Extreme Environmentalism

A Culture of Fear That Knows No Bounds

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SEATTLE, Washington, JUNE 2, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Environmental concerns have gone a long way in raising healthy awareness about the earth and cleaning up industrial pollution. But some activists have taken them too far.



Take the campaign launched by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). On May 25 the group began visiting schools around Britain, handing out propaganda aimed at dissuading children from drinking milk. According to the Wall Street Journal of May 28, these Pokémonlike cartoon cards feature characters such as "Chubby Charlie" -- a little boy with a huge, white belly -- who is slouched on a dirty green chair drinking milk. As he guzzles from a milk carton, white fluid spurts out of his ears and bellybutton. Another portrays "Spotty Sue," a blond little girl scrutinizing her round, pimple-covered face in the mirror.

Britain´s National Dairy Council bitterly attacked the PETA campaign as "totally irresponsible," while the government Food Standards Agency condemned it as misleading, reported the Journal.

Or take the recent scare about tens of thousands of seal pups being trapped and facing death in Russia´s White Sea. The United Kingdom magazine New Scientist later debunked the claims that up to 200,000 seal pups were trapped on ice floes and slowly starving.

In fact, no seals were ever in danger, says Masha Vorontsova, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Moscow, who flew over the White Sea ice floes. "I saw only tens of seals on the floes. The situation is normal," she was quoted as saying in the magazine May 15. "There is no disaster at all and there never was." This new item never received anything like the space given in the mass media to the original scare story.

Another case of exaggeration involves the Brazilian forests. Warnings about rapid deforestation in the Amazon are common; after one recent report, however, government authorities spoke out to clarify the situation. Brazil´s science and technology ministry said that a Science magazine report on huge losses of Amazon rainforest by 2020 is based on unreliable facts and "ecological futurology," BBC said Jan. 23.

"There is nothing to give scientific grounds for a deforestation projection of 42% in 20 years," the ministry said. The Brazilian Embassy in London said the study unfairly projected current rates of deforestation into the future.

"If the same rate of deforestation continues for the next 20 years, which is highly unlikely, taking into account the series of measures in place to protect the forest, the loss would amount to 8% and not 42% as stated in the article," the embassy said.

BBC quoted Philip Stott, professor of biogeography at the University of London, who said there was a widespread myth that the Amazon and other tropical rainforests were about to disappear. "New research in Brazil suggests that around 87.5% of the previously mapped area of the Amazon remains largely intact and, of the 12.5% that has been deforested, one-third to one-half is fallow or in the process of regeneration," he said.

In Europe, meanwhile, the public is increasingly concerned over health and ecology issues, the Washington Post noted March 1. It seems that almost anything in daily life brings with it mortal danger, from a bowl of cornflakes, to a ham sandwich, to using a cell phone. "[The] lack of scientific basis for many of the worries doesn´t staunch the flood" of worries, the Post commented.

Mart Saarma, a biologist at the Helsinki Institute of Biotechnology, attributes the "culture of fear" to carry-over from genuine health problems, trends in environmentalism, anti-Americanism and a pessimistic strain in the European psyche.

Another theory ties the phenomenon to the decline of religious faith. "Churchgoers now amount to less than 15% of the population," said Philip Lader, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, and this might prompt "a human need for some other larger-than-life issues. Perhaps that has something to do with the religiouslike fervor of the opposition to [genetically modified] foods."

Extremist groups in the United States

But it´s not only Europe that suffers from excesses. The United States has the Earth Liberation Front, for starters. ELF is held responsible by government authorities for a number of arson attacks. The latest took place a few days ago when a fire destroyed a research laboratory at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, and another destroyed buildings and vehicles at a tree nursery in Oregon.

The New York Times reported May 23 that federal authorities have strong indications that both fires were set by ELF, a loosely knit group of radical environmentalists adamantly opposed to research on the genetic modification of trees.

The movement has claimed responsibility for arson and vandalism against a number of commercial properties in recent years, including a ski resort in Colorado, a lumberyard in southern Oregon, and housing sites on Long Island. Four teen-agers were charged in the Long Island fires earlier this year.

Some professors at the horticulture center in Seattle said they found an unfortunate irony in the damage. Much of the center´s research is geared toward protecting or restoring the environment, and the fire may have killed a good portion of one rare species of plant.

The FBI has named ELF one of the most dangerous groups in the country.

According to an April 24 profile by the Globe and Mail newspaper of Canada, ELF was formed in England in the early 1990s, when some members of the radical environmental group Earth First! wanted to take more extreme actions. It borrowed strategies, and some members, from the Animal Liberation Front, a radical animal-rights group.

The North American branch of the ELF began operating in 1997 and became well known for such dangerous tactics as tree spiking, in which metal spikes are put in trees to hamper logging efforts. During the past year it has shifted its focus away from forestry issues to more-urban causes.

An ELF spokesman, Leslie James Pickering, explains that his group´s supporters believe humans made a fundamental mistake 10,000 years ago in switching from hunting and gathering to agricultural cultivation.

"We learned to make tools and survive, and we did that for 3 million years, before we began down the agricultural path to where we are today," he said. "And I think that´s where we made a major mistake."

Pickering added, "The whole anthropocentrism of our species is at the core of this problem -- the whole concept of us thinking that we are something other than a part of nature."

In his general audience address Jan. 17, John Paul II welcomed the increased sensitivity toward ecological issues and urged Christians to be faithful stewards of God´s kingdom. News of extremists´ behavior would indicate that protecting the earth´s delicate balance requires a commensurate balance among its would-be defenders.