Cancun Summit: The True Reasons for the ‘Failure’ of the Green Movement

Jean-François Mouhot
Research fellow
University of Birmingham (U.K)

Causes and aftermaths of the 1989 ‘greenrush’
The role of climate change
A new form of slavery
Some important differences
Vested interest
Technological fixes and their dangers


As the 2010 UN Climate summit in Cancun seems unlikely to make any significant advances, the green movement has been blamed for failing to convince the public that action on climate change is both urgent and necessary, in particular because of its refusal of technologies such as nuclear energy and geo-engineering. However, looking at a previous period of “boom and bust” in environmental awareness in the late 1980s, the paper shows that the recent decline in concern over global warming in the West is due both to the economic recession and to people’s reluctance to accept self-restraint. Then, it argues that our reticence to act on climate change is best understood by way of an analogy with slavery, an analogy further developed in an article published in the journal Climatic Change. Finally, it reminds technology enthusiasts that the solutions of the past have often been the problems of the future: CFCs, for example, were considered a great invention until their ozone-depleting effect was discovered.


-climate change
-fossil fuels


As the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun continues, recent polls show that public concern about global warming has been declining in most of the Western world during the past two years. In the UK, for example, the percentage of people who believe global warming is occurring is down from 91 percent to 78 percent, and the same is happening in the US and France.

In a recent documentary broadcast in the UK by Channel 4 (“What the Green Movement Got Wrong”, November 2010), Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand – presented as “die-hard greens” – accuse fellow environmentalists of causing more harm than good. Not only are environmentalists not helping to solve climate change, they are making it worse by refusing low-carbon solutions that are readily available. Environmentalists are also accused of failing to convince the general public of the danger and urgency of tackling greenhouse gas emissions. Lynas and Brand argue that the greens are responsible for the decline in concern about global warming in the last few years because of their refusal of technologies such as nuclear power. This would explain why the green movement is failing.

Such claims are not new. Last month, Charles Secrett, former director of Friends of the Earth UK also voiced his concern that the environmental movement had failed in a seminar I co-organised in London. But the reasons given by Lynas and Brand for this failure are largely misleading. The true reasons for the general public’s complacency over climate change are due to several factors that have little to do with the greens themselves.

Causes and aftermaths of the 1989 ‘greenrush’

First, decline in concern about the environment in periods of recession and economic downturn is not a new phenomenon and has happened in the past.  I have shown in a recent co-authored briefing paper that after a peak in environmental concerns in 1989 there was a sharp decline in a variety of indicators of general public interest in the environment. Newspapers editors, who in the final years of the 1980s had printed on a daily basis stories about global warming, the ozone layer problem, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez, dramatically reduced their reporting of environmental matters after 1990. Green organizations, which were mentioned very regularly in Parliament around 1989-1990 are rarely mentioned afterwards. Worries about environmental issues also declined sharply amongst the general public. More radical campaigning organizations (such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth) also saw a large drop in both their income and their membership in this period (see annexes of the briefing paper). This was obviously only a temporary decline, but both organizations today continue to have fewer members than in 1990. Similarly, the Green party scored in 1989, at the European elections, its best result ever, at nearly 15 percent share of the vote. This “boom and bust” is not only a British phenomenon: indicators show that the same thing happened in many other Western countries, such as Germany, France, Italy, and the United States.

What caused this boom and bust around 1989-1990? Concerns about global warming and the ozone layer played a major role in the anxieties that started the media frenzy. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher made speeches to the Royal Society and to the Conservative Party Conference, in which she mentioned climate change, the ozone layer, acid rain, and said “[i]t’s we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth—we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. … No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease”. The testimony of NASA Climatologist James Hansen at the US Congress in 1988 also contributed to a huge burst in public awareness about these issues. Global warming became for the first time a major global problem of potentially apocalyptic consequences.

