| Home | Future Events | Previous Events | People | Articles | Reviews | AboutUs |
What Future for Environmentalism?
NB This is a part edited transcript of the event. Whilst every effort is made to ensure accuracy there may be phonetic or other errors depending on inevitable variations in recording quality.
Caspar Hewett: Thanks to all of you for coming to this, the final plenary debate of the day, sponsored by the RSA. The title of this debate is Ďwhat future for environmentalism?í I am Caspar Hewett, the chair of The Great Debate, and chair of this session. Weíve got three speakers with us today, Iím going to introduce them in the order in which they are going to speak, which is also the order in which they are sitting.
Starting with Viv Regan ... Viv is the assistant director of WORLDwriteand the producer of ĎChew on ití Productions, who has been instrumental in organising the film school this morning. Viv is also a freelance assessor of youth programmes and the co-director of the educational consultancy, is it ĎMe weí or M.E.W.E
Viv Regan: MeWeÖMeWeÖ.
Caspar Hewett: In the middle we have Roger Higman, Roger is the Environmental Limits Co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth and the team leader of Friends of the Earth new economics and trade team, Roger has over 20 years of association with Friends of the Earth starting as a volunteer, and performing a wide range of roles of the years including transport campaigner, and heading up Friends of the Earth climate and transport team. His responsibilities include climate change, energy policy and campaigns against nuclear power. For the last 2 years Rogerís has had the role of coordinating activity across Friends of the Earth to make sure itís environmental policies are consistent and to ensure and demonstrate the many ways in which environmental limits are being broken. He is responsible for making sure Friends of the Earth develops and promotes practical solutions for each of the environmental, social and economic problems that it tries to address.
On the far right we have Tony Gilland who many of you will of met and come across, because he has been performing various roles today. Tony is the Science and Society director at the Institute of Ideas. He has been organising and speaking at Institute of Ideas conferences for the last 5 years now and is the science editor for the Ďdebating mattersí series of books. He frequently contributes to other publications, radio programmes and public events on the many controversies surrounding science today. He is also one of the key players in organising the national Debating Matters Competition for sixth form students, which is being showcased here today and we have been very proud of being associated with in the North East. So thatís the panel, Iím going to let Viv go ahead, sheís got some power point stuff for you.
So when I look back on history even more, I think for me time after time history has shown that human beings impact positively on our world. We do that and have done that by controlling nature and for me in the future we need to do much, much more of that, not just to meet basic needs but to develop more, to have an imagination, and to see it through and to have things, why not? So, I have done, I should of actually done some China facts, cause they are more exciting. But just taking about 80 or 90 years in the UK, actually what we have managed to do is double our life expectancy, almost eradicated infant deaths and so many more of us are living after 60, now thatís fantastic, thatís something to be really excited about.
I was thinking that what really excites me, about development, about modernity, is that it has given us freedom, and freedom is not something that I hear environmentalist s talk about a lot. So itís given us freedom, from toil, I donít have think about the day to day drudgery, I donít have to think about what Iím going to put my waste, how am I going to produce food, where I am going to find shelter. Here in the West, in the UK, I donít have to think about that and thatís great, because what it does is it frees me up, it gives me free time to think, and to contribute to what is and could more and more be a very rich, cultural and intellectual world. I want to contribute to that, as I am here, like we are all here. So, we should be really excited about this, we should be celebrating our achievements, imaging what the future could be, pulling together and feeling good.
But in actual fact, we are probably in the first post-scarcity generation of our time, in the West at least We are actually not excited about it, instead we are quite scared, we are full of fears. So I want to move on by addressing this. Because I came back from Ghana last week, I thought Iíd show some photos from Ghana, because I saw for myself what effects these home grown fears of ours have on people who do not have what we have.
Mud hut. Anybody want a mud hut? Obviously not. So this is not a lifestyle, it is poverty and it is a living hell, which I saw at first hand. What do these people want? They want concrete homes, in fact they want to build all over Ghana, nothing wrong with that. In fact they want all the mod cons, the fridges, the microwaves, the washing machine, the dishwashers, the Ipods, the stereos, I think this is a good thing, I think you can never have too much, I like this question about whatís too much? I donít know, and who tells you whatís too much?
