George Monbiot Objects to my Slate Piece

By Keith Kloor | November 6, 2012 7:00 am

George Monbiot is throwing a twitter fit, claiming that I’ve used a quote of his out of context in my current Slate piece. He’s asserting that I’ve conflated his repudiation of anti-nuclear greens with a repudiation of anti-GMO greens. I disagree and have told him so. He also seems to think that I’ve done this in bad faith–that I’m somehow deliberately misrepresenting him.

Now, as I’ve just said, I don’t agree. If you read the full paragraph where his quote appears, it is in the context of a larger argument I make–of the environmental movement exaggerating legitimate environmental concerns. That is the argument Monbiot has repeatedly, forcefully, and accurately made– with respect to nuclear power. I’m just using it as one example, to make a larger argument about green fear-mongering.

However, to prove to Monbiot that there was nothing nefarious intended about my use of him, here is the original graph of mine, before it got cut back in the final edit. As I’ve already said in an email to my editor, I agree with her edit that shortened the graph. I don’t take issue with that. I’m merely laying out the original graph here for Monbiot to see. So what follows is the set-up graph (which appears as is in the piece), and then my original graph, before it got shortened in the final version):

Without subtly stoking ignorant fears about GM food, there would be no way to mobilize the fight against Monsanto and what it stands for. Pollan thinks that Prop 37 is “something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.” But capitalizing on irrational fear isn’t a good long-term political strategy. People eventually tune out or start to question your credibility, which is what has happened to the environmental movement. Decades of catastrophic predictions about even legitimate ecological threats has cost greens environmentalists much of the political capital they accrued in the 1960s and 1970s and lost them the support of one-time enthusiasts.

A case study in how not to overplay the fear card is green opposition to nuclear power. In recent years, George Monbiot, one of the UK’s most prominent environmental writers, recently has written a series of columns castigating greens for exaggerating the risks of nuclear power and inflating the toll wrought by the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Overall, the claims of anti-nuclear campaigners “are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong,” he wrote in one piece. In another, he accused greens of spreading “as much mumbo-jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers.” (I made a similar argument in Slate with respect to the GMO issue.) With climate change bearing down on humanity and nuclear power (which burns no fossil fuels) effectively demonized by greens, Monbiot has concluded that “the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.”

****

One could argue that this original graph above establishes definitively that Monbiot is talking about the unscientific, green hysteria on nuclear power. But I still think that the shortened, final version reflects this in the context of my larger argument, especially if you follow the link to the one quote of his that survived.

There is, however, another reference in the piece that Monbiot is objecting to, which I think is legitimate. It is in my final graph:

Like Monbiot, some foodies have cottoned onto the exaggerations of anti-GMO activists. Let’s hope others wake up to the cynical tactics of Prop 37′s champions before they squander the food movement’s political potential.

***

In retrospect, I wish I would have worded this more clearly to read (change is bolded): Like Monbiot on nuclear power, some foodies have cottoned onto the exaggerations of anti-GMO activists.”

I have already suggested to my Slate editor that this change be made. But on his larger contention, I believe Monbiot is off base.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: GMOs, nuclear power
  • Dom A

    This is what you wrote…

    George Monbiot, one of the U.K.’s most prominent environmental writers, recently concluded that “the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.”

    This is what he wrote …

    This year the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.

    As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020(1). That’s almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive(2).

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Keith,

    I do hope that your retrospective wording shows George that you mean well.

    I have a question regarding this sentence:

    Without subtly stoking ignorant fears about GM food, there would be no way to mobilize the fight against Monsanto and what it stands for.

    I’m not sure how to establish that counterfactual.

    You seem to contemplate the possibility to mobilize a fight without subtly stoke ignorant fears. But I’m not sure I ever saw that. Do you have an example in mind?

    There is also a related question: it does appear that any kind of mobilization we can witness in the media is being characterized by its opponents as “stoking ignorant fears”, or a related predicate. When is this accusation justified?

    Finally, there is also does not seem to be that much difference between fear and ignorant fear. I suppose even justified fear can be stoked. But I do not even know if the idea of a justifed fear makes sense. How do you distinguish the two?

    Overall, your sentence does seem to rest on something like “yeah, but what I believe is the scientific truth!” Do you agree?

    Many thanks!

  • Joshua

    Keith -

    …of the environmental movement exaggerating legitimate environmental concerns.

    Movements don’t exaggerate claims, people do.

    Would it really be that hard to use qualifiers like “some people in the environmental movement?” Even “a disturbingly large number of people in the environmental movement?”

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Ah, the inside baseball sausage making of quality journalism. 

    I blame globalization and Twitter. You should have been able to settle this at a bar/pub over a Bud/pint of real beer.