The years after this “greenrush” were followed by a long trough. The economic recession of the early 1990s was probably a major contributing factor. A December 1990 article from The Economist magazine, entitled “Green storm falling: The environmental movement, too, is feeling the recession”, concluded: “Thank you, green movement, for showing everybody the problem in the mirror. See you in the next boom”. Similarly, both the collapse of the Berlin Wall – which eased anxieties about nuclear issues, one of the “drivers” of the environmental movement – and media fatigue (the Gulf War, which started in August 1990, focused the attention of the media away from environmental matters) certainly played an important role too.

The role of climate change

But what seems to have played a crucial role in the bust was climate change itself. Why? Because the general public soon realized that this could not been tackled as painlessly as the ozone layer problem, and started to look away. Banning CFCs, the cause of ozone depletion, had recently been achieved at the Montreal Protocol relatively easily and effortlessly, but banning greenhouse gases was, and still is, an entirely different and more difficult matter.

Mark Lynas points out this pattern of behaviour in the channel 4 documentary. “When you tell people that flying is a sin”, he says, “instead of changing their behaviour, they answer: ‘in that case, I don’t believe in climate change’”. It is surprising then to see Lynas accuse the environmental movement of being responsible for the decline in concern about climate change. He contradicts himself here: the problem is not with the messenger, it is with the receiver of that message (though the self-righteousness and ideological approach of some environmentalists can also play a negative role here, as I have argued in another opinion article on the History & Policy website).

A new form of slavery

The reason for our tendency to refuse the inconvenient truth of climate change, and for our willingness to listen to any person who tells us that the problem can be tackled painlessly, is better understood by way of an analogy. In a recent article in the journal Climatic Change I have argued that there are many links and parallels between slave ownership and fossil fuel usage, and that the convenient life we have thanks to our “energy slaves” gives us a powerful incentive for our complacency and our refusal to act on climate change.

This article, entitled “Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage”, shows that there are many similarities between societies in the past that have used slave labour and those in the present that use fossil fuels. It first suggests that slaves and fossil-fuelled machines play(ed) similar economic and social roles: both slave societies and developed countries externalize(d) labour (labour came from slaves in the former case and “work” is provided by machines in the latter) and both slaves and modern machines free(d) their owners from daily chores. Like slave owners, we today rely on the services of fossil-fuel powered machines to do the jobs and provide the services which used to be provided by slaves and servants. “Who had the possibility, only a century ago, to afford the equivalent of several [dozens] of servants to get fed, washed, transported, diverted, and so on, with the sole product of one’s work?”, asks energy consultant and author Jean-Marc Jancovici. As a consequence, economically and socially, we are as dependent on fossil fuels as slave societies were dependent on bonded labour.

Second, the article argues that in differing ways, suffering resulting (directly) from slavery and (indirectly, through climate change) from the excessive burning of fossil fuels are now morally comparable. When we burn oil or gas at a rate that exceeds what the ecosystem can absorb, when we deplete non-renewable resources, we indirectly cause suffering to other human beings, today and in the future. Similarly, cheap fossil fuels facilitate imports of goods from countries with little social protection and hence help externalise labour and perpetuate oppression. We therefore now behave much like slaveholders did in the past.

Some important differences

The comparison between slavery and the excessive consumption of fossil fuel is by no means a perfect match. My argument is not that slavery and the excessive “luxury consumption” of fossil fuels are equivalent, but rather that they present striking similarities, with some notable differences.

The first difference lies in the different ways in which suffering caused by slavery, on the one hand, and by the burning of fossil fuels, on the other, operate. In the case of slavery, oppression operates more or less directly. Slaves have names, faces, personalities, and their owners can directly make them suffer and immediately see the results. In the fossil fuel economy, however, the sufferings engendered by the burning of fossil fuels are indirect and often imperceptible by those who are causing it. It is difficult to recognize the potential connection between a coal-fired power plant in Europe and a refugee camp in Africa today, and even more complicated to grasp the effects of climate change for future generations. The comparison thus ignores the direct human experience that characterized slavery. We cannot see the consequences of our burning of fossil fuels in the same way as slaveholders could see the suffering inflicted on their slaves; realization of the consequences are delayed chronologically and removed geographically. (However, many people – for example consumers of slave goods – also benefited from slavery without maintaining direct connections to it. These people can certainly be said to have committed a morally equivalent sort of human transgression to people who benefit from fossil fuel use).