So, this is a shantytown called Nima in Accra in Ghana and this is another. In human isnít it? The living conditions, in fact we probably treat our pets better in the UK, than they are there. But in actual fact everybody we talked to and we talked to a lot of people in these shantytowns, said they would much rather be living there then they would in the rural areas. Because the rural areas in Ghana have nothing, because there they had a little bit of electricity every now and then, and at least there were nearer to a little bit of water, and at least there they had a hope about jobs. But you know what there arenít really any jobs there, because there isnít really any industry. And thatís not what people are advocating here in the West for them. So an example of that, one of the biggest industries in Ghana, Valco, an aluminium smelting plant, in its heyday was employing 2000 Ghanaians workers, had to close, partly because of electricity shortages. We didnít see any NGOs or environmentalist campaigners going out then and fighting for those losses of jobs, just because itís not on their agenda. So what do they do?
Well this is what I saw a lot of as well, street hawking, or street trading. This is merely bartering. This doesnít create any new wealth in Ghana, it just kind of swaps around and exchanges old money, it really is old money it is very, very smelly.
This is a young boy who we filmed and photographed, sweating like a pig, and wouldnít stop working for us to film him, and Iím not against hard work at all, but what I am against is that this is a waste of time. He is making one brick at a time and this young boy is going to earn about probably less then one penny a brick. This is not what Ghana needs. Ghana needs to make millions of bricks and so I was excited to read about China, and to think about our global situation of making homes, and why not have a global division of labour, where China makes all these prefab houses, they could make enough for all the worlds needs and Ghana could have all these prefabricated houses, we could make these houses, under a roof, rather then erecting them one by one from mud. I think thatís a fantastic idea, I think it would probably be energy efficient, but I donít think environmentalists would like it as we would have to ship them all out by planes and sea and that would be nasty, but I think itís a good idea.
Just to make my point hereís a young man, breaking stones, with um, maybe what NGOs would call them Ďappropriateí tools, but thatís stone age tools and thatís not what we want to see.
These are people, and I saw a lot of this as well, carrying extremely heavy loads on their heads. Itís not a fashion statement, not a cultural preference, not a tradition we want to keep up. Bob Geldof, oh my god, Bob Geldof called these ĎEbonyís statues of Libertyí, but I canít see anything liberating about that.
Nice little idyllic by the seaside picture with the fishermen coming in, and here they are. They have to do this everyday, back breaking work, getting in to their wooden boats, because they canít put or leave them on the sea because they rot and they rot anyway. These fishermen were very, very clear about what they wanted, they wanted trawlers, they wanted investment into their industry, into fishing. But in actual fact thatís not what the environmentalists will want, and they advocate against that, because they donít want them to have a concrete harbour with refrigeration storage, they donít want any of that, they want to keep the fish stock so theyíve got to fish less and learn less.
Just to prove my point hereís a turtle. Very exciting, the fisherman caught it the day we were there, thatís going to fetch them about $150 which is probably more then a six months pay, but we have got to preserve sea life, so weĎve got to save this turtle, rather then save the Ghanaians. They had to run away with this turtle very quickly before they could kill and sell it, because they are not allowed to because the turtles are endangered.
School in Ghana, Tsibu Bethel. No electricity, no computers, no nothing, only from what the West sends, if only they could have a decent national grid, and the West African gas pipe line, which I think Friends of the Earth are totally against, maybe we could provide this, fantastic.
Iíll end, because I know Iíve got to end, on the only train line, this is transport for Ghana, not all the transport for Ghana. Tracks laid down in the 1920ís or 30ís, the colonialists put these up and we all know how limiting and constraining they were for Ghanaians. Now itís the environmentalists turn to be constraining, because itís a lot of fight to do anything else and build transport infrastructure for Ghanaians. Because we in the West get worried about stinking motorways, and lots of SUVís but actually they want it and why not? So, I do need to end, so I will end quickly then. So whether we are thinking about natural disasters or whether we are thinking about the absolutely hellish state that our peers in the developing world are constrained in and are in at the moment, I donít think environmentalism can be taken very seriously, its an outdated, almost religious prejudice and I think we need to move on and get on.
