Whole Earth Discipline

As mentioned in my last post for GMO-Skeptics Forum, one of the major influences in my journey from Dark Green Chicken-Little to pragmatic techno-optimist was Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Discipline.
This makes interesting reading for me four years later, as I was on the cusp of a new understanding on some key environmental issues: I was still in the grip of peak oil paranoia; I had not yet grasped what is really happening with population or even how fundamental the issue has been for environmentalism; and I would also be much more skeptical these days of apocalyptic climate predictions.

In particular, this book started me questioning the assumptions of my environmentalist tribe on GMOs, which I have since learned a lot more about and written many more posts on.
The review comes over to me now as wordy and long-winded, but this reflects partly the inner struggle I was going through as some of my core beliefs began to be re-aligned, so it serves as a testimony to that process as well as a hopefully useful review of a still important book.

From the Archives: First published on Zone5 March 22nd 2010

Book Review:
Whole Earth Discipline -An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
by Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books 2009 316pp

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“Civilization is at risk, but civilization is the problem”.

Stewart Brand is one of the iconic founders of the environmental movement, an original old hippy whose influence on the boomer generation should not be understated. With his latest book Whole Earth Discipline he takes that same movement to task for rejecting science and getting sidetracked by ideology at the very time when the practical application of science through engineering and technology may be the only way to save ourselves.
I came across an early copy of The Whole Earth Catalog, founded by Brand in 1968, on an early visit to a small “back to the land” commune about 25 years ago. It was a thrilling introduction to the possibilities of the burgeoning “alternative” lifestyle of organic gardening and renewable energy I was joining at the time.

Over the coming years, I read about his early involvement in LSD in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and currently have a copy of his 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now on my bookshelf.
In a recent interview, I heard Brand take on the environmental movement’s anti-science stance on various issues. I have been grappling with this issue myself for some time now, particularly in the credulous acceptance by most green organisations of “alternative medicine” for which there is no evidence, and the anti-science diatribes that are inevitably summoned up in defense.

More recently I have discovered for myself how little science there is behind the health claims of organic food, and how organisations such as the Soil Association are often pseudo-scientific in their claims and their treatment of evidence.
Whole Earth Discipline challenges the greens on four more holy cows: population, urbanisation, nuclear power and Genetically Engineered crops, and in reading this compelling and fascinating book I have had to do some serious re-thinking around these issues myself. Continue Reading

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GMOs and me in 500 words

First published yesterday on GMO Skepti-Forum

Impermaculture

I left college 27 years ago with a fairly typical anti-establishment ideology.
Having flirted briefly with CND and the anti-nuclear movement in the early 1980s, I determined that there was no hope for modern civilisation- that it was unsustainable– and resolved to a back-to-the land life of self-sufficiency. I quickly got involved with permaculture which I still teach a version of to this day.
My first encounter with GMOs was at an Earth Day event in Maynooth around 1998. Vandana Shiva was there, and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, debating with a Monsanto executive. Many of my friends had been involved with direct action against Monsanto trials in Wexford, which put paid to GMOs in Ireland for a long time. I went along unquestioningly with the strongly held views of my tribe, but even then I was vaguely aware that I really didnt know anything about GMOs.
Some years later as I learned more about science and critical thinking I became disillusioned with the permaculture movement, with its New Age religious beliefs and superstitions. Slowly, painfully, I found an effective debunking for one environmentalist myth after another. The turning point on GMOs was reading Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline and Professor Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchuk’s Tomorrow’s Table. I remember racing through the earlier chapters of Brand’s book to get to the bit on GMOs. It was a revelation- everything everyone I knew was saying turned out to be false.

I became fascinated by both the science and the sociology, politics and psychology. I went on holiday to the US and visited Pam and Raoul at their home in California, and got to see Pam’s lab where I met my first transgenes. I engaged in countless debates on Facebook, Twitter and blog threads. I lost many long-standing friends and to some extent have become estranged from my community. I have been constantly surprised by the viciousness and blatant dishonesty people I previously respected have been willing to engage in in order to defend their irrational beliefs. It turns out that the anti-science of the Greens is not progressive and “left-wing” but rather betrays a deeply conservative, traditionalist and reactionary mindset. GMOs are just a form of advanced plant breeding; historically, new methods of breeding have often been opposed by the status quo.
Activists can only see things in simplistic black-and-white terms and absurd conspiracy theories. Theirs is a darkly narcissistic and negative view of humanity which they seem to despise, in contrast to the assumed purity of Nature which they revere, oblivious to how Nature only seems sublime when you have a full belly.
On the other hand I have also been surprised and delighted at the more open-minded students on my course who have shown it is possible for people to shift their thinking, sometimes dramatically and quite quickly, just from having new information presented in an interesting and engaging fashion.
They are the ones who give me hope and make the battles seem all worthwhile.

Seralini’s anti-GMO paper retracted

Remember those garish photos of rats puffed up with tumors supposedly as a result of eating GMO corn that were widely circulated last year? The paper those photos appeared in, by Gilles Seralni et al, has now been retracted by the journal it was originally published in, Food and Chemical Toxicology. The editor A. Wallace Hayes has sent a letter of to Seralini, telling him that it will be retracted if does not agree to withdraw it himself.