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Keith,

    I also have a question about this sentence in your op-ed:

    Two British academics asserted just last week that challenging “corporate powers” is central to the noble green cause.

    This sentence contains an URL that leads to this article:

    http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/greens_vs._science

    Searching for “noble” on this page gives me no hit.

    So I’m not sure if the epithet “noble” should be ascribed to the author’s comment, and not your own narrative. For instance, here’s the conclusion of that comment:

    It is tempting to see a clean split between “˜modern’ greens who embrace GMOs, nuclear power or geoengineering, and Romantic tree-hugging hippies, suspicious of the shiny new world the Industrial Revolution promised. But behind the Frankenfoods mask, green activism is often less ‘anti-science’ and more a hopeful attempt at harnessing the power of science for social good. There are times where some members of the green movement could take a more nuanced approach to scientific evidence but that is true of most groups, scientific ones included. Science would do well to try to learn from the greens, as well as teach them.

    Those who care about using the best possible science available to deal with environmental policy should find ways to connect scientists and members of the green movement, not wave terms like “luddite” “anti-science” or “neo-green” around as yet another way to delineate themselves from others. We know this is easier said than done, and that these are complex questions about complex groups with complex histories. We’d welcome more responses, disagreements, ideas and examples, and hope this will be the start of further debate on the topic.

    I might be tempted to consider “noble” as just a bit subtler than “luddite”.

    If I am correct, that conclusion sounds like an overt criticism of your overall narrative, to which I presume you should respond.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Willard I’m glad you brought up that line. I stood out for me as well. One would think that there are many reasons that people could be upset with Monsanto other than ‘fears about GM food’. It’s a shame Keith didn’t mention those…

  • Joshua

    Those who care about using the best possible science available to deal
    with environmental policy should find ways to connect scientists and members of the green movement, not wave terms like “luddite”
    “anti-science” or “neo-green” around as yet another way to delineate themselves from others.

    Amen.

    I am reluctant to attribute motivations to Keith’s work. My working view is that he is focused on advancing valid interpretation of science and in finding a haven of balance amidst the tribal wars. But I do continue to wonder why he repeatedly does things that, IMO, are counterproductive towards those goals.

    Now Keith has noted the vehement reactions to some of his work from people who are concerned about GMOs and who may or may not identify as environmentalists or who may or may not identify as liberals. He seems to see those vehement reactions as symptomatic of the larger problems at hand. If I were more cynical about Keith’s work, it would be easy to argue that in fact, he fans those reactions deliberately because as a journalist, his work is judged in some respects on the basis of the size of strong reaction. We often see such attributions made for the specific content of the work of journalists. But I’m not that cynical. My view is that Keith is a bit stuck on his schtick – and in that sense no different than anyone else here. 

    But that still leaves me with the question of how, in the end, he is judging the impact of his work. Is it actually increasing awareness about the problems he focuses on, or does it more characteristically perpetuate the same ol tribal skirmishes? My sense is that the later is more likely, and that it wouldn’t be that hard for him to experiment a bit, change his style a bit, to see if it brings about improved outcomes.

    I don’t see how it would hurt. I do not think tweaking his approach would require, in the least, that he lower the priority of focusing on fear-mongering or junk science. I think that discussing junk science is important work whether it concerns liberals, environmentalists, or “skeptics.” But IMO, his unquantified (and potentially inaccurate) generalizations only serve to distract from the real underlying problems with how people exploit science to serve partisan agendas. Those generalizations would be so easy to eliminate. Unfortunately, it appears that Keith has now tuned me out. I’ve gone from being smart and reasonable to trolling and not engaging in good faith :-(

    What’s interesting about that is that I don’t think I’ve changed a bit. So either I am unaware of some change or Keith’s view of my input has shifted for other reasons. Maybe I should ask Tom C., Howard, mosher, Tom F., Tom S. etc. for their feedback?  Lol!

  • BBD

    To be fair, Joshua, Keith may just be busy teaching, parenting, shopping or what have you. Perhaps he will respond later.

    FWIW, I tend to agree with your points here, but then I am biased.

  • John F. Pittman

    I think Keith is engaged in a systemic reveiw of environemtnal and GM food, and found that he is correct in the overall sense even if you point to flaws in the particular. Perhaps it is true since he is not neccessarily attributing cause, but discussing response.Though I think it likely that bias cannot not be avoided systematically with such postulates.

  • Nullius in Verba

    I think the reason Monbiot is annoyed is that he is a prominent campaigner against GMOs.

    http://www.monbiot.com/category/genetic-engineering/

    Although he has said his opposition is not on safety grounds:

    “The president of Zambia is wrong. Genetically modified food is not, as far as we know, “poison”. While adequate safety tests have still to be conducted, there is, as yet, no compelling evidence that it is any worse for human health than conventional food. Given the choice with which the people of Zambia are now faced ““ between starvation and eating GM ““ I would eat GM.