Iím going to talk a little bit about environmentalisms faith, which is what I think we were supposed to talk about. I want to tell you two things. There are two aspects of faith that I want you to have. One of them is that the real world exists; we are not figments of each otherís imagination. This is not a sort of ideological debate. This is a debate about reality. The second is that we as a species, as a community, can learn about the real world by looking at it, by experimenting with it, by theorising over it and learning lessons from it, and that is science, and thatís what science does. Every other thing on the environment that I am going to say has to based on science, because science is the underpinning of everything the environmental movement stands for. Everything, I say, apart from that, as far as Iím concerned has to be contestable, if you want to dispute it, dispute it, by all means, dispute it but lets look at the evidence.
The environmental movement also has values, and those values may be different to your values and maybe different to Vivís values, thereís no doubt about that. We believe that everybody in the world has an equal right to the world. We believe that future generations of humanity also have an equal right to the world and we that must protect the world and its resources to a certain extent for those future generations. We believe people should be accountable for what they do. If you pollute, you should pay for that pollution, because if that pollution causes damage to another person you are harming them in just the same way as if you took a gun and shoot them in many cases, if you end up killing them.
We believe you should look before you leap, in many cases we need to investigate what we are doing to see what the effects of it are before we make decisions on what the right course of action is. This is known as the precautionary principle. We believe we should make decisions in a participative and democratic way, because we believe we do share the worldsí resources. We believe, and this where the science comes in, that there is plenty of evidence over the past hundred years that human action has, on occasion, damaged the environment in a way that then undermines the benefits that the environment provides for humanity.
Look at the Aral sea, where the Soviet attempts to grow cotton, in an area that couldnít provide for cotton, that didnít have the water for cotton, led to huge over extraction of water, leading the sea to shrink, creating dust bowl conditions along the side, undermining fisheries and livelihoods for people who depended on that sea. Look at the Newfoundland fishery, where the Canadians, a completely different economic system, in this case free market capitalism, over exploited, they got too greedy, the Canadians and the British, got too greedy, and despite the fact that the fishery was capable of providing a resource for them to last them for hundreds if not thousands of years, because fisheries is a continuous resource, overexploited it, destroyed it.
Look at the situation with London smogís, where man-made pollution caused the deaths of six thousand people in a five- day period. Look at the case of DDT where we poisoned our waters.
Look at the case of, and you may not of heard of this, itís called Biosphere 2, where a group of Americans spent 200 million dollars on trying to create a natural living environment to sustain the livelihoods of 8 people for 2 years, and look what an enormous failure it was. The fact that the scientific assessment in Science magazine, that showed, that concluded that, as a result of it, that because of the failure of Biosphere 2, to provide for those people, it concluded that we are all dependent on the planets resources and we have to recognise that fact. We have to recognise that itís the plants that create the oxygen, itís the natural environment that cleans the water such that it enters into our water systems and such that those two billion people who depend on that natural clean water actually get decent water to drink, itís the natural environment that cleans that water.
Itís the natural environment that provides the fertile soils for the crops that people depend upon. Itís the natural environment, and lets remember world bank figures, 90 percent of the 1.2 billion poorest people in the world, who live on less then a dollar a day, depend on products that they take directly from the forests for at least some of their livelihood. If we destroy those forests we have to think how are we going to recreate the livelihood for those people? So, we have to take some sort of responsibility for our actions. At the moment what we are doing, is we are destroying those forests, not people in the south, I mean sometimes it is, for mainly domestic consumption, but an awful lot especially in places like Indonesia is actually Western consumption for things you like, like palm oil, thatís in margarine, thatís actually leading to de forestation, thatís undermining the meat consumption of people locally, and so on and so on.
So we have to look at the real world and find ways of managing the real world to provide for humanity now and for humanity in the future, thatís what environmentalism is. Thatís why its important to look at issues such as GM, and think are we actually going to make life for people better or are we just going to make profits for biotech companies greater and undermine peoples lives. Thatís why we have to look at climate change, and consider whether actually, if there is scientific evidence there, if we continue to pump out pollution into the atmosphere, we could destabilise the entire worlds climate, undermine our farming systems, undermine those industries that depend on water, regular supplies of water and so on and so on, with enormous cost to our economies.
I was going to give this out before hand, but ill give it to you later. If you want to know about the scientific consensus on climate change, take a look at this article from Science magazine in US, its not just the intergovernmental panel on climate change, its not just the US national academy of sciences, its not just the American geophysical unit. Nine hundred papers in peer- reviewed scientific journals were analysed in this study, not one disputed the scientific conclusion that man-made changes to the atmosphere are damaging our climate and do threaten to undermine the livelihoods of people who depend on a stable climate. So environmentalism is not some sort of conspiracy to tempt people back to the dark ages, environmentalism is the foundation for our prosperity in the future. Itís about managing the worldís resources so that we all have a good life. Thank you
Caspar Hewett: Roger, perfect timing there; Tony.
