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An environmentalism of hope

Updated: Sep 11

Mark Lynas, one of the driving forces behind RePlanet, tells the story of RePlanet, looking back at our history and looking ahead to a green and prosperous planet.

During the last fifty years, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have climbed from 325 to nearly 420 parts per million. The temperature of the planet has increased by half a degree. Sea levels have risen by over five centimetres. More than 400 million hectares of tropical forest have been lost worldwide – that’s more than the entire land mass of India. Across the globe, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have lost two-thirds of their wild populations since 1970.

The last half-century also parallels the rise of the modern environmental movement. In the early 1970s, influential publications came out, such as E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful and The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were founded. These pioneering thinkers and organisations have given us all hope over the decades, and achieved many wins for the planet. It is partly thanks to them that we no longer have to worry so much about acid rain and the destruction of the ozone layer, among many other issues.

But in recent times something seems to have gone wrong. Much of the mainstream environmental movement has become disconnected from the science on some important issues. Nuclear power and genetic engineering are only the two most obvious examples, where virtually all established green groups deny the scientific consensus and spread misinformation instead, just as climate deniers do about global heating. Making technologies look controversial in spite of the evidence has caused progress on environmental issues to slow down.

Pioneering thinkers and organisations in the modern environmental movement have given us all hope over the decades, and achieved many wins for the planet

Many of us who came together to found RePlanet had spent years feeling alone. We identified as environmentalists but felt alienated from the movement by its rejection of basic scientific principles. Why could we not be both pro-climate and pro-nuclear? Why not pro-GMO and pro-biodiversity? Why were these people on different sides of the argument, and equally stuck in their trenches? Surely we could do better with an evidence-based approach.

Therefore, some of us decided that there was a need to revise some of the ideas in the green movement. What we desperately needed to do was to bring people together who were both pro-science and pro-environment.

Some of us come from Africa, where we have seen at first hand how subsistence farmers are denied access to new drought-tolerant crops – that might help feed their families – on the basis of misinformation spread by anti-GMO activists. Many of these anti-science groups pose as ‘environmentalist’ and are financially and intellectually supported by mainstream Western green groups and their governments. We seriously need to give African farmers a voice, and rescue environmentalism from this damaging neocolonialist nonsense.

We decided we needed to revise some of the ideas in the green movement, and bring people together who were both pro-science and pro-environment

Some of our first members were in Germany. They were aghast to see that Greenpeace and the Green Party cynically used the tragic deaths of 18,000 people killed in the 2011 Japanese tsunami as a way to shut down the country’s largest source of 24/7 zero-carbon baseload power. We saw Germany marching inexorably towards the tragedy of today, shutting down nuclear plants in order to deliver the country’s energy future into the eager hands of Vladimir Putin, while expanding coal mines and destroying entire villages like at Lützerath.

And we asked ourselves: why can’t we be pro-renewables, pro-nuclear, anti-coal and anti-Putin at the same time?

Why set one against the other?

We noted with exasperation how the wind and solar ‘tribe’ all hated nuclear, and were prepared to tolerate Russian gas in preference, while the nuclear ‘tribe’ all hated wind and solar, but kept quiet about Russian reactors and Russian nuclear fuel. The climate emergency seems to get forgotten in this endless Twitter back-and-forth.

To adapt the title of a book by Naomi Klein, it seemed like ‘climate changes everything’, except our minds.

We seriously need to give African farmers a voice, and rescue environmentalism from neocolonialist nonsense

Science, on the other hand, often gets invoked only as a way to justify existing ideological positions. But true science must be more than a list of impressive-sounding citations conveniently cherry-picked to buttress an argument. Scientific discovery means producing hypotheses and subjecting them to examination using evidence that can be replicated.

To see so many environmentalists not just being selective with science, but rejecting it altogether in favour of often romantic fantasies, uninformed by history, numeracy or data, left many of us in despair. For if we can’t use science to identify problems, let alone solve them, we are left with nothing – an amorphous post-truth miasma of competing ideologies, a morass of misinformation with arguments won by those who shout the loudest, make the most extreme claims and win the most social media converts.

