extensive monoculture that underlie the problem of micronutrient deficiency. These approaches recognize that the kind of problems that GMOs like golden rice have been engineered to address are not technical issues but social, political and economic ones.

The same, of course, is true of feeding the world - an issue that Lynas and the other repentant environmentalists are also keen to claim makes GM vital. There is already more than enough food to feed the world's entire population. That there is still so much hunger is primarily a political and economic problem, and focusing on technical production issues doesn't help people have the political power or the purchasing power to get hold of enough food.

To solve these kind of problems we have to address issues of environmental and social justice, issues of distribution and issues of corporate, political and economic power. And it is inherently political to repackage these problems as if they were purely technical issues that we can just engineer away with 'magic bullets' if regulatory controls are swept aside.

Romantic, ideological and vicious

The 'Goddess of the Market', Ayn Rand, came up with a remarkably simple prescription for defeating the environmental movement: diagnose problems as purely technical, not political, and convince people that they can be solved only by the unrestricted use of technology.

And it's a prescription that the neo(liberal)-environmentalists all follow. In the words of George Monbiot, the message that Brand and Lynas promote is a: 'wildly romantic view of technology, saying it can solve all the complex and difficult economic and political and social problems. We don't need to confront power. We don't need to get entangled in fighting corporations. We don't need to confront economic growth, consumer demand. Technology will solve everything.'

Monbiot adds, 'And you know, this isn't new environmentalism. This is the same old corporate friendly ideology we've heard a hundred times before.'

It might be, of course, that the neo-environmentalists simply fail to understand the politics they're playing with when they call on the green movement to drop its campaigns for regulation and democratic control, in favour of techno-fixes. But in a prolonged exchange with Stewart Brand over his DDT claims, George Monbiot came to suspect that Brand, like Patrick Moore, was deliberately seeking to shape the environmental debate to suit the environmentally dubious businesses he worked for.

The real give away though that their attacks on environmentalists, and the corporate interests this serves, are not just the result of political naivety, is the wilful mischaracterisation of the green movement that the repentant environmentalists all engage in. As we have seen, this includes promoting vicious falsehoods about environmentalists starving, impoverishing or even being responsible for the deaths of large numbers of people. Nothing could make clearer that they are intent on defeating the green movement by whatever means are necessary, even the use of black propaganda.

George Monbiot has commented that the 'convenient fictions' promoted by Brand and Lynas chime in perfectly 'with the thinking of the new establishment: corporations, think tanks, neoliberal politicians'. And that while Brand and Lynas market themselves as environmental heretics, the true heretics, 'are those who remind us that neither social nor environmental progress are possible unless power is confronted'.

The winning formula: How to be a repentant environmentalist

Brandish your green credentials/trade on your past. Anything will do, even bogus credentials still give easy access to the media if you're promoting a contrarian viewpoint. But in general, big yourself up!

Say you've abandoned: ideology, dogma, blind prejudice, medieval superstition, Romanticism, illusion, emotion and urban myths

Say you've embraced: the evidence, the truth, the facts, science, rationality and the Enlightenment

Brand yourself: 'The Pragmatic/Rational/Sane/Sensible/Sceptical/Reasonable Environmentalist'

Brand environmentalists: ideological, leftist, genocidal, reactionary, anti-human, anti-progress, anti-civilisation, anti-science, anti-corporate, the enemies of the poor

Present industry-friendly PR as incontrovertible scientific evidence. Label anyone who questions it one of the above

Emphasise that the technologies/industries you're promoting are a necessity, not a choice

Emphasise that environmental regulations are not protective but oppressive. Say they're a bureaucratic burden, prohibitively expensive and completely unnecessary, and that they hinder science, strangle innovation, delay progress and block development

Accuse the green movement of crimes against humanity: say they've starved, impoverished and/or been responsible for the deaths of (large numbers of) people (or better still: children, the poor, people of colour; or if possible: a combination of these), or that they will precipitate such a tragedy if they aren't stopped

Invert power relations so green NGOs appear to be enormously powerful, influential and wealthy, while big science, big government and big business appear their hapless victims

Ignore or marginalise (e.g. as dupes) environmentalists in the global South, so the green movement can be presented as well-fed, well-heeled, elitist, privileged and self-indulgent

KILLER MOVE: Apologise for your past involvement in the green movement (or alternatively say the movement was OK to begin with but you quit when the extremists took over)

Wrap yourself in victimhood: present yourself as a victim of green orthodoxy and/or the vindictive bullyboys of the environmental movement (alternatively, emphasise your pluck in standing up to the green Goliath)

Appear puzzled that old friends seem upset about being portrayed as unthinking zealots who are harming the poor

Appear outraged (or hurt, if in victim mode) at any suggestion you've sold out or weren't as important in the green movement as you've made out

Appear as independent of industry as you possibly can (compensatory factor: the more you fail, the more you earn)

Enjoy the ongoing media hoopla and PR bonanza!


Jonathan Matthews

Jonathan Matthews is the founder and director of GMWatch and has written numerous articles on the politics and spin around GM crops. He is a contributing author to Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, eds Dinan and Miller (Pluto Press).