Really what I want to focus on is a specific example. Viv has covered a lot of territory on the international side of things, the developing world, I want to focus on a domestic example, one which I would argue in recent years consumer and environmental groups claim as one of their biggest victories, and thatís the rejection of genetically modified crops. And through this case study I want to illustrate, what I think are three very keys points about environmentalism and why itís very worrying. One, I think, despite what Roger said about the importance of science, a certain philistinism and infantilism about many issues. I also think despite what Roger said about the importance of democratic participation, I think that thereís some very strong anti democratic trends within environmentalism. But my most important point of all that I wish to get across, is that these trends are very, very important, but they are not actually the responsibility of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, or any other group or environmentalist whatsoever. These trends are things that are being propagated, pushed forward, carried forward by the very core of our society, by politicians, by industry, by many scientists them selves. Thereís a very deep-seated problem within our society that we need to address, and I donít think Friends of the Earth can either claim the credit for where we are at, or be blamed for it, if you look at it from my perspective.
So, just to make the case. Given that Iím going to use genetically modified crops as a case study, Iím sure you are all aware that there was a huge debate about this back in the late 1990ís. You might remember it all came to a big head in a ten-day media frenzy in February 1999. It was followed by companies like Sainsburyís getting tens of thousands of calls, in February Sainsburyís had about 15,000 calls, in March it had about another 15,000 calls, this is really scary stuff, with Sainsburyís getting lots and lots of consumers calling up and asking, what are you doing? Are you poisoning us? Whatís this genetic modification all about? Why do you need to do it? Itís really very scary. That resulted in lots of supermarkets withdrawing these products from the shelves and then lots of environmental and consumer groups going Ďvictory for consumers, we have rejected genetically modified crops. I would like to take a step back for that and argue why I think thatís a very infantile approach.
In this country, along with other parts of the world, thousands, well not thousands, billions of pounds were invested in this technology, thousands and thousands of man years of scientific work went into this technology. One minute the British government and UK scientific community are celebrating what they have achieved over a period of twenty, thirty years from the 1970ís onwards with this technology, the next minute supermarkets have lots of calls, itís taken off the shelves and nobody wants to talk about it. No one is celebrating anything apart from this apparent consumer victory. No one is asking any really hard questions, like why did we invest so much in this in the first instance?
Why did we put so much money, so much time? Roger has indicated how important science is, yet so many scientists put their careers and their lives into this technology an thatís it, suddenly its all over, the debates been done, the debates been won, its clear cut.
That seems to be pretty childish, that if you really were so correct in your conviction that GM technology was so terrible, that once youíve won that PR victory, you actually want to hold science to account, and say that why is it that you invested in this technology in the first place? What was the decision making process? Have you got nothing to show for your work? I think one of the reasons why no one has really done this and jumped up and down about this after the event, just simply called this a consumer victory, is that they donít necessarily really want to have a debate. Because, if you look at it there are many reasons to have an open mind about GM crops, I am not here to sell you GM crops, rather to illustrate a point.
First of all genetic manipulation is absolutely fascinating, in and of its self at the level of knowledge its amazing and exciting to understand. One, the genetic makeup of different organisms and two, that you could take a gene from one organism, insert it in another, and for that property to be expressed. I mean there are cheap scientific tricks if you like, just for fun, putting fluorescents in to bunny rabbits and plants and what have you, just going wow, you mean the fluorescents from one organism transported into another organism produces that same effect, thatís pretty fascinating and interesting. Some people have started to use crops, which will show up if they are sewn on land mines, thatís pretty interesting, also got a possible use. Some farmers have been using herbicide tolerant genetically modified crops; sixty percent of the worldís crops grown used this technology. There may be problems and downsides, thereís a debate to be had, thatís fine. But how can you dismiss a technology thatís being used by so many farmers? International foundations invested in rice research, they had this thing called golden rice, which some of you may know about or heard about, and basically what they did, they took the property, the genes that expressed beta carotene in wild daffodils and they transferred it into a rice plant, so the rice expressed that and had a slightly orangey colour to it, but the beta carotene was expressed in the rice which improved its vitamin A content, which was a useful addition for the diets for some people in some parts of the world.
