A couple of recent posts continued with the theme I have been writing about in my last few posts, the awkward relationship between environmentalism and science.
Adam Corner and Alice Bell, writing for the New Left Project pick up on the Genetic Engineering/Nuclear issues that have been highlighted so effectively by “Chernobyl-Death-deniers” Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, but appear to add little to the debate, making the usual abstract remarks about the power context in which science takes place, while apparently unaware of the power-context within which environmentalism has emerged.
They stray into dubious territory right from the start when claiming that the Greens have always had a strong affinity with science, and that Green activism is actually rooted in science, evoking Rachel Carson and Julian Huxley:
Like the biologist Julian Huxley’s role in the founding of the WWF the year before, Silent Spring is endemic of the way science’s ability to look carefully at the natural world alerts us to the negative impacts humans have had on it. To borrow a phrase from sociologist Steven Yearley, there is “elective affinity” between science and the greens, though as Yearley himself would be keen to stress, this doesn’t mean it’s a simple relationship.
Although Carson was right about some things, and played an important role in raising awareness about environmental impacts of farming, she over-egged the pudding and exaggerated on many issues, going well beyond the evidence, and these exaggerations arguably were responsible for chemophobia and radiophobia and the legacy of general alarmism and disregard for the facts -the very subject under discussion.
Julian Huxely is also surely a very bad example, since he was a champion of the then-fashionable “science” of eugenics and set the tone for much environmental thinking since with his concern about over-population, a political stance that is traditionally associated with the Right, not the Left. (For reading on this, see Fred Pearce, PeopleQuake 2010.)
The article goes on to describe the stand-off between activists and geeks at the TakeBacktheFlour demonstration against GE wheat in Rothamsted last summer, concluding:
Although some might class the outcome as a success for science, with the anti-GMO protesters successfully marginalised, the whole event seemed to entrench the idea of being “for” or “against” science in rather unproductive ways. As Jack Stilgoe later argued, such tribalism creates false enemies and interrupts debate before it’s even started.
But who is to blame for this? The scientists at Rothamsted were just normal researchers doing their normal work to improve crop breeding, just as you would expect to happen in a normal modern society. The “Green” activists were indeed motivated by a very well-funded propaganda campaign based on fear-mongering and lies, without even a basic understanding of how plants work or reproduce, let alone a grasp of the technical issues surrounding agronomy and feeding the world. The tribalism alluded to here is obviously created entirely by the misguided activists and their extremist retro-romantic beliefs: “Nature” is beneficent and abundant, we don’t need technology to feed ourselves etc etc.. The anti-GE movement has boxed itself into a corner right from the start with an absolutist stance on genetic engineering which can only lead to a lose-lose situation. No co-existence is countenanced and the technology is defined as bad bad bad, regardless of the political power context.
Bell and Corner are equally apologetic for the Green’s irrational stance on nuclear:
Serious green critiques of science have always been about power, not data. A hard-headed weighing of the risks of a radioactive leak vs. the risks of unmitigated climate change might prompt an advocacy of nuclear power. But that is to frame the issue in a particular way, a political decision in itself. Removing the real-politik from decisions about energy policy means ignoring the critical relationship between large-scale, centralised energy technologies and the corporate powers that control them. Questioning the values underpinning the various visions of the future science and technology offers us is not necessarily a matter of disputing empirical findings, or being unwilling to accept data inconvenient to an ideological position – its just a matter of being aware of the politics at play.
– except that in practice this stance always and necessarily does indeed mean disputing empirical findings and rejecting inconvenient facts, because to accept the truth about the safety of nuclear power would tend to undermine the political stance of “corporate control” being the problem in the first place.
This political hand-flapping is really no different from the argument about science and technology we always seem to get from the Left, as I blogged about in a previous post here.
It works like this: start from the ideological position that capitalism and corporate power is the crux of our problems; ignore data to the contrary; lie and scare-monger about the environmental impacts and the data; when challenged on the facts, simply use the get-out-of-jail-free card: the scientists are in bed with the capitalists. Science in a capitalist society is always corrupt because everything is pressed into service of the capitalist system. We don’t need any actual evidence of this (although corruption in science is surely a problem) – it is an indisputable fact that follows inexorably from our first assumption about capitalism being the Root of All Evil.
