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By Drake Bennett
Issue 12.03 - March 2004
Three decades ago, Patrick Moore helped found Greenpeace. Today he promotes
nuclear energy and genetically modified foods - and swears he's still
fighting to save the planet.
Patrick Moore has been called a sellout, traitor, parasite, and prostitute
-- and that's by critics exercising self-restraint. It's not hard to see why
they're angry. Moore helped found Greenpeace and devoted 15 years to waging
the organization's flamboyant brand of environmental warfare. He campaigned
against nuclear testing, whaling, seal hunting, pesticides, supertankers,
uranium mining, and toxic waste dumping. As the nonprofit's scientific
spokesperson, he was widely quoted and frequently photographed, often while
being taken into custody.
Then, in 1986, the PhD ecologist abruptly turned his back on the
environmental movement. He didn't just retire; he joined the other side.
Today, he's a mouthpiece for some of the very interests Greenpeace was
founded to counter, notably the timber and plastics industries. He argues
that the Amazon rain forest is doing fine, that the Three Gorges Dam is the
smartest thing China could do for its energy supply, and that opposition to
genetically modified foods is tantamount to mass murder.
Moore's turnabout was the biggest change of heart since Harold "Kim" Philby
left Her Majesty's secret service for the Soviet Union -- or was it? Moore
insists that he hasn't changed a bit. His professional life, he says, has
been a single-minded quest for true ecological sustainability. To his
opponents, however, it adds up to little more than an ideologically bankrupt
series of betrayals.
Consider the public hearing held at Boston City Hall on October 23 last
year. The matter at hand was a proposal to ban the purchase of polyvinyl
chloride products using city funds. An impressive array of expert witnesses
testified in favor of the resolution -- an Environmental Protection Agency
toxicologist, a Tufts University economist, a Boston Public Health
Commission official, the head of purchasing for a cancer research center.
The production and incineration of PVC products, they argued, releases
chemicals known as dioxins, exposure to which can lead to endocrine
disorders, cancer, diabetes, infant mortality, and cognitive and
developmental problems in children.
Then Patrick Moore took the floor. "It's a good thing most of the people who
got up here before me weren't under oath," he began. "There is not a public
benefit to be derived from a ban on PVC." The whole issue is "based on bad
science and misinformation."
First of all, Moore argued, total dioxin emissions have dropped 90 percent
since 1970, to levels safely below those that cause health problems.
Furthermore, dioxins are not some newfangled product of the industrial age.
They've been around as long as fire. If the council wanted to make a real
difference, he said, it could ban backyard burning, which spews nearly 60
times more dioxins than PVC manufacturing, or residential fireplaces, which
emit 10 times more.
Throughout his presentation, Moore made barbed references to the devious
forces behind the legislation, the same pack of Luddites who "hijacked a
considerable portion of the environmental movement back in the mid-'80s and
who have become very clever at using green language to cloak campaigns that
have more to do with anti-industrialism, antiglobalization, anticorporate,
all of those things which are basically political campaigns."
It was a bravura performance. When Moore returned to his seat, he was
greeted with handshakes and backslaps from the folks who had paid his way:
the Vinyl Institute.
For Moore, the PVC showdown was part of a larger crusade to reform
environmentalism. He derides today's activists as philosophically unmoored
and blindly technophobic, and he offers an alternative philosophy that not
only accepts but celebrates humankind's growing ability to alter the planet.
With a tip of the hat to best-selling "skeptical environmentalist" Bjørn
Lomborg (and perhaps Thomas Paine), he has anointed himself the sensible
environmentalist and set out to win converts. There haven't been many. So
far, Moore has succeeded mostly in making himself a pariah and a cautionary
Greenpeace was born in 1971 when an aging fishing boat steamed out of
Vancouver, British Columbia, to disrupt an American nuclear test at the far
end of the Aleutian Islands. Halfway there, the boat was intercepted by the
US Coast Guard and the crew arrested. But the mission proved successful: The
subsequent global show of support for the band of plucky environauts caused
President Nixon to cancel the remaining tests. When the crew returned to
shore, it adopted the name of the boat, Greenpeace, and turned its
mediagenic activism into a global institution. By the mid-1980s, the
organization had offices in 21 countries and an annual income of more than
$100 million in donations and grants.
Patrick Moore was on board for that inaugural voyage, and he went on to
serve as president of Greenpeace from 1977 to 1979 and as a member of the
international board for seven years after that. He was a natural activist,
impassioned and articulate, and his PhD from the University of British
Columbia gave him a mantle of scientific legitimacy. Greenpeace veteran Rex
Weyler recalls that "you could put Moore in front to talk to the media on
scientific issues, and you could always rely on him. He'd get his facts
straight, and he was tough as nails in any debate."