To me that say, interesting, worth looking at, worth discussing, rather than what we seem to have had with this rather yah boo approach to this. Scary, headlines Ďmutant crops might kill youí headlines Ďsuper weeds, we will never be able to control our farming again.í One scary headline after another, big, big campaigns launched. Supermarkets get tens of thousands of phone calls. But remember this, all the different organisations that are campaigning about genetically modified crops, have a joint membership of somewhere between 5 and 10 million people at different claims, yet they managed to conjure up, by encouraging people to phone up these different help lines and what have you, at absolute most 100,000 phone calls, the level of passion they got, whatís that like 0.1 percent? You do the maths for me Roger whilst I keep talking. Wow thatís a real level of passion with your audience.
I think thatís a really key point here that brings us on to democracy. That environmental groups are very, very good at talking about what the public thinks and how they are really in tune with the public and they know what the public are worried about and concerned about and what have you, but in reality, most environmental groups have a strong relationship with a very small number of volunteers who are going out and doing all sorts of good, clever and fun media stunts, that grab your attention, but have much more passive relationship with the majority of their membership. They do not speak on behalf of anybody apart from a small number of people. Yet, and this is my key point, they have been taken up. The cause of environmentalism has been taken up by everyone: everyone within the government; everyone within industry; and the scientific community. You have the Royal Society, probably now good friends with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and various other organisations. You have all the research councils in this country who fund academic research who are falling over themselves to have these organisations on various consultative committees, looking at nano-tech and what have you. The argument is, we have to learn the lesson from GM, we have to learn how to do it properly, and what this means is, learning how to do it properly means involving these groups in the decision making process. Not because theyíve proven what they said was correct, but simply because those in authority are afraid of their ability to create big media headlines and create scares and all the rest of it .
I donít think, as I said, I donít particularity blame Roger for that, you go for it, you do your level best. Who I do blame is the government and industry and scientists for having complete and utter contempt for us the public, what they have refused to do is to argue for what they believe in. Tony Blair and the government are very keen on genetic modification, very frustrated about this process, but constantly say we are neither for nor against. They are terrified of going out there and arguing and motivating the public on why they think this technology is good. Industry, Singenta, a major biotechnology company, has recently had to ship out all its GM scientists out to America, what have you. Now, Singenta talks about all the historic properties, weíve been using these crops that goes back to the eons, from the Greeks, from Latin America, what have you. If you look at their marketing they are trying to get across the idea that they are now using the ancient technologies but in a more clever way than using traditional breeding. In other word they are lying. They will not talk to us directly about the stuff they are doing and why they think genetically modification is a good thing. They are afraid to do so.
My final example of this, and this actually horrified me, I could not believe it. The biotechnology biological research council which funds genetically modified research, not research thatís been genetically modified research but research on genetic modification, funds that work in this country on an ongoing basis, back in the mid 90ís and even into the late 90ís, celebrated the fact that the UK was second only to America in itís research output. When you look at it in terms of citations and what have you, it was punching above its weight, it was doing better then America on a proportionate basis, and it celebrated that big time. I went to their website the other day, just to update myself. What are these guys saying about GM today? Hey look thatís handy theyíve got their new their annual report, lets have a look at that. I read it cover to cover canít see a word about genetic modification, I think maybe Iím just being really tired or dense or something, so I do various word searches, Ďgenetically modified cropsí not there, ĎGM cropsí not there, tone it down, use the phrase that the Americans like to use, Ďfood bio technologyí not there, tone it down even more, Ďplant geneticsí not there. Give them the benefit of the doubt, lets look at the whole website, not there. The whole issue of GM crops has been expunged from their reality.
So, Roger says let's address reality. The reality I want to address is why are those people from high places who command and control our money, and our resources, afraid to talk about something they believe about, they are afraid to give us due intelligence and talk about it because they are afraid of negative publicity and a reaction and they are afraid of people from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Iím afraid that having met Roger briefly, I really donít think he is anyone to be afraid of. Thank you.
Caspar Hewett: Thanks to our panel, I am just going to do a very brief recap. I hope I am not too far off the mark.
