Beware false prophets, and especially those masquerading as conservationists (or at least ‘green’) when they are not, in fact, doing anything for conservation at all. But this blog site isn’t about typical greenie evil-corporation-making-a-mess-of-the-Earth sermons (there are plenty of those); it’s instead about real conservation science that has/should/could have a real biodiversity benefits. This is why I highlight the bitey and the toothless together.
With the slow (painfully, inadequately, insufficiently slow) maturation of environmental awareness and the rising plight of biodiversity in general (including our own health and prosperity), it has become almost chic to embrace a so-called ‘green’ perspective. This approach has blown out into a full-scale business model where in many wealthier nations especially, it’s just plain good business to attract the green-conscious consumer to buy more ‘environmentally friendly’ products. Problem is, so many of these products are the farthest thing from green you can imagine (see examples here, here & here). This stimulated the environmentalist Jay Westerveld to coin the term greenwashing in 1986. Greenwashing is basically defined as activities that misleadingly give the impression of environmentally sound management that thereby deflect attention away from the continued pursuit of environmentally destructive activities.
Well, not that the problem has disappeared, or even dissipated (if anything, it’s growing), but I don’t want to focus on that here. Instead, I want to highlight a recent paper in which I was involved that outlines too how environmental groups can be guilty of almost the same sin – claiming businesses, practices, individuals, corporations, etc. are far more environmentally destructive than they really are. This, we termed blackwashing.
The paper by Koh and colleagues entitled Wash and spin cycle threats to tropical biodiversity just came out online in the journal Biotropica, and therein we describe the greenwashing-blackwashing twin conservation evils using the oil palm controversy as an excellent example case. Just in case you didn’t know, much of the tropical world (especially South East Asia) is undergoing massive conversion of native forests to oil palm plantations, to the overwhelming detriment of biodiversity. I’ve covered the issue in several posts on ConservationBytes.com before (see for example Tropical forests worth more standing, Indonesia’s precious peatlands under oil palm fire & More greenwashing from the Malaysian oil palm industry).
Briefly, we demonstrate how the palm oil industry is guilty of the following greenwashes:
- Palm oil plantations are safe for tropical biodiversity – They are most definitely not (see Fitzherbert et al. 2008, Koh & Wilcove 2008, Brüle & Eltz 2009, Danielson et al. 2009, Venter et al. 2009)
- Oil palm is planted forest – It is not, either in terms of the amount of carbon it sequesters or the biodiversity it supports (see above point).
- Native forest conversion no longer occurs – An outright lie (Chazdon 2008, Butler 2008).
On the either side, various environmental groups such as Greenpeace, have promoted the following blackwashes:
- Orang-utan will be extinct imminently – A gross exaggeration, although something we believe is eventually possible.
- Avoided deforestation schemes (e.g., REDD) will crash carbon-trading – Again, even economists don’t believe this.
For details, see the paper online.
Now, I’d probably tend to believe some of the less outrageous claims made by some environmental groups because if anything, the state of biodiversity is probably overall worse than what most people realise. However, when environmental groups are exposed for exaggerations, or worse, lies, then their credibility goes out the window and even those essentially promoting their cause (e.g., conservation biologists like myself) will have nothing to do with them. The quasi-religious zealotry of anti-whaling campaigns is an example of a terrible waste of funds, goodwill and conservation resources that could be otherwise spent on real conservation gains. Instead, political stunts simply alienate people who would otherwise reasonably contribute to improving the state of biodiversity. Incidentally, an environmental advocacy group in Australia emailed me to support their campaign to highlight the plight of sharks. I am a firm supporter of better conservation of sharks (see recent paper and post about this here). However, when I read their campaign propaganda, the first sentence read:
I immediately distanced myself from them. This is a blatant lie and terrible over-exaggeration. Ninety per cent of sharks HAVE NOT been wiped out. Some localised depletions have occurred, and not one single shark species has been recorded going extinct since records began. While I agree the world has a serious shark problem, saying outrageous things like this will only serve to weaken your cause. My advice to any green group is to get your facts straight and avoid the sensationlist game – you won’t win it, and you probably won’t be successful in doing anything beneficial for the species you purport to save.
Koh, L., Ghazoul, J., Butler, R., Laurance, W., Sodhi, N., Mateo-Vega, J., & Bradshaw, C. (2009). Wash and Spin Cycle Threats to Tropical Biodiversity Biotropica DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2009.00588.x