Greens vs. Science?

by Alice Bell, Adam Corner

Science and technology have long been at the centre of green politics. It is a scientific understanding of nature that has identified so many key environmental concerns in the first place: biodiversity, pollution, climate change. And yet the green movement remains saddled with a reputation for “bad science” when it comes to GM crops and nuclear power.

Fred Pearce worries that the environment movement seem to be “turning up on the wrong side of the scientific argument”, while Keith Kloor talks of a “battle underway for the soul of environmentalism” between traditionalists and modernists. Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto even calls for a “clause four moment” in green politics, where it turns it back some of its history and supporters to find new ways to cement ties with science.

We can understand these concerns, but also worry that a simple call for more and more science marginalises the political contribution the green movement can offer. Rather than changing themselves to suck up to the increasingly powerful "geek lobby", greens should be standing proud for what they can contribute to the public debate on science and technology. Scientists and members of the green movement – where they don’t already overlap – should be listening to each other more.

Greens and Science: An Elective Affinity?

Science is at the centre of much of green politics. If one wanted to be provocative, one might try to argue that green – not blue or red – is a uniquely scientific political hue. Much of the green case is based on a concern for natural world, and science is our way of looking as deeply and as rigorously as we can at nature. This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A piece of popular science writing as well as a call to environmental activism; it’s a classic in its use of science to highlight impact humans action (including actions based in scientific research) have had natural world. Call it an example of the risk society, the anthropocene or something else, it's a now common trope in modern environmentalism. 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.

Fights over GMO research last May provide one of the more painful expressions of tensions between parts of the scientific community and aspects of the green movement. An anti-GM group, Take the Flour Back, called for a protest, including possibly destroying crops which were part on long-term on-going research. The scientists whose work was at threat responded with an appeal to activists as environmentalists, stressing they were publicly funded research trying to learn more about the safety as well as usefulness of such crops. A counter-campaign was launched drawing support from across the scientific community and outside. The Nature news blog reported the protest itself, no research was destroyed, perhaps due to the large police presence, but it was “not a great day for an evidence-based approach to anything”. Martin Robbins bleakly painted an image of “a few dozen scruffy people… singing 'Kumbaya' and handing out baked goodies to the cops”, with an “anti-anti-GM” group on the other side, “geeks tapped away on iPads and smartphones, while the lizard people of Sense About Science cynically bribed reporters with ice cream”. 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.

Food security is not the only the only issue to have resurfaced recently in a way which would seem to draw battle lines within the green movement. High profile environmentalists like George Monbiot and Mark Lynas, increasingly throwing their weight behind nuclear power as a means of cutting carbon emissions, have wasted no time in calling out what they would describe as their less scientifically enlightened colleagues in the process (e.g. an open letter to David Cameron last March). It’s tempting to read nuclear debates as being about scientific evidence versus ideology: hard-headed rationalists dismissing those misty-eyed greens who maintain arguments against nuclear as ageing hippies that need to catch up. Except that the nuclear debate is economics too - lots of economics - and politics, lots of politics.

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.

Merchants of Doubt and Certainty

It’s not just their scepticism of science and technology, which gets the greens into trouble with the scientific community; it’s their overconfidence in it too. In the wake of the 2009 “Climategate” hack, Mike Hulme wrote a piece for the Guardian complaining that climate camp activists misunderstood science as they tried to use it for political advocacy. Citing an example of a banner claiming protestors were "armed only with peer-reviewed science", Hulme stressed they were armed with much more than that. The Climate Camp protest reflected a powerful vision of politics and economic justice, and should be open about that. Using phrases like "as demanded by the science" only emasculates public debate.

It is important to see that Climate Camp slogan in its political context too though. The campaigners were responding to concerns that they were dangerous; they wanted to suggest they were armed with something other than sticks. The actual banner has a set of ellipses as well as the word “only” between “armed” and “peer reviewed”. Read in such light, we could even see this as a relatively humble cultural reference to science, applied for its timidity, not ferocity. Moreover, why not stand behind some science? Especially as there are so many others quick to try to diminish the strength of scientific voices in this debate. We appreciate this may sound at odds with our earlier emphasis on the political nature of science and technology, but it is possible to be aware that science won’t win a battle outright, and still say it is part of the argument. We think our environmental policy decisions can cope with the small degree of nuance required to draw on science whilst also putting it in a social context. We think our environmental policy needs to be able to do this.

