Monday, January 21, 2008

Rebuttal to John Gray's attack on the Greens in the Observer

John Gray, a political philosopher, writes in the Observer (20.1.2008) with an attack on the Green Movement.

He begins with a breathtaking assertion to the effect that Bush and the Greens have pretty much the same agenda. It would be ironic, he concludes, if “greens were to end up as much a threat to the environment as George W Bush”. He arrives at this remarkable conclusion on the basis that Bush and the Greens agree that it is our addiction to fossil fuels that is harming the planet.

The least that we could expect from a philosopher is that he would avoid logical fallacies, but in this case he is committing the fallacy of guilt by association.

He supports his association in the following line: “The aim should not be to master nature or turn it into a mere resource for humans to exploit, as Bush and the greens, in their different ways, end up doing”. There is no attempt on his part to provide evidence that the greens regard nature as a mere resource. Nature is indeed our resource for water, food and energy, but we have always fought to use the resources provided in a sustainable way, often to our political disadvantage.

The essay unwinds into an attack on the Green movement, in a series of breathtakingly unsubstantiated statements “…[the greens] are …resisting the most fundamental fact about the environmental crisis, which is that it cannot be resolved without a major reduction in our impact on the Earth”. Reducing our impact is exactly what green political philosophy is, and always has been, about.

“Green activists, free-market economists and religious fundamentalists may not seem to have much in common, but they are all agreed there can be no such thing as overpopulation, or at any rate, nothing that can't be solved by better distribution, faster growth or a change in human values.

This is not true. I was present at the Green Party Conference in the 1990s when we debated population in terms of the undeniable ecological limit of carrying capacity. I remember the thrashing the party got from the media for daring to suggest that the UK’s carrying capacity is already exeeded. I do not recall any political philosopher by the name of John Gray getting up to defend us. The Green Party still has policy regarding population limitation, based on understanding and education rather than coercion.

He attacks the solutions offered by environmentalists: “Unsightly and inefficient wind farms will not enable us to give up fossil fuels”. Here the philosopher is using the “straw man” fallacy – putting forward a misrepresentation of our position, which he proceeds to abuse. Greens are not offering wind as the sole solution. The basis of our argument is that the solar energy reaching the surface of the earth is something like 250,000 times greater than our total energy usage. The known technologies on offer are energy conservation, energy efficiency, wind, wave, tide, solar thermal, solar electric, solar concentration, and biomass (not to be confused with biofuels). Despite the best efforts of the British Government to sideline these technologies, they are available now, ready for deployment, and the fact remains that they represent energy revenue, as opposed to fossil fuels and uranium, which represent a finite energy capital.

Gray admits that “organic methods of food production can have significant benefits in terms of animal welfare and reducing fuel costs, but it does nothing to stop the devastation of wilderness that goes with expanding farming to feed a swelling human population”. Well, no. And burying oral contraceptive pills in the ground is not a good way of growing crops either, John. Organic farming is for growing food sustainably, not about limiting the population. Again, Gray is using the Straw Man fallacy, which leads him on to say “So conventional green nostrums are not all that different from Bush's business-as-usual policies”.

“Contrary to the greens, there is not the remotest prospect that the world will renounce the use of fossil fuels”. Well, as a matter of fact, they will if renewable energy becomes cheaper than fossil fuels. Demand on oil is about to outstrip supply, and the world economy is probably about to crash into the bargain, both factors that will tend to reduce fossil fuel use. There is certainly a titanic struggle about to take place over the issue of fossil fuel use, and Bush’s global warming denialism has been a part of that struggle.

Gray resorts to ad hominem arguments when he says that “a sustained capacity for realistic thinking, … is not the strong point of the environmental movement and worse, when he accuses us of being of unsound mind: “…demonising nuclear power is conventional green thinking at its delusional worst. In that use of the “appeal to ridicule” fallacy, he by-passes a mass of detailed arguments over the economy, safety, and limitations of nuclear power. He betrays his ignorance of these arguments by saying Ask any competent energy economist and you will discover that no expansion of renewables can satisfy the demand for energy that is being generated in China and India”. So if in fact you are an energy economist that has spent long months putting together feasibility studies for renewables in India, you are ipso facto incompetent. Nice one John.

Of nuclear power, he says “Nuclear energy has well-known problems of security and waste disposal and it is nothing like a universal panacea. That is no reason for turning our back on nuclear, which is already virtually emission-free. Here he shows his ignorance of the calculation that the fossil fuels used in creating nuclear power stations and refining the uranium for use mean that Nuclear has CO2 emissions roughly 1/3rd as high as gas, and lower grade uranium will need more energy to refine it than it will yield in use.

Finally, Gray implies that greens are against intelligent use of technology. This is not true: the renewable energy modalities that we advocate are all intelligent use of technology. We are rightly against facile techno-fixes which offer “jam-tomorrow” type solutions of the kind Gray offers when he supposes that genetically modified food has a part to play in feeding the world. The evidence for this is so scant that the drive to market GM foods is based on unscientific assessments based on the doctrine of substantial equivalence, which blanks out the detailed biochemistry of GM foods. Remarkably he tries to create a distinction between GM and “industrial-style agriculture, whose destructive impact is all too clear”, when no such distinction exists.

In conclusion the political philosopher John Gray has issued a farrago of fallacious arguments and unsubstantiated assertions trying to identify the Green movement with the aims of the Bush administration. It is to be hoped that the Observer will allow equal space for his rebuttal.

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