Dick Taverne recently argued in Prospect that Greenpeace had joined the anti-science camp. Not soby Stephen Tindale / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Greenpeace bashing has become part of the intellectual zeitgeist. In December, Prospect ran Dick Taverne’s forceful polemic against the organisation. In April, we had Michael Shaw Bond on the NGO backlash, which seemed to be fostering rather than explaining it. Elsewhere in this issue you can find Philippe Legrain arguing that “Greenpeace is scarcely accountable to its 2.5m members.” For much of the 1990s the fashion was to write off politics and laud the contribution of “civil society.” Now perhaps the roles are reversed: we’ve done anti-politics; now let’s do anti-Greenpeace.
Taverne makes some odd claims. He compares Greenpeace to animal rights activists “whose bigotry has led them to abandon all concern for the law, life or property.” In fact, Greenpeace takes non-violent direct action based on the Quaker concept of “bearing witness” against acts which one condemns. Balaclava-clad hit squads carrying out violent attacks are not in this tradition. He also suggests that “Greenpeace is in some ways our equivalent of the religious right in the US.” Fundamentalism and environmentalism are said to share an “anti-science dogma.” Greenpeace is accused of employing “the logic of those who burned witches.” You can turn this around-the alternative to science is portrayed as superstition or paganism; and the term “anti-science” deployed in the manner of de Torquemada uttering the word “heretic.”
But is there any substance to the charge that Greenpeace has “moved decisively into the anti-science camp”? Greenpeace has never based its campaigns solely on science. Cartesian science strips everything down to cold logic: there is no room for ethics or emotion. We believe, in contrast, that there is a moral basis for our defence of the natural world. Moreover, science has a record of overconfidence in the ability of the environment to withstand our assaults-from the insistence that overfishing could not deplete the north Atlantic cod stocks, to the claim that use of chemical pesticides would not lead to loss of wildlife. Scientific claims should be assessed rationally, not treated as beyond criticism.
One of Greenpeace’s central campaigns over the past decade has been on climate change. This has been a largely science-based campaign, pushing politicians towards action on the basis of the analysis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by the world’s top climate scientists. The anti-science has come from the climate sceptics, generally connected to the free-market right. Greenpeace’s proposed solution is hardly anti-science either. You cannot construct a solar photovoltaic panel without science.
It is on the question of genetic modification, however, that the “anti-science” charge is usually hung. Greenpeace believes that science has an important role to play in developing more sustainable agriculture. We need a greater understanding of soil microbiology, pest epidemiology and ecology. But GM agriculture is a misuse of science because it entails the release of unstable and potentially harmful life forms into the environment; once released, they cannot be recalled.
Last summer Greenpeace took action against one of the government-sponsored trials which seek to establish whether GM crops will lead to the use of more or less herbicide than non-GM intensive farming. Taverne asserts that by this action Greenpeace “imply that they already know the outcome.” Bond goes further: Greenpeace was “saying that they were rejecting GM crops irrespective of whether or not these had a detrimental effect on the environment.” Leaving aside the fact that this “trial” has already been carried out on millions of hectares in the US (and the answer is that the use of GM crops generally has little impact on pesticide use), Taverne and Bond assume that this is the only relevant scientific question associated with GM crops.
It is accepted by all parties, including government and industry, that any plantings-including the trial sites-will lead to cross-fertilisation with surrounding crops and plants. Government and industry say that this does not matter; Greenpeace and many other organisations say that it does. The government’s trials have already discounted what for many people is the big threat: the release of new organisms into the environment. Greenpeace took action against the trial site not because it is anti-science, but because the trials themselves pose an unacceptable environmental risk.
Taverne accepts that some practices are objectionable on moral grounds; that turning cows into carnivores is unnatural. But, he claims, inserting fish genes into strawberries is not. Objections to this are based on “ignorance,” because animals and plants have many genes in common. If this is the only relevant question, why then does he object to feeding animal matter to cows? It is not ignorance of science, but principles based on something other than science which make many people feel that fish genes in strawberries, cannibalistic cows, or indeed, cloning humans is wrong. The Warnock commission on human embryology and fertilisation concluded that science should not be allowed to operate unfettered in this sphere-a conclusion which commanded widespread support. Why, then, are suggestions that some applications of genetic modification are unacceptable (Greenpeace does not oppose genetic modification which is not released into the environment) greeted as an attack on civilisation?
A central part of Taverne’s case for GM technology is that it will help to tackle malnutrition. He mentions the much-publicised vitamin A rice which, it is claimed, could save the lives of millions of children every year. The impression given is that this is a technology being held back by selfish western environmentalists. The reality is that vitamin A rice does not yet exist outside the laboratory, and has yet to be subjected to any independent health testing. According to the World Health Organisation, “health side-effects are unknown: health tests have to be conducted.” This could take several years.
Meanwhile, effective solutions to vitamin A deficiency are already available. The WHO has said that it is possible to eradicate vitamin A deficiency through improved health education and hygiene practices. WHO and Unicef have initiatives in place in 70 countries around the world, and the World Bank considers investment in these programmes among the most cost-effective forms of improving health. So GM rice could be an expensive distraction from the unglamorous task of tackling malnutrition through small-scale change. By the time GM rice is developed and tested, vitamin A deficiency could and should have been eradicated. If it has not, this will be as a result of the absence of political will, not technology.
What of the other charge, levelled by Bond and Legrain, that we are unaccountable and lack legitimacy? Greenpeace exists only as an expression of public concern. We speak on behalf of our supporters, who provide all of our funding. We are accountable to them via the simple route of financial dependence. No one is obliged to give us money. There are other organisations to which people can contribute if they dislike Greenpeace’s policies or methods. It is true that we are not elected. Election gives governments the mandate to make laws, pass taxes, control the armed forces and so on. It does not give them a sole right to speak out on public policy. Indeed, as political debate in Britain, as elsewhere, becomes more “professional” and less enlightening, the need for NGOs to raise awkward questions becomes greater.
Intellectual trends come and go. It won’t be too long before politics and governments fall back into disrepute, and NGOs are again regarded as the standard bearers of the liberal conscience. In the meantime, Greenpeace can expect more than its share of criticism. We won’t keep our heads down.