Philip Stott

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Learn more from the Center for Media and Democracy's research on climate change.

This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's focus on the fallout of nuclear "spin."

Philip Stott is a professor emeritus of biogeography at the University of London, and he was Editor-in Chief of the international 'Journal of Biogeography' (Blackwell Publications, Oxford) (he retired in 2004 after 18 years).

Background

Since his retirement from academia, he has become a commentator and media pundit on the subject of environmentalism. He publishes a blogsite - EnviroSpin Watch - to monitor UK media coverage of environmental issues and science. "The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. … It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient," the site states.[1]

He also has a new web site (April, 2005) based on Bruno Latour's 'A Parliament of Things'. [2].

NOTE: Professor Stott himself has commented on this SourceWatch article.

Stott's dominant theme is that environmentalism is a "hegemonic myth" promulgated in the media by reporters who are subconsiously controlled by the dominant language ("words of magic"). For example, he says, "forests are never 'developed' or simply 'used'; they can only be 'exploited'". [3]

Stott uses his "linguistic analysis" approach to promote an "environmental" agenda similar to that promoted by Bjorn Lomborg. He stresses the possible benefits of genetic engineering; questions attempts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions; and argues that the 'tropical rain forest', as signified in popular parlance, is a socially-constructed myth. He has also criticised recycling as "ideological rubbish". [4]

EnviroSpin Watch supersedes his earlier AntiEcohype website (see above for new website), which is subtitled "a cure for ecochondria". "This is not a straight 'science' site", the introductory page of his 'AntiEcohype' website states, "but rather one aiming to deconstruct environmentalist constructions of knowledge". Stott's 'AntiEcohype' operated from a web address that leaves no room for doubt on his view on genetic engineering - http://www.probiotech.fsnet.co.uk/. (While superseded the 'AntiEcohype' remains on the web, although it is not updated. This is now closed.).

Stott also has his work published in the British and US mainstream media (The Times [5], The Guardian and BBC in the UK and The Wall Street Journal in the US) as well as conservative websites such as Tech Central Station and Spiked Online. In a posting to SourceWatch, Stott stated he no longer writes for Tech Central Station as he regards it as "too Republican for his output". He is a Labour supporter in the UK. (Pers comm to SW)

In a New Statesman article Stott was bluntly labelled as "Britain's leading climate-change denier and has built a career on criticising environmentalists. Professor emeritus of biogeography at the University of London, he has no climate-science qualifications". [6]

In a letter to the editor in response, Stott disputed that he was a "climate-change denier". "I am nothing of the sort. I believe passionately in climate change. Climate change is the norm, not the exception; if climate were not changing, that would be really newsworthy," he wrote advocating adaptation.

The article also mentioned that he was on the advisory board of the Scientific Alliance. (In October 2005 Stott stated that he had not "been a member for some time now" in order "to maintain complete independence.") The Scientific Alliance is either (using Stott's own "words of magic") "an organisation that promotes concern about the environment through rational science; while accepting climate change as a reality, the Alliance is critical of current methods proposed to manage climate change and energy production" or (using the New Statesmans "words of magic"), "an anti-environmentalist campaign group that denies climate change; opposes organic agriculture and promotes genetically modified foods and nuclear power"

On the subject of the policy agenda of the Scientific Alliance, Stott wrote to the New Statesman, "I am pragmatic about nuclear energy and I just love organic yoghurt. And I am passionately anti-tobacco." In a subsequent posting to SourceWatch, Stott wrote his criticism is directed at environmentalism "but as little as possible 'environmentalists'" except "in gentle and kindly jest".

While Stott disputes the consensus of the worlds leading climate scientists, he notably avoided responding to the challenge that he had no climate science qualifications.[7] In response, Stott commented to SourceWatch that "he does not challenge the consensus that climate is changing (and partly under human influence); what he challenges is our understanding of the complexity of this change, the historic significance of the change, and the way humans might respond best to change, all of which has been at the heart of his professional work as a biogeographer for the last 30 years. He is thus entirely confident of his credentials to comment on climate change sensu lato."

