Survey Says: We Don't Believe the Hype

By: Philip Stott, Emeritus Professor of Biogeography

Recently, I had a most unexpected, but illuminating, experience. With a local farmer, I was called on to defend genetically modified crops in a major public debate held at a very beautiful cathedral in southern England. The audience of around 300 comprised local school children and their teachers. And the end of the exchange, the audience would vote to determine who 'won' the debate.

The Green opposition was rabid in its denunciation of biotechnology in agriculture. The chair of the debate, a well-known politician and BBC radio personality, assured us that we would be roundly defeated, lucky indeed if we obtained any votes at all.

But when the vote was taken, he was staggered: we won overwhelmingly – by two-thirds. We were further amazed by the outstanding speeches from the floor praising the potential of biotechnology, especially for the developing world. The opposition seemed to be quite shaken by the outcome.

What had happened? The students had, some for the first time, been allowed to hear the voice of reason, sound scientific argument, and down-to-earth practical farming.

This experience has been reinforced many times in schools where I have spoken to the oldest students, including at some of the most famous schools in England, such as Eton and Harrow. The pupils are knowledgeable, thoughtful, skeptical, and open to real science. They do not seem, in any way, to have been duped by the Green hype and rhetoric so unthinkingly peddled day in and day out by our more politically correct media. Indeed, there appears to be a growing distrust of the press on environmental matters -- a clear mismatch between journalistic excitability and the public they claim to serve.

Interestingly, two social surveys -- one in the United Kingdom, the other in Australia -- have also just confirmed a significant decline in general environmental interest.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has recorded a fall in concern nationally about the environment from 75% of households in 1992 to 62% in 2001, with only 25% of South Australians and 14% of those living in the Northern Territory willing to donate any time or money to environmental matters.

In the United Kingdom, the figures presented by the new report on British Social Attitudes are even starker. The number of people willing to pay higher prices to defend the environment has fallen from 46% in 1993 to 43% in 2001 and those willing to pay higher taxes from 37% to 31%. Particularly surprising -- given the massive overhyping of global warming in the UK -- only 14% said they would be willing to cut back on their use of the car. And the overall drop in concern is most significant in young adults (18 to 24-year-olds), with support for environmental petitions, for example, falling from 50% in 1993 to a mere 31% in 2001.

These trends are quite extraordinary when one thinks of the constant media coverage of Green issues during the last ten years or so. They clearly demonstrate a remarkable ability on the part of people to see through the distortions and extremes that so mar the debates over topics like climate change and biotechnology.

I have long believed that the hype would eventually backfire. As my wife said the other day: in the 1970s and 1980s, she was terrified by the prospect of a nuclear winter and a plunge into another Ice Age; in the 1990s, it was 'global warming'; today she will just get on with her life and leave the eco-gloomsters to their own fraught world of eco-chondria. We have enough to worry about with genuine problems like terrorism, wars and poverty, thank you very much.

And this is the precise danger of the Kyoto Protocol. After all the hype, when climate doesn't do what has been predicted – that being most likely outcome – where then will be 'scientific' credibility? The baby of sensible and cautious environmental 'science' could well be thrown out with the dirty bath water of foolish exaggeration.

The extreme Greens are increasingly unrepresentative of the very constituency that should be their own. Where there is simple, straight, non-political, hard science teaching in schools and universities; where people are able to hear rational arguments rather than lies and distortions; and where a balanced attitude to real risk replaces a fearful attitude to virtual risk, then the seeds of extreme environmentalism fall on barren ground.

It is surely the moral duty of genuine science and environmental correspondents, science teachers, and writers of popular science to ensure that such a rational and balanced discussion of scientific progress is feasible. We can all conjure up demons and dragons; 'truth' and reality are far tougher assignments.

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London. His latest book, with Dr. Sian Sullivan, is Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power (Arnold and OUP, 2000).

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