We had Viv, first talking about how nature is a killer and how in her vision, she would like a world where we are free from toil. She characterised us as the first post scarcity generation, and yet full of fears, and then pointed to the inhuman conditions people are living in, in places like Ghana.
Roger asked us to have faith, that the real world exists, and argued that this isnít an ideological debate, which I thought was quite interesting. He argued that we should pay for pollution, and argued for the precautionary principle and that decisions should be participative, and then went on to talk about Biosphere 2 and forests, which I wont go over again.
Tony took a case study of GM crops and really just to illustrate some general points, He argued that thereís an infantile approach to a lot of these discussions which is rather problematic, And that thereís a sign that people donít want to have this debate at all and this is a real problem, of course we are having a debate, so itís not everybody. He says there are problems with what passes for democracy today and that actually we need to learn how to do decision making properly. He blamed government, science and industry for their contempt for us, the public. So thatís just a brief recap.
I am going to give the speakers now, just a couple of minutes to respond to each otherís points, and then Iím going to give you a chance to ask questions. I will be overrunning a little bit as I know we started a quarter of an hour late so we will finish a quarter of an hour late. So Viv.
Viv Regan: Yes, interesting, I mean for me and Iíve heard it said during the throughout the day anyway, is this conflict. Can we have too much? Should we be thinking about limiting ourselves? Pollution, weíve got to do something about that, itís like shooting someone, as Roger said. I canít see any of that. I think the point I want to draw out, is that it seems to me, that environmentalists have made a mistake in the sense that they think that destroying the planet is the same as mastering nature. So destroying nature is the same as mastering it and controlling it. Because they would have us believe that the environment and nature impacts directly on us, when it doesnít, it goes through social and economic development, as weíve seen from natural disasters.
So where in Pakistan a lot of people where killed because of public buildings, hospitals included going down on them, in Japan when an earthquake was seven point something on the Richter scale, only forty people were killed, because they had that infrastructure, they had that development. So, I am not convinced. I want to hear more about the fisheries, and creating jobs, because really the fishermen that I met, were saying they wanted it all. And youíre saying Ďyou canít have it allí.
The other thing that Iím thinking about, thatís often talked about, is that we have either got to have Ďsave the planetí or weíve got to have development. Yet thereís little, because of environmentalism, thereís little talk about of having both, without the limitations without the precautionary principle.
Roger Higman: Interesting that you donít think the environment impacts directly on us, I agree with you that we can impact upon and can change our society.
Question from the floor: Starting with Tony Gilland, it seems to me that your thesis is thisÖif the scientific juggernaut, is that if 50,000 scientists have spent 500 billion pounds then the product of what they produce has to be acceptable to democratic society, it doesnít.
Tony Gilland: Thatís not my point.
Question from the floor: Because a democratic society didnít authorise that expenditure, it wasnít party to that expenditure, it wasnít even party to any of the decision-making. The information of those projects was in fact kept from the public not shared with them The databases were not opened up, it was only at the last minute, when it got difficult, when the public turned against that project that everything was said to be thrown open. If the scientific community is not prepared to justify GM crops now, then it is obviously much more unpopular to the scientific community then even nuclear power is, nuclear power is able to continue, to demand that nuclear power stations be built, but yet the whole scientific community, now thatís it s been rumbled and the public do not actually like what they produced, do not want the genetic changes past into society, are not prepared to argue the point.
Do we take it that the only reason that the juggernaut was allowed to go ahead was because there was no proper public scrutiny? But when there was public scrutiny, when there was public debate, when there was an ability to actually look at what was done, and the scientific community was confronted when the public were equally armed, with the scientific community, its not willing to take the floor, and have that debate and have that discussion. Itís a lack of democracy, a lack of transparency and a lack of openness, thatís the great difficulty with scientific policy in the UK, particularly because we live in a society that is so profoundly secret, and the government its self, the more controversial the issue the more secret it becomes.
Ed Turnbull (Durham County Council): I am here representing myself. Iím just amazed in some ways at Vivís comments that environmentalism has no future and that environmentalism hasnít come together with development. Iíd say that it has and I think its environmentalism that can offer solutions to a lot of the problems you outlined. I think you outlined the problems extremely well, people living in desperate poverty, and I donít think that any environmentalist would disagree that it should be a top aim of everyone working collectively to try to work out ways to eliminate that poverty. Environmentalism can help, if your saying that for people to lift them selves out of poverty need more labour saving devices, more technology, to enable them to spend less time on physical work, environmentalism can help with that. Environmental thinking will enable you to do more with fewer resources. So with the same amount of natural resources you can produce more washing machines or televisions or what ever it is, and its environmental thinking that enables you to do more to alleviate poverty.