A second crucial difference is that there is no willingness to cause harm or dehumanize others by burning fossil fuels. In contrast, motives for enslavement were, and are, by no means limited to economic needs and frequently included a willingness to control others, even sometimes including sadism. As Aristotle himself recognized there are strong psychological motivations behind the domination of other human beings. Adam Smith wrote in 1776 that the main motive for slavery was to “dominate, degrade, humiliate and control – often in order to confirm [one’s] own sense of pride and superiority.”

We have a mental image of slave owners as cruel, sadistic, inhuman brutes who took great pleasure and pride in working their slaves very hard, benefiting from the fruit of their labors and routinely humiliating or sexually exploiting them. Far too many slave owners undoubtedly behaved in this way, and I am not saying our behaviour is comparable to them. Yet, by concentrating on the extreme, we forget too easily the ordinariness of slave ownership in past centuries. In the American South or the West Indies of the 18th century, a typical cotton or sugar-grower slave owner would have been born in a family in which slave-ownership had been an ordinary condition for as far as human memory could go back. For them, slave ownership seemed normal and indispensable: without slaves, it seemed impossible to produce the goods on which their income depended. Without household slaves (for wealthier families), one had to do the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning. Thus, both lifestyles and incomes depended on slaveholding, and the vast majority of slave owners understood this very well.

Many slave owners lived with the impression that they were decent people. They thought it would be better to abolish slavery – if a good substitute could be found. This is what Aristotle already thought in 300 BC: “we can imagine a situation”, he wrote, “in which each instrument could do its own work. A shuttle would then weave of itself. In this situation masters would not need slaves”. Adam Hochschild, in his captivating book on the abolition of slavery in Britain, compares the mental framework of slave owners with the way we think about automobiles today: “for reasons of global warming, air quality, traffic, noise, and dependence on oil, one can argue, the world might be better off without cars. … Yet, does anyone advocate a movement to ban automobiles from the face of the earth?”

Vested interest

This, to my mind, much better explains the “failure” of the green movement than the reasons given by Lynas and Brand in the channel 4 documentary. In the 18th and 19th century, it proved very hard to convince slave owners that they were wrong, as they had a strong vested interest in denying the harm they were causing. It proved far easier to abolish slavery in the UK and its colonies than in the US where the proportion of slave owners was much higher. Yet, with greenhouse gas emissions, the whole population of the Western world has a strong vested interest in not changing its ways. To paraphrase George W. Bush, “we are addicted to oil”, to cheap energy, and to the consumerism that goes with it. No wonder the general public is not too keen to mend its way, nor politicians too courageous to confront their electorate. No wonder the Republican party’s line in the US denies that climate change is occurring and that it is largely due to human activities. No wonder half of the newly elected Republican congressmen deny the existence of global warming. Blaming the environmental movement alone for this is unfair.

In 1990 already the same Economist article held the green movement responsible for its own demise: The “remedies [offered by environmentalists] become too utopian,” wrote the journalist. “In particular, they demand voluntary austerity. Self-restraint is all right at the level of plastic shopping bags or ivory. But people will be leery of cutting their living standards, especially in lean times. Effective greenery demands a combination of technical fixes that gives people the same pleasures more cleanly, and economic incentives to make such fixes worth marketing”. Lynas and Brand are not saying anything new!

It is not surprising that people do not like self-restraint and prefer technological fixes. As I argue in Climatic Change, the arrival of coal and steam power could similarly be described as a technological fix that “solved” slavery (though indirectly and unwittingly). The psychological importance of imagining a future where machines would ultimately do the work of slaves enabled people to imagine a future without slavery. Though counter-factual history is always risky business, it is plausible that without the help of coal and steam, slavery would not have been abolished. Similarly, one could argue that without “technological fixes”, there is little chance that we will freely accept self-restraint and voluntarily reduce our carbon footprint when more substantial changes in our lifestyle are required of us.