    The real problem with engineered crops, as this column has been pointing out for several years, is that they permit the big biotech companies to place a padlock on the foodchain.”

    Thus, his is more a case of economic illiteracy rather than scientific illiteracy. Nevertheless, Monbiot is part of the problem and therefore objects vociferously to becoming part of the solution. You might want to consider rephrasing further, and doing your next GM article on the effects the political campaign has on the science.

  • Joshua

    BBD -

    I certainly have no reason to expect Keith to respond to any of my comments in particular – or even to think that a lack of response would mean he had tuned me out. No doubt he’s busy and my comments do tend to be a smidgen on a similar theme. There are other reasons to think that he has tuned me out.

  • Joshua

    NiV -

    Thus, his is more a case of economic illiteracy rather than scientific
    illiteracy. …You might want to
    consider rephrasing further, and doing your next GM article on the
    effects the political campaign has on the science.

    Care to spell out why you think concerns about the economics related to GMOs is “economic illiteracy” and what are the “effects the political campaign has on the science?”

  • Jack Hughes

    Keith is making the mental journey that many people make: from campus lefty in their 20s to a more realistic position as they experience more of the real world.Most people have completed this journey by the time their eldest child is at big school.

  • Howard

    Keith:  I agree with Tom Fuller.  No need to air this laundry out for public view.  Deal with Mr. Monbiot man to man like a man and make any necessary corrections or re-affirmations respectfully.  Perhaps you are lulled into complacency by blogging, blurring the free-for-all avocation for your professional life.  Fortunately for you, journalistic standards are orders of magnitude less than that of popular climate science, so it’s no risk to your career or reputation.   To the properly titrated sick mind of a lying denier, this makes you look like you are *throwing like a girl*. 

  • Howard

    Jack, Jack, Jack.  Don’t be coy and quote the Boer murdering Churchill directly instead of pawning it off as your own original thought.  At least Joshua admits to being an echo-machine.  Personally, I’m finding myself becoming slightly more lefty since the grandkids came along.  Pretty happy with Obama the Osama Killer defeating Ward Cleaver.

  • Tom Scharf

    At least sanity prevailed and the Californian GMO labeling initiative was defeated.  Only 53-47 though. They did approve a “temporary” tax increase though, ha ha.  Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is the tax increase for education.  I can’t count how many times I have seen a tax increase sold this way.  10 years later that increase is just dumped into the general fund and they are back selling another tax increase for education.  One is born every minute…California was banning in state students to some of their  graduate programs because they couldn’t afford them at the reduced in state tuition rate. Crazy.http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/08/13/one-cal-state-department-refuses-let-out-staters-over-state-residents 

  • Tom Scharf

    We have a winner for the most disingenuous statement of the year award.  Joshua at #3:

    I am reluctant to attribute motivations to Keith’s work.

  • Joshua

    Where is your evidence that I attribute motivations to Keith’s work, Tom? And what motivations do you think I attribute to his work.

    Please understand that some folks wrongly conflate discussion of motivated reasoning with motives. They aren’t the same things. Let me know if you’d like an explanation of the differences.

    But as always – thanks for reading!

  • Nullius in Verba

    #12,

    I hadn’t intended to, because I assumed they were obvious.

    Do you genuinely not know, or is this to get me to say something to argue with?

    Do you think Monbiot’s argument is economically literate? Do you think the political campaign has nothing at all to do with the attacks on the science?

  • Tom Scharf

    You live in a very special reality Joshua.  You have questioned Keith’s motivations repeatedly and continuously.  You do it excessively at this site and Climate Etc and probably others.  You seem much more interested in the blogger than the blogger’s content.  I’m very surprised you can’t even see this.  You should read your own posts occasionally. 

  • Joshua

    Tom S -

    You live in a very special reality Joshua.  You have questioned Keith’s motivations repeatedly and continuously

    I often question what might be motivated reasoning of bloggers – Keith included. That is not the same thing as questioning their motives. I would explain the difference, but I am guessing you wouldn’t be open to that explanation from me. I would suggest that you go to Kahan’s blog and ask him about it. He agrees that people often mistakenly make the conflation that you are making. He and I even discussed it a bit.

    I don’t know Keith. Never met him. I have no way of actually knowing what his motivations are. It seems to me that his motive is to focus on junk science – to find a middle ground between the tribal wars. But I don’t know for sure. I think that in doing so, he has a schtick – that sometimes reflects motivated reasoning. We all display motivated reasoning, myself included. It is part of the human condition. It is independent of motivations. 