In his study in the neat, airy Vancouver home he shares with his wife, Moore
keeps scrapbooks of his activist days. News clippings show him, with a cloud
of tawny hair and a bandit's mustache, poring over nautical charts and
shielding baby seals. Today the mustache is gone. The mane has receded to a
mat of gray.
Moore won't have anything to do with Greenpeace these days, but he still
gets a charge out of talking about the early campaigns. He shows me an
aerial photo of a tiny raft floating in the way of a supertanker. The ship
fills half the frame, like a snub-nosed sea monster. He and Weyler are on
the raft, about to be arrested by the US Coast Guard. "Cool, eh?" he says
with a hot-rodder's grin.
Moore was made-to-order for Greenpeace. He was raised in Winter Harbour, a
village on the far northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. "It was like
growing up in a dreamworld," he says. "My most memorable moments were in my
boat with the motor turned off, floating over the shallow tide flats and
looking down at all the marine life, or in the forest with the moss and the
ferns." It's easy to see how that little wood sprite went on to study
ecology and fashioned himself into an environmental shock trooper. Even
today, Moore can sound druidic when talking about the natural world. He's a
firm believer in James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, which posits that Earth
is a self-regulating superorganism. He hates the word weed, he says, because
"it's a value judgment about plants."
Moore's family made its living off the land. His father and grandfather were
loggers, and his mother came from a clan of fishermen. Perhaps this explains
why, despite his animist tendencies, his ecological attitudes are grounded
in an obsessive rationalism. He's fascinated by nature's cycles, mechanisms,
and systems, and he sees no reason to privilege natural systems over
When he was 8, one of his toys was a one-cylinder engine that he would take
apart and reassemble. For his dissertation research, he built a
transmissometer, a device that measures water quality. He's as likely to wax
didactic about the minutiae of paper pulping ("There's more computer power
in a paper mill than there is in a 747!") as about the life cycle of the
moths in the eaves of his porch. Moore is equal parts tinkerer and mystic,
and his environmental thinking may be an attempt to reconcile those two
Like many people who earn a living making speeches, Moore prefaces much of
what he says with phrases like "my line on this is" and "as I like to put
it." As he likes to put it, he left Greenpeace in 1986 because "I'd been
against at least three or four things every day for 15 years, and I decided
I'd like to be in favor of something for a change. Suddenly, presidents and
prime ministers were talking about the environment. We had won society over
to our way of looking at things. As I like to say, maybe it's time to figure
out what the solutions are, rather than just focusing on problems."
Moore got a glimpse of how an environmentally responsible society might
function four years earlier, at the 1982 Nairobi Conference of the United
Nations Environmental Program. In a presentation given by Tom Burke, then
leader of Friends of the Earth UK, he first heard a phrase that was an
oxymoron by Greenpeace standards: sustainable development. It was several
years before the idea gained wide currency, but for Moore, "The light went
"When I understood sustainable development," he recalls, "I realized that
the challenge was to take these new environmental values that we had forged
and incorporate them into the traditional social and economic values that
drive public policy. In other words, it was a job of synthesis."
Moore's new interest in sustainable development led him increasingly far
afield of the rest of the environmental movement and estranged him from the
organization he had helped found. Inspired by Elizabeth Mann Borgese's book
Seafarm, he started a salmon farm and became head of the fledgling Salmon
Farmer's Association -- only to find himself pitted against Greenpeace,
which blamed saltwater aquaculture for polluting the ocean.
In 1991, as his farm was going under due to a salmon glut, he joined the
board of the Forest Alliance of British Columbia, a group created by the
timber industry to address the accusations of environmentalists. There, he
saw his role as a mediator. He proudly points to his stubborn -- and
ultimately successful -- insistence that the industry soften its resistance
to national parks and government regulation. At the same time, however, he
was attacking the eco crowd, proclaiming that "clear-cuts are temporary
Moore's enemies have a simpler explanation for his conversion: revenge.
After all, he left Greenpeace amid complaints about an autocratic leadership
style and abrasive personality. When it became obvious that he lacked enough
votes to keep his seat on the board of directors, he went off to farm fish.
When that didn't work out, he joined the loggers.
And then there's money. Even 18 years after he left Greenpeace, Moore's
business relationships with polluters and clear-cutters elicit disgust from
his erstwhile comrades. "He'll whore himself to anything to make a buck,"
says Paul George, founder of the Western Canada Wildlife Committee. In an
email, former Greenpeace director Paul Watson charges, "You're a corporate
whore, Pat, an eco-Judas, a lowlife bottom-sucking parasite who has grown
rich from sacrificing environmentalist principles for plain old money."
Moore admits he's well paid for his speaking and consulting services. He
won't say how well, avowing only that his environmental consultancy,
Greenspirit Strategies, has been "very successful because we know what we're
talking about and give good advice." Nonetheless, he adds, he refuses to
tailor his opinions to please a client. "People don't pay me to say things
they've written down or made up. They pay me to tell them what I think."
