Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout Review – part 1

About a month ago, fellow New Westminster Blogger David Brett provided an intriguing review of Dr. Patrick Moore’s book “Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout”. Part autobiography of one of the founders of Greenpeace, and part manifesto for a new, “sensible” environmentalism, this book is a first-person account of how Dr. Moore helped found Greenpeace, became disillusioned by it, and forged his own path towards a more pragmatic form of environmentalism. Moving away from protest, he worked to engage government, business and industry to help them become more sustainable.

As I commented to Dave at the time, being a “sensible” (and by that, I mean skeptical and science-based) environmentalist, and engagement with stakeholders (as opposed to protest) has been my goal, so Dr. Moore’s story is interesting to me. Since I reviewed the autobiography-manifesto-vanity project movie on David Suzuki last year, I will do the same with this book.

The advantage of the book is that I have it in front of me and can discuss it at length. I am currently about 4 chapters in, and have very little time to read these days, so the review may take some time and several posts.

I promised Dave that I would read with an open mind, and I have not read any other reviews than his (and the blurbs on the back of the book!), but my openness was challenged in the first chapter of the book. It just doesn’t start well.

In Chapter 1, Dr. Moore starts off by defining “sustainable development”. This is a good idea, as it is a term bandied about too much by people with little understanding of what it means. It is currently a sexy buzz phrase used by a lot of people who have never understood (or cared about) the definition.

The problem is, Dr. Moore immediately dismisses the definition used by people who work in sustainability: the standard-model definition and, unfortunately, the one most commonly ignored by people who are misusing the term. That being the definition from Brundtland Report. Dr. Moore immediately tosses it aside and replaces it with a definition that fits his needs.

Compare this:

Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

To this:

Dr. Moore: “Sustainable development requires that we continue to obtain the food, energy, and materials necessary for our civilization, and perhaps even increase these resources in developing countries, while at the same time working to reduce our negative impacts on the environment through changes in behaviour and changes in our technologies” (Pg. 14)

The second definition is fine, full of great ideas and feelings, but it is, unfortunately, not a definition of sustainability.

It is like I start my book about American actresses by describing Uma Thurman as the greatest actress of our generation. Then I decide the definition of Uma Thurman as “the star of the Kill Bill Films” is not a very good definition. Instead, I like to define Uma Thurman as “That woman from Kramer vs. Kramer and the Bridges of Madison County who has 2 Academy Awards from 16 nominations”. That definition makes my argument that Uma is the greatest actress of our time much more compelling, doesn’t it?

Although Dr. Moore’s definition contains many soft environmental ideals that we should probably strive towards (as loaded with weasel words as it is), it does not define “sustainable development” the way it is used by anyone other than Dr. Moore. At best, it is one small aspect of “sustainable development”; at worst, it is a dodge of the real issues raised by limited resources on a consumption-growth based economy. It also completely misses the point that sustainability is not an “environmental” concept any more than it is a social and economic one.

I don’t think the problem with “sustainable” is its overuse, but rather its common use in a way that does not relate to the actual definition of the word. As such, it is indistinguishable from “green” or “environmentally friendly” or “clean” or other popular marketing words. I am a believer (as are most scientists) that strict definition of terms is as important to political discussion as it is to technical discussion. Dr. Moore makes the problem of fuzzy definition worse in Chapter 1 when he invents a new definition for the term.

2 comments on “Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout Review – part 1

  1. Haven’t read the book but I see a problem with the first page of your review. What you’ve quoted above isn’t a “definition” but rather an “inference” that Moore has made.

    The key words are the first ones in the paragraph: “Sustainable development requires that…” That’s the giveaway: it seems like Moore is trying to put meat on the bones on what the Brundtland Report implies by outlining what it “requires” in a real-world sense… although he might have quoted more directly from “Our Common Future” to make his point, so as to show how his view is similar or dissimilar to that Brundtland document.

    I’m more puzzled by your definition of the word “definition.” And underlining what is “not a definition of sustainability” is most unhelpful of all, because it sounds like you are trying to muscle your definition onto the reader. There are many definitions of sustainability: Brundtland does not own the definition nor the discourse, and in fact we should be wary of those who attempt to impose the tyranny of language on the discussion, because trying to own the language is itself an exercise in (unaccountable) power. If Moore wishes to express an idea of sustainability (which I do not believe he has done here, as mentioned) then he is free to do so as long as he identifies it as such.

    And Uma Thurman doesn’t help.

  2. Thanks for the comment, and insight, but I think you need to read the book. Actually, I don’t recommend reading the book as it is terrible, but do go to the library and breeze through the first chapter where the above discussion takes place. I think I got the context right.

    Moore did quote from Brundtland, but then *he* imposes his own definition (note, none of the definitions above are mine, so *I* am not the one muscling one in here). The very problem this part of the book is trying to solve is the alleged glut of definitions of “sustainability” (and “green” and other common terms in environmentalism) that creates confusion and makes common understanding difficult to achieve. Then he throws out a definition of the term used only by him, that only serves to muddy the waters as it is almost the polar opposite to the way anyone working in Sustainable Development, Environmental Science, or Economics would use the word.

    In no way does his definition add to or (to use his term) “operationalize” the term “sustainability”. What he does is take a simple, understandable concept – and weasel-word his way into justifying any action that might be currently desirable, fuck the consequences, unless it doesn’t inconvenience us too much. My allegory about Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep was on point – Moore defines the opposite of “sustainability” (satisfying our needs today and letting future generations fend for themselves), then calls it “sustainability”.

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