You can read Hayes’ letter here as reported by Retraction Watch.

Scientists’ reaction to the retraction can be read here.

The study was widely criticized at the time with many scientists condemning the journal for publishing such a questionable piece of work. In fact, the Seralini paper was transparently an act of propoganda:

Seralini is a quack, who consults for the homeopathic company Sevene Pharma. He published around the same time as the GMO rat study a book called (in French) “We are all Guinea-pigs!” Seralini’s organisation CRIIGEN has a homeopath as its current president. Seralini is also associated with the faith-healing New Age group Invitation to Life.

The study was fabricated by activist scientists with a political and commercial vested interest in undermining the public’s confidence in genetic engineering.

Claire Robinson, editor of Seralini’s anti-GMO website, attacked Hayes’ decision as “illicit, unscientific and unethical”, but according to Jon Entine writing today for Forbes, these conflicts of interest alone should have been sufficient reason to refuse publication:

Robinson’s rebuke highlights just how badly Hayes and Elsevier has mishandled this entire affair. The original research clearly violated numerous ethical guidelines for animal use, standard media protocol, guidelines for sample size in animal tests and a variety of other standards that should have prevented it from ever being published. Among his many ethical missteps, Séralini also failed to cite pertinent prior studies, claiming his research was original, which it was not, as even Robinson acknowledges. The studies he did not cite were relevant and contradicted his results. None employed such brazen cruelty to animals. Not citing the relevant literature is itself considered scientific misconduct.

Robinson argues that failure to deliver “conclusive” results is not sufficient reason to retract a paper; but in fact the study was so badly designed- trying to test several variables with insufficient sample sizes and inadequate controls- that it would not have been able to generate meaningful results in any case; however, neither the authors, nor the media, anti-GMO websites and prominent food writer Michael Pollen reported the study as “inconclusive” but rather, claimed it raised serious issues about the safety of crops developed using genetic engineering- flying in the face of the hundreds of studies that have proved GMOs to be safe.

I left comments to this effect under Robinson’s post; they were, predictably, deleted.

As it happens, the only meaningful correlation the study showed amongst all its confused groups of rats was that the males fed on water with Roundup lived longer! Funny how that was not the headline that went around the world.

Instead, the sickest part of this whole story is that the “scientists” deliberately left the cancered rats alive much longer than ethics or humanity would permit, until the tumors accounted for 25% of the rats’ body mass, just to get the shocking photos they wanted for maximum impact value. After all, pictures speak louder than words and most people are not going to look beyond to scrutinize methods or motives.

Such is the murky world where you find the nexus of Big Quacka, Big Organic and Big Green.

The Cult of Perma

Most thinking people would agree that we have arrived at final and irrevocable decisions that will abolish or sustain life on earth. We can either ignore the madness of uncontrolled industrial growth and defence spending that is in small bites, or larger catastrophes, eroding life forms every day, or take the path to life and survival.

-Bill Mollison Permaculture- A Designers’ Manual 1988

Permaculture is notoriously hard to define. A recent survey shows that people simultaneously believe it is a design approach, a philosophy, a movement, and a set of practices. This broad and contradiction-laden brush doesn’t just make permaculture hard to describe. It can be off-putting, too. Let’s say you first encounter permaculture as a potent method of food production and are just starting to grasp that it is more than that, when someone tells you that it also includes goddess spirituality, and anti-GMO activism, and barefoot living. What would you make of that?

-Toby Hemenway What Permaculture Isn’t- and Is

Permies just don’t do numbers

-Peter Harper The Big Rock Candy Mountain 2013

Peter Harper of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales wrote a fascinating critique of the permaculture movement earlier this year which appeared in The Land magazine. This was a follow-up to an earlier article from 1997 called Cleaning out the Stables.

What is significant about Harper is that he is an insider:

I have been in the ‘alternative’ tribe all my life. I am acquainted with the permaculture literature, did the 72-hour course nearly 20 years ago, contributed to the Permaculture Teachers’ Handbook, and personally know many of the luminaries of the movement.

Indeed, Harper already took a very different view from the majority of permaculture practitioners in the Teachers Handbook by pointing out that, if your goal was reducing dependency on fossil fuels- one of the core aims of the general sustainability movement- you would do better to focus on insulation and getting rid of the car rather than the main preoccupation of growing one’s own food, which accounts for a relatively small proportion of our carbon footprint.

So what is Permaculture then?

As should be clear from the above quote from the beginning of  Bill Mollison’s seminal Designer’s Manual, “Permaculture”- a corruption of “Permanent Agri-Culture” – came in on the back of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb and the 1972 Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. The world is on an unsustainable path which can only end badly unless we radically change direction. Peak Oil and Climate change, combined with loss of topsoil, fresh water and biodiversity, will mean imminent doom for humanity and the biosphere unless we revert to a much simpler life-style, running only off the ambient solar interest that accumulates through biological processes each day, rather than delving ever deeper into the Earth’s precious capital stores of fossil energy and other non-renewable resources. I think it is critical to understand this: without a Malthussian understanding of the world and a deeply conservative ethic that resists economic development and idealizes both the natural and the traditional, permaculture could never have come into existence.