Steven Yearley suggests environmental NGOs were initially wary about campaigning on climate change; they were looking for concrete successes and this topic just looked like one designed to provoke and sustain controversy. Looking at recent campaigns, we might be excused for thinking some have returned to a rather 80s focus on saving animals and battling corporate corruption. It’s all bees, oil spills, gas bills and aircraft noise, with the complex, abstract and contested topic of climate change hiding in background. Maybe the climate science will come out from behind the polar bear pictures with the publication of the fifth IPCC report, or maybe not. Sense About Science are working on questions of the public understanding of uncertainty. Arguably this is a worthwhile, scientific and sensible thing to do, but considering the well documented well-funded and well-organised campaigns to spread doubt in climate science (the so-called “Merchants of Doubt”), it’s understandable many are concerned about such an approach. One person’s open and healthy acceptance of uncertainty is another’s “dragging heels with inaction”, or even stirring trouble. Uncertainty, like many aspects of environmental policy, is can easily be rhetorically deployed to a range of ends. 

Luddites: anti-tech or alt-tech?

One of the more interesting aspects of the GMO fights this summer was the way that many protestors self-identified as Luddites. The word Luddite is often used as shorthand for reactionary opposition to technological advances, but it has a richer history. Formed as the industrial revolution replaced skilled craftspeople with systemised, automatic, and mechanical processes, the target of the Luddite movement was the eradication of particular forms of labour, not the new machines themselves. 200 years later, environmentalists with a political critique of corporate ownership of the food chain, or the privatisation of the global commons have more in common with the Luddites than their critics probably imagine. Luddites are not anti-technology per se, just strident in their questioning of particular technologies (even if some who celebrate the term over-use it as much as those who simply use it pejoratively). As David Edgerton argued in Nature last year, science has a long and distinguished history of Luddism, routinely making choices about which research not to fund, which direction not to go in, so as to free up resources for the work they do want to do. We all make choices about technology all the time, the trick is to notice this and make clever ones rather than sleepwalking into the futures that others choose for us.

The prospect of geoengineering – large-scale interference in the global climate system to either remove atmospheric carbon dioxide or reflect a certain proportion of sunlight back into space – provides a particularly interesting case. The same “devil’s bargain” arguments that advocates of nuclear power have used to justify expanding atomic energy as a low-carbon fuel are being strapped into place to frame the idea of climate engineering. What if some kind of catastrophic climatic emergency were to occur? Wouldn’t it be better to have done the geoengineering research, just in case?. Arguments like these are difficult to counter at face value – who would dispute the value of a backup plan, in case of a climatic emergency? But embedded deeply in rhetoric like this are assumptions that a green critique should challenge. What kind of world are we saving, if it is one that is smothered in a layer of industrial scaffolding, necessary to keep the sun’s rays out and the CO2 underground? Is simply asking the question a dangerous expression of political despair?

Challenging the values that any vision of the future embodies is not simply a matter of disputing empirical findings, or being unwilling to accept data inconvenient to an ideological position – its politics, pure and simple. Paul Kingsnorth dubs Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas and Emma Marris “neo-greens”, with a not-too-subtle reference to neo-liberal). This is rather an unfair jump, but, as Richard Jones notes of Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto, the complaint that greens put economic and political change before a technological fix is, itself, not an apolitical position. There is an ideology to Henderson’s approach as much as it seeks to demolish ideology. It is a manifesto after all and, in the chapter on greens in particular, seems to be quite open in its desire to maintain the status quo with respect to economic policy. The scientific community has a politics. It is mobilised to particular ends and works in particular ways – left, right and other. All of this is worth unpacking. Indeed, the political savvy of the green movement is something the scientific community could draw on for their own ends, helping unravel networks of climate change scepticism (e.g. the funding of think tanks), for example, or lobbying to push scientific work to industrial masters (e.g. recent fights over polar research). Adam Ramsey’s call to occupy BIS in defence of the Haldane Principle might not suit everyone, but it’s an example of the way science could find political resources in green politics.

Where Next for Greens and Science?

It is tempting to see a clean split between ‘modern’ greens who embrace GMOs, nuclear power or geoengineering, and Romantic tree-hugging hippies, suspicious of the shiny new world the Industrial Revolution promised. But behind the Frankenfoods mask, green activism is often less 'anti-science' and more a hopeful attempt at harnessing the power of science for social good. There are times where some members of the green movement could take a more nuanced approach to scientific evidence but that is true of most groups, scientific ones included. Science would do well to try to learn from the greens, as well as teach them.

Those who care about using the best possible science available to deal with environmental policy should find ways to connect scientists and members of the green movement, not wave terms like “luddite” “anti-science” or “neo-green” around as yet another way to delineate themselves from others. We know this is easier said than done, and that these are complex questions about complex groups with complex histories. We’d welcome more responses, disagreements, ideas and examples, and hope this will be the start of further debate on the topic.