Like Bjorn Lomborg - whose work he supports - Stott describes himself as a left of centre environmental sceptic. "I am a mildly left-wing global warming sceptic," he wrote in an article in New Statesman. [8]

In his comments to the SourceWatch, Stott points out that he is "passionately anti-tobacco, and I have stated this recently on British television (The Politics Show, BBC 1). The science on this, in my opinion, has been clear for a long time ... I believe the export of cigarettes to the developing world to be an evil process." He also stated, "I have always voted Labour (except when I foolishly voted Liberal on a couple of occasions)."

Stott's primary area of research, according to the website of the University of London, is "the construction of environmental knowledge over the last 30 years, especially in relation to the following metanarratives: biodiversity, biotechnology, climate change (global warming), organic agriculture, and tropical rain forests (see edited book: Political ecology: science, myth and power). He is especially concerned to unravel the power relations within and between these narratives." [9]

Sustainable development

While many environmentalists argue that the terms 'sustainable development' has been debased to focus more on sustaining development rather than ecological systems, Stott dismisses the concept as a "placebo to eco-condriacs the world over."

In an opinion column in the UK-based Telegraph, published ahead of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, Stott argued "the biggest problem arises when authoritarian environmentalists hijack the phrase."

"Then," he warned, "sustainable development becomes either no growth at all or limited growth of a type approved by an elite few - wind farms, yes: nuclear power no; organics, yes: GM no. This is why, so often, environmental organisations try to portray business as the arch-enemy of sustainable development. Like biodiversity, another key word from Rio, sustainability is thrown into the argument to block development and growth, to conjure up a return to an imagined, usually rural, Utopia."

Sustainability, he argued, was an unrealistic attempt to seek equilibrium in a chaotic world. "It is easily employed to soften the fact of change and, in doing so, it undermines human dynamism and adaptability." ADD REFRENCE

Genetic engineering

In an interview for Agriculture Online - and republished on Monsanto's UK website - Stott warned that behind opposition of activists to genetic engineering lay a much broader agenda. "The real reason for the hysteria is indeed the exploitation of the fears I have described above by extreme environmental groups, who often have little interest in the 'science', but who have social agendas of their own," he said.

"These groups want to 'stop-the-world-and-get-off' and they will abuse and misuse 'science' to achieve their ends. They are avowedly anti-capitalist, anti-development, anti-science, sometimes even anti-farming, and most certainly anti-American, and they want to position America, and its biotech companies, as the 'Great Satan'," he said.

"Many were at Seattle and Washington DC for the WTO and World Bank protests, and they regularly visit St Louis in small numbers to attack Monsanto, DuPont, etc. You should know that some of the extreme organisations involved are wealthy and are large corporations in their own right! One or two are far more dangerous for humanity than any biotech crop ever will be!," he claimed.

While acknowledging strong opposition to allowing genetically engineered crops, Stott enthusiastically said that networks of scientists, including himself, were trying to win the PR war for the technology. "We are now trying very hard to counter all the fear and hysteria through groups of scientists being ready to speak on the media, write in the press, debate, and talk to people Your readers might want to visit, for example, the Web site www.cropgen.org, which has been created especially for this purpose, as well as my own little Web site www.probiotech.fsnet.co.uk," he said.

He had a little more PR advice for bitotech companies too. While describing biotechnology as an "essential tool for humans to keep ahead in evolutionary terms", he warned the industry needed to be better at persuading farmers and consumers of the benefits of the technology and more selective about the language it used. "It is vital that scientists, both in the government and in the private sector, learn far better how to work with folk -- farmers and consumers -- in presenting and developing these products. They need to be careful about the language they employ (e.g. no 'terminator' genes!) and be far more ready to be democratically accountable," he said. [10]

While Stott's work priority is to deconstruct environmental narratives, the UK-based Norfolk Genetic Information Network (NGIN) has subjected Stott's advocacy to critical scrutiny. In response to a query from NGIN, Stott wrote "I hope I try to deconstruct all types of language, from the 'biohype' to the 'ecohype'." [11]

In subsequent correspondence Stott suggested that an article titled "Biotechnology: Mary Shelley or Galileo?" was "one of my more balanced pieces". In it, Stott proclaimed "outright opposition to biotechnology is untenable and must be defeated." [12]

Stott also claimed that "biotechnology is essential for human survival" and cited the development of genetically engineered rice to by Swiss researchers "to provide enough beta-carotene to satisfy the daily requirements for Vitamin A in as little as 300g of cooked rice per day."

