Lawrence Solomon: Yes, our environmental group is ‘controversial’; we’re also usually proven right

(February 6, 2017) Throughout the decades, we’ve been considered mavericks because we challenged the conventional wisdom; in virtually every area, we’ve been proven right over time. Energy Probe responds to, “A Look into Canada’s Most Controversial Environmental Organization,” a recent news piece about the organization’s connection to a coffee shop in the Annex.

Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Peter J. Thompson/National Post

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, originally appeared in the National Post

The article, “A Look into Canada’s Most Controversial Environmental Organization,” published by Vice Canada, appears in full at the end.

I am grateful to Ryan O’Connor, a historical consultant, for introducing me and my 40-year-old organization, Energy Probe, to a young crop of readers at Vice, the go-to-place for millennials and unders. “A Look into Canada’s Most Controversial Environmental Organization,” his unusually long history of Energy Probe, is chock-a-block with insider tidbits from the 1970s and 1980s — just what Vice readers have been craving. It is also unusually accurate — I counted but one factual error and/or distortion per 100 words, lower than the ratio for fake news. Most of these errors, moreover, are quite trivial, such as the claim that I’m a policy expert for the Chicago-based Heartland Institute or that I had once apologized to a scientist for misquoting him (I did not and had no reason to). O’Connor’s errors are understandable, since avoiding them would have required fact-checking and a close reading of documents. Fortunately, O’Connor provided a link to my “apology,” to allow careful readers to see his mistake for themselves.

I am also impressed that O’Connor was able to quote so many of my former colleagues from 1982 and earlier, before most Vice readers were born, and found no colleague to quote since. He did find one quotable source in the 35-year period between 1982 and today — a customer of Toronto’s Green Beanery café who was willing to cite the views of an unnamed barista. That’s good enough for me.

O’Connor doesn’t explain, though, why luminaries such as Jane Jacobs, Margaret Laurence and David Suzuki served on the board of the Energy Probe Research Foundation during the period he describes us as having become “ecocapitalist” and a “libertarian stronghold” in thrall to the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Were Energy Probe’s directors too shallow to understand the organization? Or is O’Connor?

Vice is right to call us ‘Canada’s most controversial environmental organization;’ we challenge conventional thinking

Contrary to O’Connor’s belief, over the last 40 years Energy Probe has never deviated from its original philosophy, that economic decisions must incorporate environmental costs. That conviction over the decades led us to successfully stop uneconomic coal, oilsands and nuclear plants (no new reactors have been built since we began our opposition). We successfully led the campaign to dismantle Ontario Hydro, whose monopoly prevented economic wind, solar and cogeneration technologies. Abroad, our foundation helped stop uneconomic hydro dams in Haiti and elsewhere that would have flooded farmers off their land. We have throughout also been fierce promoters of government regulation over monopolies.

We lost our share of battles, too. Canada’s Nuclear Liability Act survived our 10-year-long challenge to its constitutionality. China’s Three Gorges Dam — arguably the single-most environmentally and economically destructive project ever undertaken — was in the end completed, after a battle we fought alongside our colleagues in China over the course of 20 years.

O’Connor is correct to call us “Canada’s most controversial environmental organization.” Throughout the decades, we’ve been considered mavericks because we challenged the conventional wisdom; in virtually every area, we’ve been proven right over time. My 1978 book, The Conserver Solution, is today considered motherhood — it proposed energy conservation and the conservation of resources. Yet when it was published, CBC banned television commercials promoting its message on grounds that the ads were too controversial to be shown. The ads, produced pro bono by a major advertising agency, showed a planet increasingly polluted and at risk from wanton overuse of electricity.

We expect to be proven right again on the great conventional wisdom du jour — climate change. In fact, the climate change industry is all but dead, even if its propagandists don’t yet realize it. The fabulous subsidies that have fed the multinational operations pushing the global warming mantra are drying up in Europe and the U.S. Without its ability to plunder the public purse, there can be no climate change industry, and the fake news they spread will fade. The real news, from the world’s very top scientists, and confirmed by satellite technology: Carbon dioxide, aka Nature’s fertilizer, greens the planet.