(Except when talking about things that we like or find useful such as computers and coffee. Your computer is giving you cancer and could blow up at any minute. Oh the corporations say it is safe and wont do you any harm? Well Doh they would say that wouldn’t they!!)
The same thing happens when they go on to discuss climate science and skepticism: the skeptics are all funded by right-wing think-tanks and fossil-fuel interests; while those who call for “action on climate change” are all working faithfully from a position of “consensus science”. As I have argued in my last few posts, this is naive to say the least. Far from grappling successfully with the real issues of energy and climate, the Green alarmist position has focused on reactionary responses that are more anti-capitalist than anything and have no chance of working.
Bell and Corner are quite correct of course to point to the importance of political context that science operates in, but seem oblivious to the political power-context that environmentalism operates in: why should science want to learn anything from Green activists when they have taken an absolutist stance and routinely reject evidence? What has science got to learn from a movement which takes an uncritical view of alternative therapies and organic farming, both powerful vested interests with deep pockets and considerable political influence but no time for old-fashioned things like evidence? All they end up confirming is that anti-capitalism and a vague leftish concept of “power” is routinely used as an excuse for thumbing the Big Green nose at science. If there is a political case to be made against the adoption of GMOs or nuclear power, we are certainly not getting it from the Greens, who seem only too willing to lie about the evidence in order to promote their own ideology.
Keith Kloor on the other hand still has no doubts about the rejection of science by the Greens, and invites us to consider two statements produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one on climate science and one on genetic engineering.
Kloor feels that an anti-science, anti-GE movement is largely supported by progressives who are on his side on the climate change issue:
It is my assumption that this aforementioned group in the progressive camp would agree with the 2006 statement on climate change by AAAS, but disagree with its recent statement on genetically modified foods. Is this intellectually inconsistent on their part? I think so and made the case several weeks ago in a Slate article titled, “GMO opponents are the climate skeptics of the left.”
As I have said already in response to Keith’s earlier article, I think he is mis-reading the situation: the stance of the “progressives”he refers to is just as “anti-science” on climate change as it is on GE- on both issues, their approach is one of alarmism in order to further a political agenda. The agenda comes first, the evidence is picked to suit it. And the agenda is not in any case a progressive one, but rather a reactionary one that would drag us back to the Middle Ages.
What is interesting though is that as several comments below the line agreed, the more suspect of the AAAS statements is in fact the one on climate change, a) because it implies attribution of extreme weather which we have already seen or are seeing to climate change- something that is not supported by the science– (the real concern is about future warming) and b) because the last clause – “The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now”- is a rather abstract and hand-flappy injunction to a specific policy response. But which policy? Unlike the policy issues concerning genetic engineering- which really only can have a negative impact on a tiny minority of organic farmers who have shot themselves in the foot by taking a zero tolerance position- the implications for climate policy will have a profound effect on the whole economy. The implication seems to be, controlling greenhouse emissions involves carbon taxes in the west, and perhaps targets for renewables.
Many analysts who warn against the dangers of rapidly increasing CO2 levels do not agree that this is a useful approach. The reality is, the world does not have a CO2 problem, it has a Chinese coal problem. Any reductions in US CO2 will be swamped by China’s increase in coal burning, and as Richard Muller argues in Energy for Future Presidents, the developing world will never follow a lead it sees being taken in the west unless it can afford to.
The most feasible solution in the short- to medium- term is the supplanting of coal with shale gas, as Dieter Helm argues, something which has already reduced US CO2 and could do the same for China. In the meantime, we need to invest more R&D into low-carbon alternatives, including nuclear, solar and even genetic engineering for higher-yielding energy crops, while avoiding the wish to pick winners now for an energy transition that will take more than a generation to achieve.
Are any of Kloor’s “progressives” campaigning vigorously (or at all) for such a rational energy and climate policy? Not that I am aware of. Maybe that is because their position has always been primarily ideological and political, and only calls on science and evidence when it suits.