A couple of days ago, Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, gave an impassioned speech to the Oxford Farming Conference during which he apologized profusely for his former actions against genetically modified organisms (GMO). He stated that he now deeply regretted his participation in organized protests and direct actions to destroy experimental crops. He now recognizes that the approach that he and others took to genetic engineering was actively anti science and probably caused a substantial amount of environmental damage.
Though many non-government organizations (NGOs) and prominent leaders of the Environmental Movement apparently ignored Lynas’s talk, Vandana Shiva, a prominent leader of the anti GMO movement, started a bit of a Twitter firestorm by issuing the following statement on her Twitter feed:
— Dr. Vandana Shiva (@drvandanashiva) January 5, 2013
Robert Wilson at Carbon Counter wrote an interesting response to the situation titled Vandana Shiva: Fanatic or Fantasist? that included a paragraph talking about how Dr. Shiva, who has an undergraduate degree in physics, often touts her scientific credentials as she pursues a decidedly anti science posture with regard to research aimed at providing an abundance of healthy food for a growing world population.
Robert included an embedded video of Lynas’s speech, which I have taken the liberty of including below. Here is a link if you would prefer to read the speech – Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013
As I watched and listened, I kept thinking about the similarities between anti-GMO activism and anti-nuclear activism. Not only are there many of the same players in the drama, but they use the same techniques and have experienced similar degrees of success.
Just as there are some jurisdictions that have declared themselves to be nuclear-free zones, some of the same political entities have declared themselves to be GMO-free. The protest techniques include sit-ins, campouts, trespass, and sign-waving along with a good deal of legal and political actions. In both cases, one of the results of the focused opposition has been a tremendous increase in the regulatory overhead cost of the technology along with a substantial decrease in its availability to the people who need it the most.
There is even a similar amount of demonization of the practitioners; though I have not yet been compared to a rapist, I have been accused of engaging in an action that is comparable to designing concentration camp gas chambers because I work on a team that is designing new nuclear power plants. I quickly blocked that particular twitter user.
In my analysis, another thing that the movements opposed to GMO and nuclear energy have in common is that they are fundamentally movements that are battling abundance. They both cloak themselves in anti-progress, naturalistic garb, but their true mission is to slow the introduction of new science and technology that can eliminate shortages, reduce prices, and reduce the consumption of other supporting commodities.
Lynas and many other observers have noted that these movements are often populated by people who have plenty themselves and who say that they are seeking the return of a long-lost utopian existence. They claim to be seeking a simpler life, more in harmony with nature, but they appear to be okay with some degree of technology – just not the newest technology.
Lynas compares the natural food movement to the Pennsylvania Amish except they have chosen a different base period for freezing their technology. Many observers of these two movements have called them modern Luddites, fearful of technology and seeking to turn back the clock.
My observation is a slight refinement. I believe there is a strong human tendency to look to the past with rose-colored glasses, but I also recognize that there are skilled marketers and propagandists who know how to manipulate that tendency for their own benefit.
In the case of both food and energy, there are hugely powerful interests that do not want their commodities to be abundantly available. Unlimited supply would lower the market prices and thus lower their profitability. There are also influential interests that have invested a large amount of capital in certain kinds of technology; they do not want newer, better technology to render those investments worthless (or at least worth less than they are currently).
As Lynas admitted, part of his motivation in helping to lead the anti-GMO movement was a predisposition to fighting large corporations. He mentioned that his own parents are organic farmers and that he accepted the often repeated mantra that Monsanto was worth fighting because it is a huge corporation with an evil history.
During his speech, he expressed a bit of disappointment and even confusion as he realized that the actions that he and his friends had taken to increase regulations and delay introduction of genetically modified products had resulted in a market where only the very largest and most profitable corporations could afford to overcome the barriers to entry that the NGOs have helped to erect.
My opinion is that at least some of the financial supporters of the anti-GMO (and anti-nuclear) non-governmental organizations have received exactly the result that they desired. They have effectively restrained supplies, slowed the introduction of competitive new technologies and raised the barriers high enough to allow only well-established entities to participate in development.
