The United States no doubt holds the prize for environmental violence, courtesy of Al Gore fan and alleged Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. But for sheer buffoonery, it's hard to beat the eco-activists in Great Britain. In spring 1997, to cite just one example, activists opposing a second runway at Manchester Airport crisscrossed the construction area with a network of underground tunnels, and then moved in and refused to leave. The British press had great fun with the story, dubbing the leader of the group "Swampy" and his followers the "mole men" (though the group included at least one pregnant woman), but the strategy held up construction for weeks before the police finally rooted the eco-activists out of their burrows.
Is British patience with such antics wearing thin? Perhaps. Last fall, just prior to the December Kyoto conference on global warming, a British television special and two television series, all on different channels, severely criticized environmental activists both on their motives and on the veracity of their near-constant claims of catastrophe. From the discussion stirred up in the British press, it appears that, for once, common sense and scientific uncertainty were given a fair hearing.
The first of these programs, Scare Stories, a five-part series made for BBC Education by the independent production company Mentorn Baraclough Carey, aired on BBC2, beginning in late November. Aimed at evaluating the environmental campaigns of the last 20 years, Scare Stories took a dispassionate look at apocalyptic warnings about global warming, the "population bomb," animal rights, and other issues, interviewing such highly credible sources as John Maddox, long-time editor (recently retired) of the journal Nature. In Britain, after decades of accepting activist claims without question, just giving equal weight to both sides is something of a media breakthrough. According to Financial Times columnist Christopher Dunkley, Scare Stories was "the first series not to accept greenery at its own valuation and not to assume without question that all the tenets of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and so on, are holy writ."
On December 4, midway through the broadcasting of Scare Stories, BBC1 gave global warming an even more impressive roasting with Scorching the Earth, a program that traced the history of climate scares, including the now-forgotten but once allegedly imminent "next Ice Age," predicted with great certainty and fanfare in the mid 1970s. Remarking on the alarm over global warming, the program told British viewers that NASA weather satellites have shown no evidence of a warming trend since readings began in 1979--something that would probably be news to most Americans, who only hear about the surface-based temperature data. It also pointed out that although climate researchers put great stock in impressive-sounding computer models, in reality these models simply play with whatever numbers researchers put in the box. Observed Simon Hoggart, a columnist reviewing the program for The Spectator: "Make the right guesses and, hey presto, I could have giant tidal waves covering the Millennium Dome in January 2000."
Although Scare Stories and Scorching the Earth were hard-edged and critical of activist scares, they did attempt to approach the topics even-handedly. No such attempt is made in Against Nature, a three-part Channel 4 series produced by RDF Television, which aired on Sunday evenings, beginning December 1. A polemic in the great tradition of The March of Time documentaries that played in American movie houses in the 1930s and 1940s, Against Nature simply takes on the doom-mongers and the unreasoning emotional appeal of so many of their campaigns. It exposes the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of activists who enjoy the benefits of western technology and development--clean water, electricity, sewage treatment, plush offices, comfortable homes--all the while working to deny similar benefits to those in the Third World. As the activists interviewed for this series so shockingly put it, they're very sorry but the planet simply cannot sustain such a living standard for everyone.
The program juxtaposes platitudes with reality. Lisa Jordan, director of the Bank Information Centre, an activist organization that helped block World Bank funding of hydroelectric dams in India--dams that would have brought electricity and clean water to tens of millions of people--is shown leaning against a window sill in her pristine porcelain bathroom extolling the virtues of "native cultures" and "traditional tribal life." The camera then cuts away to a woman in India scraping up cow dung with her bare hands, which she will then dry to use as fuel for cooking. In another scene, American journalist Gregg Easterbrook remarks that "it's still possible in affluent circles in the United States or Europe to see people sitting in an air-conditioned room, eating free-range chicken, and sipping the latest chablis, talking amongst themselves about how farmers in Africa shouldn't have tractors because it would disrupt the soil."
Against Nature traces the roots of modern environmentalism to 19th Century Romanticism and German fascism of the 1930s. Environmental activists, according to the narrator, are "conservative" in the classic sense--i.e. fearful of change--and in interview after interview, the leadership of various activist organization damn themselves with their own words. This is a portrait of a movement that has lost its soul--and it makes for powerful television.
Some plans are afoot to rebroadcast some of these programs in the United States, and there are many who would support such an effort. But the question is, why aren't Americans already seeing this kind of programming? Apart from an occasional effort from ABC's John Stossel, American television audiences hear nothing but environmental activist orthodoxy. The existence of alternative views is either denied or the views denigrated as unworthy of being heard.
This month's cover story in The Atlantic Monthly is more typical American fare--a lengthy piece by a self-described "theoretical neurophysiologist" who takes a break from writing about the brain to pontificate on climate change. The author's view is that global warming will trigger a runaway Ice Age--an old idea whose time has come again apparently.
We salute British broadcasters for being ahead of the curve and for having the courage to face-off against a movement that has become a powerful influence on western political thought. The British approach may still be too "complicated" for the average U.S. television reporter, but in fairness to Americans, even without hearing opposing views they're not buying the canned catastrophes like they used to. On the global warming issue, Scientific American on-line shows reader comments running 2:1 in favor of a little skepticism (See "Global Warming: Threat or Fantasy?") and similar trends have shown up on CNN's on-line global warming forum. According to a survey just out last week, freshmen at American colleges and universities are showing increasingly less interest in saving the planet and increasingly more interest in achieving financial security. It would seem that a realistic assessment of environmental issues and an honest discussion of the proper role for environmental concerns is long overdue. Perhaps some enterprising American television producer will see an opportunity in that. Let's hope so.
TW2 is compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall