Mark Lynas, once famous for throwing a pie in the face of Bjorn Lomborg while crying “Pies not lies!” has made the headlines and kept the twittersphere a-boiling for much of the past 10 days with this amazing talk detailing his conversion from dark-green eco-vandal to neo-green pro-GE eco-pragmatist.
Dubbed as one of the greatest environmental mea culpa’s ever, and possibly a game-changer in the public debate on genetic engineering, Lynas bravely throws up his hands to say that rarest of things in the context of such a high-profile and contentious issue: I was wrong. Not just a little bit, but completely and diametrically wrong:
I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.
As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.
Lynas says that the anti-GE movement he helped to start “was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with” but that
This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.
As someone who has myself followed something of this, if not well-trodden then at least by now clearly visible path across the environmental divide, what is perhaps most interesting is his thoughtful comments on how this change of thinking came about, as described in an 2011 interview with Keith Kloor:
Well, life is nothing if not a learning process. As you get older you tend to realize just how complicated the world is and how simplistic solutions don’t really work… There was no “Road to Damascus” conversion, where there’s a sudden blinding flash and you go, “Oh, my God, I’ve got this wrong.” There are processes of gradually opening one’s mind and beginning to take seriously alternative viewpoints, and then looking more closely at the weight of the evidence.
It remains to be seen of course just how much of a game-changer Lynas’ speech will be; but one response from the anti-GE movement has rightfully caused outrage:
Dr. Vandana Shiva (@drvandanashiva) January 05, 2013
Comparing freedom for farmers to grow GE crops which might “contaminate” organic farmers – itself a bogus concept- - is vile and demeaning to the victims of rape, all the more so given the current appalling story of gang-rape in Shiva’s own capital New Delhi;
but evokes of course the much more general condemnation of industrial society, and industrial farming: the rape of the earth.
In lengthy discussions on twitter, at least one “Dark Green” – Deep Ecologist Paul Kingsnorth- felt the comparison in this case might be defensible:
This image of environmental destruction as rape of Mother Earth no doubt has a lengthy pedigree;
Kingsnorth has used the metaphor himself in the past:
For almost fifteen years I’ve been doing what I can to prevent the ongoing rape of nature, and to urgently question the values and the structure of the society that is responsible for it.
But yes, of course it is much worse; there are many obvious harms that have have resulted from anti-GE activism, which quite plausibly have indeed caused unnecessary deaths, plausibly large numbers of deaths from hunger, in just the same way that the anti-vaccine movement causes deaths and the de facto ban on DDT caused and most likely continues to cause deaths, by delaying or obstructing the implementation of a technology that could help people.
Steve Savge has a very good post here outlining just how damaging the anti-GE movement has been:
There is a long and growing list of agricultural, environmental, and health improvement that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement had not been so effective. Some of these are only “nice to haves” like a fine wine. Some of them are significant advances such as potatoes that ward off their major insect and virus pests. Some of them are things like wheat which is less likely to have mycotoxin contamination. Some of them are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.
There is one thing I disagree with Savage on however: he repeats the meme of anti-GMO activists are equivalent to climate change “deniers”:
What Mark Lynas realized is that it is just as detrimental to the future of humanity to ignore the scientific consensus on crop biotechnology as it is to ignore the scientific consensus on climate change. The fact that there are groups successfully blocking rational action on both these fronts presents a synergistically dire threat to efforts to feed humanity.
I’ve written several posts on this topic at the end of last year. I think it is a mistake to conflate anti-GE activism with climate “deniers”; more, they should be equated with climate alarmists- they share the same agenda, of stifling innovation and progress in the name of preserving an idealised version of Nature. The difference is in the policy: using bad science to oppose “action on climate change” is unlikely to have done any real harm- the issue is, what action should be taken to prevent climate change? And there is no clear answer to this, as is evident from the fact that many who shout the loudest share anti-GE sentiments and even more absurdly, often vehement opposition to the main low-carbon fuel source that could really replace fossil fuels, nuclear power.
