December 1, 2010
What has been the news out of the UNFCCC climate change conference at Cancun that started at the beginning of this week? Was it that the rest of the world lost interest? Was it that the IPCC shenanigans have led to its irrelevance? Was it the unfortunate timing of it starting during the coldest November on record? Or was it the evidence of how badly off the rails the environmentalist NGO agenda has veered?
Cancun marks a manifestation of the crisis that the environmental NGO community has been quietly facing for quite some time. After a decade of major successes on themes like climate, chemicals, pesticides and GMOs; after a decade where they managed to get their people on important boards and government positions from the EU to the UN offices; after a decade where fundraising achieved annual revenues topping €300 million for groups like WWF and Greenpeace; after a decade of continually wrong-footing industry by damning them as lobbyists in their most successful lobbying campaign; the NGO community has had to face the reality threatening to undermine them. Their success over the past decade had a superficial foundation, based largely on slick communications campaigns – a certain form over substance, evidence or facts. Climate-gate marked the turning point that has put the NGO agenda in crisis and they are stuck in Cancun now facing the music.
The NGO gains over the last decade have been based on what I have called elsewhere: commonality. Commonality is the portrayal that everyone with common sense agrees with us, so there is no need to bother any more with research or analysis – “We all agree” so just change the way we do things (and do it fast). Often fear is injected into common sense to get people motivated to act, be concerned (and donate!). Commonality – the perception that we all agree – removes the need to check the research, evidence or facts. Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff series provide brilliant examples of commonality – with common sense shouting so loud (Duh! Who would want to poison babies?) that one has to look very deep through the poetic rhetoric to see who is actually funding these projects. And what policymaker today has the courage to stand up against something that “We all agree on”? Commonality underlies the precautionary logic which differs from the scientific logic we have been using since Francis Bacon.
But commonality is an insidious tool that quietly but consistently works its way into our narratives and can allow us to accept horrible consequences. The Nazis used commonality to justify horrendous crimes against humanity (and many of Goebbels’ relentless communications techniques are alive and well in Greenpeace campaigns). In 1945, Allied forces faced stunned German civilians who still could not comprehend why the British didn’t just surrender in 1942. Commonality runs deep, even after the force of facts exposes it.
What are some commonality campaigns NGOs have led that have or could result in horrific consequences:
- We all agree that pesticides are dangerous to our health and that we must go organic. The evidence is rather flimsy here (just Google: Ames + pesticides + coffee to see how scientifically silly this argument is), but the consequences are that the EU is now importing a large amount of food and feed and, with the recent biofuel land grab in Africa, we are preparing for serious food security and famine risks. The commonality is so strong here that the EU Pesticides Directive was passed without an impact assessment (we didn’t need to know more as we all agreed).
- We all agree that toxic chemicals must be removed. Commonality has told us that synthetic chemicals are toxic (but don’t worry about natural chemicals or defining toxicity) and that chemistry has brought us nothing but poison. REACH is leading the way for Europe to become a nostalgic backwater, forsaking progress and innovation for some Swedish ideal of ecological purity. We can only hope that China continues to produce the technologies and products needed to advance and maintain our quality of life.
- We all agree that coal must be relegated back to the era of the dinosaurs and that the future is in wind and solar. This is cute, and while developing carbon capture and storage technologies is far less expensive than investing in research to chase the dream of making solar or wind both sufficient and sustainable, commonality says coal must be abandoned. Energy, once a basic right in developed countries, will soon become a luxury (under a commonality-twisting concept called a smart grid), but since policymakers perceive that ‘we all agree’, who are they to stand in our way.
- We all agree that GMOs are a contamination of the food chain that we all don’t want. This NGO commonality campaign is the winner of the “Goebbels must be proud” award (evil industry forcing Frankenfoods down our throats!). The WTO had the courage to recognise that the anti-GMO arguments are completely devoid of science or facts, and still European food producers and retailers all stay scared in their rabbit-holes while other countries advance and innovate. But denying African farmers from using modern agricultural technologies (under threat of lost export markets) because “we all agree” that we know better about GMOs is a crime against humanity.
- We all agree that climate change is real, man-made and must be addressed immediately (TckTckTck). This one was the mother of commonality as it diverted attention from scientific debate on the data toward political campaigning (bringing political activists into scientific organisations to shake things up). Anyone who disagreed with the commonality science was branded an enemy of the planet and had their “books burnt” during IPCC meetings. It was quite effective until Climate-gate last year exposed the weakness of their arguments, the manipulation of their strategists and the motivation of the political leaders. Commonality caught naked.
Climate-gate exposed the insidiousness of commonality and revealed the weak foundations of political activists who played with the science to build up a wider fear-based agreement. The superficial campaigns built on slick communications has led the NGO community to have a major rethink about their campaign strategies.
Some living in RSS-induced closed communities still believe that “We all agree” and any hiccups in their mission are due to evil corporate lobbyists (and they reassure each other of this on their Facebook pages). But there are those who see the loss of voice in Cancun as a warning of the need for more campaign integrity. It is possible that “we all don’t agree” and they would have to start listening to other stakeholders, considering compromises and being less idealistic. For many, these are uncomfortable thoughts. Should they abandon campaigns based on commonality and start using facts and evidence? “We all agree” on what they should do. It is a question though of how they will spin it.David Zaruk