Furthermore, he maintains that his positions -- with the exception of his
take on nuclear energy (which he now favors) -- have hardly changed since
1971. The rest of the movement, he says, has shifted around him.
It's possible that fat fees or wounded feelings give Moore's vehemence an
edge. And it's not inconceivable that he's an out-and-out mercenary. But
although his critique of latter-day environmentalism strains in a few
places, it does have a larger coherence. The unifying principle is simple:
"There's no getting around the fact that 6 billion people wake up every
morning with a real need for food, energy, and material." It is this fact,
he charges, that environmentalists fail to grasp. "Their idea is that all
human activity is negative, while trees are by nature good," he says.
"That's a religious interpretation, not a scientific or logical
Moore's accusation may read like a caricature, but its outlines are readily
apparent in environmentalist thinking. Bill McKibben, one of the movement's
preeminent intellectuals, warned in his 1989 book The End of Nature that
human beings, not through any particular action but simply by becoming the
dominant force on the planet, were destroying nature, a "separate and wild
province, the world apart from man to which he adapted." In effect,
McKibben's argument blurs the line between man changing the planet and
Perhaps the best evidence of Moore's integrity is his enthusiasm for
genetically modified foods. He's not on the payroll of any biotech
companies, yet he has become an outspoken GM advocate.
"This is where the environmental movement is dangerous," he says.
"Environmentalists are against golden rice, which could prevent half a
million kids from going blind every year. Taking a daffodil gene and putting
it into a rice plant: Is this Armageddon?"
Even if the benefits of golden rice have been oversold -- something Moore
doubts -- the limitations of one particular and still-experimental crop
shouldn't discredit the possibilities of the entire technology. For all GM's
risks, he argues, there are greater risks in failing to develop it.
For Moore, the stakes are higher, even, than a half-million blind children.
"The Dark Ages are always just around the corner," he warns. "There will be
future Dark Ages, and with this antiscience agenda we may be entering one
I'm reminded of this flourish later, when he mentions that he tries to use
his experience as an activist against the activists themselves. It's obvious
he hasn't forgotten the art of rhetorical one-upmanship: No matter what
environmental catastrophe keeps you awake at night, Moore can always conjure
a bigger bogeyman.
While describing his childhood, Moore says something telling. His hometown
was "a pristine environment, but it was an industrial environment. People
were catching fish and cutting trees." This is what separates him from most
environmentalists (and all linguists): the belief that there's no necessary
contradiction between pristine and industrial, that development is not
One of Moore's favorite metaphors is "gardening the earth." He's all for
setting aside land as wilderness, but the rest we should not be afraid to
"When you've got over 6 billion people, you can't just say we'll let nature
do its thing," he says. "We have no choice but to garden - why don't we do
it better? Why don't we do it more efficiently?"
Moore's notion of gardening encompasses plenty of things that
environmentalists wouldn't object to. He's full of uplifting stories about
rice farmers in California who have turned their fallow fields into
shorebird sanctuaries, and cattlemen in Montana who leave dead cows for
grizzlies that might otherwise eat live ones. He's a passionate advocate for
the geothermal heat pump, an unfortunately obscure device that uses solar
energy trapped in the ground for residential heating and cooling. But
gardening also means genetically engineered trees that grow faster, resist
disease, and pulp better. It means large-scale fish farming to take the
pressure off wild stocks. It means the widespread use of nuclear energy to
replace fossil fuels. It means a willingness to distort nature's cycles to
fit human needs.
Shortly after we spoke, Moore emailed Paul Watson, a longstanding enemy of
his with whom I had spoken a few weeks earlier, and reopened an old feud.
Moore accused Watson of, among other things, lying to me about the details
of a 1977 seal campaign involving Brigitte Bardot and falsely claiming
authorship of Greenpeace's Declaration of Interdependence. The
back-and-forth that followed was Vesuvian in its viciousness and stunningly
petty, from Watson's end in particular. I was CC'd on the whole thing.
Afterward Moore seemed a bit embarrassed.
In what may have been an effort at damage control, he forwarded me some
recent posts from visitors to Greenspirit.com, his Web site. One was from a
German man disillusioned with his country's Green Party. Another was from a
registered Republican who was "always interested in greener ideas if they
make sense" and wanted Moore's opinion on the prospects of alcohol-burning
engines. A third was from a former Sierra Club development officer feeling
"a little disheartened, to tell you frankly, with the environmental movement
as it is today." They were examples, Moore told me, "of the kind of response
I get very regularly from people who go to my Web site cold. This is a big
part of what keeps me sane in this very emotionally charged environment."
The note was poignant, but its subtext was clear: Here was the prophet of
moderation, cast out by his colleagues, tending a growing flock of
ideological misfits. The legacy -- and the curse -- of Moore's Greenpeace
days is that he knows how little it takes to ignite a movement. He lit that
match once, more than 30 years ago. Now he's looking for a fresh spark.
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