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Interview with Patrick Moore
What do you call an environmentalist who supports logging and condemns the protests against genetically modified foods? Some green activists label Patrick Moore a liar. Others compare him to Judas. Strong words to describe a founding member of Greenpeace and a veteran of the frontline against everything from whaling to nuclear waste. Moore's life is no simple equation. Having spent half a lifetime courting danger and arrest, he became disillusioned with the mainstream environmental movement, accusing it of abandoning science and following agendas that have little to do with saving the Earth.
Michael Bond asked him where it all went wrong.
You come from a family of loggers. How did they take to you becoming an environmentalist?
My dad was one of our biggest supporters when we started Greenpeace in the early 1970s. With the US nuclear tests in Alaska there was a possibility that the hydrogen bombs would trigger an earthquake that would, in turn, trigger a tsunami. A very serious one during the Alaska earthquake of 1964 severely affected my father's business. Environmentalism then did not involve bashing loggers. We were concerned about all-out nuclear war and it blows my mind sometimes to see the movement behaving the same way about forestry that it did about nuclear war. I think they've got their priorities a bit mixed up.
What were those early days of Greenpeace like?
They were heady--there was huge camaraderie. We used to sing all the time. We always had a couple of people with a guitar. We were together for weeks on end on many of those expeditions into the Pacific and out to Newfoundland. We always had songs, such as: "If mankind was created a step below the angels, the whales I'm sure were somewhere in between." They were wonderful songs. We really had a wonderful time. We always thought that a revolution should be a celebration. We tried to avoid the hair-shirt mentality that tends to creep in with self-righteousness, dogmatism and that sort of thing.
As an ecologist with a PhD in the subject, were you a rare breed in the organisation?
I was somewhat rare and had to live with the fact throughout my time in Greenpeace that there was a lot of disrespect for my science. That is why they called me Dr Truth. It was kind of a put-down.
As Greenpeace became bigger, richer and more famous did its priorities or principles change?
The best thing is that Greenpeace has remained faithful to the peaceful civil disobedience theme. In other words, the "peace" in Greenpeace is still the main principle. I think that's excellent. I do think though that they have diversified into so many issues, many of which are questionable in terms of priorities and some of which are just plain wrong-headed. A case in point is GM foods. If they are really so worried about human health, why don't they tackle tobacco?
Few scientists become radical environmental activists. What lit the spark with you?
It was partly my professors. The most important was Vladimir Krajina, a Czech forest ecologist. I used to think that science was just about technology. But after studying with Krajina, the light suddenly went on and I realised that the mystery of nature could be approached through science and ecology. The political part came while I was writing my thesis on pollution control in 1972. A very large copper- mining project was applying to dump its tailings into the sea. It was very close to my boyhood home at Winter Harbour in Vancouver Island, Canada. I chose to study not just the environmental impact of the tailings disposal, but the system that granted permits for the process. I soon learned that this was immune to truth.
Why after 15 years of activism did you start to become disenchanted with the environmental movement?
Partly it was the fact that foot soldiers often become diplomats. I don't think anybody should be required to be in confrontational environmental politics for their whole lives, especially when they start a family. But it was partly the movement's refusal to evolve. I'm in favour of civil disobedience in order to bring about justice where something really bad is going on such as nuclear testing or toxic dumping. But I'm a Gandhian through and through-I believe that peaceful civil disobedience and passive resistance movements are great shapers of social change. But when industry and government agree that the environment needs to be taken into account in policy making, and when there are ministries and vice-presidents of the environment, it seems to me it would be a good idea to work with them. When a majority of people decide to agree with you, it is time to stop hitting them over the head.
How has the environmental movement got it so wrong?
The environmental movement abandoned science and logic somewhere in the mid-1980s, just as mainstream society was adopting all the more reasonable items on the environmental agenda. This was because many environmentalists couldn't make the transition from confrontation to consensus, and could not get out of adversarial politics. This particularly applies to political activists who were using environmental rhetoric to cover up agendas that had more to do with class warfare and anti-corporatism than they did with the actual science of the environment. To stay in an adversarial role, those people had to adopt ever more extreme positions because all the reasonable ones were being accepted.