Those establishment participants have already been indoctrinated in the technique of prospering by constraining supply; truly new entrants might take a tack that is similar to the one taken in the high tech world. In that industry, many are prospering through rapid innovation in a market where prices continuously fall.
I am often reminded of a illuminating tale buried in the midst of nearly 800 pages of Daniel Yergin’s signature work, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. The situation described is a poignant reminder of how people at the top of the heap think about investing in developments that increase the supply of a commodity (energy or food) to a point of abundance.
At one point during those years, Oman, at the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula, emerged as a very interesting oil play. Standard Oil of New Jersey, as might be expected, had a chance to get in. But when the issue came up in the company’s executive committee, Howard Page recommended against it. He had spent so much time negotiating with the Saudis and Iranians that it required little effort on his part to conceive of how furious they would be. He could well imagine, in particular, what Yamani would say to him if Jersey and Aramco sought to restrain Saudi output to make room for production from a new concession in a neighboring country. That would surely contradict Jersey’s principle number one, which was not to do anything that “would endanger our Aramco concession.”
But the members of Jersey’s production department disagree with Page. After all, they were geologists, and as far as they were concerned, discovering and developing new reserves were what the game was all about. Their ambition was to find new elephants, and they were very excited about Oman. “I am sure there is a 10 billion barrel oil field there,” a geologist who had just returned from Oman told the executive committee.
“Well then,” replied Page, “I am absolutely sure we don’t want to go into it, and that settles it. I might put some money in if I was sure we weren’t going to get some oil, but not if we are going to get oil because we are liable to lose the Aramco concession.” With that logic, Jersey stayed out of Oman. The geologists, however, were right. Oman did become a significant oil producer, with Shell in the lead.
(Yergin, Daniel, The Prize. Touchstone (Simon and Schuster), New York. 1992, page 535.)
There is a substantial correlation between the energy industry’s desire to restrain supply and prevent overcapacity and the same desire among the agriculture industry. Both farmers and energy producers have a long history of experiencing unprofitable pricing situations when the market believes that there is plenty of supply and that there is always more supply available.
I believe that one of the main reasons that both anti nuclear activism and anti GMO activism have been so successful is that they are doing work that helps to protect the status quo and the position of the elites in our society. There is a good reason why major participants in those movements have become $100 million per year multinational “non-profit” “environmental” organizations. (That’s Lynas’s description of Greenpeace.)
(Note: I put both non-profit and environmental in quotes because the groups are certainly not immune to the need to attract ever growing quantities of income and because the results of their actions in the area of fighting both genetic engineered food and nuclear energy actually damage the environment.)
I’ll grant that many of the foot soldiers in the overlapping “anti” movements are sincere but misguided. However, I am quite confident that at least some of the leaders have no desire at all for others to become self-sufficient. They do not have a burning desire to live in a prosperous, equitable world where everyone has enough to eat, enough power to remain comfortable and enough spare time to become truly educated. Such a world not only threatens their income because of commodity price reductions, but it also threatens their privileged positions.
As a life long member of the American middle class, I grew up in a world with cheap energy and plenty of good food. However, I have struggled financially at times and have family members who still struggle to pay their monthly bills.
I do not fully understand the mentality that judges accomplishments, possessions, and lifestyles only in comparison to other people. I enjoy a good meal, but that meal does not taste any better because I know that it is a better, more expensive meal than others can afford. I enjoy driving comfortable, reliable cars, but my enjoyment is neither enhanced by seeing someone in a clunker nor reduced by seeing someone driving a far more expensive car. I enjoy living in a comfortable house with a spectacular view, but that enjoyment is not enhanced because I know first hand how some people live in cardboard shacks in the middle of densely packed barrios.
My goal is to try to reach the foot soldiers in the anti abundance movement to help them to understand that their actions are actually serving the very corporations and elite, vested interests that they oppose. Increased supply that results from better scientific understanding and technological applications of that understanding reduces prices, spreads prosperity, and enhances lifestyles. It is a situation worth striving to achieve.
Discover Magazine Blog January 5, 2013 Vandana Shiva Compares GMOs to Rape