Environmentalism gets its own Martin Luther.

posted in: Commentary | 6

It has been obvious to any independant clear-thinking observer that the environmental movement is in need of a reformation.

As with Christianity over the centuries, over the last 50 years environmentalism’s done an enormous amount of good. Christianity needed some 1500 years before it’s wake-up call came on 31 October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg .

These are fast moving times, and environmentalism’s changed much faster than Christianity did.

Forty-seven years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring , the corresponding key date to 10/31/1517 in the reformation of environmentalism, is the day in 2009 when Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto reached the bookstores.

It’s not what Stewart Brand says that important (and there is quite a bit I disagree with in the book). It is the open-minded and pragmatic way he goes about questioning the down-side of the romanticism that has dominated the environmentalist movement of the last 48 years. He points out where scientific environmental pragmatism and scepticism got submerged by quasi-religious faith in big ideas that are often wrong. It is these wrong big ideas are now both harming people, and harming the reputation of environmentalism. Environmentalism needs a Martin Luther to rescue it’s reputation.

As he rightly says “it’s fortunate that there are so many romantics in the movement, because they are the ones who inspired the majority in most developed societies to see themselves as environmentalists. But that also means that scientists and their perceptions are always in the minority; they are easily ignored, suppressed, or demonised when their views don’t fit the consensus storyline.” That’s the problem.

This reflexive almost paranoid suppression of critical views comes through of the environmental hierarchy’s common portrayal of those who stray from the party line as being evil or in the pay of vile multinational corporations (or both). This dogmatism is preventing environmentalists from working out themselves where they are wrong.

Brand refreshingly and frankly states that he is willing to change his mind when he realises that the evidence shows his own opinion is wrong. He even gives examples of his own big mistakes. Such intellectual honesty is the way scientists work, as that’s the way science is successful. Science gains by throwing out false opinion. The opinions of science are always subject to change, and scepticism should be, and usually is, welcome. Not only welcome, it is absolutely necessary. Sadly, we are a very rarely see this in environmentalist “advocacy” groups, at least in their public statements. They seem to think that being an advocate means they can forget about scientific due process (although they are happy to claim the credibility of being supported by science). As the recent Glaciergate and E-mailgate scandals about the IPCC demonstrate, we sorely need evidence-based environmentalism to restore full credibility to environmental policies.

I hope that Brand’s wake-up call for greater respect for sceptical hardheaded science is heeded by the various environmentalist lobby groups, because as Brand demonstrates , the issues on which it needs to be brought to bear are important. Brand’s discussion of genetic engineering of crops and food production is perhaps the best single exposition for the intelligent general reader why genetic engineering is needed for pragmatic solutions of important environmental challenges, such as reducing the amount of nitrogen fertiliser used in agriculture, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by the use of this fertiliser.

As Brand has credentials in organic farming, he may finally get through to the great bulk of organic farming community who seem to be the dominant sources of resistance to genetic modification in agriculture. If they took Brand’s advice, they would finally realise that the organic way and genetic engineering are very compatible:

“I have a history with organic farming-more than I realised. Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2007), Michael Pollan’s natural history of American agriculture, I was surprised by this passage:

Organic Gardening and Farming struggled along in obscurity until 1969, when an ecstatic review in the Whole Earth Catalog [famously written by Brand] brought it to the attention of hippies trying to figure out how to grow vegetables without patronising the military-industrial complex. Within two years Organic Gardening and Farming’s circulation climbed from 400,000 to 700,000.”

To give a further taste of flavour of the book:

“In 2000 project called BioCassava Plus, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, undertook to engineer a radically improved cassava. It had eight goals for the new cultivar. In terms of nutrition, a daily diet should provide all a person needs of bioavailable protein, vitamin A, vitamin E, iron, and zinc. In addition, the new cassava should be free of cyanide, should be storable for two weeks instead of one day, and should be resistant to the viruses that afflict the crop. Each trait would be engineered separately and then stacked into a single all-purpose crop plant. “This is the single most ambitious plant genetic engineering project ever attempted,” says the project leader, plant biologist Richard Sayre from a Ohio State… when all these traits get stacked into what will be a farmer-preferred cultivar from Africa, this work will be done by African scientists in African laboratories. We’re developing the tools mostly in the United States and Europe but once these tools are in place, it becomes an African-owned and developed project.” Field trials have begun in Kenya and Nigeria…

.. another venture of the Gates foundation is the African biofortified sorghum project, with Florence Wanbugu’s Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation leading a consortium of nine institutions, including DuPont-Pioneer. Sorghum is a drought-tolerant staple for 500 million worldwide. The GE version will improve digestibility and vitamin K and E, iron and zinc, and three amino acids. Greenhouse trials are under way in South Africa. (Vitamin A, incidentally, is currently distributed to the developing world in the form of 500 million capsules costing about a dollar apiece. Getting the same amount of vitamin A from a fortified crop will cost about a fifth of a cent.) GE bananas are also being developed to provide a full allowances of vitamins A and E and iron for countries like Uganda, that rely on bananas as their major food source.

“Greenpeace will fight to keep GE bananas, cassava, and sorghum from poor countries’ fields, just as it will keep opposing golden rice, says Janet Cotter of Greenpeace‘s Science Unit in London.” That quote was in an April 2008 issue of Science.

Because the story is being told by an environmentalist with irrefutable Green credentials, the environmental movement will at last wake up to the cruel injustice being inflicted on the world’s poor by well-meaning, well-fed, rich Green romanticists from the developed world.

These well-meaning romanticists are currently able to justify to themselves deliberately impeding the delivery of beneficial genetically engineered food crops to the people who can most benefit from them — the rural poor of the third world, as has just happened in India with insect protected genetically engineered eggplant, banned because of environmentalist activism.

Fortunately Brand’s wonderful book will not be ignored because it makes its statements in a highly direct controversial fashion. He delivers only three short but lethal bullets, unlike the first Martin Luther’s list of 95 theses nailed to the door of the Schlosskirke in 1517.

Cities are green. Nuclear energy is Green. Genetic engineering is Green” is unavoidable clarity from the new Martin Luther. So look out for them when they arrive in a Penguin paperback edition, due in March, my local bookstore tells me.

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Update May 2010

Pam Ronald, at Science blogs has this to say:

For Earth Day, let’s celebrate Stewart Brand, the distinguished writer, lecturer and author of the classic Whole Earth Catalog, which won the national book award in 1972.

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He also has a new book called “Whole Earth Discipline” where he argues that the established Green agenda is outdated, too negative, too tradition bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided to address the scale of environmental problems that we face today.

You might want to check out John Tierney’s column.

“[Stewart Brand] was the one, after all, who helped inspire Earth Day by putting the first picture of the planet on the cover of his “Whole Earth Catalog” in 1968.”

(Continues at link).

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.