Adam Corner is a researcher and writer who focuses on the psychology of communicating climate change and public perceptions of energy technologies and geoengineering. He works in the Understanding Risk group in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, for the Climate Outreach and Information Network, and edits the website Talking Climate.

Alice Bell is an academic and writer interested in science's relationships with the rest of society. She currently runs a course on energy and climate change at Imperial College but is leaving to research science policy at Sussex next month. She keeps a personal blog.

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First published: 26 October, 2012

Category: Activism, Environment

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16 Comments on "Greens vs. Science?"

By Barry Woods, on 26 October 2012 - 09:56 |

“but considering the well documented well-funded and well-organised campaigns to spread doubt in climate science “

is this statement just part of the green mythology and a rationalisation of the reasons for failure politically..

It is so pervasive that one academic who submitted critical evidence to one of the enquiries has said, that he expected to be contacted by someone (because of his submission) ie Exxon or some thinktank.. and of course no contact ever came.

and he had the realisation that he had believed this himself. On a personal level, I would have thought someone would have sent me a cheque by now aswell! wink
The only evidence ever given seems to be very small amounts (relatively) by Exxon or Koch, (almost painted as evil comedy Batman style villains) over a decade to a number of think tanks, of which there seems to be very little evidence that this was make a case against climate change.And when individual like Bob Ward pointed out that these groups had a stance of climate change, Exxon moneys were withdrawn, not least perhaps because of multi million dollar investment in research for renewable technologies, being involved with thinktanks in anyway becoming a business and investment risk for Exxon, as they have stated numerous times, when ‘accused’.  These source watch or Exxon secrets figures, are dwarfed by Greenpeace’s annual budget alone. and organisations like the European Climate Foundation, Yale, Pew, Oak Foundation, Macall Mcbain, Grantham and government monies. Whilst
Grassroots campaigning groups like Campaign Against Climate Change, COIN or interested groups, like the PIRC clearly have only small amounts of money themselves.  Yet they seem oblivious to the fact, that the bloggers leading any sceptical thinking have no money at all, beside rattling a PayPal tip jar on their blogs and subsist on free blogs and the like.

Those that get accused of being funded by these shadowy organisation, and clearly know they are NOT (like myself) then seriously question the judgement of people making those claims, as either deliberately spreading, ‘misinformation’ or as I think really believe it, it has come such an article of faith that ‘big oil’ etc are against the green movement, that they forget to look a little more closely at todays reality (This is something Fred Pearce picked up on, in the Climate Files, ie new sceptics with different motivations)

I have no doubt green peace or campaigners were fighting ‘big oil’ in the Rainforest battles over 20-30 years ago (and against the odds largely won those debates), and like George Marshall fighting the nefarious practices of Chevron. But those veteran campaigners, Tony Juniper, Marshall, Monbiot even Sir John Houghton, I think have just assume/believe that yesterdays opposition is what they are against and have brought their own articles of faith and worldview from those days of campaigning with them, without thought, and still believe in the green mythology of the little guys vs the ‘big oil’ corporations. When, in fact they now have governments on their side, and Greenpeace and many NGO’s or foundations (Pew, WWF, etc) have become goliaths themselves, vs the new little guys private highly individual bloggers, like Steve McIntyre, Donna Laframboise, Anthony Watts, Pierre Gosselin, Tony Newbury, Jeff Id, Steven Mosher, Thomas Fuller, Lucia L or Jo Nova, and many others, or even non blogging individuals like Douglas Holland, Douglas Keenan or Don Keiller. Until the real motivations of these people are looked at without preconceptions of motivated reasoning and ideology, then little progress will be made into a healthier debate which wishes to include their views, rather than to exclude them.
The existence of ‘denier’ disinformation databases by PR groups, with the individuals mention, tagged as climate denier, denialists, spreaders of disinformation, is worth investigating in itself, and should I hope give many people pause for thought about the highly politicised situation.

some examples:  and in the UK or that someone like the Guardian Science editor should write about the climate denier Lord Lawson, which he clearly knows in this context ‘denier’ is highly offensive and worse highly polarising to many, as the Guardians OWN style guide recognises

James Anderson and Anthony Watts discussed it here:

By Richard D, on 26 October 2012 - 10:42 |

The word science, means different things to different people. To many outside of science often it refers to scientific knowledge plus scientists and scientific organisations. Whereas to scientists it it can refer to a much narrower body of information generated by the scientific method which is largely independent of the people and organisations producing it. Most conversations are ambiguous on this point.