Farming in particular was deemed to be in need of change. Rather than exterminating the forests and using chemical fertlisers and waging war on Nature with pesticides to grow our food, Permaculture would provide a design system that allowed us how to do things more in tune with natural rhythms and lead us to a gentler and more sustainable way of life. By closely observing natural eco-systems, in particular forests, we would be able to replace unsustainable resource use with small-scale systems that could sustain us without growth into the future.

Often defined as “sustainable design based on natural systems” it began in the late 1970s as a response to the excesses of industrial agriculture, advocating much more use of trees and perennials planted in polycultures as food crops, use of elements of a system in all their functions, and an emphasis on recycling, water harvesting from rooftops and also from swales, water catchment channels cut along the contours of the land; and “intermediate” technology such as small-scale renewables and low-tech DIY devices which might include for example compost toilets and pedal-powered washing machines.

But here already we hit the first obstacle, not a speed-bump, but a brick wall: Permaculture’s embrace of “design-by-nature” is an oxymoron, and the beginning and end of the concept is based on the naturalistic fallacy, as Harper points out in Cleaning out the Stables:

It is undeniable that natural ecosystems are sustainable: because they are still there after several billion years! Then why don’t we keep them? The answer comes as a great shock to the biologically naive: because in human terms, nearly all natural ecosystems are hopelessly unproductive. They just do not produce the accessible calories (principally as starch) to support large populations. And they don’t produce much accessible protein either: mostly they produce cellulose, largely in the form of wood. So contrary to common PC lore, Nature has to be tweaked to improve productivity, usually a lot, even beyond recognition. And ‘using nature as a model for design’ is not to be taken literally; in fact it is so easily mis-construed that I would withdraw it as a basic design precept for beginners.

Peter Harper’s critiques deal a knock-out punch: permaculture doesnt work. While claiming to be developing pockets of intelligent “natural” design which act as prototypes for an alternative to the modern industrial world, the permaculture movement lives in the fantasy world of Big Rock Candy Mountain:

Harper describes how he was first attracted to permaculture as an elegant system of passive design, constructing systems for rain-water harvesting for example that would get nature to do the work for you with very little maintenance required afterwards. He expected these ideas to be thoroughly tested in the field- as would happen in “normal” engineering- and the good ideas kept and refined while the bad would be thrown out.

OK then, so here we are waiting for all these new ideas and eager to put them to the test. What we got was more like a cult…..

“A cynic would say this lack of quantitative testing is not accidental, because it might reveal that many favourite notions are false, or at least not what they are cracked up to be. Most people attracted to Permaculture are young, dreamy idealists looking for some kind of system to structure their activities and impart meaning. It does not matter much whether things ‘work’ because you are not obliged to depend on them. It is their symbolic value that counts. I have encountered numerous ‘permaculture gardens’ with abysmal levels of productivity that have nevertheless persuaded their creators that they are virtually self-sufficient in food. A few measurements and numbers would quickly dispel this illusion, but Permies just don’t do numbers.

This reluctance of permaculture advocates to actually test any of their ideas along the lines of the scientific method was brought home to me two years ago on a visit to the Bullock Brothers Permaculture Homestead in Washington State.

Permies dont do numbers... Doug Bullock on Orcas Island, WA. 2011

Permies dont do numbers… Doug Bullock on Orcas Island, WA. 2011

Addressing a class of permaculture design students, Doug Bullock explained how they were sometimes visited by “researchers” who, inspired by the concepts of alternative farming they were demonstrating, wanted to live with them and study their systems and record inputs and outputs and collect data to “prove” that permaculture worked: Doug waved them away- “we are just not interested- that’s not what it’s about.”

Harper proposes a distinction between “smart permaculture”- which does want testable hypothesis but is more like an “immature academic subject”- and  “cult permaculture” which is more visionary and cultish and includes magic. He suggests that while the charismatic but temperamental Mollison is more in the second camp, the more cerebral and analytic of the two co-founders, David Holmgren, would be in the first. I find this a curious oversight, because as I have shown in my last blog post on permaculture, Mollison is in fact the rational skeptic, with Holmgren the awkward purveyor of metaphysics,  biodynamics and Mother Earth religion, despite their very obvious contrasting styles which might suggest otherwise.

And where, really, is this careful measurement to be found anywhere in permaculture? I am personally skeptical that the “smart” permaculture exists at all: I see little if any data collected by either Holmgren or Harper, at least on agricultural yields for example. Permaculture advocates tree crops, perennials and complex (and hard to maintain) polycultures over the vast monocultures of high-yielding industrial farming. Of the one example of a comparative study being done that Harper refers to, at Schumacher college, he comments

“Too early for results yet, but the permaculture movement should have done all this thirty years ago. Why didn’t it?

but then immediately points out its redundancy (it was surely redundant even 30 years ago):

“From long experience I can tell you what the results will be: the ‘forest garden’ will turn out to be a low-input/low-output system, while the standard horticultural plot will be a high-input/ high-output system.

