When E.O. Wilson said "people would rather believe than know", he perfectly summed up the state of modern environmentalism; the movement which has been radicalised to the extent that its policies are now characterised by senseless agendas better described as anti-science, anti-business and even anti-human; rather than pro-environment.
Environmentalism's gradual shift to extremism didn't happen overnight and it didn't happen on its own; the movement was led astray by the green lobby - the conglomerate of NGOs, advocacy organisations and political groups who use environmental motives to enact legislation favourable to their own goals. Today, the green lobby is a dominant force in the political sphere, despite few voters choosing to elect ‘green' politicians.
Much of the green lobby's success is directly attributable to its ability to demonise and brand opponents as heretics, even if their arguments are based on verifiable evidence or if they simply want to promote intelligent discussion. Through their 'hearts and minds' campaigns centred on perceived environmental injustices, the green lobby uses radical, ‘sexy' catastrophe theories to bombard us with predictions of ecological collapse. We are warned that there is no time for debate; that radical and swift action is necessary to avoid environmental apocalypse. Throw a celebrity in the mix and you have campaign gold - how could anyone argue against environmental experts like Brian May or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall?
Such sensationalist crusades may evoke the ‘spirit of the underdog', but they ignore all technical issues and economic implications. This misguided green propaganda has now taken root in the media, political fora and among the general public. It is inescapable and has clouded our perception of what is natural. We believe that wind farms are the definition of sustainable whereas deforested areas signify total environmental apocalypse. Yet anyone educated in ecology will confirm that there is more biodiversity in a recently cut forest than in a concrete-laden wind farm.
The honest, well-meaning intentions of true environmentalists have been hijacked by a small element of the green lobby who do have vested interests in green products and who stand to make a lot of money from the 'green' industry which survives off the back of environmentalism.
This is why the word 'green' has (wrongly) become synonymous with 'good'. We forget that it is not a technical or scientific term; we don't measure anything on a scale of 'green-ness'. It is a political marketing slogan; a buzzword purely used to promote supposedly "environmentally-friendly" services and products. It won't be found in any leading science journal or ecological study, but it is widely accepted because being 'green' is now part of pop culture.
This links with the idea that, for many, modern environmentalism is nothing more than a fashion statement - a view mirrored by former Green Party Chair Jonathon Porrit, who noted that environmentalism has spent 30 years going in and out of fashion. In the 1970s, early campaigns focused on nuclear disarmament and the excessive hunting of whales; both laudable and necessary initiatives that had few socio-economic impacts. They were met with broad public support and early environmentalists were heroes, standing up to governments and private companies alike. They were confrontational, anti-establishment and appealed to the masses with their reckless, yet successful, tactics.
After some notable achievements, these underdogs were catapulted into the international limelight and environmentalism became fashionable. Desperate to maintain support, campaigners began to tackle issues with far greater socio-economic - things like agriculture, forestry, mining, fisheries, energy and manufacturing. Yet they failed to realise that these sectors impact every individual on earth and honest concern for the environment soon drifted into sensationalism and fabrication, with propaganda being used to maintain public support.
Concurrently, the environmental movement attracted activists motivated less by environmental concerns and more by political and social causes. They hijacked and politicised the movement, aptly learning to use green language to shroud their own agendas, which often had little link to science or ecology. Gradual extremism and green hysteria took over - the green lobby was born.
For some, environmentalism isn't a fashion statement; it is a route to self-abnegation or self-aggrandisement. Caring for the environment is the same as volunteering to feel good. We all have nice homes, new cars and material goods made from raw materials. To counterbalance our own guilt, we are happy to pay extra to be environmentally responsible or to drive a Prius and take our own bags to Tesco. However, this is merely aesthetic environmentalism. What if we had to do without wireless devices, or survive with only 8 hours of electricity per day - would we be so green then?
This green tokenism will never offset the massive alterations of nature that we have partly caused. Does anyone actually believe that a lot of small windmills will stop global warming? Such token changes merely line the pockets of those with vested interests in the green industry. There are short-term benefits for politicians, PR consultants and environmental organisations, but in the long-term, vital money is simply diverted from genuine social and environmental problems.
Whilst some environmental campaigns can have benefits by bringing important, forgotten issues to the public domain and helping to achieve a higher degree of environmental protection where there was previously none, many also come with negative socio-economic or environmental consequences, unintended or not.
This green hypocrisy is largely a result of 'green groupthink' - the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, resulting typically in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making. Green groupthink has flourished because, blinded by planet-saving romanticism, the environmental movement dogmatically adheres to the one-sided propaganda peddled by the green lobby, without questioning it.
Politicians are as guilty as anyone for letting green groupthink run rampant. Environmental problems allow politicos to be seen as a voice for the voiceless - a fantastic opportunity for any policymaker. With re-election never far away, many politicians eagerly jump on popular environmental bandwagons, often without understanding or questioning the intricacies, complexity and unintended consequences of the issues. Effective policymaking is overshadowed by an insatiable desire to appease constituents and win votes.
Environmentalist agendas must be reconfigured. Extremism and irrationality are frowned upon in every other sector, so why are they acceptable in environmental matters? Modern environmentalism needs a simple reality check. Life on earth has flourished for more than three billion years; an unfathomable timeframe. If anything, it is egotistical to think that humans can make it vanish anytime soon - it is far more likely that humans could vanish but Mother Nature would survive.
Nevertheless, we do have impacts so we must be environmentally conscious. Some specific practices should be banned - dumping waste in rivers and seas and nuclear testing - but in many cases, zero-tolerance demands for outright bans are completely illogical; they are often deliberately based on spurious grounds in order to flatter the gullible and exploit the well-intentioned. Most issues would be more effectively dealt with by campaigns for reform.
Unfortunately, the reality is that radical environmentalism is now causing vital industries to migrate to countries where they can thrive. We bewail the recession and a lack of growth yet it is our support for ill-conceived environmental campaigns, backed by furious 'green' lobbyists, which is driving business elsewhere.
We need a more balanced approach where policies are not based on information that is inconsistent. Environmentalism is counter-productive if it is anti-development and undermines economies. We can't regress to being hunting and gathering cave-dwellers. Our only option involves constantly developing new practices and better technologies to meet our needs, whilst reducing our negative environmental impacts. We should also realise that industry may often be the cause of pollution, but they are the also job-makers and the ones who are investing huge amounts of money in safeguards - it isn't the green lobby that pays the bills!
A sense of urgency is also necessary, but knee-jerk reactions based on hysteria help no-one. Sensible and pragmatic solutions must be backed by science. Decisions must be based on solid, logical information - not hype, dogma or political agendas. Former US President Ronald Reagan wasn't known as an environmentalist, but appositely said that "preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it's common sense".
It is time to get sensible. It is time to know rather than believe.