Greenwash, blackwash: two faces of conservation evil

21 11 2009

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:

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:

Almost 90 % of sharks have been wiped out

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.
CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgKoh, 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


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13 responses

2 12 2009
akorozco

Green” fraud has even penetrated grocery stores – watch for environmentally friendly labeling that’s not what it claims to be http://www.newsy.com/videos/the_problem_of_greenwashing

30 11 2009
Science turned bad (by the media) « ConservationBytes.com

[...] (by the media) 30 11 2009 In keeping with a certain whinge of mine over the last week (see Greenwash, blackwash: two faces of conservation evil), here’s a brilliant pictorial comment from Pile Higher and Deeper on the way reporters try [...]

25 11 2009
farandfew

While what you say in general is clearly true, the statement about sharks might not be as ridiculous as it sounds. It might refer to individuals rather than species – i.e. shark populations have declined by, on average 90%. I don’t know if this is true but it seems plausible, unlike the claim that 90% of species have been wiped out. Obviously you’d need to say since when.
This would make the statement misleading and perhaps deliberately so, but not an actual lie.
Of course it could also mean that 90% of species have been wiped out since sharks initially appeared in the fossil record :-)

30 11 2009
CJAB

Farandfew,

As stated, I acknowledge sharks are in trouble in many places, and it is plausible that it some areas, such declines are possible (although even these are highly debated). Obviously the NGO is not talking about fossil record losses. For more information on the evidence of declines and threat status, I invite you to read our (extensive) review on the subject recently published in Advances in Marine Biology. Happy to provide a PDF upon request (email).

My main issue is the blatant and sensationalist over-exaggeration. It will just serve to alienate fence-sitters and ensconce conservatives in their cocoons of ignorance.

24 11 2009
“Almost 90 % of sharks have been wiped out“ - Scuba Blogs - ScubaSpotz

[...] Science fact or fiction?This morning over at the Conservation Bytes blog the discussion about Greenwashing and Blackwashing and an in depth look at both.What happens when conservation groups make wild claims about the state [...]

23 11 2009
Shark Diver

Actually more a form of Sea Shepherd-ism, those folks have taken the idea of conservation truth and run it through the same lens of your basic Fortune 500 Corporate PR firm.

When Watson faked his own gun shot to the chest I knew we were not in Kansas anymore.

Your post is a breath of fresh air.

23 11 2009
CJAB

Many thanks, again, Shark Diver. Agreed – I guess any corporation can have its religious nutters, and the Holy Church of Sea Shepherd is right up there.

22 11 2009
Shark Diver

While 90% figure is laughable but there is evidence of big losses for many species worldwide. For example commercial blue shark diving on the west coast of the USA stopped when the blue sharks vanished.

Today you can chum for hours and may or may not even see one shark whereas less then a decade ago you would be surrounded by adult animals within minutes.

My personal pet peeve is this statement, taken as eco fact and used by ill informed eco zealots to make a point, “if we kill all the sharks we will not have any oxygen left to breathe.”

The eco movement has taken an ugly turn towards media hysteria to make a point. Shifting numbers, faked news reports, and now even reality television shows have brought the eco movement to a lack of credibility in many places.

Thanks for the post, we need to return to facts and figures, or at least understand the real facts and figures if the movement is going to make any headway going into 2020.

22 11 2009
CJAB

Thanks, Shark Diver. I agree completely. I firmly support the advocacy of shark protection and research, but blatant lies and cherry-picked results will only undermine their goal. It’s essentially a form of Greenpeace-ism, and no sane person wants that.

21 11 2009
uberVU - social comments

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by conservbytes: Greenwash, blackwash: two faces of conservation evil: http://wp.me/phhT4-OH

21 11 2009
Geoff Russell

I’ve just emailed the people responsible for this site. Perhaps they are just well meaning but sloppy and woefully informed … which isn’t quite the same as being liars, and its much more common. Their response will be interesting. I’ll let you know what transpires.

22 11 2009
CJAB

Thanks, Geoff. If you’re referring to the NSW group responsible for the shark campaign, you can be fairly guaranteed that the response will be something along the lines of ‘scientists say so, so we’re justified’. Amazing cherry-picking sensationalism of the highest order. It’s a shame because otherwise I’d support these people. I refuse though to debase myself to the level of untruths and deliberate lies. They have therefore gained an opponent, not an ally.

21 11 2009
Tweets that mention Greenwash, blackwash: two faces of conservation evil « ConservationBytes.com -- Topsy.com

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ConservationBytes. ConservationBytes said: Greenwash, blackwash: two faces of conservation evil: http://wp.me/phhT4-OH [...]

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