This is the crux of the matter: any measurement or controlled studies that the permaculture movement might conduct itself will only be re-inventing the wheel and will hardly be able to add anything significant to the body of agronomic science we already have. Just as “alternative medicine” that works is just  called “medicine” so anything that could be shown to work in what is called “permaculture” is simply “good farming”, “good design” or “good engineering”.

A recent article in the UK Permaculture Magazine by Chris Warburton Brown addresses this issue of “permaculture science”, finding not surprisingly that there is very little; but while Brown lists various criteria for what such a science would look like, he fails to define permaculture in any way that could actually lead to testable hypotheses, and seems to see this as more of a problem of science, which is not “holistic” enough for the complexity of permaculture. While he acknowledges that merely quoting results that support your original hypothesis would not pass for science, Brown’s whole article is based on an explicit assumption that permaculture really does have something distinctive to offer, and that this is indeed provable: there is no suggestion that maybe it should be shelved as a failed hypothesis. Brown discusses the difficulty of measuring multiple yields- rather than just comparing the yield of fields of wheat grown in different ways- but resists the obvious conclusion of Harper that anyone familiar with farming would already know- industrial-scale monoculture is much more productive.

“Yields are also subjective” he says: “a grower might consider one sack of fruit from an apple tree with no labour a higher yield than two sacks from a tree that was pruned, cultivated and fed. Inputs of time, labour, fertiliser etc. need to be considered alongside yields.”

What is missing here is obviously that there is a hierarchy of yields. Even one apple might be valued more than a ton of apples if it brings a smile to a child’s face; but what value is that smile as a “yield” if the child goes to bed hungry? If you need to pay the bills and earn a living as a farmer, your higher apple yields are all-important; if you are hungry, or live in a country blighted by hunger, the total amount of food you get today- and every day- trumps any feel-good factor of “being holistic”. Happiness and job satisfaction come second after a full belly, every time.

This is explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which does in fact form part of the Permaculture Design Course curriculum- but is another example of permaculture completely ignoring its own teachings, even when they are valid. Permaculture attracts a middle-class hippy-peasant chic  that seems obsessed with the belief that poor people are happier, that this modern concern with actual, measurable yields and wealth is the whole problem. Instead, meeting physical needs is seen as somehow dirty and base compared with narcissistic aspirations of spiritual purity and “well-being”.

Just as Bretharians- who claim to survive on pure prana and need no food at all- invariably turn out to have a fridge full of sausages, so permaculture uses wishful thinking and Good Intentions to hide the fact that its own larder is very sparse indeed, and even the most successful permaculturalist will also avail of industrial food, diesel for the car and even the occasional international flight to attend conferences. In common with its close sister Organic farming, permaculture is really just the icing on the cake of industrial farming, a fossil-fuelled smoke-and-mirrors that feeds on industrial society all the while it claims to be replacing it.

Of course there are costs and benefits, inputs and outputs: in the real world, outside Big Rock Candy Mountain, these issues are commonly dealt with under “accounting”, something which from reading Brown’s article you get the impression is as yet unknown within the permaculture community but which, should it be stumbled upon,  will be trumpeted as a discovery to rival that of the Higgs Boson.

From Brown’s article again:

Preparing content for the Permaculture Digest, I have found little of use to the permaculture community in conventional plant science literature. Because research papers are expected to show strong statistical significance, work has become lab-based, not field-based. Moreover, in order to avoid complexity “contaminating” the results, there is an emphasis on the smallest units of analysis: genes, microbes, chemicals. This boosts conventional crop yields, but inevitably leads to interventions at a microscopic level and to GM crops.

Shock horror! Genes and chemicals just sound so… unholistic – how could a “permaculture science” ever embrace such things? And note the unquestioned assumption that this kind of “reductionist” science leading to GMOs just has to be bad- see the Toby Hemenway quote at the start of the post. Brown effectively acknowledges that permaculture is a political ideology, yet cannot join the dots to see that it cannot therefore be a science.

The strong link between permaculture and the reactionary anti-GMO movement is only too obvious to anyone who reads Permaculture Magazine, which campaigns actively on behalf of Vandana Shiva. Noone within the permaculture movement seems to have noticed that, given the challenges of keeping yields high in forest gardens while promoting biodiversity, and the much longer time-scales required to breed more suitable varieties of perennials and woody shrubs,  genetic engineering should be seized upon as a great ally of permaculture. See for example the work being done to resurrect the American Chestnut, something that could not be done with traditional plant-breeding methods.

One of the few scientists to take a critical look at permaculture is Dr. Linda Chalker-SCott of the Washington State University’s Extension Urban Horticulture department. She examines Toby Hemenway’s  book Gaia’s Garden and finds it lacking in rigorous science on a number of counts:

-his advocacy of invasive species such as bamboo, with scant regard for the ecological problems that can be casued by invasive species; (see Part 1: Permaculture- Beginning a Discussion;)
(Holmgren also has a controversial take on this issue, strongly advocating the work of Theodoropoulos, which is generally considered pseudoscience.)

