I’M OLD enough to remember the British ecological activist Daniel Marc Hooper, better known as Swampy. Hooper came to national attention in 1996 when he, with many other passionate Green protesters, attempted to stop the building of the nine-mile Newbury bypass intended to remove a bottleneck on the A34 in Berkshire. Ten thousand trees needed to be chopped down to make way for the road.
Feelings ran high. Up to 8,000 protesters actively opposed the scheme, and hundreds camped out in the woods for weeks and even months at a time. A total of 748 people were arrested, the cost of policing topped £5million and the (ultimately unsuccessful) protest added tens of millions to the cost of the bypass. Swampy, one of the younger and keener participants, became the face and voice of the protest.
It’s fair to say that broader public response was mixed. The Green activists of the day were widely characterised as slightly loony. Some people admired their plucky and extended resistance, while terms like ‘crusties’, ‘hippies’, and ‘eco-warriors’ registered a fair amount of scorn. But in the same time period multinational food tech giant Monsanto found that British resistance to GM crops was not a Green extreme, but a very widely held opinion.
Swampy was almost designed to embody these contradictory feelings. He was a physical cliche of Green activism. He was dirty and probably smelly. He wore scratchy mud-stained jumpers which must have supported their own thriving eco-system, and he had a mop of hair that looked like somebody had started to try dreadlocks but given up halfway through. But he was also always smiling, seemed like a genuinely nice person, and approached activism not with the kind of dour holier-than-thou approach or Doomsday pessimism of so many of his fellows (both then and now) but in much the same way that a puppy approaches a man with a bouncy ball or a walk through a carpet of leaves.
Swampy was the opposite of Greta Thunberg. He wasn’t denouncing mankind, he was celebrating nature (something his older self seems to have forgotten, since he now endorses the ‘humans are a plague on the Earth’ approach of Extinction Rebellion).
What we have seen in the decades since Swampy came to prominence is a twofold change in the position of Green politics. From being a peripheral thing that was considered anti-establishment, the politics of outliers and outsiders, it has become one of the key assumptions, one of the key policy demands, of the powerful and the rich. From being the concern of jobless hippies, it has become the concern of multinational corporations. The Green of today has exposed a thread that ran beneath Green politics all along, but which wasn’t generally acknowledged: a thread of deep misanthropy, of hatred of mankind. More sceptical observers will have noted that the hectoring and the willingness to annoy the general public or threaten their way of life coincides with Green policies opening up enormous opportunities for graft, corruption, and profit in State backed, funded and mandated ‘green’ technologies.
Which is where we come to the role of people like Bill Gates. Unlike the Monsanto of the 1990s, which faced a giant backlash for trying to develop GM crops in the UK, and unlike the Green movement of the 1990s which universally opposed the kind of scientific manipulation with nature for profit that GM crops represent, today the most ardent Green advocates are aligned with the most exploitative, reckless and experimental corporations.
Back in 2011 ‘Green’ had been adopted by governments and big business together with the climate change narrative. But Green still meant, at that stage, loving trees. The United Nations declared 2011 ‘The International Year of the Forest’. ‘Sustainable development’ was already a buzz phrase, but Net Zero had not yet joined it. But the importance of trees to climate and environment was obvious to the point of being a sacred tenet. A 2011 article titled ‘Forests – Our Green Lungs’ explained: ‘Forests contribute significantly to oxygen generation and carbon storage. The temperature-regulation effect a forest has on its surrounding environment is a reason why city parks or green areas are especially popular on hot summer days. Forests and forest soils act as filters, oxygen producers and water storage areas.’
Trees bind carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, regulate temperature, filter and removes pollution. Wow, that’s great! So anyone who wants Net Zero should want more trees, and see reforestation as a good idea, right?
Today being Green has become ‘Let’s chop down all the trees that do the things we claim we want to stop climate change. Chop them all down and bury them.’
Today, Bill Gates wants 70million acres of trees to be chopped down, mainly in Northern California. As a start. The Gates ecological-energy company Breakthrough Energy has pumped $6.6million dollars (why not 6.66?) into a project led by Kodama Systems which intends to fell 70million acres of trees then bury them. Scientists involved in the project, working for the companies or funded by Gates investment money, claim that cutting down trees and burying them ‘can reduce global warming’. The theory apparently is that this prevents them releasing their stored carbon when they eventually die and that thinning forests reduces the risk of fire. But is Gates’s godlike solution the answer? It has its critics. Thinning forests is not always the answer.
The organisation Wellkind says: ‘One reason is that fires need oxygen as much as they need wood to burn. Thinned and even heavily managed forests decrease forest density, allowing winds to travel uninterrupted (Aldous, 2018). Free winds provide fires with more oxygen, so fires move more rapidly and burn more ferociously. And in fact, high winds are a major factor in the massive fires we see today. Wildfires normally reach top speeds of six miles per hour in forests and 14 miles per hour in grasslands (Sweeney, 2020). Northern California’s Glass Fire travelled at an outstanding 40 mph, burning about 67,500 acres and destroying 1,555 structures. Its speed was largely due to severe wind conditions (Insurance Information Institute, 2020).
‘Another of thinning’s shortcomings is that it focuses on removing the largest trees. The timber industry often will try to cover their costs by taking out these more profitable trees, even though they make up only a small portion of fire fuels. The dry underbrush and leaves in forests are more responsible for fires (Calkin et al., 2014).’
Saving nature by ripping it all up and burying it. What a strange place for Greens to be in, but this is what has happened when the ludicrous anti-logic of ‘Net Zero’ is invoked to justify anything that, via subsidies and State investment, turns a buck.
Whatever the justifications provided it’s a remarkable transformation in the Green agenda and in what ‘being Green’ means.
Back in 1996 when jobless Swampy was living in the trees to save them from the chop, none of us would have thought that nearly 30 years later being a Green eco-warrior would mean you’re one of the world’s richest men and you’re telling people that we need to rip up 70 million acres of natural forest.
A longer version of this article appeared in Country Squire Magazine on September 15, 2023, and is republished by kind permission.