Iíd say that environmentalism has come together with development; I thought thatís what sustainable development was all about. Ever since the 1992 Rio earth summit, and even before that, thatís the whole point of sustainable development and I would argue that that these things have come together and when they do come together it benefits everybody and the environment.
Hamish Harvey (Newcastle University): The GM crops issue is interesting, and the centre of the whole debate as Tony suggested on the safety of the food was basically idiotic. A much more interesting debate is the difference between reductionist and integrative science and the fact that the science that all the GM companies were pushing and they were pushing it for business interests, for making a profit, was reductionist science developing a technology was genetic engineering, which allowed people to modify the properties of crops.
The thing that alarms me is the fact that very little was done until these things were introduced into the environment, to do with the large-scale systematic issues of introducing modified organisms into a very complex ecosystem. Now, Iím not for a minute saying that therefore they are inevitable very bad and should be banned. But those issues were not looked at and not discussed at all by either side, well, not very loudly anyway. I think this again comes down to a lack of understanding of the difference between science and engineering and where technology fits into that. And the fact that business is pushing it not social interests and how business and society interact.
Caspar Hewett: Iím going to take one more question and then Iím going to get the panel to respond. Yeah, chap just there.
John Lloyd John Lloyd,Iíve just retired. Iím interested in what other people see now as progress. I think one of the problems is that the arguments about genetic foods came too late. Foods have been modified for years. It was just more publicity that brought it to the fore. If plants had not been developed to produce greater crops, a lot of the world would be starving. Equally well I think itís easy to be concerned about the problems in Ghana but I think democracy doesnít want to give up much to help Ghana or to help Pakistan or to make the environment more friendly if itís a question of not having electricity when you switch on a light, because there isnít enough to go round. We all want more. The scientists are producing better medicines to keep us alive longer, but is that the right answer?
Caspar Hewett: Thank you. Iíll give you all a chance to respond. Tony, you go first.
Tony Gilland: Thanks, Iíll respond to a couple of the questions presumably directed at me. First of all this point about scientists. Am I arguing that the amount of money spent and the number of scientists involved justifies automatically means therefore we should accept the technology? Certainly not, what Iím saying is, given that that amount of money was spent and all those scientists invested their careers and their passions, both at a basic level of research and at a more developed level, or even within companies. Now, either we think thereís a hell of a lot of scientists out there who are incredibly dumb, incredibly corrupted or something like that or else they had a reason for what they did. My point is we havenít heard that reason. And thatís as much a criticism of the scientists as it is a criticism of the campaign groups who campaign through a process of exaggeration and distortion.
I was very pleased to hear Roger agreeing, I think, on this point because the idea that the safety issue was the big issue was idiotic as you described, and Roger was nodding along there. Yet it is the case that was a major front piece for environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth who targeted many food companies with a GM disloyalty card. Really went for them in a really strong way around the safety issue, human safety and the fact that it hadnít been tested, blah, this that and the other, and completely distorted and put out of context any of the science whatsoever.
So what I am saying is, if we want to live in a society where campaign groups can make up stuff that leads us to completely dismiss a technology and something that very intelligent and sensible people have invested their lives in. Rather than having a debate about whether we want to use it, what its benefits might be and how we might use it. We can have that debate about the relationship between business and society. We can have a debate about integrated versus reductionist and all the rest of it, but it is infantile to live in a society, as far as Iím concerned, which allows a situation where all that work and research can be done and just dumpedbased on lies and distortion.
Roger Higman: Letís actually get to the truth in terms of what we actually demanded in the late 1990ís about GM. Friends of the Earth was a member of what was called the five-year freeze campaign. Thatís because we wanted a five-year freeze on GM while the evidence was studied and there were two issues.
Tony Gilland: What do you want now?