-pseudoscientific advocacy of “companion planting”, “mineral accumulators” including the use of some poisonous and noxious weeds; (Part 2, Permaculture- the discussion continues;)

-another permaculture favourite, sheet-mulching with cardboard- this creates an impermeable layer at the soil level which tends to lead to anaerobic conditions; (Part 3- More Concerns);

-the expropriation of scientific concepts and words and re-defining them for use in permaculture; and failure to draw on the existing scientific literature, instead relying on grey literature and pseudoscience throughout (Part 4- Final Thoughts).

How can there ever be a “scientific permaculture” when many of the movement’s leading figures themselves seem influenced by pseudoscience, and apparently unaware of the real body of scientific knowledge in these areas?

Despite the laudable and as far as I know unique attempt by the Australian Permaculture Research Institute to have a teacher’s registery to restrict pseudoscience in permaculture, the movement will never be able to extract itself from the end-of-days religion of the wider environmental movement that it was sired from. Without resource depletion and Limits to Growth thinking, permaculture simply has no meaning at all. It is curious that Harper, for all his insights into how the movement deludes itself and is all fluff and no substance, still feels it has value and can be salvaged.

Permaculture then is a broad church and Harper is correct to say there are many permacultures; nevertheless it is inescapable that permaculture as a political movement fits snugly alongside broader conservative environmentalism, with its mixture of elitist traditionalism and eco-fascism, closely associated with New Age spirituality, anti-science and pseudo-science, the quackery of the Organics movement and “alternative” therapies, middle-class health-food obsessions and quasi-religious misanthropic convictions about the purity of Nature and the Fallen-ness of Mankind.

At the end of the day though, once you strip away the pseudo-science, the Sky-is-Falling doomerism and the feel-good idealism of living in barefoot communes and growing your own food all you are left with is the Cult of Perma.

Greens to the Left- or Greens to the Right?

“You’re so Right-wing!” So I was told recently by one of my students who took exception to my pro-fact pro-evidence- based stance on things like genetic engineering and nuclear power. Another blurted out at me when I suggested her complaints about my course were mainly political “no it doesn’t matter how much of a fascist you are- if only you teach the course properly!”– which apparently means not presenting any facts or information unless they have been vetted and blessed in advance by her.

This kind of feed-back suggests that many prevailing views within the environmental movement are traditionally- even unquestioningly- considered to be “left-wing” and “progressive”: the struggle to protect pristine Nature and keep nasty chemicals and other such horrors out of our food and water share common cause with defending the rights of the common man against the ravages of untrammeled corporate capitalism.

Is this really the case? Or does environmentalism have its roots in the far-right? Or is it a strange hybrid of both Left and Right?

In a radio presentation last year Brendan O’Neill calls the more recent alliance between Green and Red a “historic betrayal”:

in going green the left has signaled abandonment of values that distinguished it from more conservative static views

This betrayal can be seen most clearly in the the original environmental cause of over-population, which comes of course from Malthus. But Malthus was an arch-enemy of Marx and Engels: Marx described him as ‘a professional sycophant of the landed aristocracy’ who was intent on ‘building the capitalist case for the inevitability of poverty’ (quoted by O’Neill here)

In other words, Malthus’ theory was entirely self-serving: the threat of a “population bomb” in the phrase of his more recent successor Paul Ehrlich, was invented in order to refute the radical idea that the poor and down-trodden would be able to overthrow their oppressors and that humanity in general- not just the ruling classes of whom Malthus was a member- would be able to improve their lot and aspire to greater things than just subsistence.

Marx and Engels disagreed with Malthus’ basic premise that over-population was a result of the Laws of Nature: rather, they saw the negative consequences of rapidly increasing populations as being the result of the social system, with specific causes according to the state of evolution of the society: in developing nations, it was a result of the legacy of colonialism; in capitalist nations, tied in with the Principle of the Reserve Army of Labour: in Marxist theory, capitalism required a large number of unemployed to draw on in times of rapid economic growth.

According to socialist theory, human problems are more social than natural; far from being the prisoner of Nature or Divinity, O’Neill argues there are no natural limits, but merely limits to our social imagination. He quotes Francis Bacon who stated that our mission is “to put nature on the rack and extract her secrets” and Sylwia Pankhurst who said “socialism means abundance for all… a great production that can provide more than we can consume.”

“How times have changed” laments O’Neill: through environmentalism, the Left is now at the forefront of arguing for natural limits; “Nature” is depicted as sentient force that punishes, and we see a return to 19th Century ideas of mankind as prisoner of nature.
Some even say we cannot end poverty:
Mark Lynas has claimed “the struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for and intact and functioning biosphere.”

Although some greens, like Lynas, have repudiated the more obvious shortcomings of Malthus and distanced themselves from his incipient racism, O’Neill argues in his review of Fred Pearce’s PeopleQuake that they have really just re-phrased the reactionary case for limits by claiming it is not population per se that will be our undoing, but consumption:

Pearce describes Earth as a ‘finite planet’ and bizarrely claims that we are ‘consuming 30 per cent more resources each year than the planet produces’. This overlooks the fact – recognised by true humanists – that there is nothing fundamentally finite about Earth or its resources, since what we consider to be, and use as, a resource changes as society itself develops. The Malthusian idea that nature’s limits mean people must inevitably live in poverty is here. ‘It is of course true that poor people with small ecological footprints may grow rich… eventually assuming footprints as great as ours. If they do that, it is hard to see anything other than disaster ahead’, says Pearce.

How did this come about? While some from the Right have claimed that environmentalism is really just the new guise of socialism, trying to come in unnoticed through the backdoor as it were, Rupert Darwall, in The Age of Global Warming argues rather that after the Berlin Wall came down, the Left was simply too insipid to resist the rise of neo-Malthussians from the Far Right, with their Limits to Growth philosophy, and simply became subsumed by it.

The timing of the demise of Marxism as a living ideology meant that global warming never had to contend with opposition from the Left of the political spectrum.

Without even being aware of what had happened, the post-Soviet Left took on the mantle of much darker forces of environmentalism, inspired as they were by the early eugenics movement in Britain and the nature-worship and occult mysticism of the Nazis.

These origins can be most clearly seen today in the retro-romantic organics movement, still shaped and inspired by the cult of Steiner and his occult version of farming called biodynamics, which found common cause with the Blood and Soil- Blut und Boden– philosophy of the Nazis, as Staudenmaier has documented:

we find that the “ecological scene” of our time -with its growing mysticism and anti-humanism- poses serious problems about the direction in which the ecology movement will go…these reactionary and outright fascist ecologists emphasize the supremacy of the “Earth” over people; evoke “feelings” and intuition at the expense of reason; and uphold a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusianbiologism. Tenets of “New Age” eco-ideology that seems benign to most people in England and the United States – specifically, its mystical and anti-rational strains- are being intertwined with ecofascism in Germany today.

Likewise the leaders of the anti-GMO movement and their allies, far from being representative of the Common Man or the rights of workers, are instead emanating from the privileged classes, lead by figures such as Goldsmith and Prince Charles, in the tradition of Schumacher, with paternalistic view of humanity that would not be so far from the contempt expressed by Malthus.

The fear of over-population, of the Yellow Peril or its equivalent, is still evident behind much anti-technology thinking amongst today’s Greens. Once, after a class discussion on global poverty and development, in which I expressed the hope that through technology and other factors, the bottom billion in the world might sometime improve their lot sufficiently to have at least some of the benefits that we have in the richer parts of the world, one earnest young student, no doubt considering himself radical and “left-wing” made a point of coming up to me afterwards to say emphatically: “No. We must stop them! They are much better off being poor.”

This blurring of the Left into the Far Right is also evident in the figure of the darling of the anti-GMO movement Vandana Shiva.

According to Noel Kinsbury in Hybrid:the History and Science of plant breeding

Meera Nanda, a leading Indian critic of what she calls “reactionary postmodernism,” points out, “the populist left opposition to the Green Revolution, GM crops, and other science intensive initiatives, is routinely co-opted by the ultra-nationalist, autarkic, elements of the Hindu right.” Shiva has been interviewed and favorably quoted by The Organiser, the journal of the Rashtriya Swayamsavak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization, the sight of whose members marching in formation wearing khaki shorts, is a powerful and frightening reminder of its original inspiration—Hitler’s brownshirts.554 Identity politics is the natural playground of the political Far Right. In rejecting the universality of Enlightenment values, antiscience critics on the Left have found themselves sharing a bed with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Despite Shiva’s best efforts at condemning the poor farmers of her country to remain in their “natural state” of peasantry forever, many Indian farmers showed they had other ideas:

Shiva’s “Operation Cremate Monsanto” had spectacularly failed, its anti-GM stance borrowed from Western intellectuals had made no headway with Indian farmers, who showed that they were not passive recipients of either technology or propaganda, but could take an active role in shaping their lives. What they did is also perhaps more genuinely subversive of multinational capitalism than anything GM’s opponents have ever managed.

Greens often seem far more concerned that a corporation like Monsanto might make filthy profits than ordinary farmers might actually benefit from the technology they have developed, just as green activists themselves seem only too happy to use technology such as computers, cars and airplanes, and organic farmers to use polytunnels and tractors and pop to the supermarket for cheap industrial food when it suits them.

There are of course many political causes that one might want to support. Today’s mega-corporations should be held accountable for their workers’ conditions, and should be compelled to pay their taxes. I am more than willing to hear good well-thought out political arguments concerning social justice etc; unfortunately it is very rare if ever these days that I hear any such argument from Greens, so completely dominated they seem to have become by eco-fascist ideology and back-to-nature woo-woo naturalistic beliefs.