There is a problem here, because use of the word “rape” in this context against supporters of GE crops has its parallel in the use of the word “denier” to discredit those who question, not the science of climate change- something far, far less tangible and certain than that of genetic engineering- but the policy responses, which all too often seem to be ineffective even in their own terms, like Kyoto.
And this is an unfortunate error that Mark Lynas has himself been guilty of, while at the same time being called a “Chernobyl death-denier” himself by his previous green colleagues.
Since the anti-GE activists like Shiva routinely lie, misrepresent the evidence and fear-monger in order to sway public opinion to their side, while there seems little evidence of even exaggerated claims on the side of those who want freedom to use the technology and benefit from its advantages, Kingsnorth seems to be clearly defending Shiva and her noxious propaganda.
The tweet above from Kingsnorth was part of an extended exchange spurred by discussion of his blog on Dark Ecology.
In this piece, Kingsnorth gives a not entirely unsympathetic appraisal of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, wrapped in lengthy eulogy to his scythe.
and then goes on to say:
I’VE RECENTLY BEEN reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. Some books do that, from time to time, and this is beginning to shape up as one of them.
It’s not that Kaczynski, who is a fierce, uncompromising critic of the techno-industrial system, is saying anything I haven’t heard before. I’ve heard it all before, many times. By his own admission, his arguments are not new. But the clarity with which he makes them, and his refusal to obfuscate, are refreshing. I seem to be at a point in my life where I am open to hearing this again. I don’t know quite why.
Here are the four premises with which he begins the book:
1. Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.
2. Only the collapse of modern technological civilization can avert disaster.
3. The political left is technological society’s first line of defense against revolution.
4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society.
Maybe it’s what scientists call “confirmation bias,” but I’m finding it hard to muster good counterarguments to any of them, even the last. I say “worryingly” because I do not want to end up agreeing with Kaczynski. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, if I do end up agreeing with him—and with other such critics I have been exploring recently, such as Jacques Ellul and D. H. Lawrence and C. S. Lewis and Ivan Illich—I am going to have to change my life in quite profound ways. Not just in the ways I’ve already changed it (getting rid of my telly, not owning a credit card, avoiding smartphones and e-readers and sat-navs, growing at least some of my own food, learning practical skills, fleeing the city, etc.), but properly, deeply. I am still embedded, at least partly because I can’t work out where to jump, or what to land on, or whether you can ever get away by jumping, or simply because I’m frightened to close my eyes and walk over the edge.
I’ve got news for you Mr. Kingsnorth, and anyone else who is suffering from this kind of post-modern confusion and a vague sense of eco-guilt and the inevitable contradictions it brings: you will never be able to work out where to jump, you will never “walk over the edge” because you will never want to give up the benefits of the modern world, even though there has certainly been a cost to gaining them. This is because the benefits far outweigh the costs. Modern living really is far preferable on most counts to the bucolic human-scale past that Kingsnorth (reluctantly) fesses up to yearning for, because that past never existed.
Kingsnorth’s second reason for not wanting to end up agreeing with Kaczynski is rather elusive in his clumsy style but seems to be something to do with the idea that the modern world with all its technology is de-humanising, while the gentle swish-swish of the scythe helps us connect in a more wholesome way to ourselves and to nature; what he appears to suggest is that he fears becoming so de-humanised by what he sees as the rape of the earth, by the machine age, the age of scientism and reductionism, that, were he actually to end up agreeing with Kaczynski he might actually find himself driven to the same level of inhuman acts that propelled Kazcynski to murder.
With recent bombing attacks on physicists in Mexico, we should not take the threat of Kazcynski-style responses to this way of thinking lightly.
But in his eulogizing of the scythe, in his moral confusion over what might be worse- the acquiescence to the logic of science, or the futile acts of revenge through terror- Kingsnorth simply slops around in the same quagmire that the entire environmental movement has been suffering from, because he is right in one sense, that there really is no way out. Not because the digital age has got such a grip on us- the “dependency” of the oil age which we are so often warned of- but because to reject technology in this way must also mean rejecting the very essence of being human.