NGIN took issue with the implication that the rice had already been developed to achieve the Vitamin A requirements. "The truth, of course, is very different. Even Potrykus, the inventor of golden rice, has estimated that golden rice cmay only deliver 20% of the Vit A required, or at best 40%. Others who have analysed the figures think it is likely to be far less, say 8% or less," they wrote.

They also take issue with Stott's enthusiastic championing of genetic engineering. "What's particularly interesting about it [Stott's article] is that it is stuffed to the gills with 'bio-hype'! Although proponents of agbiotech make near-miraculous claims for the technology, it is clearly too early in evidential terms to know what benefits it may, if persisted with, actually deliver and at what cost. It may, in fact, prove a complete dud!," NGIN wrote.

"Prof Stott claims to 'deconstruct all types of language' but seems incapable of deconstructing his own, engaging in quasi-religious 'bio-hype' and giving us a large serving of 'golden rice hype' to go with it, while at the same time castigating 'the willful misuse of both 'science' and information'," they wrote. [13]

Global warming

While Stott downplays the uncertainties associated with genetic engineering, he emphasises them when it comes to the efforts of some of the world's climate scientists in modelling the effects of rising carbon dioxide emissions. He regards climate as the most complex coupled non-linear, possibly chaotic, system known. He takes climate change to be the norm of things and he accepts that humans are influencing climate through many factors and not just through emissions (e.g. how we change the albedo, the reflectivity, of the Earth's surface). Stott does "not believe, however, that we can manage climate change *predictably* (and that is the operative word) through fiddling at the margins with a just a couple of factors out of the millions that combine to drive climate change."

Stott questions the need for the adoption of greenhouse gas reduction targets and instead advocates that the focus of government policy should be on adaptation. "… Remember that humans have survived climate change for thousands of years, not by playing God with one or two politically selected factors, but by adapting to the new conditions, whether hot, cold, dry or wet. And, moreover, what about the opportunities global warming presents - far better than cooling any day!," he wrote in an opinion column published by the BBC. [14]

In February 2002, Stott joined with the President of the George C. Marshall Institute, William O'Keefe, to re-release a George C. Marshall Institute study, Climate Change and Policy: Making the Connection. Stott wrote the preface for the European re-issue. The European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF) issued a news release listing Stott among the individuals to contact for further information and stated that the report was "based on the work of a group of science and policy experts convened by the American George C. Marshall Institute." ESEF also thanked the "International Policy Network for supporting the publication of this report."

In the preface, Stott argued that more effort was needed gathering data before climate science uncertainties would be resolved. "It is clear that the mandatory, command-and control, economics and politics of the Kyoto Protocol are not justified. Indeed, as the authors rightly conclude, '…actions must not be predicated on speculative images of an apocalyptic vision of life by 2100'," Stott wrote.[15]

The ESEF press release stated the organisation was "a Cambridge-based science and policy think-tank, focuses on clearly communicating scientific facts on major public policy matters while challenging the misuse of science in the policy debate". The release cited Stott stating that "in the UK, it is a media myth that there are only a few scientists who disagree with the view of 'global warming' on which the Kyoto Protocol is predicated." [16]

(When TomPaine.com published an article criticising ExxonMobil for their opposition to the Kyoto protocol, Stott leapt to the defence of the company. "I must end by saying that I have no links whatsoever with the fossil fuel industry; I can thus, entirely independently, say ExxonMobil is right with a totally clear conscience. Just because they are a corporation doesn't make them wrong, anymore than being an extreme environmentalist makes you right," Stott wrote. [www.tompaine.com/feature2.cfm/ID/3221]

In mid-2002, Stott took the medical journal The Lancet to task for editorialising in favour of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a way of preventing the spread of climate-induced diseases. "This central truth must be stated without equivocation: control of the emission of human-induced greenhouse gases will not halt climate change. You should be helping us to develop international medical frameworks for adaptation to this constant change, whatever its direction--hot, wet, cold, dry, or all at once--not just falling for uncritical ecohype." [www.thelancet.com]