For Vice readers across the land who want to explore Vice’s version of history, there’s good news: On Feb. 28, the Green Beanery café’s Grounds for Thought debate series will host an evening featuring me and, I hope, Vice’s historical consultant, Ryan O’Connor. He hasn’t yet accepted our invitation, but he’ll doubtless want to come to defend his argument. He may even learn of the good that can come when sound economic principles are allowed to weed out environmentally destructive projects. So, save the date: 8 pm on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 565 Bloor St West, Toronto. Admission is free for Vice readers, and everyone else.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.


What is Energy Probe and why is it anti-climate change?

By Ryan O’Connor, originally published by Vice Canada on February 1, 2017

Daryn Caister was like a lot of coffee drinkers in Toronto. Young and socially conscious, he got his daily fix at the Green Beanery across from Honest Ed’s in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. A popular café advertising organic “fair trade” beans, it also boasted that profits went to the environmental work conducted by Probe International.

For Caister, a 34-year-old chef and videographer, the café became his regular stop, in part because of its proximity to his home, but also because of its apparent ethical superiority to the corporate coffee shops that line the streets of Toronto. Upon closer examination, however, the environmentally-friendly façade of the Green Beanery began to wilt. Caister spoke to a barista about appearing on his CIUT radio show, The Green Majority, to discuss the café’s work. “The employee was the one who told me that they were terrible and that what they were doing was actually quite upsetting,” recalls Caister. It turned out that Probe International is a division of the larger Energy Probe Research Foundation, which in recent years has gained notoriety for its anti-science agenda of climate change denial. Since this inconvenient revelation, Caister has not set foot in the café.

Tonight, the Green Beanery will play host to a debate over vaccines (despite the science being settled) between a well-known Toronto psychiatrist and Lawrence Soloman, a controversial columnist for the National Post and the founder of the Energy Probe Research Foundation.

The Energy Probe Research Foundation maintains a strange space within Canada’s environmental community. Beginning with a single division devoted to domestic energy policy (Energy Probe), it has grown into a hydra-like body that, among other things, addresses foreign aid and investment (Probe International), government policies relating to Canadian natural resources (Environment Probe), and regulatory matters that affect cities (the Urban Renaissance Institute). These tangentially connected operations are linked by two things: a common emphasis on property rights and free markets, and Lawrence Solomon.

The Energy Probe Research Foundation has been active since the early 1980s, and Solomon’s work within Toronto’s environmental community predates that. While the foundation has some renown, in recent years this pales in comparison to the notoriety generated by Solomon. Billing himself as “one of Canada’s leading environmentalists,” Solomon’s free market environmentalism has always been viewed with suspicion. However, he completed the transformation from an environmental outlier advocating on behalf of free trade, deregulation, and the privatization of our natural resources, to an outright pariah due to the release of his 2008 book The Deniers, which established him as one of the world’s leading climate change skeptics. For evidence of Solomon’s strange stance on environmental issues, one need look no further than his comments in the conservative National Review where he argued that the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty dedicated to reducing carbon emissions, was “the single biggest threat to the global environment.”

Any examination of the Energy Probe Research Foundation must begin with the realization that it is inextricably linked to the work of Lawrence Solomon. While there was an Energy Probe–the division, not the foundation–before Solomon, what existed in the 1970s bore little resemblance to what exists now. Having conducted interviews with Solomon and a dozen of his former colleagues, I’ve come away with a better understanding of how the Energy Probe Research Foundation was created in his image while utilizing his gift for rhetoric, a talent for securing funding—albeit from questionable sources, such as the oil industry—and a never-waning vision of free markets and property rights as an all-encompassing panacea.