While Kingsnorth laments the de-humanising elements of technology, he ignores the fact that not only is a lot of technology also humanizing- by providing more secure supplies of food and more effective medicine to give only the most obvious examples, providing much longer life-spans and much lower infant mortality- but that technology in facts defines what it means to be human. Technology is what separates us from other animals. While some animal species do indeed have the ability to utilize remarkable technology, humans appear unique in their ability to continually innovate.
Kingsnorth names Brian Clegg as one of the green heretics with an ‘almost religious attitude towards the scientific method.’ Clegg replies:
It is science and technology that has made it possible for Paul Kingsnorth to eulogise endlessly about the wonders of handling a scythe. If his life depended on wielding it 12 hours a day, he would not have a romantic view of it, he would come to hate it. He would have, of course, no laptop to write his article on – and no audience for his writing – he would not have the time, the finances, the energy or the opportunity to do anything other than scrabble for survival.
Kingsnorth nearly gets there in his rambling post but doesnt quite manage to ask himself the obvious questions: what is to stop his even more retro-primitivist colleagues from coming up to him and saying, “You can’t use that new-fangled scythe! Nor can you even grow the new-fangled crop varieties you are scything!” Anarcho-primitivists surely would not stoop so low as to use metal; they prefer flint-knapping, or fashioning tools from bones. More to the point, the scythe is a potent symbol of farming- a “novel and new” technology that has lead to an inevitable de-humanisation. We should never have made that transition to farming and left behind the more natural and human-scale economy of the hunter-gatherer. The scythe has been around since the advent of farming- in other words he claims since the dawn of civilisation- which discounts of course the 90% of human history when we lived as hunter-gatherers. Kingsnorth and his scythe are nothing but a fraud, a sell-out to the Great Gods of Progress.
Why, in a word, could it not also be said- using Kingsnorth’s and Shiva’s own “logic”, in their own terms -:
Scything is a rape of the Earth.
Lynas already alludes to this point when referring to a comment which he said had a profound effect on him:
Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?
Humans became human when they first developed technology and then innovated and improved on that technology. To this extent, though the rate of change has increased dramatically since the industrial age, the scythe and genetic engineering have much in common: human artifacts designed to reap a return, to better our lives and stave off the tyranny of Nature. It is there, in the natural world that the Grim Reaper finds his greatest returns and easiest pickings; it is through technology and innovation that we hold him at bay.
Bernie Mooney writes a great post about Shiva, calling her a “Brahmin in Shudra clothing”:
She also may not be the socialist darling the western left thinks she is. Her insistence on a return to traditional ways, or “local ways of knowing” is very much more in tune with right-wing Hindu nationalism than socialism. It means a return to the feudal and caste system of the past, which rather than help impoverished people, will harm them. It will only help the land-owning elite. Basically she wants a return to the status quo of her Brahmin, landowning youth, except with women in charge.
In his talk Lynas refers to the anti-GE demonstration by activists at Rothamsted Research last year; the crops were thankfully saved, and supported by a good turn-out of supporters who did not want the scientific trials destroyed; but
One intruder did manage to scale the fence, however, who turned out to be the perfect stereotypical anti-GM protestor – an old Etonian aristocrat whose colourful past makes our Oxford local Marquess of Blandford look like the model of responsible citizenry.
Both Shiva and Kingsnorth (who worked on the Ecologist under another Etonian, Zac Golsmith) are very much in the same tradition: elitist environmentalists from the upper classes, who have a touch of misanthropy about them combined with strands of Nature Worship. They draw their ideologies more from the pre-WWII traditions of the eugenics movement in the UK and the obsession with purity of soil, land and race of Steiner and the founders of the organics movement.
This ugly form of traditional greenery lamentably still has great influence, hearkening back to feudal times, taking a snobbish look at the hoi-poloi, and working for a brand of conservationism that strives for an idyllic view of unspoilt Nature for the elite and keeping the poor in their rustic poverty.
Let’s hope that Lynas’ talk has helped us move away from them.