    If you want to give an example of where I questioned Keith’s motives, or Judith’s for that matteIr, or yours, or mosher’s, or my good friend Tom C, or my buddy Tom Fuller, etc. – please, feel free to do so. Otherwise, I can only assume that you are confusing questioning motives to questioning the existence of motivated reasoning. It happens quite often. You needn’t feel singled out in that regard.

  • Joshua

    NiV -

    I don’t know Monbiot’s economic reasoning – I doubt that it is “illiterate”- which is why I asked the question.  

    Similarly, I gathered from  your suggestion to Keith that he do a post on it, without explaining what you meant, that you think that is obvious – but no, it is not obvious to me how you think that the “political campaign” affects the science.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #22,

    “I don’t know Monbiot’s economic reasoning”

    So why ask? The topic of the comment was why Monbiot had thrown a “twitter fit”, and his views on GMO science. You can find out what Monbiot’s reasoning was if you’re curious, and ask again if you can’t see why it’s wrong, but it’s really not worth the time/effort.

    “it is not obvious to me how you think that the “political campaign” affects the science.”

    I’ll point here to:

    “Without subtly stoking ignorant fears about GM food, there would be no way to mobilize the fight against Monsanto and what it stands for. Pollan thinks that Prop 37 is;”something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.””

  • Joshua

    NiV -

    So why ask?

    I thought I already explained that. Because you called it “illiterate” and I doubt that’s the case. I thought it would be interesting to see if I agreed with your characterization. Why the avoidance of answering the question? I don’t need a treatise.

  • BBD

    nullius

    I wondered what you meant at the time and now I’m actively curious. I’ll be keeping an eye out for your next.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #24,

    I’m not sure why you would have any opinion either way, if you genuinely don’t know what his argument was.

    Monbiot argues that the big ag companies like GM because it allows them to get a monopoly on the technology through IPR, and thus control the food supply.

    The point he misses is that they can only do so so long as and to the extent that they are better value than all the competitors. Nobody makes anyone buy GM – people buy it only so long as it is a better deal than all the alternatives. Monsanto can only ‘control the food supply’ if they make it cheaper and easier than everyone else. And cheaper and easier generally is a good thing, for society as a whole.

    Monbiot co-originated a political party that was widely regarded as a front for the Marxist-Leninist wing of the British Revolutionary Communist Party, and only ducked out of it because they competed with the Green party – why he supposed the Communists would feel any compunction about doing so is anyone’s guess. Given that, a high level of economic illiteracy is expected of Monbiot, but it surprises me if sensible people don’t notice. BBD, sure, but surely most people know that the only way to dominate a free market is to be more cost-effective than everyone else? Or else you get out-competed?

  • Michael Lowe

    KeithSurely the closest analogy to the people who whip up hysteria about GM foods, and the people who whip up hysteria about the nuclear industry, is the people who whip up hysteria about global warming – not those who ‘deny’ the need for the hysteria. We see the same tactics, the same players.I know it’s anecdotal, but the only people I know who are concerned about GM foods and concerned about nuclear power are also very concerned about climate change  - its all part of the same political package – sign up for one and you get the lot !

  • Joshua

    NiV -

    I’m not sure why you would have any opinion either way, if you genuinely don’t know what his argument was.

    My opinion is that someone who probably studies these issues fairly closely is not likely to be “illiterate.” So my opinion was that you were probably confusing “:illiteracy” with someone having a different opinion than your own. 

    Your third paragraph doesn’t prove your assertion, IMO, and your forth paragraph is just an ad hom – which further weakens your case.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #28,

    Why would you think he probably studies these things fairly closely? Most people with strong, viscerally-held political beliefs don’t.

    It seems to me you’re forming your opinions without evidence. You don’t know what his argument is but you’ve decided it’s worth supporting. You don’t know whether my point is sound but you’ve decided it’s probably not. You have no information to judge whether he has studied the economics closely or the consequent literacy of his arguments, but you’ve decided he has and they probably are.

    You don’t say why you think my third paragraph doesn’t prove my case, or even why you think it was intended to, and the fourth paragraph isn’t ad hominem – you’re reading the implication the wrong way round.

    But your opinion is noted. Was there a point you wanted to make?

  • BBD

    nullius

    BBD, sure, but surely most people know that the only way to dominate a free market is to be more cost-effective than everyone else? Or else you get out-competed?

    Thanks for the clarification. It is what I thought you probably meant. Stewart Brand makes the same point in his deconstruction of ‘bioserfdom’ fearmongering in Whole Earth Discipline (UK paperback edition; p145 – 50). We appear to be in one of those rare moments of agreement. I shall treasure the memory.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #30,

    Wow. Me too.

    And on that basis, I apologise for the snark.

  • BBD

    nullius

    Oh never mind the snark – it’s only the internet. Have a good weekend.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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