By Graham Strouts, on 26 October 2012 - 11:04 |

Yes I second Barry Woods’ comment above, the idea that climate skeptics are funded by Big Oil is as absurd as the claim that biotech scientists working on genetic engineering are all funded by Monsanto, as I have written here:

There seems to be a naive belief amongst many greens that the only reason we are not doing more about climate change is control and corruption of Big Oil who have conned us all into using their devilish products rather like heroin pushers, and that if only they would stop funding skeptics, we would all make the right choice, switch to readily available wind and solar and all will be fine. In reality, everyone gains from using fossil fuels, it really will be extraordinarily difficult to substitute with cleaner technology and even in a best case scenario will take far longer, and be far costlier than climate alarmists’ would have us believe. It is not just the greed and profits of Koch bros. which will suffer if we make the wrong decisions; all of us will suffer if the wrong energy policies lead to unnecessary higher prices or blackouts, especially the poor.

By rupertread, on 26 October 2012 - 11:09 |

Thanks for this article, which helpfully raises the relevant questions.

The _answer_ is simple. Greens are pro-science. But we are NOT necessarily pro-technologies. It depends on whether those technologies are (to use Illich’s term) ‘convivial’.
GM and nuclear are NOT convivial.
That is it.

Everything else is misunderstanding, either accidental or wilful. The attack on g/Greens as ‘anti-science’ is wilful - it is sheer propaganda mostly from those who stand to make money or careers out of nuclear and GM. These people of course shelter behind ‘science’, when what they ACTUALLY want is a blank cheque for their pet technologies. All in the name of an unthinking ideology of ‘progress’.

By Graham Strouts, on 26 October 2012 - 12:43 |

@rupertread how do you define “convivial”- it doesnt seem very precise.Why is GE not “convivial” if it confers disease resistance, helps reduce pesticide use and increases farmer incomes and yileds? 

For example, as a permaculturalist I would welcome GE blight-resistant potatoes, but green groups are universally opposed- not for any good scientific reason that is for sure.

Who decides, and on what basis, that some technologies are permitted and others not? Because invariably what i see is greens misrepresenting the evidence to push their own agenda.

You ignore the fact that pretty much all green opposition to GE is happy to disregard the evidence and use cherry-picked studies to discredit it and fear-monger. So I am afraid that I see your post as more evidence that the greens are indeed often anti-science.

By Nishma Doshi, on 26 October 2012 - 13:01 |

The problem with this article is that it forgets that the *interpretation* of science is political.

Therefore seeing something as pro or anti science is entirely ridiculous. Green politics has, in my experience, embraced scientific data, but has also had to look at the consequences of applying the ideas into the real world

Embracing GMOs without looking at the consequences on local peoples, the local economy and the way in which scientific results/products are distributed to the masses is plain ridiculous. And having a singular one-for-all solution for environmental conditions forgets the micro-conditions is also ridiculous. As any scientist would say, there is still so much we need to learn. And only time will teach us that. And as Kuhn has argued, nothing in science is certain.

By Alice, on 26 October 2012 - 13:02 |

To Barry & Graham

Sorry if it sounded like we were saying all sceptics were funded by big oil - not the intention. 

One aspect we didn’t fold in, but might have, is the way both professional science studies and journalism can also help provide a similar critique of science we credit the greens with here - the former has a form of historical commitment to something called symmetry of explanation (google it) which might be useful here, though is also controversial in context of climate change. With journalists, they are meant to be impartial… though there are questions here too…

 COI: I’m an STS scholar/ occasional writer so think this is CLEARLY the way to go and they are totally trustworthy, always grin

By Barry Woods, on 26 October 2012 - 16:45 |

Hi Alice. Where you say not ALL sceptics, highlights my concern about worldview, of those listed Not ANY are funded by big oil, and these are the people leading the sceptical debate. Not even Heartland nor the GWPF recieve any such funding, and the money Heartland was hoping to get from the Koch’s was for nothing to do with climate change.

The Guardian and others were very concerned about the GWPF no doubt because Lawson = Conservative = bad in their worldview. yet when a funder was outed, it was a private wealthy hedge funder, and a previous conservative donor. Not even Leo Hickman got too excited about this. Hard to really, when another very wealthy hedge fund owner (ironically the find has a billion and a half Exxon shares) funds the Grantham Institute, to the tune of millions vs tens of thousands, and pay Bob Ward’s wages. Why were they kept anonymous?, not as assumed bcos of ‘evil’ fossil fuel interests, but a political climate where, Lawson and other advisory board members are placed in activist deniers photo halls of shame, and tagged deniers and accused as spreading disinformation. In this environment, in part created by the Guardian (Monbiots, Deniars Royal Flush) and Bob Wards writing (lobbying Exxon) is it any wonder donors want to protect their privacy, with activist organisations agressive campaigning.
Part of the problem is that environmental journalism has in part gone ‘native’ or has been percieved to have gone ‘native’, the irony of the greenpeace sponsored broken filter debate seemed totally lost on those present, except maybe Websters ‘sleeping with’ the environmentalists comment.