Science is not just for the Global North, science is for everyone. Science is the drought-tolerant seeds the farmers in Kenya want to grow to feed their children in the face of a worsening climate crisis. Science is the computer models that give us an incredible insight into our hotter future. Science is our ability to sequence the genetic material of an emergent virus like Covid and design an mRNA vaccine in a matter of days to protect the world against a pandemic.

Science is more than a list of impressive-sounding citations conveniently cherry-picked to buttress an argument

An environmental movement that selectively rejects science will not only be unable to solve real environmental challenges, but also poses a serious threat of making things worse. For example, an unscientific overestimation of the dangers of radiation has now locked in a substantial part of today’s global temperature increase, because the hundreds of planned reactors that were cancelled thanks to anti-nuclear activists were replaced by coal.

But we knew we needed to do more than simply complain. And those of us in this new pro-science environmental movement realised that we needed to say something positive. We needed a vision, something which could inspire, a manifesto for an environmental movement that would be technology-friendly, science-based, progressive, and even, you might say, modern.

So we called it ecomodernism, and launched it as the Ecomodernist Manifesto back in 2015. Ecomodernism inspired many groups across Europe that later came together to form RePlanet. However, for many of the activists involved, the original concept of ecomodernism later became tainted (probably somewhat unfairly) by an association with climate lukewarmism and a lack of a political critique of corporate power. At a meeting in Antwerp, Belgium in 2021, we came together to discuss an updated philosophy and a new name.

RePlanet is a professionally organised network of activists in multiple countries, dedicated to overtaking mainstream green thinking not just in impact but in ambition

And this was RePlanet. Not just a disparate movement but a professionally organised network of activists in multiple countries, dedicated to overtaking mainstream green thinking not just in impact but in ambition. For example, if we have a moonshot programme for renewables and advanced nuclear combined, why not have an earlier net zero date, like 2040, which recognises the climate emergency rather than trying to downplay it?

If we want to harness modern molecular biology, why not use it in precision fermentation and other microbial approaches to deliver animal-type proteins and fats without the appalling suffering and environmental destructiveness of industrial animal agriculture? This could then allow the large-scale rewilding of land as a way to bring back nature and address the biodiversity crisis. (This later became our Reboot Food campaign.)

When Putin invaded Ukraine it became obvious to most people why closing nuclear had been a calamitous mistake. As public opinion in Europe and elsewhere swung dramatically in favour of nuclear power, we emphasised that solidarity with Ukraine would mean stopping the nuclear shutdowns, and taking drastic energy-saving and energy-sharing measures across Europe. We crunched the numbers and launched a report and a campaign to Switch Off Putin.

We scored a big victory in the EU taxonomy debate, which now considers nuclear energy appropriate for green financing. We saw the Green Party in Finland taking a pro-nuclear stance, joined by members of Fridays for Future in Poland. It seems that momentum is finally on our side.

We do not claim to transcend ideology or values, because we are proud of the shared beliefs that inspire us

In our campaigns we try to showcase and highlight our positive vision. Our movement in Sweden has sent trucks of aid to Ukraine. We have campaigned to protect old-growth forests in Poland, to protect wolves in Scandinavia, and to promote rewilding everywhere. We have opposed fossil fuels, and some of our staff members have even spent time in prison for taking these beliefs to the street. Their bravery and courage is the best of what RePlanet should stand for.

We have fought to ‘Give Genes a Chance’ in making European agriculture more sustainable, and we have campaigned for plant-based foods. We have opposed the absurd situation where trees are clearcut in North America, imported into Europe and burned in power stations to be counted towards renewable energy targets. That is just some of what RePlanet does.

We do not claim to transcend ideology or values, because we are proud of the shared beliefs that inspire us. We love wild nature, but we hate poverty. We believe in democracy, in freedom, and in progress. We follow the science, and will change our minds on any issue when science demands it. We are animal-lovers, geeks and empiricists, we are vegans and queers, we are everyone who believes we can have a better future and wants to help build it.

This is RePlanet. Please join us today!

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