Lawrence Solomon first became involved in the environmental movement in the late 1970s. A Romanian-born journalist with no training in ecological matters, he secured a Canada Council of the Arts grant to write The Conserver Solution (1978), a treatise that argued technological and policy innovations could lead to an improved environment without sacrificing our high standard of living. As he explained, “I approached Energy Probe and Pollution Probe,” two sister organizations operating in Toronto under the Pollution Probe Foundation umbrella, “to see if I could collaborate with them in producing the book. I thought that having them as a resource would help me in writing my book.” They agreed, taking him on as a volunteer. The Conserver Solution, featuring the organization’s endorsement on the dust jacket and cover page, went on to become a critical success and a bestseller.

Right away, Solomon created controversy. Chris Conway, an Energy Probe staffer at the time, told me that there was considerable discussion about whether the Pollution Probe Foundation endorsement would appear on the final product. “It’s creative, it’s insightful, it’s funny. It’s a lot of really good things, but it didn’t present the themes and the issues the way at the time a lot of people thought Pollution Probe wanted to present its public face. It’s a little too much of a polemic, a little too casual with the facts.”

Offending passages included proposals to eliminate the minimum wage and social welfare programs—matters generally unrelated to the environment, but obvious points of contention for a free market enthusiast—that appeared alongside more mainstream ideas about reducing waste and promoting energy conservation. Given the prevailing notion within Pollution Probe and Energy Probe that government intervention in environmental matters was of the utmost importance, there was talk of the organizations withdrawing their formal endorsement of the book. Eventually they relented, under the premise that they should be the conveyors of fresh ideas. Following the book’s release, Solomon continued at Energy Probe as a full-time volunteer.

As the 1970s came to a close, the Pollution Probe Foundation was in a state of financial disarray, in large part due to the general economic malaise of the time. Funding for programs was low and there was a constant struggle to meet the payroll. (A non-hierarchical organization, all Pollution Probe Foundation employees received $600 a month.)

Dissension between Energy Probe and Pollution Probe began to rear its head. While there were three fundraisers on staff, there was a perception that they spent most of their time working on Pollution Probe initiatives. This led Solomon, still a volunteer at Energy Probe, to advocate in favour of separating from the Pollution Probe Foundation. As he told me, “I think some people were afraid of losing the $600 [monthly salary]. It wasn’t much, but it was something.” By the close of 1980 the group had split, and the following year they incorporated with charitable status as the Energy Probe Research Foundation. (While there was some talk of adopting a name more distinguishable from Pollution Probe, Solomon told me that “we also feared having to re-introduce ourselves with a brand new name.” The similarity of these two Toronto-based ENGOs’ names has resulted in much confusion over the years.)

Independence led to greater financial security for the staff at Energy Probe. “One thing about Larry [Solomon]—he was very good at getting funds,” former co-worker David Brooks told me in an interview. “And he was getting funds from new sources, like oil companies. They [the oil companies] thought they had found their environmentalist.” Not coincidentally, at this time Energy Probe launched a campaign “to educate Canadians to the social, environmental and economic benefits of less regulation in the petroleum field.”

Solomon’s ability to secure funding led to increased influence within the organization. This, in turn, led Brooks to tender his resignation in 1982. “He’s a right-wing ideologue who is [also] a brilliant writer,” Brooks explained. While Brooks enjoyed his early years at Energy Probe, which featured a diversity of approaches, he recalls that as Solomon’s influence grew “it became increasingly less an environmental organization than an economic one.” Chris Conway also left Energy Probe at this time, citing discomfort with the increased focus on free market solutions. Whenever there was staff turnover, they were replaced by those that were ideologically in tune with Solomon.

By the early 1980s Energy Probe had evolved into a veritable libertarian stronghold. This position is clearly illustrated in Solomon’s 1984 book Breaking Up Ontario Hydro’s Monopoly, in which he argued the case for privatizing the province’s publicly-owned utilities provider. Four years later, when the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement was signed, Energy Probe was the lone ENGO that supported the deal. While most environmentalists feared fewer regulations would result in free rein for polluters, Energy Probe’s suspicion of government planners was in line with the neo-liberal agenda that brought Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney to office.

