Growing up in the 1970s, I loved the outdoors and wildlife, and was highly impressed by the environmental movement, which to me seemed brimful of energy and optimism. “Save the Whale” was a rallying cry, as activists clashed with whale hunters, leading to a ban on commercial whaling. It became like a pre-internet meme, appearing on badges, posters and t-shirts, and was even lampooned by a badge that wryly proclaimed: “Preserve Wildlife – Pickle a Squirrel”.
The campaign led to a ban on commercial whaling in 1982. Other issues like acid rain and the ozone hole became prominent, and likewise spurred action to reduce and even heal the damage. To me, it was a given that environmental awareness would grow, in turn driving we humans to aim for a sustainable way of life on earth. I even decided to try playing some role in this, moving to Hong Kong with notions of writing and making films to help spread the word about nature.
Arriving here in the late 1980s, I found environmental awareness seemed to lag behind my native UK, but it began blossoming as local campaigners worked to save wildlife like black-faced spoonbills, highlighted air pollution, defended threatened places lying outside country parks.
Green movement stalled
But lately, things have changed. The “green movement” seems to have lost momentum, and stalled, maybe even gone into reverse. This is partly as the magnitude of problems has grown; it’s no longer key to “just” save whales and lovely places, but global threats loom ever larger, notably climate change and overpopulation. Maybe these seem just too daunting to many people. Never mind trite phrases like “Think globally, act locally” – it’s easier to not think of such problems, and simply carry on with everyday life.
Also, environmentalism has become subject to a concerted counter attack, sponsored by big business. This employs very effective messaging, and includes tactics that were devised and honed by the tobacco industry, such as suggesting science is far from settled, perhaps even very wrong. As one tobacco company noted, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”
The attack on climate science has been especially fierce, underwritten by fossil fuel companies including ExxonMobil. Yet as early as 1977, while environmentalists were busy saving whales, Exxon (yet to merge with Mobil) was aware of the issue, with an internal report warning that human-caused emissions could raise global temperatures and result in serious consequences. It started major research programmes, created computer models on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Publicly, however, Exxon casts doubts on the science, sponsored opposition to mandatory reductions in carbon emissions.
Exxon and other companies were criticised for this approach, and backing of climate change denial has become more furtive, involving “dark money” and think tanks that refuse to reveal funding sources. And the attack on climate change has moved beyond doubt, to the absurd – like an “alt-right” website, Breitbart News, billing it, “The Greatest-Ever Conspiracy Against The Taxpayer” and Donald Trump’s assertion climate change is a “Chinese hoax”.
But helped by the internet, there is appeal in such easily read and retweeted alternative facts. Contrast the environmental movement nowadays, which seems to have lost the “Save the Whale” enthusiasm, and become more worthy and straight-laced, bland as Hilary Clinton’s election campaign. For instance, leading ngo WWF began as the World Wildlife Fund, with easily pictured goals and a panda logo. Now, it’s just “WWF”, working to “deliver solutions for a living planet”.
Lurch towards anti-science
So instead of environmental enlightenment, swathes of society have lurched towards anti-science. To staunch climate science denier Myron Ebell, now an adviser to the US president Donald Trump’s administration, the environmental movement is, “The greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.” Trump aims to ease environmental regulations that are “out of control”, and to hobble the Environmental Protection Agency. In the UK, Brexit will mean an end to various European Union measures for safeguarding the environment.
Here in Hong Kong, there are persistent calls for building housing in country parks, plans to develop Lantau, and build huge new reclamations, never mind the threats of storms and sea level rise. Officials may speak as if the environment is important, yet it’s little more than lip service – otherwise, the monstrous bridge to Zhuhai and Macau would include a rail link.
Overall, the environment seems a fringe issue. Check the news, and if there’s any environmental report at all it may be nearer to sport and the weather than headlines. Visit tv documentary channels, and you could find cookery shows more readily than anything on the natural world.
Our only home, our Life Support System
Yet the environment is crucial to our existence. We hear about there being only “One Earth”, and it’s wholly true. This planet is the only home we have; it provides our food, our air, our water. It’s our life support system.
Trump’s “Svengali”, Steve Bannon, speaks of the US fighting current or imminent wars – with Islam, and with China. Yet it’s as if there’s a far greater war underway, an accidental war between humans and our life support system. Keep an eye out for reports, and you’ll find news from the frontline is not good; even as I write there are forecasts for a blistering heatwave in Australia even as unusually high temperatures accelerate melting of Arctic ice. Global warming and sea level rise look set to last not decades, but centuries.
These reports should concern everyone, even the most profit-minded and sociopathic billionaires. For they tell of humans – the smartest species in the known universe, wrecking our own life support system.
And some people are highly concerned. Not just hardcore environmentalists, who try raising awareness, including by using a fine sounding, Native American quote about how after cutting down the last tree, we can’t eat money. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking recently wrote: [Guardian, 1 December] “Right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.” American comedian George Carlin was bleaker and more caustic: “The planet is fine. The people are fucked… The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”
So what about you? I hope you’re already striving for better, so the planet doesn’t shake us humans off. But if not, why not? After all, it’s your life support system, too.
Written for the South China Morning Post; published on 17 Feb 2017: http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2071433/attacks-climate-science-intensify-we-must-all-work-hard