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The Victoria Times Colonist
Monday, July 31, 2000

Emerging youth movement scorns eco-alarmists

Group takes on junk-science environmentalism
Jen Ross reports
"People recycle because it makes them feel good ... They are told it's the moral thing to do by society, by the media, and so on. But is it better? We need to have more factual discussion so people can get a greater picture of the truth."
--Mia Mouelhi.
Get Alive's Expo message is, to say the least, unusual. Although a number of groups claim Expo is not environmental enough, no other group has criticized it as too environmental.
Instead, we should be using our resources to innovate and develop things such as nuclear fusion or alternatives such as tree-free paper, says Get Alive co-ordinator Aitak Walter-Barani.
Such opinions stand out in a country where environmentalism is so strong that people can be fined for putting cardboard in their glass and metal recycling bins.

FRANKFURT -- Leaf-covered "eco-police" will be on the lookout at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, this week heckling visitors carrying pop cans, disposable diapers, leather bags and other environmental no-no's.

However, these "extremists" are not Greenpeace activists or protesters of the Battle-of-Seattle variety but a sarcastic attempt by a German youth theatre group to illustrate what it sees as the excesses of environmentalism. They are attending Expo in Hanover as part of a 60-person delegation of 16- to 26-year-olds from the Frankfurt-based youth group Get Alive.

Their goal is to challenge the very theme of Expo 2000 -- sustainable development, embodied in this year's motto, "Humankind, Nature and Technology."

Get Alive wants to spark more discussion in what it says is a one-sided debate on development and the environment.

"Everything is now being presented in such an emotional way," explains Canadian Mia Mouelhi, who has been living in Germany for a year and helped organize the Expo project. "People recycle because it makes them feel good," says the Ottawa native. "They are told it's the moral thing to do by society, by the media, and so on. But is it better? We need to have more factual discussion so people can get a greater picture of the truth."

Get Alive has spent the past year discussing and researching the widely held belief that mankind is heading for environmental doom. It was founded three years ago at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt as a forum for young people to discuss timely social, political, economic and scientific issues.

Get Alive's Expo message is, to say the least, unusual. Although a number of groups claim Expo is not environmental enough, no other group has criticized it as too environmental.

Like many members of Get Alive, 25-year-old Arne Rueckert was an environmentalist until he started researching the science behind the arguments and came up empty-handed.

He says everyone believes there is global warming and that the environment is in crisis. But, he asks, when humans have been measuring global temperature for less than 150 years, how do we know a slight warming is really an aberration?

Rueckert says there is no scientific proof one way or the other when it comes to climate change so why fight something you don't know is a problem? He also criticizes the effort and resources being spent on conservationist projects such as recycling and tree planting.

Instead, we should be using our resources to innovate and develop things such as nuclear fusion or alternatives such as tree-free paper, says Get Alive co-ordinator Aitak Walter-Barani. She says recycling and bottle exchange programs require huge amounts of energy and that landfills are not an environmental problem, but a political one.

Mouelhi claims even Greenpeace admits there is no scientific proof behind most of its arguments. She says organizations such as Greenpeace are engaged in a hypothetical debate about innovations such as genetically-modified foods because it's better to be safe than sorry.

The group criticizes this Expo as being too fearful of innovation.

Walter-Barani says that historically Expos have been forward-looking and optimistic about progress.

"If you look at Paris 1900 . . . they were very excited about the new technologies they were developing at the time," she says. "Now, this Expo is, 'Oh my God; how are we going to manage the future? How are we going to solve our problems?' The future is seen as very scary." Almost absent from this Expo are new developments in controversial areas such as genetic engineering.

"This scare over the future is scary itself because it makes us fear science and knowledge and curiosity and forget that curiosity has been one of the main engines of human development," says Walter-Barani.

Such opinions stand out in a country where environmentalism is so strong that people can be fined for putting cardboard in their glass and metal recycling bins.

"We know ours is a very anti-mainstream message," says Rueckert, aware theirs will not be an easy mission to "re-educate" people.

But during its five-day visit to Expo, Get Alive will try to get its message across using the eco-police, interactive theatre presentations outside the youth pavilion and roundtable discussions with scientists, environmentalists, politicians, and journalists -- to be aired later on German television.

On Aug. 4, the group will choose the best and worst pavilion. The best pavilion must be positive and forward-looking and must place people at the centre of its vision for the future. The worst will be judged, among other things, by whether its vision is locked in the past and whether it presents technology in a negative rather than positive way. Canada's pavilion is among those that echo the mantra of sustainable development.

As far as the group is concerned, there is no shortage of contenders in the worst category.

"In the basic-needs pavilion, they talk about the need for green funerals," scoffs Mouelhi. "I mean, what? Green funerals as a basic need? They don't even talk about education in that pavilion."

She adds there are many pavilions that promote grassroots projects as the answer to Third World development. Although these might be nice Band-aid solutions, "the problem is that these small-scale projects are not being presented as temporary solutions, but permanent, long-term improvements for the future," says Mouelhi, who is hoping to return to Ottawa next year to pursue a degree in development at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Get Alive argues that the small-is-beautiful approach to sustainable development is actually retarding Third World development in many cases.

Rueckert was in Ghana last year and says Ghanaians want new Western technologies but many donor governments and non-governmental organizations withhold them in favour of grassroots mini-projects.

"They romanticize poverty and they don't really improve the overall lives of the people affected," he says.