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Green Party leader Elizabeth May, MP-elect for Saanich-Gulf Islands, laughs during a news conference in Sidney, B.C., on Tuesday May 3, 2011. May defeated Conservative incumbent Gary Lunn in Monday's federal election to become the first Green Party candidate elected to Parliament in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
Green Party leader Elizabeth May, MP-elect for Saanich-Gulf Islands, laughs during a news conference in Sidney, B.C., on Tuesday May 3, 2011. May defeated Conservative incumbent Gary Lunn in Monday's federal election to become the first Green Party candidate elected to Parliament in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Margaret Wente

Hard questions for Elizabeth May Add to ...

Who was the biggest loser in last week's election? You get a gold star for guessing right. It wasn't the Bloc or the Liberals. It was the Greens. Although Elizabeth May finally won a seat, the Green share of the national vote plummeted. It sank from its 2008 high-water mark of 6.8 per cent to under 4 per cent - its worst showing in 11 years. In Ontario, formerly a hotbed of environmentalism, the Green vote fell by half.

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You've got to admire Ms. May. She has the energy of a hyperactive chipmunk and a matchless ability to hog the spotlight. Lots of Canadians are glad to root (if not vote) for her. To them, she serves as a sort of national conscience, and keeps the other politicians honest.

But who keeps her honest? Not the media, who give her far more (hugely sympathetic) air time than her dwindling market share deserves. And not the other parties, who aren't about to attack a popular folk hero. Today, her biggest critic is a far more unlikely figure. He is George Monbiot - perhaps the most influential and passionate environmental journalist in the world.

Last week, Mr. Monbiot wrote a pair of searching columns in the Guardian. Environmentalism, he said, is stuck in denial, "and we have no idea what to do next." Environmentalists simply can't accept the fact that the vast majority of people on the planet prefer progress and economic growth to no growth. And yes, it is a choice. They don't understand the science and they don't understand the economics. They pretend that tackling climate change is relatively easy, when in fact it is demonically hard.

Environmentalism, he writes, is collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions. "Those promoting windfarms downplay the landscape impacts … Primitivists decry all manufacturing industry, but fail to explain how their medicines and spectacles, scythes and billhooks will be produced. Localists rely on technologies - such as microwind and high-latitude solar power - that cannot deliver. Technocratic greens refuse to see that if economic growth is not addressed, a series of escalating catastrophes is inevitable. Romantic greens insist that the problem can be solved without even engaging in these dilemmas, yet fail to explain how else it can be done."

Ms. May is a romantic green, masquerading as a rationalist. Her chirpy optimism reassures us that we can have it all. Well, we can't. Greens love China, because it leads the world in green technology. But greens neglect to mention that hundreds of millions of Chinese people have begun consuming stupendous quantities of brick, copper and manufactured goods in their rise from poverty - nearly all of it produced with fossil fuels.

Ms. May and other greens tell us that fossil fuel supplies are in decline. But as Mr. Monbiot writes, "The problem we face is not that we have too little fossil fuel but too much." As oil declines, economies will switch to oil sands, shale gas, coal and ultra-deep reserves. Shale gas may be evil, as Ms. May asserts, but the world is massively converting to it anyway.

As Mr. Monbiot writes gloomily, "All of us in the environment movement - whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse - are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess." He hopes that by laying out the problem, he can encourage environmentalists to "abandon magical thinking" and recognize the contradictions they confront.

If Ms. May can rise to the challenge, she might have a future. If not, her best days are already over.

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