Beware the New Scientist's UK Global Environment Roadshow - you'll learn nothing but the art of guilt-trip.

Helene Guldberg

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When I returned home from the horrendous event that was the New Scientist’s UK Global Environment Roadshow, I got very little sympathy from my flat-mates. ‘But what on earth did you expect?’, they retorted. ‘Look at the leaflet. It says it all.’

They had a point. The headline read ‘New Scientist presents: Judgement Day – the Global Environment Roadshow’. It went on: ‘Find out how wholly unexpected forces, such as global warming, pollution, ozone-layer destruction, water shortages and soil degradation could combine in new and terrifying ways to produce global nightmares nobody predicted.’ And the blurb finished with the call to: ‘measure your contribution to human survival on Earth by going through a personal evaluation to find out how much damage you do to the environment. Discover if you are an Angel or a Devil.’

But despite this, I had a notion – since the debate was organised by the New Scientist for an adult audience – that this would at least be open to rational discussion. Not a chance. Rather than an appraisal of scientific evidence about climate change, pollution, soil erosion and water shortages, we were presented with the absolutely worst-case scenarios for what could happen to us – as if they were fact – and the very grave possibility that we could self-destruct.

Jeremy Webb, editor of the New Scientist, started by emphasising that human beings have ‘as much destructive potential’ as that which brought about former mass extinctions – where up to 90 percent of species were wiped out. Just look at BSE (What? How many bovine species have gone extinct as a result of BSE?), HIV (Again, what does this tell us about the human destructive potential?) and global warming (But, Jeremy, the history of the planet has been one of far greater temperature fluctuations than those predicted for the coming century).

We were then given three presentations of possible doomsday scenarios.

First, global warming (we were given a weather forecast for 2050, with the UK in a mini Ice-Age, the east coast of the USA flooded, the west coast swamped by malaria-carrying mosquitoes, South America wreaked by forest fires, and so on); second, pollution; and third, overpopulation.

Webb asked – after the presentations – whether there was anybody who still was not worried about the future. In a room full of several hundred people, only three of us put our hands up. We were all asked to justify ourselves (which is fair enough). But one woman, who believed that even if some of the scenarios are likely, we should be able to find solutions to cope with them, was asked by Webb whether she was related to George Bush!

When I pointed out that none of the speakers had presented any of the scientific evidence that challenged their doomsday scenarios, Webb just threw back at me, ‘But why take the risk?’ What did he mean: ‘Why take the risk of living?’ You could equally say ‘Why take the risk of not experimenting? Why take the risk of not allowing optimum economic development?’ But had I been able to ask these questions, I suppose I would have been accused of being in bed with Dubya.

One of the speakers responded to my point, that there is evidence that the air is cleaner today than several decades ago (rather than ‘being turned into a sewer’). Yes, she said, that may be true, but clean air can also be a problem.

The experience was like attending a religious meeting – a mass confessional, in fact, where ‘we are all sinners’, but some of us sin more than others. The exercise at the end of the event (which dragged on for what seemed like an eternity) set out to assess our individual footprints on planet Earth. One woman was presented with a halo (literally) for scoring less than 200 points on her evaluation (equivalent to about a quarter of the European average); and a poor unfortunate boy was presented with horns (he was the devil) for scoring almost twice the European average.

This lad was rather bemused as to how he had managed to amass such a high score – and, to be honest, he did not look like a particularly extravagant character. But I suppose it is easy to tot up the points – and maybe he was just more honest than the rest of the audience (like a spoil-sport, I refused to participate). All you need to do is travel to Australia (which he had) and you have already totted up 300 points. Then if you bath every day (and do not share it with others in your household), travel to work by car (tut, tut), do not buy locally produced fresh products, and do not recycle your paper, then your points will quickly rocket.

If this event had been organised by Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, I suppose I would not have got so agitated. But this kind of moralism dressed up as science – without any opportunity for rational debate – makes my blood boil.

Read on:

Global Warming issue

Related sites:

New Scientist roadshow

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