Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Environmentalism for the Non-Naive

Like colonialists of old, affluent green activists impose their will on poor people in impoverished countries who have no means of defending themselves. 

Michael Shellenberger’s best seller, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, deserves to be read by many kinds of people.

Near the top of that list are those well intentioned members of the public who, because they cherish nature and love wild animals, donate money regularly to environmental charities.

Shellenberger has been involved with green causes and organizations for decades. In 2008, Time magazine named him a Hero of the Environment. His perspective is informed. His views may once have been those of a naïve 20-something, but he’s a grownup now – with observations and conclusions other grownups need to hear.

This book is engaging. It’s also honest. Within its pages we learn that many activist groups have lost their way. They’re now harming rather than helping. Indeed, they’ve become a new breed of colonial overseers– imposing their will on third world populations who lack the means to defend themselves.

Shellenberger says that, where the Amazon rain forest is concerned, “many environmental NGOs, European governments, and philanthropies have made the situation worse.” Brazil isn’t a rich country. It’s still struggling to raise much of its population out of grueling poverty. Soybean farming is crucially important, since it increases incomes and funds schools.

But Greenpeace has long insisted it knows better than Brazil’s democratically elected government what policies Brazil should follow. Shellenberger says Greenpeace pressured European companies to stop buying Brazilian soy products by falsely claiming they posed a danger to the rain forest. A 2006 Greenpeace report, Eating Up the Amazon, repeatedly refers to an invasion of the Amazon by soy farmers.

Shellenberger cites an expert on the ground who explains that Greenpeace’s extremism, its disrespectful tone, and its disregard for economic realities, has wholly alienated Brazilian farmers. The lengthy interview from which those comments are taken, explains further:

There are only three percent of the lands in the Amazon outside of protected areas good for soy. Soy isn’t going to run over the Amazon because [the farmers] don’t want it. Too many rocks, too many hills. Too much rain and the water table is too high.

Elsewhere, Shellenberger reminds us that the history of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks is a history in which indigenous peoples have been driven from their traditional homelands – exiled from them – because activists and governments prioritized the welfare of animals over the welfare of human beings.

He quotes Sarah Sawyer, a primatologist who has studied gorillas in Cameroon:

at my field site we were called ‘conservation’…in a very derogatory way. And it hurt. ‘We don’t want conservation here,’ they would say…the local people felt like conservation was simply a way to rob them of their resources.

Activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion insist economic activity per se is killing the planet. Among their targets are factory-made consumer goods produced in countries such as Indonesia. In their words, “Fashion = Ecocide.” But Shellenberger offers an alternative perspective:

Around the world, for hundreds of years, young women have been voting with their feet. They have moved to cities from the countryside not because urban areas are utopian but because they offer many more opportunities for a better life…Moving to the city gives women more freedom in who they marry.

Demonizing the factory jobs these women currently perform inflicts real harm. The last thing economically vulnerable people in poor countries need is rich climate activists chopping down their ladder to prosperity.

Rather than supporting economic developments that will make poverty history, Shellenberger says environmentalists too often support ideas that will make poverty permanent. Behind buzzwords such as sustainability, we frequently find opposition to rudimentary progress – the kind that raises living standards and funds health care.

One cannot finish Apocalypse Never without concluding that environmental activists from rich countries, who imagine they have the right to dictate terms to people in poor countries, have become a serious problem across the developing world.

Shellenberger reports that International Rivers, based in affluent Berkeley, California, lied about the sentiments of the local community concerning a proposed hydroelectric dam in Uganda. Rather than opposing the dam, people supported it – a phenomenon Shellenberger has witnessed firsthand in the Congo and Rwanda.

In his words, locals “were ecstatic at the prospects of getting electricity.” Nevertheless, he says, International Rivers has “helped stop 217 dams from being built, mostly in poor countries.”

Anyone who does anything in the real world makes mistakes. Governments. Corporations. Charitable organizations.

Green activists have made plenty. It’s time these were acknowledged, so that course corrections can occur.


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This entry was posted on July 27, 2020 by in books, ethical & philosophical, Greenpeace, NGOs and tagged , .