The dangerous naivety of Green anti-vaxxers

Published by UnHerd (15th March, 2021)

When I was at university more than three decades ago, the environment began to take off as a fashionable cause. Acid rain was the big fear, Chernobyl showed the dangers of nuclear power and Greenpeace was grabbing headlines with its bold confrontations against seal clubbing. I sympathised with the cause, even joining a couple of campaign groups, yet also noticed a troubling streak of anti-scientism at the heart of the environmental movement.

There is still a faded Friends of the Earth “Nuclear Power— No Thanks” logo painted on a property near my home, a slogan that exemplified this sentiment. I also struggled to share their concern with genetically modified crops, particularly if they could help feed impoverished people on our planet.

Now climate change has pushed Green issues firmly back up the political agenda. Yet a new poll has revealed a strange quirk: some people inspired by scientific evidence to fight against climate change do not seem to trust Covid-19 vaccines created by other scientists to save society in a pandemic.

This curio comes from a new Oxford University survey that found a sharp rise in the number of Britons saying they are “very likely” to be vaccinated, with about nine in ten willing to have the jab. There are, however, still some pockets of concern, driven by age, ethnicity, income — and political affiliation. It is hardly surprising there was most hesitancy among supporters of the antediluvian anti-lockdown Reform Party founded by Nigel Farage. But the study also detected significant scepticism among voters backing the Green Party, who are at least 14% less likely to accept the jab than people supporting the Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats or Scottish National Party.

Such scepticism is another depressing indication of the breakdown in trust between citizens and the institutions that shape lives. And this matters since a successful vaccination policy — and escape from this dystopian nightmare — relies on mass inoculation to minimise the potential host bodies for the wretched virus to infect. So why would nearly one in four people identifying with Green politics be so mistrustful — and what does this mean for the environmental lobby?

Perhaps the findings merely prove that there is some truth to that hoary old stereotype of hippy environmentalists, besotted with their healing crystals and hooked on the absurdity of homeopathy. Such folk clearly still lurk in the undergrowth of the Green movement. These are the sort of people fixated by “natural” remedies, forgetting that Mother Nature can be such a deadly force; bear in mind that measles was the biggest killer of children under five in Africa until the arrival of vaccinations. One Green MP in New Zealand even advocated use of homeopathic medicines in the 2014 West African ebola epidemic.

In Britain, the Green Party has long been dogged by anti-science views. Its solitary MP Caroline Lucas has admitted using homeopathy and once signed a parliamentary motion in support of such treatments, while Natalie Bennett, her successor as leader, insisted the bogus medicines had a place in the NHS. Meanwhile, its 2019 election manifesto argued rightly that the science is clear on climate change, yet dismissed nuclear power as a “distraction” from renewable energies. It also demanded a moratorium on production and import of GM foods. So while misguidedly saying Britain should ramp up aid spending under a “moral imperative” to “alleviate suffering”, they ignored how science ensures rising global populations have fed themselves through advances in farming.

Crucially, Green voters are more likely to be young — another group showing greater hesitancy over Covid injections since the virus is more lethal to older people — and sceptical of a capitalist system they see as destroying the planet.

Ben Ansell, the professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at Oxford who led the study, told me he found that Greens responded in a similar style to other opposition party voters in their verdicts on government performance, rollout of vaccines and in deference to scientists (unlike Farage’s fan club, who are suspicious of experts). But they had less faith in government scientific advisers and were more wary of the regulatory system. “This may be down to mistrust of Big Pharma rather than scientists in general,” he said.

It is all too easy for lack of trust — in the authorities, in capitalism, in experts — to tip over into scepticism over vaccines. Jill Stein, the US Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2016, sparked worry over her ambivalent vaccine stance after saying people had “real questions” over side-effects. Michèle Rivasi, deputy leader of the French Greens and a former Greenpeace chief, attracted controversy after issuing an invitation to Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor struck off for his discredited paper linking the MMR jab to autism. She has called also for an end to the “quasi-religious” cult of vaccination.

During the pandemic, there have been concerns in Australia over anti-vaxxers infecting the Greens after data found an overlap between low immunisation rates and high levels of party support. “There certainly are people who hold concerning views about vaccination,” said Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator for the party. “To those people I say we are a party of science, we are a party of evidence, and we are a party of making sure the community is looked after. The public health response needs to be underscored by science.”

She is right. One leading British activist argued to me there is a generational divide between younger supporters — who have strong faith in science since it has informed their deep-held views on importance of climate issues — and the remaining vestiges of an old guard who were alarmed by issues such as GM crops and nuclear power. Yet both sides seem to coalesce around antipathy to capitalism, evidenced by their shock troops of Extinction Rebellion, despite its crucial importance in the climate change battle.

Behind these issues of scepticism over science and capitalism lies a profound question for the party, one which I first came across in my post-graduate study days. My journalism thesis pondered if Green politics might take off in Britain, which felt prescient when the Green Party surged to 15% vote share in the 1989 European elections. Yet my conclusion was negative. First, I thought the party unlikely to thrive in our two-party system, since mainstream rivals would simply shift positions if Green issues became embedded in the electorate. Second, behind the media-friendly face of Sir Jonathon Porritt, the Green Party’s best-known figure at the time, I saw too many hardliners and obsessives to permit the sort of compromises needed to gain or even influence power.

Sure enough, the impressive surge soon turned out to be a blip as the party slid back in polls. It still struggles with this internal conflict: is it serious about changing the world or content to remain a fringe force, stuffed with too many cranks, conspiracy theorists and loopy ideas to be taken very seriously? Only last week, one of the party’s two peers called for a curfew on men after 6pm in response to Sarah Everard’s death. Baroness Jenny Jones told the Lords that this “will make women much safer, and discrimination of all kinds would be lessened”. Perhaps she may be right. But her draconian solution is not likely to be an election-winning proposal with at least half the electorate, let alone underline their credentials as serious political players amid the soul-searching over women’s safety.

Ultimately this is a party divided between “watermelons” (green skins but red in the middle) and the more pragmatic “mangoes” (green exteriors but yellow, like Liberal Democrats, in the middle) — as seen so disastrously in the splits when it won its first big local authority in Brighton. This has long been the problem for Green politics, even in Europe where it has made more advances by capturing major cities and participating in governments. Charismatic German leaders claim to have reshaped politics by transcending the left-right divide. But Winnifred Kretschmann, branded the world’s most powerful green politician after running Baden-Württemberg for a decade, had to see off fresh challenge at the weekend from a new party founded by activists who deem him too cosy with big business.

It might feel a long way from an Oxford study on vaccination scepticism to ructions in the politics of a German powerhouse state, but they are linked by a common thread — the difficulty of reconciling people with conflicting outlooks who are united only by their concern for the environment. Climate change has become the third most important issue in this country after health and the economy as Brexit fades in importance, yet the Green Party remains a largely irrelevant force in Britain. Yes, its leading lights have stood firmly in favour of vaccination. But the level of hesitancy in their ranks shows the pressing need for a sharp injection of reality if they really want to shape our nation’s future.

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