Thus normal journalism scepticism of various science papers and lobbyist press releases & claims just does not happen. Vidals uncritical repetition of the GHF’s 300k climate change (man made) beong but one example, a claim that gets used to justify policy action, and to close down other voices, because people are dying! And the very real relatively easily preventable tradegy of 22,000 children dying every day just gets forgotten, Greenpeace, 10:10 and the Guardian only seem to care about tthe mythical 300 k climate deaths. Whereas the actions and cost required for saving and preventing the very real deaths now, eould even protect against hypothetical future climate deaths.  (note I cite Prof Richard Betts, Met Office, Head of Climate Impacts, report, which ststes GHF report not based on rigorous science)

Typed on a smartphone, whilst my son does football training, so sorry fir typos and any bad grammar)

By Graham Strouts, on 27 October 2012 - 12:19 |

@Nisha Doshmi “Embracing GMOs without looking at the consequences on local peoples, the local economy and the way in which scientific results/products are distributed to the masses is plain ridiculous.”
Please show some evidence or examples of anyone “embracing” GMOs without looking at local consequences. eg the same link I gave earlier  clearly indicates positive effects of new technology on farmers and their communities, inc. increased incomes and reduced use of pesticides. The argument that new technology will necessarily have detrimental effects seems to me the same old same old paternalistic Green neo-colonialism of “keep the poor poor” and romanticizing peasant farming (try it yourself if you think it is so groovy).

We would all be poor and leading lives of much greater hardship without technology on farming; GE is just one more form of improved technology. There are hundreds and thousands of potential applications- it is after all just another form of plant breeding, but greens and activists lump them all together and work to ban all forms of the technology at all costs. So Im afraid to say that your comment and these other comments from activists protesting they are not anti-science ring hollow: your comment is indeed another example of the same Green anti-tech, anti-modernity, anti-science that has come to largely define the movement. And it is a paternalistic stance, not applied to the comforts that you enjoy from technology (like cheap affordable industrial food). Farmers are not stupid- they embrace GE because it does indeed benefit the and their local communities; if it di not, they would reject it.

By Mary, on 27 October 2012 - 14:18 |

I’ll speak to GMOs because that’s what I know best, and the front that I’ve been on for years now. There have been many attempts from the team science side to reach out and have conversations. I do not know if there have been attempts from team organic to do so—I haven’t seen it. There was a great interview once in the NYT with Raj Shah, who said:
““After I went to Berkeley to meet with the Food First people,” he told me, “I came away very much wanting to work more closely with agro-ecological groups. We talk to anyone who will talk to us. How could we aspire to be transformational if we didn’t?” He paused, and then added musingly: “I guess I really don’t know why there is so much hostility. I really think we have something to learn from them.” “

I have seen team organic using “doubt as their product”, such as this recent campaign:

But part of the problem is the dynamic here. There’s not a single practice that team science is trying to prevent team organic from using. There’s not a single attempt to stand in the way of their research, or destroy any of it. But scientists are put in the position of playing defense from the attacks of team organic. We have to continually combat falsehoods that are spread. So science is forced into what appears to be opposition—which isn’t what we want. We just want to be allowed to pursue strategies that reduce synthetic inputs, and improve nutrition, and retain important crops that could be lost (like bananas).

It looks to me like the same dynamic is established on the other topics as well—nobody is saying to prohibit alternative energy, for example.

By Mark Henderson, on 28 October 2012 - 18:33 |

I found this interesting and thought-provoking, and found much of value here. I agree wholeheartedly that it isn’t usually helpful to throw around terms such as “anti-science” and “Luddite” in this sort of debate. I also agree that there are many questions beyond scientific evidence that need to be considered when deciding whether technologies such as GM and nuclear should be embraced by society. I agree, too, that people who appreciate and seek to promote science—the geeks of my book—could learn much from the success of the greens in building a broadly-based lobbying movement (though I also think we must be cautious about adopting tactics that play fast and loose with evidence in pursuit of a larger goal).

Yet as I read the piece, I kept thinking “yes, but…” (which incidentally I recall was Alice’s reaction to reading my book!) It’s absolutely correct that there are important and unresolved economic debates to be had about nuclear power, for example. But if the green movement sometimes raises legitimate arguments about economics here, it too often makes bad ones about nuclear safety. If we’re to answer the good questions about nuclear, we need to make sure the bad ones don’t get in the way. I’d be much more comfortable debating the cost-effectiveness of nuclear power if those who oppose it most vociferously on economic grounds didn’t also oppose it in principle.

