Green VS. Green, Part 2

May 27, 2010 | Siddhartha Shome,

To read Part 1 click here.

GE Food for Thought On climate, Greens point to the science, but on GE crops, many find science unconvincing.

By Breakthrough Senior Fellow Siddhartha Shome

The Scientific Basis of Environmentalism

Modern American environmentalism was born in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Carson was a scientist and much of the book is a scientific argument about the harmful effects of chemical pesticides.

The book is replete with scientific data, quotes from scientists, and scientific reasoning. In fact, the entire concluding chapter is an impassioned plea to adopt new biology based breakthrough technologies to replace chemical pesticides.

According to Carson,

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing - entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists - all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.

Carson characterized chemical pesticides of the time as "Neanderthal" technologies, belonging to the "stone age of science". Clearly, the implication was not that we should replace chemical pesticides with even more ancient Jurassic-era technologies, but rather that we supplant them with advanced biology-based breakthrough technologies that are more environmentally friendly.

In a lecture a few months after the publication of Silent Spring, Carson remarked,

I criticize the present methods because they are based on a rather low level of scientific thinking. We really are capable of much greater sophistication in our solution of this problem.

Silent Spring's influence on the nascent environmental movement is well documented but its call for biology based alternatives to chemical pesticides had a deep influence on another group as well: pioneering scientists working in the fledgling field of agricultural biotechnology. In Lords of the Harvest, a book in which Dan Charles traces the origins of genetically engineered crops, he writes,

Pam Marrone, a researcher at Monsanto during the late 1980s [says] ... "I remember having lunch with [then-CEO] Dick Mahoney and him saying, 'Because of parathion [a particularly hazardous insecticide], I don't ever want to be in chemicals again. And that's why we're in biotechnology.'" ...

"During these years, all of us who went into biology were influenced by the wave of environmentalism," says Willy de Greef, who worked for Plant Genetic Systems in Belgium ... "The idea was reduce chemicals with biologicals or with genetics." Fred Perlak of Monsanto says ... "We were all the children of the sixties and the seventies. We'd all read Silent Spring; we knew the connection between 2-4-D [a common herbicide] and 2-4-5-T, Agent Orange."

Ever since Carson other prominent scientist-environmentalists have tended to support scientific-technological fixes for our environmental problems. James Lovelock, best known for his Gaia hypothesis, is an enthusiastic and active proponent of nuclear energy as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

James Hansen, well known for his pioneering work in climate science, is another prominent scientist-environmentalist who favors nuclear power. His Congressional testimony on climate change played a key role in bringing global warming to the forefront of public awareness. According to Hansen,

The scientific method requires that we keep an open mind and change our conclusions when new evidence indicates that we should. The new evidence affecting the nuclear debate is climate change, specifically the urgency of moving beyond fossil fuels to carbon-free energy sources. We need an urgent, substantial research and development program on fourth-generation nuclear power.

Yet another prominent scientist-environmentalist in favor of technological fixes for our environmental problems is naturalist and biodiversity guru E.O. Wilson -- a strong proponent of genetically engineered crops. According to him,

The problem before us is how to feed billions of new mouths over the next several decades and save the rest of life at the same time ... Most scientists and economists who have studied both sides of it agree that the benefits [of GE crops] outweigh the risks. The benefits must come from an evergreen revolution... Genetic engineering will almost certainly play an important role in the evergreen revolution.

The Anti-Scientific Basis of Environmentalism

Environmentalism, as Western industrialized world knows it, arose in the 1960s and 70s, ushered in by the unprecedented material prosperity of the post-war decades. In accordance with Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of needs, people in the prosperous industrialized world, having satisfied their basic material needs for food, water, shelter, and security sought to satisfy higher order postmaterial needs such as achieving a sense of fulfillment and purpose. In stark contrast to the progressive era, which took a positive view of progress and the spread of material prosperity driven by scientific-technological advances and industrial growth, the Green movement began to view such progress as an encroachment upon nature's inherent purity. Scientific-technological interventions in nature - even scientific knowledge itself - came to be seen negatively, a mark of human hubris. In the view of many Greens, mankind's vain attempts to to play God with nature, or even to understand nature's mysteries, inevitably cause more harm than good.

As celebrated eco-feminist Vandana Shiva puts it,

"It is thus not just 'development' which is a source of violence to women and nature ... at a deeper level, scientific knowledge, on which the development process is based, is itself a source of violence."

This new era with its new outlook may be called the post-progressive era.

Even Silent Spring is not devoid of the post-progressive "human progress destroying the balance of nature" viewpoint. The first chapter, "A Fable for Tomorrow," has a distinct fall-from-Eden quality, which can be (and has been) interpreted as a plea to revert to a pre-technological pre-modern past.

Since modern environmentalism arose in response to postmaterial, rather then material needs, it is not surprising that its emphasis is on metaphysics, morality, and character, instead of material, pragmatic solutions to real world problems. The green movement is thus more about feeling good, being virtuous, and doing the "right" thing, rather than about achieving measurable material outcomes in a practical, pragmatic manner. It is more about utopian aspirations than tangible material achievements.

Environmentalism, for many, has become something akin to a religious faith. In their book Breakthrough, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus compare evangelical Christianity with green enviro-religiosity,

Both tell stories of humankind's fall, one from Eden and the other from Nature. Both tell revenge fantasies about a future apocalypse that serves as punishment for humankind's sins against either God or Nature. And both reward true believers with the warm glow of feeling morally superior to non-believers.

Enviro-religionists believe, at some level, that the climate change is an outward manifestation of a deeper problem: humankind's turn away from nature and towards "immorality", as exemplified by excessive consumption and rampant materialism. They see scientific-technological fixes, such as nuclear power or genetically engineered crops, as either irrelevant or even harmful since they focus too much on the material aspects of the problem and divert attention from the real problem of reforming our ethics.

Green Materialism Versus Green Morality

Black Out: People all over the globe, not to mention Google, participated in Earth Hour but the event is merely for symbolic show since reverting to candle light is not a realistic climate change solution.

The environmental movement tends to emphasize Green morality over green pragmatism. A pragmatic and materialistic green outlook would emphasize concrete emissions reductions and welcome scientific-technological solutions. Today's Green morality, however, has a different orientation; its primarily emphasis is on transforming our morality and character irrespective of direct material impact on the environment.

A good illustration of this phenomenon of green morality is Earth Hour. Billed as the "largest climate event in history," it is an annual event in which people are supposed to turn off their lights for one designated hour to "show support for our planet and our future." It is obvious to all that Earth Hour has no significant material impact on greenhouse gas emissions. After all, the coal-fired power plants that generate much of our electricity and are the worst emitters of greenhouse gas emissions cannot simply be turned off and on within an hour.

Earth Hour is all about symbolism, but for what? A symbol for replacing modern electric lights with far less energy efficient technologies like candles? A symbol for abandoning scientific-technological progress and returning to the dark ages?

In the end, it is no more than a spectacle to make some feel morally superior while completely ignoring the real issue of vastly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The dichotomy between the materialistic and the moralistic approaches to solving our environmental problems is analogous to our societal response to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). On one hand, there are those who see AIDS in largely materialistic terms and advocate scientific-technological solutions, such as promoting the use of condoms, funding medical research, and making advanced anti-AIDS drugs more widely available. On the other hand, there are those who see AIDS primarily as a problem that should be addressed at the level of morality and character rather than through scientific-technological fixes. They believe that the disease is just an outward manifestation of a deeper problem: humankind's turn away from God and towards "immorality" as exemplified by sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, etc.

A Means, Not an End: Green morality has obscured the fact that good intentions, alone, are not enough to decarbonize the global economy and mitigate climate change.

This is not to suggest that morality is not important. Morality gives us a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and, if properly managed, it can create the conditions necessary to nurture the ideas and innovation necessary to develop effective scientific-technological fixes for our environmental problems. But when the morality becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, it can be more harmful than helpful in achieving tangible results, as when Denmark is hailed as the ideal "low carbon economy" though its carbon emissions are relatively high by regional standards. Even worse, the overemphasis on a contrived Green morality alienates those who are seriously concerned about climate change but are nevertheless skeptical of this post-progressive Green morality, thereby undermining the public consensus necessary for serious action on climate change.

To read Part 1 click here.