Morgan: "tree-huggers" need reality check

By Guest Author 20/06/2012 1


by Skye Wishart

Green activists need to tone down their rhetoric or be marginalised from society, says economist and conservationist Dr. Gareth Morgan.

His verbal assault on environmental activists he described as ’nutters’, ’green-necks’ and ’lefty loonies’ was launched in the lion’s den itself – New Zealand’s biggest annual conservation conference convened by Forest & Bird in Wellington on Saturday.

Dr Gareth Morgan
Dr Gareth Morgan

In a speech that elicited both outrage and applause from the crowd of Forest & Bird members, Morgan urged environmentalists to start taking an evidence-based approach to promote environmental causes instead of emotional, ‘adversarial’ approaches, such as anti-whaling movement Sea Shepherd, to get their causes heard.

It was the activists’ extremist strategies that were out of order, rather than the causes themselves, added Morgan. For example, he thought the Convention on Biological Diversity’s cause of placing 10% of New Zealand’s marine territory into reserves was great, even conservative.

’Behavioural extremists need to be jettisoned from conversation if you want it to be mainstream,’ he said. ’Considered conservationists need to have the courage here to disown publicly this behaviour, and not have their voices drowned out by…those fringes.’

’If you can’t use evidence-based research to convince people that the tradeoffs or costs are bigger than the benefits, then you have to accept that. You have to get your evidence stronger but you don’t start ranting about it.’

Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate Nicola Toki said the emotional approach was most effective in reaching the public but that claims of environmentalists had to be evidence-based.

Nicola Toki
Nicola Toki

’At the moment we’re in the situation where the people with money, and the developers, are using money to ride roughshod over the values of others. If you can’t have that kind of influence because you’re not, say, developing mines, then you have to appeal to hearts and minds. And so [emotional activism] is a natural fit.’ she told Sciblogs.

In her Stuff.co.nz blog the day before the conference, Toki had addressed the ‘extreme greenie’ labelling that she later saw manifested in Morgan’s speech, saying it is unfair on most people who are concerned about the environment.

’How many of you are ‘concerned New Zealanders’, uncomfortable with some of the proposed activities that would see our natural heritage compromised or destroyed, but are reluctant to identify yourselves as a ‘greenie’ for fear of being picked on?’ she wrote.

Morgan also said that to prevent a dichotomy of economic growth and conserving the environment, conservationists must be more ’sophisticated’.

’Cost benefit analysis can’t be done by people that are anti-economic growth posing as environmentalists, and simple tree-huggers who don’t know where a dollar comes from,’ he said.

While he agreed that it is challenging to put a dollar value on non-market commodities when carrying out cost-benefit analysis, he said it’s another reason to get mainstream debate happening.

’Maybe fresh air is worth more [to people] than a dollar of extra income – but that’s a decision for society to make. So unless you get the tools up there for them to make those calls, then we’re just thrashing around in the dark here.’ he said.

Morgan also homed in on Forest & Bird’s Best Fish Guide, questioning the science behind it and why this science was better than that used by the Marine Stewardship Council.

The guide, released every year, makes recommendations on the fish that consumers should choose to eat based on the fish’s ecological sustainability.

Morgan said that if you followed this guide, you wouldn’t be able to eat most of the fish you see in the shops – and, as a flow-on effect, you’d see consumption of other protein sources rise, like red meat, which might have its own ecological sustainability issues.

Forest & Bird’s advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell, a member of the International Stakeholder Council within the Marine Stewardship Council, said that all Forest & Bird’s information comes from current research which is in the public domain.

’If you look at the Best Fish Guide, it’s all referenced,’ he said.

’[Gareth Morgan] didn’t like the fact that we’ve done this and not many fish are at the top of the guide. Well, tough!’

Skye Wishart is the 2012 Science Media Centre science and journalism intern, sponsored by Industrial Research Ltd.


One Response to “Morgan: "tree-huggers" need reality check”

  • A decade ago I would have been one of the those lefty loonies Gareth is talking about, but I now seek evidence (where I can find it).

    Gareth’s argument is valid but at the same time there’s a new wave of ‘bright greens’ out there who have given up on traditional activism channels and are doing their own thing – they are not activists or extremists but people who realise that information is power – and that the internet, while amazing, is filled with extremist views, false reports and deliberate muddying of the facts by both the extreme greens and their opponents.

    Personally, although I’m a Green supporter, I’m fed up with both sides – just look at the arguments for and against vaccination or GMOs – it’s almost impossible to find a fair and balanced analysis. The research reports are too technical for the general public and the protestors are emotional so don’t base their reports on evidence. The media, on the whole, don’t do a great job either – they hone in on a news angle and distort the facts too.

    So what can we do about it? Let’s get the evidence out there for starters and allow people to come to their own conclusions.

    I’m involved with one green-tech start-up (copono.com) who aims to do this. It will allow anyone to scan or search for a product (e.g. a carton of eggs) and find out if it’s right for them based on a number of different evidence-based factors (e.g. recyclable packaging) as well as your personal values (e.g. cruetly-free). It will use a crowd-sourced wiki-type system. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out – will it be overrun by the loonies or will the evidence win out in the end? It’s going to be an interesting journey!