And thus I find myself in the peculiar situation of being insulted as being “right-wing” for defending ideas that are in fact far closer to traditional Marxism: that progress and innovation and technology are generally forces for good, and that human creativity is, almost by definition, something that uniquely can break the chains of natural limits.

Who is the Most anti-Science of Them All?

A fascinating debate was recently aired by the Canadian public affairs program The Agenda With Steve Paikin featuring Michael Shermer, Chris Mooney and Mark Lynas.

The topic under discussion was whether the charge of being “anti-science” was just as valid for the Left as for the Right.

Shermer, a libertarian skeptic thinks yes- there is Liberal War on Science; Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, disagrees. In a strongly entitled piece for Mother Jones There is no such Thing as a Liberal War on Science he argues that although liberals and the Left certainly reject science on specific topics such as vaccines and GMOs, these positions have been marginalised by the mainstream Left/Liberal political establishment, while on the Right, “Republicans today are majority creationist (58 percent, according to Gallup) and majority climate denier.”

As Lynas says, the political spectrum is not clearly divided along these lines in Europe; the alignment of the US Republican Party with creationist religion does not really have a parallel here, so while there are some similarities, this discussion is no doubt colored by my Euro-centric bias.

Mooney goes on to say

polls alone don’t tell enough of the story. Evolution denial and climate denial on the right are much more politically problematic—because conservatives, not liberals, are going around trying to force these wrongheaded views on children in schools. Oh, and by the way: By denying global warming, they also jeopardize the planet and the well-being of humanity. In my view, not all wrong beliefs are equally harmful—rather, wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences.

There is a couple of things wrong with this position I think, as Mooney fails to distinguish between very different kinds of scientific issues, and their policy implications.

Firstly, the issue of conservatives trying to force “anti-science” views on schoolchildren made me think immediately of an instance of this from the Left: Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was incorporated into the school curriculum in the UK, leading to a court action by a concerned parent. The judge upheld the complaint that the film contained many scientific inaccuracies, including that

The film said a sea-level rise of up to 20ft would be caused by melting of either west Antarctica or Greenland in the near future; the judge ruled that this was “distinctly alarmist”

I am not suggesting that this is directly comparable to teaching creationism or denying evolution; on the other hand, it seems inescapable that this is indeed an example of politics masquerading as science, and as such its placing in schools in this way is highly questionable. There is no scientific debate about evolution vs Intelligent Design, but to pretend that everything about man-made global warming is “settled science” – including what to do about it (Gore’s film implies that changing your lightbulbs might be an appropriate response to ensuring Manhattan is not inundated with sea water) is itself political.

(Ironically, Shermer used to question climate science himself, and cites An Inconvenient Truth as one of the influences that made him change his mind.)

Secondly, Mooney does not really address Shermer’s point that Republicans only reject science on these specific topics because they conflict with specific beliefs they have. While Creationism is a core belief of many right-wing Christians, and climate change skepticism a reaction to what they see as a ruse to impose more government regulation on every aspect of their lives, they do not take an “anti-science” position per se.

On the Left however, despite scientists and academics being overwhelmingly liberal themselves as both Mooney and Shermer agree, there tends to be an underlying current of suspicion of science in and of itself. The liberal mind wants purity of nature and purity of their bodies, and is prone to suffer excruciatingly from the naturalistic fallacy; they are more likely to be anti-technology which they distrust as leading to yet more environmental destruction and an aspect of increased corporate control- even when being introduced for humanitarian reasons as with Golden Rice.

This callousness of progressive activists towards the poor who really need access to better technology also calls into question Mooney’s claim that they are motivated emotionally by sticking up for the underdog and fighting against injustice: all too often, the main priority seems to be just to kick “science” or “technology” or “corporations” where it hurts, and to hell with the poor (who, let’s face it, are much happier anyway just being poor).

Mooney points to research showing that the trust in science has declined precipitously in recent years- but I am just wondering whether this itself can be partly explained by the clear liberal bias amongst scientists and scientific institutions- particularly when they are seen, rightly or wrongly, to promote left-wing policy responses to complex scientific issues like climate change. Of course, this is often translated into a suspicion of the basic science of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but there is no reason for the Right (or anyone) to have particular position on this but for the implications of left-wing policies being promoted as to remedy the situation: as I say, questioning CO2 as a greenhouse gas is not a core belief in and of itself for the religious right in the same way creationism is- it is purely a reaction to the policies of the Left.

I am not defending the misrepresentation of science by any side in this- merely pointing out that Mooney is misreading the context and mis-diagnosing the underlying causes.

What about Mooney’s contention that “wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences”? He claims that opposing the “science” of climate change will lead to a “global disaster that we are going to regret for all time- so how could it be bigger than that?” This seems to be an ideologically loaded statement that is a far remove from the “consensus science” on global warming, which can only give us different scenarios of how much warming based on different emissions trajectories, none of which there is any great certainty about as Mooney is implying. He seems to have slipped seamlessly from the science of CO2 as a warming gas and that humans are contributing to warming, to just the kind of alarmist rhetoric that Gore was guilty of.

