Brian Clegg's book attempts to stiffen the sinews of green argument
The Independent, 19th February 2009
How did the universe begin? Today, most scientists believe it was with the ‘Big Bang’. Until the 1960s, however, another theory competed with Big Bang for prominence; the ‘steady state’ theory posited that the universe had no beginning or end, and that matter was constantly being created.
One of the originators of this theory was the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. It was Hoyle, in fact, who coined the term ‘Big Bang’ – it was intended to be a sarcastic put-down, but the name stuck and the theory gained credence, eventually pushing the steady state theory to one side. Hoyle, though, stuck fiercely to his views. To the end of his life he refused to accept that the Big Bang had happened.
In Ecologic, Brian Clegg contrasts the treatment of Hoyle with the treatment of another dissenting scientist, Dr David Bellamy. Bellamy, like Hoyle, has chosen to go against the academic grain: he does not believe that climate change is manmade. Yet while Hoyle’s views were criticised respectfully, writes Clegg, Bellamy, despite also being a qualified scientist, has ‘been attacked widely as a “climate change denier”, a label that seems to put him on a par with those who deny the Holocaust.’ Clegg’s point is not that Bellamy is necessarily right, but that his often vicious treatment by environmentalists ‘is based on fear and publicity rather than on proper scientific analysis.’
It’s one of the more interesting points Clegg makes in a book which sets out to undermine green myths. Greens, claims Clegg, are too emotive, irrational and dreamy. What they need is ‘the dissecting scalpel of ecologic’ – the application of science, economics and psychology to environmental problems.
This is not a bad point to be making, and Clegg demonstrates cases in which sloppy thinking, a lack of understanding of science or economics, or a desire for cheap publicity have led to environmentalists making the wrong decisions, and sometimes even making things worse. He demonstrates how cancer ‘clusters’ for example, may be no more than coincidences, how the evidence against GM crops is overegged, and how nuclear power might not be the ‘bogeyman’ many greens claim.
These are arguments made with conviction, but they are not especially new – books like this appear every few years or so – and Clegg does sometimes overegg things himself. His scientist’s bias against ‘basing our decisions on warm, rosy feelings’ can seem at times as dangerous as a bias in the opposite direction: ‘logic’, after all, is only one basis for human decision-making, and rightly so. And Clegg is not above a bit of emotive language himself when he thinks it will make his point: I lost count of the number of references to ‘hair shirts’ that he manages to crowbar in to what is, nevertheless, a sporadically challenging book.