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Environment – the good guys versus the bad guys

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

It may not yet be the eleventh hour, but perhaps the world is beginning to get an environmental wake-up call. Last year’s terrible Asian tsunami may have been a one-off, natural occurrence, but more recent events cannot so easily be dismissed purely as acts of God.

In August of this year Hurricane Katrina devastated the entire state of Lousiana, including its capital, New Orleans. In the same month, in Europe, unprecedented floods claimed lives from Germany to Romania, while, ironically, Portugal suffered its driest summer and worst wildfires in living memory. Here in Australia the drought stubbornly continues to refuse to break. Other parts of the country which are normally fairly dry, even in winter, such as South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, have had above average rainfall, while regions which normally receive most of their annual top-up at this time have received barely a drop.

All of these events can be largely put down to a climatic change which was forecast more than 20 years ago, and which now seems to be accelerating. This climatic change can in turn be attributed mostly to global warming, which – we can now state categorically – is due to the actions of humans.

This posits the question: who are the bad guys, and who are the good guys? The instant answer would be: the good guys are the environmentalists; the bad ones are governments and multi-national corporations. However, it is not as simple as that. Not all governments and corporations are environmental assassins, and, perhaps surprisingly, not all environmental groups pursue policies which are in the least bit beneficial to the environment.

Taking the good guys first, we must remember that the pro-environment movement, as a cohesive unit (or set of units) is very young. It did not really begin until the WWF, then called the World Wildlife Fund and now renamed the Worldwide Fund for Nature, was founded in 1961, largely at the behest of the British naturalist, Sir Peter Scott. Other organisations quickly followed: the brutal clubbing to death of Harp Seals in the Canadian arctic was the catalyst for the formation of Greenpeace in the early 1970s, the Conservation Foundation of Great Britain dates from the mid-80s, and its Australian counterpart was established around the same time. In India, Khailash Sankhala’s Project Tiger began in 1972, and without it that country’s biggest cats would be in even more dire straits than they are today.

The various movements adopt different standpoints: the WWF and Conservation Foundations, for instance, focus on fund-raising and channelling their financial resources into specific projects which are highly prioritised. Organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth tend to concentrate on lobbying governments and corporations, often using highly visible, almost para-military tactics, in order to receive maximum public exposure.

Public support for all these groups has been growing, and this is doubtless due to an increased awareness of environmental issues thanks to the medium of television. It was not always so. American wildlife documentaries of the 1950s and 1960s settled into a cosy view of animals as being ‘cute’. A pack of hyenas ripping into an antelope would be accompanied by commentaries such as: “Oh, well, that’s dinner. Now, what’s for dessert?” Thankfully, this type of voice-over script is unthinkable today. Even David Attenborough’s early appearances were little more than absorbing collections of film footage, with little or no analytical comment.

This all changed when two Dutch naturalists, Armand and Michael Denis, put together a landmark series, simply called On Safari. Suddenly we had qualified zoologists explaining what all these pretty pictures were about, and bit by bit we began to learn the fundamentals of animal behaviour. We discovered that, amongst the young, play was not for fun, but for the purpose of honing survival instincts. We learned that whales could communicate via sonar, and so on.

And what the Denises did on land, Jacques Cousteau replicated underwater, to be followed by the mature documentary series by Attenborough, and – bringing plants onto TV for the first time – those of David Bellamy.

The education we all received from these “good guys” was – and remains – invaluable, and it is largely thanks to television exposure that the conservation movement itself began its major ground-shift, away from merely trying to rescue this or that endangered species, toward a more holistic view of the entire biosphere. It is now impossible to separate plant and animal species from their wider surroundings, and those from the macrocosm which is planet Earth. It is also equally unthinkable to separate that macrocosm from its controlling influence, humankind.

Thus, environmental awareness is undergoing what might be called a trickle-up; no longer the preserve of just a few scientific experts, but very much the property of the general public, including an increasing number of major companies.

It is easy – and correct – to point accusing fingers at industries such as mining, forestry, banking, packaging, and so on, and to do so would be no more than re-stating already accepted truths. But some organisations are getting their act together, and lest we all lapse into a morass of hopelessness, let me highlight just a few.

Planet Ark is predicated on producing domestic products which reduce pollution, and its undertakings have not gone unnoticed by others. We all know the Americans are famous for over-packaging, but, until recently, the Japanese were even worse. Japan’s consumption of disposable plastic containers was so excessive that the government decided it was time to act, and set up facilities to research alternatives to plastic. What a surprise (!) – they discovered that a number of species of bamboo produced packaging that was not only superior in quality, but also totally recyclable and, into the bargain, cheaper to manufacture. There is surely a lesson in this for all of us: what benefits Gaia is not necessarily a more expensive alternative than that which hurts Gaia.

And simple things, such as packaging, do matter. Here at home the South Australian government has for long issued a 5c refund on all returned drinks containers, be they glass, metal or plastic. The question asks itself: what is wrong with the other state and territory governments offering the same incentive? In the USA recycling is big business, and an increasing proportion of the population actively receives refunds at what are curiously entitled ‘Redemption Centers’.