But hasn't environmentalism always been about opposing the establishment?
Environmentalism was always anti-establishment, but in the early days of Greenpeace we did not characterise ourselves as left wing. That happened after the fall of the Berlin wall when a whole bunch of left wing activists, who no longer had any role in the peace, women's or labour movements, joined us. I would go to the Greenpeace Toronto office and there would be an awful lot of young people wearing army fatigues and red berets in there.
Environmentalists recoil with horror when they hear you say that harvesting trees for paper or fuel benefits plants and wildlife. What's your evidence?
The environmental movement is essentially anti-forestry. Young people are being convinced to stop using trees to make paper and use environmentally appropriate alternative fibres, such as hemp and cotton. Now where are you going to grow those exotic farm crops? You are going to grow them where you have been growing trees for 20 years, where an environment exists for bugs, birds, squirrels and other wildlife. That environment will be destroyed if you clear a forest to grow a farm crop.
Does this mean that even clear-cutting is not as damaging as we've been led to believe?
Forests are resilient. They can grow back from total volcanic destruction, ice ages, fires, storms, whatever. You can take heavy equipment and bulldoze the soil right down to bedrock over a huge area, and if you go away and come back 100 years later you will have a new forest starting to grow back. Just logging the trees is not going to irreversibly destroy the ecosystem. In addition, I believe it is possible to sustain the biodiversity of a forest while removing large quantities of timber.
Surely you're not saying that logging has no impact on biodiversity?
Logging is never going to have zero impact. But its aim should be to maintain viable populations of all those species that were on that site to begin with. So you plan your forestry in such a way to ensure that there is a suitable habitat for every one of those species somewhere all of the time. For example, when you clear-cut an area, you are going to remove a lot of the shrubs, which means that shrub-nesting birds will not do well there for a while. But as long as you have a place that was logged ten years ago somewhere nearby where the shrub layer has been able to replace itself, the birds will not mind if there are no trees.
Green groups warn that logging is threatening some animals with extinction. Are you telling me they're wrong?
In 1996 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) announced that 50 000 species are going extinct each year due to human activity. And the main cause, they said, is commercial logging. The story was carried around the world, and hundreds of millions of people came to believe that forestry is the main cause of species extinction. During the past three years I've asked the WWF on many occasions to provide me with a list of some of the species that have supposedly become extinct due to logging. They have not offered up a single example as evidence. In fact, to the best of our scientific knowledge, no species has become extinct in North America due to forestry.
You may disagree with the green groups, but would you still describe yourself as an environmentalist?
James Lovelock is my hero and I believe in the Gaia hypothesis that all life is one living breathing being, I don't see any reason to damage it more than necessary. I believe in gardening the Earth, but there should be lots of places left wild. The "hands off" attitude doesn't work with 6 billion humans needing things from the Earth every day.
Why do you oppose the campaign against genetically modified crops?
I believe we are entering an era now where pagan beliefs and junk science are influencing public policy. GM foods and forestry are both good examples where policy is being influenced by arguments that have no basis in fact or logic. Certainly, biotechnology needs to be done very carefully. But GM crops are in the same category as estrogen-mimicking compounds and pesticide residues. They are seen as an invisible force that will kill us all in our sleep or turn us all into mutants. It is preying on people's fear of the unknown.
What does the future hold for the environmental movement?
We need to get out of the adversarial approach. People who base their opinion on science and reason and who are politically centrist need to take the movement back from the extremists who have hijacked it, often to further agendas that have nothing to do with ecology. It is important to remember that the environmental movement is only 30 years old. All movements go through some mucky periods. But environmentalism has become codified to such an extent that if you disagree with a single word, then you are apparently not an environmentalist. Rational discord is being discouraged. It has too many of the hallmarks of the Hitler youth, or the religious right.
December 25, 1999
By Michael Bond
Patrick Moore's website is at