The Energy Probe Research Foundation continued to carve out its ecocapitalist niche throughout the 1980s. In a move that saw it expand beyond its original focus on the Canadian energy sector it became a fierce critic of Canadian foreign development policy. Finding many of Energy Probe’s supporters were confused by its interest overseas, in 1986 it created a separate Probe International project under the Energy Probe Research Foundation umbrella.

Solomon’s interest in the marketplace would not be confined to policy work. In the late 1980s he established a short-lived mutual fund that invested in “green” companies. In 2004 he founded the Green Beanery, the Annex café whose profits continue to fund the work of Probe International.

In 2008 Solomon took his most controversial step yet with the release of The Deniers. Based on a series of columns written for the National Post (a newspaper that gives a tremendous amount of space to climate change deniers), the book purported to highlight research that dissented from the scientific consensus that climate change, caused by human activity, is a severe threat to the planet. Dismissed by environmentalists and scientists, The Deniers nonetheless enjoyed brisk sales due to support from right wing circles in Canada, the United States, and beyond that embraced it as proof that the issue is a liberal hoax.

While the ensuing fame increased demand for Solomon as a speaker and “expert” panelist within the fossil-fuel funded skeptic community, two things jump out as particularly strange about the book. In the introduction, Solomon notes that Energy Probe had long been engaged in the fight against climate change. His inspiration for writing the book came from a co-worker that casually mentioned one day that the science on the matter had been settled. Solomon took this as a rhetorical challenge, and began searching for evidence to cast doubt on the statement. Second, scientists whose work was profiled in the National Post columns and the ensuing book were quick to point out that their research had been misrepresented by the author, leading to at least one public apology from Solomon.

Four decades into his environmental career, Lawrence Solomon remains busy. Today, the sixty-eight year old is the managing director at the Energy Probe Research Foundation, while also serving as executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. (At present the other divisions are Probe International, Environment Probe, the Environmental Bureau of Investigation, and the Consumer Policy Institute, all of which are based out of its red brick headquarters on leafy Brunswick Avenue.) He also writes weekly opinion pieces for the Post where his topics range from critiques of foreign aid to spirited defenses of the anti-vaccination movement. His work also reaches beyond Canadian borders, as he serves as a Policy Expert with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based out of Arlington Hills, Illinois. (Coincidentally, the Heartland Institute’s position denying the reality of human-induced climate change harkens back to its work in the 1990s, funded by Philip Morris, that disputed the negative effects of second-hand smoke.)

Clearly there’s an audience for what Solomon, and the Energy Probe Research Foundation, is shilling, but perhaps tellingly, he leaves behind a trail of former coworkers that are critical of the ideologically-charged takeover he mounted of the formerly moderate Energy Probe. Barry Spinner, whose time at the organization overlapped with Solomon, described the latter’s creeping power grab as “a kidnapping through his intellectual ability.” But the root of their critiques echo the words of David Brooks. “Some of the Pollution Probers, and a number of the Energy Probers, saw the simplicity of it [market-based solutions] and just absorbed that as if that was all there was to it, that the whole thing was just getting the prices right and letting government get out of the way.” Brooks, who holds a masters degree in geology and a PhD in economics, noted that “I’m very much in favour of using market instruments,” but was quick to add the famous statement from John Maynard Keynes: “The market is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.”

Back in the Annex, coffee drinkers continue to patronize the Green Beanery. That said, the word has started to spread about its dubious environmental credibility as a result of media coverage and discussion on the Toronto subreddit. Nonetheless, environmental do-gooders that were taken in by the café’s green market continue to feel betrayed.

“I felt really dumb for not checking further earlier, but I got caught too, just assuming they were doing good work because I never had any reason to doubt it,” Caister explained to me. “Much less that they were fuelling science denial.”

Ryan O’Connor is the author of ‘The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario’ (UBC Press), which won the Ontario Historical Society’s J.J. Talman Prize in 2016.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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