Technological fixes and their dangers

Yet, one should be very cautious about these technological fixes, and the green movement in general has been right to advocate caution. Nuclear power can perhaps be a lesser evil than other fuels, but it is certainly not a silver bullet. Several arguments against nuclear power presented in the debate which followed the documentary were dismissed much too carelessly by Lynas and Brand. Nuclear waste will be left to our descendants for thousands of years to come, and historians have a role to play in this debate. Historians work today as consultants for nuclear companies to help imagine ways to communicate with people in the distant future. As users of historical documents, they are asked to think about the best ways the leaflets printed by nuclear companies, giving safety advice, will withstand the passage of time and avoid being discarded. Historians have thus advised nuclear companies to insert pictures into their leaflets, as they will make them less likely to be thrown away than ones containing only words. But how can we be sure that several thousand years from now people will be able to decipher our warnings not to touch nuclear waste? We are today unable to decipher the writings left by civilizations which flourished a mere thousand years ago.

Similarly, Stewart Brand’s claim in the documentary that genetically-modified food is safe, because Americans have been eating it for ten to twelve years without any (known) consequences for their health, should make us laugh out loud. As if the unintended consequences of smoking, feeding cattle with meat and bone meal, releasing CFCs in the atmosphere or burning fossils had become apparent immediately! In many ways the Industrial Revolution and the tapping of fossil fuels also appeared for a long time like a silver bullet: not only did it enable humanity to prove Malthus wrong, but it also enabled sustained economic growth for over two hundred years. Yet, the dreadful consequences for the climate became apparent later. This argument also applies to any idea of geo-engineering suggested towards the end of the documentary. Most of these ideas also present a very high risk of generating dreadful unintended consequences, and any scheme aiming to cool the planet by artificial means also fails to address the very serious additional problem of ocean acidification (caused by the increased CO2 concentration).

Even if we could find a free, unlimited energy source with no waste, such as nuclear fusion (presented in the final part of the documentary), one can wonder whether this would be a good thing, given the human record in the use of power. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. After all, fossil fuels – especially oil – were for a long time a source of energy that seemed relatively benign, harmless, and remarkably cheap by historical standards. What have we done with the almost unlimited powers it gave us? John McNeill’s Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World (W.W. Norton, 2000) vividly documents the enormous impact humans have had on the planet in the last century. We have poured concrete on an unprecedented scale. We have cut large parts of the remaining forests. We have depleted fish stocks in most of the oceans. We have caused many species to become extinct, and have endangered many more. Plastics, which revolutionized our way of life in the 1960s and seemed to work wonders, have now become a plague, which penetrate deep into human tissues and blood, and drift in the oceans to form what has been labelled “the sixth continent”. Brand, at the end of the documentary, says that “we are now in a situation where we are as gods, and we have to get good at it”. We may feel we are like gods, but in fact we are little more than a genetically modified sorcerer’s apprentice with some added Faustian genes. As McNeill puts it, humanity has undertaken a gigantic experiment on the Earth: “With our new powers we banished some historical constraints on health and population, food production, energy use, and consumption generally. Few who know anything about life with these constraints regret their passing. But in banishing them we invited other constraints in the form of the planet’s capacity to absorb wastes, by-products, and impacts of our actions”.

Compared to the headlong flight towards more technological “fixes” and unintended consequences, self-restraint and the down-to-Earth realization about our human limitations present far fewer dangers. But such a message is far less likely to attract a prime-time audience on a commercial TV channel.

Jean-François Mouhot is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham
Mouhot explores the arguments in this paper in an Exploring Environmental History podcast found here (podcast 39)


David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage. The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

A. Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York: Mariner Books, 2005).

J. R. McNeill, and W. H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (WW Norton & Company, 2003).

J.R. McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World (WW Norton, 2000).

Jean-François Mouhot, “Past Connections and Present Similarities in Slave Ownership and Fossil Fuel Usage”, Climatic Change (2010). (free access until the end of December 2010)

Jean-François Mouhot, “Slavery and Climate Change: Lessons to Be Learned”, History & Policy (2009)

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