It’s a similar story with GM crops. I absolutely agree with Alice and Adam that serious critiques of GM are about power and control of the food chain, not about evidence of safety or environmental damage (I accept I’m inferring this from their article, and if this isn’t what was meant I will happily correct). But I would disagree profoundly that that has been the central argument of most green campaigners against agricultural biotechnology. The argument has far too often been framed in terms of risk to health and planet, which is then used to support calls for a ban or moratorium on all the many different applications of GM, in all crops for all purposes, by public and private sector alike. 

If it’s really all about power, rather than a faith-based rejection of a particular class of technologies, then let’s have a debate about power, and consider how public-good GM projects (which have suffered from the greens’ blanket opposition) might fit into the picture. Let’s accept that it makes much more sense to debate the specific applications of GM, on a case by case basis, than to accept or reject it wholesale. I accept that that will certainly mean some applications of GM should be rejected. I’m not sure most green opponents of GM are ready to say the same in reverse.

What both examples give rise to is a strong suspicion that technology has been rejected out of hand, and that there is no evidence that could be expected to change deep green minds. Indeed, when I’ve asked representatives of the Soil Association what might give them cause to reconsider blanket opposition to GM, they’ve dodged the question.

As I’ve been writing this response, I’ve also been struck by what may be an important contradiction in this piece. Alice and Adam point out, very reasonably, that the green movement is historically grounded in science. Yet they then also assert that “serious green critiques of science have always been about power, not data”. For me, these statements jar against one another, in a way that I think illustrates the problem.

Critiques of science that dwell on power have their place, and it’s important that they are made, but should these really be the basis of the green movement’s core arguments? Don’t these strike towards different political goals from protecting the environment? And if so, are not those goals often undeclared? Isn’t there a good case that green critiques of science should in fact be about data?

The politics and the economics matter, a lot. But so too does the science, and having political and economic debates against a background of good scientific evidence makes I think for a richer and more productive discussion.

By Ian Wingrove, on 31 October 2012 - 10:31 |

What greens have often done best in the past is assembling those facts and problems which run counter to the accepted scientific debate. These are dismissed as inaccurate, badly researched and a bit wacky. They often run counter to the mainstream politicial debate as well, which the science is inevitably wrapped up with. Then a few good facts, an innovative way of looking at things acheive a paradigm shift. More debate and a lot of reserach follows.
The problem is sorting out the wacky from the genuine innovation., but geeks being dismissive just betrays your inexperience and lack of historical perspective.

By David King, on 01 November 2012 - 15:10 |

Firstly, thanks for a serious attempt to deal with these issues, and for your relatively nuanced rendering of the Luddites.  It is pleasing that our attempts ( to rehabilitate them in the year of their 200th anniversary have borne some fruit.  This post is my personal view.

However, the article is irremediably flawed by its adherence to the liberal model of science, with its absolute separation of science and power, data and values.  The claim, for example that ‘serious green critiques of science have always been about power, not data’ is a fundamental misreading of the issue. The point is that in a world in which science as an institution is utterly enmeshed with power, power often distorts ‘the data’ and determines at which data are relevant and which not.  Let me give you a concrete example, the regulation of GMOs.  In the 1990s, regulatory risk assessments of GMOs were only allowed to consider potential direct environmental impacts of the GM crop.  Repeatedly, we were told by regulatory committees packed with scientists that this was what ‘sound science’ dictated.  It took the campaign by the green movement to force the EU to revise its directive so that regulatory risk assessments could include, for example, the potential ecological impacts of herbicide use as a result of commercial use of the crop.  I hope you would agree with me that this latter, broader assessment is more scientifically valid, but the narrower assessment that suited corporate interests was insisted upon, not by corporate placemen on those committees, but by academic scientists who genuinely believed that their thinking was correct.

The concept which you are missing is technocracy, the exertion of power through technology and scientific/technological discourses.  The overt form of this, which Mark Henderson advocates in his book is the handing over of political/legislative power to scientists and engineers, and he is the first to openly go so far for a few decades.  But I really don’t know why he’s bothering, it’s not as if the institutions of science and technology, with their tens of billions of pounds every year from corporate, military and state sources, and their enthroning as the highest source of truth, exactly lack influence in the world.  I suppose it is because scientists have been put on his pedestal and showered with goodies for the last 200 years, that when they get the slightest criticism the best they can do is to whinge, like spoilt children, about people being ‘anti-science, anti-tech, anti-modernity’‘, something that Mark Henderson, despite his disclaimers, indulges in at every opportunity.