The fact is, we don’t know what to do about global warming, or at least the solutions offered seem themselves to be split down political lines: on the one hand, more government regulation and the creation of powerful supra-national organisations which can usurp national governments’ ability to determine their own energy policy;
on the other hand, the potential for technological innovation to move much faster at reducing emissions than treaties have been able to, as we are seeing with the failure of Kyoto and the success of shale gas in the US.

A good example of this is the Keystone XL pipeline which has been a figure-head for “climate action” recently, but which has no real bearing on climate change regardless of whether you “deny” or “accept” the consensus scientific position.

This is what happens constantly in the climate debate which renders such discussions about who the the most anti-science fairly redundant: the science quickly merges into questionable policies or activist causes; question the policy, you become a “science denier”.

So it seems to me highly questionable- and certainly not scientific- for Mooney to suggest that “science denial” to the extent that it does exists on the Right can really be blamed for putative future global catastrophe; claiming certainty that the science is wrong for political reasons is of course damaging, but in this case we simply don’t know precisely what the correct course of action will be and we have to weigh it up against other considerations including the obvious need to keep the lights on and warm our homes.

It is possible then that thwarting certain liberal policies on climate could actually turn out to be the best thing to do- even if for entirely the wrong reasons.

Compared with the damage already done by opposing GE crops the damage done by questioning climate science, even in an extreme way, seems speculative at best, and in fact entirely unknown.

As Shermer points out, the left doesn’t seem to care what the actual solutions to global warming are anyway- which is why a strong contingent of the grassroots at least (whatever about Obama’s stance) is fundamentally opposed to both fracking and nuclear: they just want to impose “more government”, or, as I would prefer to say, they just want their solutions.

I have often argued, and still do, that the Left’s apparent pro-science stance on climate change is really just opportunistic, since they are so anti-science on some of the obvious and most promising solutions.

Mooney is correct that the Left and the Right are promiscuous with the science in different ways- but he just seems to be scoring political points in claiming the Left is worse- a rather obvious trap to fall into when claiming to understand the psychology of the opposition, but not your own.

Will the Genes Escape?

Patrick Whitefield has entered the discussion on genetic engineering over at the Small Farm Future blog.
Patrick is the UK’s leading permaculture teacher and author of The Earth Care Manual.

Patrick makes two main points: that he thinks there is evidence that GE can be as dangerous as some now-banned chemicals; and that with GE “The big difference is that once they’re released into the biosphere it’s not always possible to withdraw genes.”

“To me” he says, “this is the clinching argument. No amount of short term trials can tell us how gm will behave in the biosphere in the long term. We’re just taking a punt on it all turning out OK.”

Here is my reply:

“The big difference is that once they’re released into the biosphere it’s not always possible to withdraw genes.” I dont see why this is the “clinching argument” – surely also debatable at least?
There is no reason to think the risks of genes escaping and causing problems are a greater threat from GMOs than from other breeding methods, eg mutagenesis, of which there are thousands of varieties and these are accepted under organic standards. Even crop rotation has been known to put selection pressure on pests.

http://reason.com/archives/2013/02/22/the-top-five-lies-about-biotech-crops/2

The whole 10,000 year-old project of farming has already changed the environment so much in ways that can never be undone, with or without GMOs. Nor does it seem reasonable to compare genetic engineering with dangerous chemicals, implying that they are all spawned of the same mindset- lets call it “Scientism” – and therefore must be equally bad. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that GE crops have reduced the use of pesticides, and allowed the substitution of dangerous chemicals with much more benign ones.

GE is a biological approach, in line with permaculture principles, and something Rachel Carson would have approved of, in line with organic principles of avoiding chemicals. Chemicals have also been unfairly demonized but this is much more understandable because as you say some were very dangerous – and have rightly been banned. I think we have to have some trust in the regulatory process- the anti-GE movement depends on a suspicion of science and flagrant scare-mongering.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/08/12/would-rachel-carson-embrace-frankenfoods-this-scientist-believes-yes/

GE is just another way of making new varieties and likely safer than more scatter-gun approaches including traditional breeding. It also has a lot of advantages over other methods and solves problems they cannot- eg with the Rainbow Papya. http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/feb06/aaas.gonsalves.papaya.sd.html

Also, Patrick your attitude does not explain the blanket opposition to all GE crops including potatoes which could save many fungicide sprayings each year and has negligible chance of “escaping” into the wild, a risk that is negligible for other crops as well.

http://www.biofortified.org/2010/11/the-likelihood-of-pollen-from-ge-cotton-causing-harm-to-the-environment-is-about-as-likely-as-a-poodle-escaping-into-the-wild/

The issue of escaping genes ironically is something that could have been addressed with Gene Use Restriction Technology (GURT) aka Terminator- too bad Monsanto were compelled under activist pressure to shelve it. But since we so have GE crops being grown over a larger area each year, would you prefer Patrick to see it resurrected?

https://skepteco.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/the-truth-about-the-terminator/

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that these risks are no greater for GE than other methods, most likely less; I dont like the analogy with climate science but I still think you have to explain why you dont accept the science on this.