Put down the coke or the rainforest gets it

Having lost the war on drugs, the UK police now want to wean young people off cocaine by flagging up its eco-impact.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Science & Tech

It’s not cool, it’s expensive, it’s addictive and it can lead to nose bleeds, high blood pressure, heart seizure and psychosis. It’s cut with toxins and rat poison. It fries your brain. If you use it you’ll lose all your friends – and your family. You’ll end up on the street, and then in the morgue. Just Say No.

These scary staple warnings of anti-cocaine campaigns have had little effect, it seems, because the old nose candy is reportedly getting more popular among young people in the UK. As prices have gone down, the white stuff is no longer a luxury item. Forget about the yuppies and celebrities, blow is the middle-class high.

With years of failed attempts to make snorting coke ‘so last year’, the UK police and government are looking for innovative ways of fighting drug use. According to The Sunday Times, London’s Metropolitan Police, backed by a number of MPs, are hoping to team up with Greenpeace to spread the message that every time you snort a line, a part of the rainforest dies (1). It looks like the Met are on to a winner. For there is no bigger downer for socially conscious middle-class youngsters than knowing that their selfish ways are ruining the planet.

The police have worked out that rainforest is routinely cleared for illegal cocoa plantations while toxic chemicals are used to process the leaves. Discarded chemicals, dumped in the forest and its rivers, poison rare plants and animals. When local law enforcement agencies destroy cocoa plantations, often by dropping chemicals from the air, they wreak further havoc.

Chris Pearson, drugs analyst at the Metropolitan Police, recognises that young people don’t care what PCs think. Instead, the way to fight cocaine use is to make it un-PC: ‘The cocaine trade is destroying the rainforest. Young people don’t tend to listen to the police, but they might listen to Greenpeace and they might listen to their peers.’ (2)

As for Greenpeace, it seems to have gleaned an opportunity to pull a PETA on cocaine. Just as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals got a whole generation of supermodels to say they’d rather go naked than wear fur, Greenpeace is hoping that the government-backed campaign will make cocaine use similarly socially unacceptable. ‘Just telling young people that using cocaine is bad doesn’t work’, John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, told The Sunday Times. ‘You need to change teenage culture and point out that it has all sorts of consequences. Then they start talking about it more loudly and you could get into that fur coat situation.’ (3)

Meanwhile, over at the Greenpeace press office, there was little knowledge of the campaign. I was told The Sunday Times merely asked for John Sauven’s reaction to the police’s idea of a joint campaign but that noting has been officially agreed. Nevertheless, Sauven did not dismiss out of hand the idea of working with the cops. And Greenpeace has not bothered to dispute The Sunday Times’ report.

As for the government’s response, the schools minister, ironically named Vernon Coaker, said: ‘Teaching young people about the devastating environmental consequences of the drugs industry is one way we can tackle drug usage, though we need to balance this with giving young people clear information and advice on the other effects of drugs.’ (4)

In hooking an anti-drugs campaign off the claim that the rainforest is being ravaged beyond repair – apparently for every gram of cocaine made, four square metres of rainforest are destroyed – the authorities are signalling their inability to make an effective case against drugs. This also shows how readily ‘the environment’ is rolled out to fill the vacuum of proper political arguments or moral judgement. Today, we are encouraged to judge our every choice and consideration – from trivialities such as what we eat and where we go on holiday, to major life choices such as how many children we have – through the prism of the environment. ‘Ask not what the planet can do for you, but what you can do for the planet’ is the mantra of the day.

The rainforest was the cause célèbre of the 1990s, but just as retro is in fashion so ‘the lungs of the Earth’ are making a comeback on the green scene. Not only were both Londoners and Danes treated to the art installation Ghost Forest, a collection of tree trunks intended to raise awareness of deforestation, in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit (5), but last month, Trudie Styler – aka Sting’s Wife – delivered a lecture at the United Nations, claiming that ‘once [the rainforests] have been decimated to the tipping point, there will be no way back. We will face such extreme weather conditions that our planet will no longer support human life.’ (6)

The pop star-actress duo Sting and Styler have been at the forefront of the campaign to ‘save the rainforest’ and to preserve the cultures of the ‘tribal people’ living there since they set up the Rainforest Foundation in 1989. Styler’s speech, in which she claimed that we are destroying a ‘natural laboratory that could hold a cure for AIDS, a cure for cancer… the kitchen that tomorrow could feed the world’, echoed the reverential and mythological Garden of Eden image that the ‘tropical rainforest’ has held in the Western imagination for the past century (7).

Ten years ago, Philip Stott, a professor of biogeography at the University of London, demonstrated that the ‘tropical rainforest’ is a concept which has ‘become an integral part of the Northern mindset’, but that it has ‘little to do with any ecological reality’ (8). Instead, the areas referred to as ‘rainforest’ have changed dramatically in size and shape over thousands of years, but the mythology surrounding them has persisted.

In modern times, campaigning to preserve the rainforest has become a way of holding on to some notion of stability in a time of flux. The people living in the rainforest have become totems for Westerners disillusioned with modernity, change, development and industrialisation. ‘The rainforest’, argued Stott, ‘forms a natural moral focus, along with giant pandas and whales, for many idealistic young people in the North’ (9).

It is this idealism, inspired by the myth of a pure ‘virgin forest’, unsullied by man, which the Met wants to use to convince young people to stop stuffing their noses with snow. Think of those tribal people, the police are saying, living in nature without any of the trappings of modern life – no credit cards or rolled-up bills. Do you really want to burn down their forests? Do you really want them to live somewhere else, like in a town or city? Do you really want them to aspire to what you have? No, kids, put away that Charlie and Just Say No to development.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons argued for decriminalising, but not celebrating, drugs. Neil Davenport called cannabis the political class’ drug of choice. Josie Appleton looked at how morality is being injected into the drugs debate. Ben Pile said Greenpeace put trees before people. Rob Johnston said we should not treat indigenous Amazonian people as exotic zoological specimens. Or read more at spiked issues Drink and drugs and Environment.

(1) Snort more cocaine and the rainforest dies, The Sunday Times (London), 13 December 2009

(2) Snort more cocaine and the rainforest dies, The Sunday Times (London), 13 December 2009

(3) Snort more cocaine and the rainforest dies, The Sunday Times (London), 13 December 2009

(4) Snort more cocaine and the rainforest dies, The Sunday Times (London), 13 December 2009

(5) See A climate scare in Trafalgar Square, by Tim Black, 18 November 2009

(6) Do We Want To Be The Generation That Destroyed Ourselves?, 20 November 2009

(7) Do We Want To Be The Generation That Destroyed Ourselves?, 20 November 2009

(8) Tropical Rainforest: A Political Ecology of Hegemonic myth making, by Philip Stott, The Environment Unit, The Instiutute of Economic Affairs, October 1999 (PDF)

(9) Tropical Rainforest: A Political Ecology of Hegemonic myth making, by Philip Stott, The Environment Unit, The Instiutute of Economic Affairs, October 1999 (PDF)

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Topics Science & Tech


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