Technocracy began with the Scientific Revolution, in which the control and domination of nature was institutionalised as the basis for the accumulation of wealth, the improvement of military capacities and the control of the unruly lower orders.  The writings of the philosophers of the scientific revolution, such as Francis Bacon and the founders of the Royal Society are explicit in describing nature as an unruly whore who must be disciplined and her feminine secrets extracted by force.  In this period, rather than, as previously, a living organism, nature becomes conceptualised as a mechanism, or later as a system, and the machine becomes the ruling ideal of  our civilisation.   Western science has pursued a highly effective reductionist methodology for discovering knowledge about the mechanisms of nature but has made the mistake of extending this reductionism into its model of what nature is.

So, for the past 400 years we have lived not merely in capitalism, but in technocratic capitalism.  It is an integrated system in which the two partners reinforce and complement each other. A good example of the technocratic approach is industrial agriculture, with its disciplining of nature into straight lines with machines, monocultures and pesticides.  Another is the Scientific Management of Frederick Taylor, best known for its time and motion studies of industrial workers, aiming to turn the factory into a smoothly-oiled efficient machine.  Taylor expresses technocracy perfectly when he says, ‘In the past, the man was first.  In the future the system must be first.’

To return to your article, the root of green objections to GMOs, nuclear power, geoengineering etc is that they are profoundly technocratic projects that seek to dominate and control nature, on the basis of a still deeply inadequate, reductionist-mechanistic understanding of it.  Greens know that it is the 400 years of technocracy, and in particular the last 200 years of industrial capitalism that the Luddites were fighting, that has brought us to the multiple environmental and resource crises that we face today, and that the root of the problem is the attitude of domination of nature, which stems from the desire for power.  Your distinction between green arguments about power (‘good’), versus ‘data’ (‘bad’) does not work because the one springs from the other: it is the overconfidence of power, based upon reductionist understandings, that creates the risks that greens points to.

The critique of technocracy also explains another powerful element in the green/left objections to geoengineering etc, ie. that these ‘solutions’ are techno-fixes for problems that are fundamentally social and economic.  As you note, with reference to Mark Henderson’s proposals, these supposedly non-political solutions are actually attempts to preserve existing economic power structures.  As Richard Branson, a man who makes a lot of money running airlines noted, “If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn’t be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.”

But the problem is a little worse; as Marx and Engels noted in the Communist Manifesto, the power of the bourgeoisie comes not merely from control of the means of production (technology), but from its constant revolutionising of those means.  Technocracy continually reshapes the world, providing new opportunities for profit and control.  For example, thinking inside their technological/manipulative worldview, scientists mis-define the problem of global hunger as caused by inadequate crop yields, rather than as due to poverty caused by unjust economic systems.  Thus, the answer becomes to boost crop yields with GMOs, which not-coincidentally provides a wonderful new opportunity for corporations to make money and control the global food system in ways the could not do before.

To the scientists who have commented, I would say, look, I know from first-hand experience that it is hard to grow up wanting to help people and change the world for the better through science and technology and then to be told that you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  But it’s time for y’all to get over it and join the real world.  It is really silly to suggest as ‘Mary’ does that ‘team science’ is not trying to stop what ‘team organic’ is doing, as if 80 years of the steamrollering of industrial agriculture driven by agribusiness interests had never happened. YOU are part of the power structure, deal with it.  If you don’t, don’t be surprised that greens are not interested in your supposedly reasonable approach of assessing each bit of GM research ‘on its own merits’. We can smell refinements of industrial agriculture and techno-fixes for its failures a mile off, and we’re not interested, however clever and even effective they might be.  That might be unreasonable, but you can’t expect the people who have been on the receiving end to be reasonable, until you stop shoving things down our throats. So sorry, you don’t get a thank you, Graham, for the over-production of cheap industrial food that creates epidemics of obesity, destroys the environment and the economies of Third world countries upon which it is dumped, whilst concentrating control in the hands of corporations and big farmers and destroying the livelihoods of family farmers. 

The article is right to point out that greens have one foot in the technocratic camp. The environmental movement that began in the 1960s is, in part, merely another wave in the progressive movement towards better control of nature. Environmentalism bases its critique upon a better scientific theory of nature (ecology), which has a more sophisticated emphasis on complex systems.  These insights have been extremely important.  But because it it springs primarily from middle-class liberal sources, rather than from a group oppressed by capitalism, it has a strong technocratic element, which explains that the defection of characters like Mark Lynas.  Of course, mainstream NGOs must operate within the scientific hegemony, which makes their co-option easy.  