While Stott's describes himself as being a "mildly left-wing global warming sceptic" he dismisses the Kyoto Protocol as unrealistic 'command and control' economics. "I'm afraid the Kyoto Protocol has never made any economic sense to me whatsoever. Above all, its failure to deal with the real implications of economic growth and development has been palpable. The only way to survive climate change, whatever its ultimate direction(s), is to maintain and grow strong, flexible economies, not to hobble them by utopian 'command-and-control' economics." [17]

Rainforests

In a 1991 paper Stott reviewed the decision in March 1988 by the government of Thailand to stop the construction of the Nam Choan dam, which would have flooded the Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary. He was intrigued by the emergence of a broad coalition - from students, local people and scientists - opposing the dam. It was, he surmised, "a decision which, for the moment at least, raised the uncosted benefits of 'externalities' like wildlife and wilderness above the hard economic realities of a newly industrialising country."

According to Stott, the project would have fragmented "the combined contiguous habitats of the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, the Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary, the Kroeng Kavia Non-Hunting Area, and the undisturbed forest across the border in Burma possibly comprise the finest remaining conservation area in the whole of mainland Asia."

Stott was clearly not unsympathetic to those opposing the dam, pointing out that the area contained a diversity of habitats "from tropical semi-evergreen rain forest, though monsoon forest, bamboo forest, and savanna forest" which resulted in "a rich wildlife, with rare endemics and relict species surviving in a last stronghold."

Stott clearly saw that the dam would not only have immediate environmental effects but also inevitably open the region up region even further to the "predations of squatter settlers, illegal loggers and hunters, and to increasing demands for more development."

One of the reasons for the decision to defer the dam, he wrote was "the recognition of the sheer rate of destruction of the forest habitat". According to Stott, "in 1960 about 50 per cent of Thailand remained under some sort of forest cover. In 1988, although official Government statistics still claim 30 per cent … the real figure is closer to 15 per cent, with much land legally classified as 'forest' hardly carrying a tree. In 1982, FAO/UNEP estimated the rate of forest loss as 3.15 per cent in Thailand (Allen and Barnes 1985), one of the worst rates in the whole world."

While Western notions of ecology and conservation had been imported into Thai society there is the Stott noted the "ease with which some of the principles of ecology can be grasped by a Buddhist and animist people" and integrated into local views of land management. [18]

If Stott was mildly sympathetic to those concerned about the impact of development projects on tropical rainforests and associated ecosystems in 1991, by the end of the decade he had become more critical.

The notion of rainforests as a climax ecological community, Stott argues, "has probably been one of the most persistent, yet pernicious, concepts in world ecology."

In a theme that recurs throughout Stott's critique of environmentalism, he argues that "change is the norm, not stability of any kind". Where much of the environmental movements concern with rainforest protection is more eco-centric, Stott argues for a much more pragmatic utilitarian approach. "From the human point of view, what matters are the systems that replace the forests in time and space. … We could undoubtedly remove all the so called 'natural' forests from the world safely and replace them with adaptive systems of greater value to humans...Tropical forests will go, it is essential that foresters insist and demonstrate that they go productively and that they are replaced by systems of maximum benefit to as many humans as possible......," he wrote. [19]

In October 1999, Stott published an extended, and deliberately postmodern, version of this analysis as a monograph published by Institute of Economic Affairs. [www.iea.org.uk]

"'Tropical rain forest' does not exist as an object; it is a human construct and is thus subject to myth making on a grand scale," he bluntly wrote in the first sentence of his paper. The purpose of the monograph, Stott wrote, was to "deconstruct such Northern 'Green' neo-colonial concerns about the entity 'tropical rain forest' and to analyse critically the myths employed to add legitimacy to such concerns."

In an article challenging concern about deforestation in the Amazon, Stott told the New York Post that "the simple point is that there are now still - despite what humans have done - more rainforests today than there were 12,000 years ago."

(The same article also quoted Patrick Moore - once upon a time a Greenpeace activist now turned environmental sceptic and logging industry consultant).

"In terms of world systems, the rainforests are basically irrelevant. World weather is governed by the oceans - that great system of ocean atmospherics. Most things that happen on land are mere blips to the system, basically insignificant," he says. [20]

Contact information

http://greenspin.blogspot.com

http://parliamentofthings.info

Affiliations


Books

  • Philip Stott and Sian Sullivan (eds)2000. "Political ecology: science, myth and power." London: Arnold; New York, Oxford University Press.

Resources


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