Another avenue by which to reduce pollution is the hybrid car, and both Toyota and Honda have been quick to seize the day. Of course these, and other car companies, are in business purely for profit, but if Toyota and Honda were smart enough to predict the oil crisis which is right now plaguing the entire industrialised world, then their timely investment into greener technology deserves to reap its just reward. It is small wonder that production of the Toyota Prius is presently not equalling demand, and that particular vehicle has a 35,000 customer wait-list.

My final example of positive attitude is drawn precisely from the ranks of those companies which upset environmental imbalance by promoting rampant consumerism. Wal-Mart is the USA’s (and therefore the world’s) largest retail chain store. In April this year it announced it was going to buy up areas of forest to the exact total of the land it already owned in the form of warehouses, stores and their parking lots. The purchases would be spread over a 10-year period at a cost (on today’s figures) of $US30 million, and the forests would be handed over to US Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. We can view Wal-Mart’s gesture in two ways. First, $30 million dollars over 10 years is a blip on the screen of Wal-Mart’s earnings, and secondly the whole thing is just a brilliantly thought out public relations exercise. And of course, both are true. But if a company this size is going to indulge in multi-million dollar PR stunts, is it not surely a terrific sign that it has chosen an environmental issue over the more typical ploy of doing a strap-on promotion or launching a consumer competition?

Now to the bad guys, and I hinted earlier that governments would have to come into the picture somewhere. In the same month that Wal-Mart announced its forestry buy-up, George W. Bush went on national television to explain his environmental policy. I happened to be in the States at the time, and decided to watch, as Mr Bush only rarely gives press conferences.

It was a very lame-duck speech, focussing on four areas: we should conserve energy; we should conserve resources; we should develop new sources of energy, such as hydrogen, and we should reduce overseas demands on fuel supply. This last is surely laughable, given the demands the USA places on fuel imports. Interestingly, the same night, Congress passed Bush’s latest budget, which included $35 billion in cuts in social welfare spending (including $10 billion on Medicare) and $106 billion in tax cuts, mostly to the better off.

The wider environmental issues did not figure in the speech at all, which is hardly surprising, given that Congress had also recently passed a bill permitting oil exploration in the Alaskan wilderness.

However, it is not only governments and big business which can blight our planet. Groups which are supposedly dedicated to the environment can also greatly damage it if their actions progress beyond restraint toward extremism. Let’s take two examples. The first is Animal Liberationists. Here in Australia they have for years been at loggerheads with the RSPCA over all manner of issues, including Pace Farm eggs and the thorny question of whether or not to put down incarcerated animals which are clearly too old or ill to attract any but the most sympathetic of potential owners. We can make our own judgments on such issues, but I argue that, to pursue a policy of active physical and psychological harassment, directed at RSPCA President, Hugh Wirth, is taking things way too far.

Even worse was Animal Liberation’s activities at mink farms in Britain in the 1970s. Whether one believes that wearing a mink coat is morally acceptable or not is not the issue here. The issue is that – as I have stated elsewhere – any natural product which can be safely farmed should be so farmed, as an alternative to simply reducing free-ranging wild stocks. The animal libbers thought otherwise, and broke into a number of Britain’s largest mink farms, releasing the animals. Now, the mink is a ferocious predator, and far more competitive than any of Britain’s other small carnivores. Thanks to Animal Liberationists, the mink has now progressed from the lowlands of East Anglia as far north as Uist in the Hebrides; Britain’s stoat and weasel populations are in decline, and the pine marten, sand marten and red squirrel are all critically endangered. And all of this thanks to one “pro-conservation” group, in the space of just 30 years!

A second example comes from closer to home. I was recently working in south western W.A., and driving through the Tall Trees en route to Albany I encountered a vigilante road block. A group of young people was encamped in the forest, and their aim in stopping my car was to inform me that I was driving a car, a symbol of all that is wrong with the world, and that therefore I was also, by extrapolation, an anti-environment, capitalist middle-class pig. Well, I might plead guilty to the last of those assertions, especially as they gave me no opportunity to state my case.

So, I state it here, and ask any young people who may be reading this, and contemplating chaining themselves to trees, to take heed. These people were unemployed and both their body and verbal language displayed an indolence which suggested that they intended to remain unemployed. They were dressed in virtual rags, and they stank. And if they were so concerned for the environment, why was the forest floor littered with McDonalds wrappers and empty Coke cans (the eyes of some of them were proof enough that at least two types of coke were on offer that day…).

Do not get me wrong. If a person has a principle and is willing to make sacrifices and take risks for that principle, this is indeed positive, not negative action. But change is best effected from within. I myself have had a double-barrelled shotgun pressed to my head during one campaign I was involved in; Bob Brown has chained himself to trees, been jailed, and come out of the whole thing as arguably this country’s most respected environmental campaigner. David Bellamy, mentioned earlier, has also defied the law.

But these ferals are doing more to harm the environmental cause than benefit it, for they playing perfectly into the hands of those who look upon environmentalists as hair-shirted, scruffy, Luddite nutcases whose proper place is on the lunatic fringe.

My friends, it isn’t. So let us get our act together.


David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

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