In order to really address the causes of our current environmental crisis we need a politics that addresses both halves of the partnership of science and capital, a politics that is inherently anti-technocratic, and is not taken in by the supposed neutrality and progressiveness of technocratic solutions. Unfortunately, traditional socialist approaches have often been even more aggressively technocratic than those of capitalism. 

The best example we have of such a politics is Luddism, which is not an anti-technology, but an anti-technocracy movement. The Luddites opposed not technology as such, (that is a history written by the victors), by machery ‘hurtful to ‘Commonality’ ie to the common good. The Luddite rebellion was a revolt against both the economic and technological aspects of technocratict capitalism. As the writer Kirkpatrick Sale puts it, it was a revolt not against machines but against The Machine.  It succeeds where green critiques fail because it was based in working class struggle against capitalism, and could easily see the ways in which the machines expressed and enforced class domination.

My apologies for the length of this, when you’re talking outside the box you need to explain yourself.  I am pleased to see the stirrings of a more nuanced debate about science on the left, and will be delighted to continue this dialogue with you.  

By Alice, on 04 November 2012 - 19:25 |

@ Nishma Doshi  & David King  - I don’t think we do miss that the interpretation of science is political or that data and power can be easily seporated. I know Kuhn well, and the problems of technocracy (I’ve marked enough MSc essays on both topics…) sorry if you missed that, maybe we didn’t bring it out clearly enough. Might well have been our clumsiness of articulation. 

My response to Mark Henderson - posted on his blog - might clarify things a bit

By cityeyrie, on 05 November 2012 - 10:20 |

After reading this through and the comments, I can’t help but wonder: Whatever happened to environmental concern about pollution? This is what Rachel Carson’s book is about, and where environmental campaigning has been most successful both locally and on a wider scale - and most compellingly backed by science. Yet the gains made in the 1960s and 1970s have been almost entirely rolled back. It is indicative that Barry Commoner’s recent death, despite his having been the person most responsible for the world-wide nuclear test ban treaty, and having constantly argued for (and practised) active participation by scientists in informing and organising against environmental pollution of all kinds, went almost unnoticed by environmentalists here in the UK. His book ‘Science and Survival’ should be as widely known as ‘Silent Spring’.

I’ve watched the fights over climate change with increasing despair over the last 25 years. I do agree that climate change is certainly happening, is man-made and threatens a large proportion of the world population both in terms of flooding populated areas and making food production harder. I think there is a great problem, however, with the focus on something which requires mass international government co-operation to do *anything* about and because of its reliance on computer models, most open to attack. The threat of land, air and water pollution, meanwhile, has been nearly forgotten - even though dealing with the many local instances of it provides an unarguable, easily understandable basis for local and international organising - and the solutions would often also help stabilise the climate.

The Chesapeake Bay is 60% dead due to pollution, the coast of west Africa is a mess due to oil and waste dumping, millions in China are revolting against the choking air pollution which affects them now, every day. To name just a few instances. The mass extinction event we’re staring at (what Buckminster Fuller called ‘biochemical breakdown’) will come about all the more quickly because we are actively poisoning the planet, not just shifting its weather around.

The support of nuclear power by some environmentalists worried most about climate change highlights the problem - are we really being asked to support a form of power for which there is still no satisfactory solution for its waste products? Really? I am reminded that it was Thatcher who first brought up climate change as a support for nuclear power in the 1980s and can’t help but feel that the whole focus on climate change has been a terrible distraction for the environmental movement with its emphasis on future problems as opposed to the here and now (and readily provable), albeit that ‘future’ is now present. It has fed into the corpratist agenda by making environmental problems seem too overwhelming and abstract to get many mobilised - while controls on toxic activities are ignored and rolled back and the fights to stop or ameliorate them sidelined.

Then there is the whole idea that people can control nature - what the early environmentalists called for was a better understanding of how to work *with* it, and as far as possible, imitate it not manipulate it. Whatever the rights and wrongs of GMO tech, it is a mass (uncontrolled) experiment with the planet’s and human biology for which most of us haven’t signed a consent form.

It is specious to suggest that we can’t afford green technology. One only has to look at the seemingly unlimited money poured into wars around the world to dispense with that. Whatever science agrees about or not concerning the physical world, we’ve got the economics completely backwards. Money, an entirely human concept, is treated as scarce. As proved by wars and endless QE for the banks, it is actually unlimited in supply. At the same time actual resources, in terms of both what’s on/in the earth and human labour, are treated as unlimited in the relentless push for ‘growth’ as defined by GDP. We need get that concept reversed and commit to paying for whatever humanity as a whole needs, otherwise we’re staring at our own extinction as well as that of other species.

By Graham Strouts, on 09 November 2012 - 21:15 |

Ive just posted a response to this and other recent discussions on the same themes on my blog here:

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