Roger Higman: What do we want now? Come on, there were two issues, right? One is health effects and thatís one where, itís a bit like mixtures of pollutants, there was a lot of concern about mixtures of pollutants, there was a massive study done of it and actually mixtures of pollutants probably do as much damage to an individual than the individual pollutants do individually, even if you add them up, so thereís no synergistic effect. Ok, science done, accepted. On the evidence about the area of GM, itís not an area Iím a specialist on but my understanding is thereís not a huge amount of it, evidence for that. What there is, and this is what has been done since then, is very clear evidence of herbicide tolerant crops, in the way it was suggested was going to wipe out British wildlife. And yet we know that actually if we start growing food in other ways in many cases we produce as good yields as with other farming systems.
So what do we want now? We want the right for people to, areas to say ok, we want to promote particular sorts of farming, ok letís promote organic and particular sorts of farming, let them declare themselves GM free if they want to, and we have a chance to look at the evidence. We also know, as we have seen this in other parts of the world that the GM ingredients, the special genes can actually cross-contaminate other crops, and that has now happened and weíve seen the evidence for that. We want to see a decent liability regime in, so if that happens and someoneís livelihood is wrecked because their no longer organically certified, that they get some compensation from the company. And that is essentially what we're calling for at the moment.
You also talked a lot about technological efficiencies. I was very, very much nodding when somebody over there said thereís a difference between science and engineering and I think this is part of the debate. Human beings can massively expand our technological know-how and our scientific ability to extract human value from an environmental impact. But what we have to accept is that we canít really change the relationship between environmental impact and the way the ecosystem responds to it. Well, thatís outside human control, thatís all to do with nature. So, when you talk about getting more value out of the environment with better technology, yes we can absolutely do it. But when we get to the point where we put something into the environment or we take something out of the environment, the impact of that on the natural ecosystem is beyond our control.
Tony Gilland: Can I clarify just one small point? Are you therefore Ö
Roger Higman: This is about the limits, not the well being we deriveÖ
Tony Gilland: You had a five-year freeze campaign, which has transmogrified into the GM freeze campaign, which is hosted by Friends of the Earth, fronted by Pete Riley.
Roger Higman: He doesnít work for us anymore.
Tony Gilland: Who used to work for you and was your key spokesman on GM, he now fronts the GM freeze campaign which is what the five-year freeze campaign used to be. And that campaign, hosted by and supported by FoE, on itís website, which argues for the death knell of all GM technology. Iíve got it here, the quote from the Daily Mail. ďThis should sound the death knell to this controversial technology,Ē Pete Riley, director of the GM freeze campaign.
Roger Higman: I think this is about oilseed rape, and the death knell to that particularly controversial technology.
Tony Gilland: Are you opposed to all GM or are you open-minded?
Roger Higman: This is about herbicide tolerance. We would never call for that. We have always accepted the use of GM in medicine. We have never had a problem with the idea of medical GM technology. There are a number of other areas where we have accepted the use of GM organisms. It is the issue of herbicide intolerance that you really really have to focus on.
Caspar Hewett: Can I give Viv a chance to respond to some of the questions?
Viv Regan: I think Iíll respond to someone who was baffled by my saying that environmentalism isnít married to development or hasnít helped development, whatever. I canít see that. The very premise of sustainable development, it says that weíve got to meet the needs of the present generation whilst making sure that future generations are alright. What sustainable development is saying is that we the people are the problem, and therefore itís obsessed with limiting us. To me that is not going to do much to help us to develop. Iíll make one point, things like investment and big industry and infrastructure, these are dirty words to environmentalists.
Take the precautionary principle, which the environmentalists are driven by. The precautionary principle, I think it was, in a survey some years ago leading scientists were asked to look back in history and look at all the inventions that wouldnít have happened if the precautionary principle was there. It was a horrendous list, everything from aeroplanes to aspirin to x-rays, even bicycles; almost everything would not have been invented. Would not have made it out of the imagination and become a reality if the precautionary principle was alive and well then, and itís alive and well now because of environmentalism. So I canít see how development and sustainability are married and itís all going fine because itís not. Environmentalists are not married to development.
Caspar Hewett: Iíll take some more questionís from the floor, ok, guy at the back.
Question from the floor: Just backing up what Viv was saying. To all the people in here who believe in environmentalism, just look at the pictures, which Viv and the rest of the crew just brought back. How many of you would like to live in a mud hut? How many of you would like to live in those conditions? You are all very comfortable in your houses with all your money but how many of you would like to be put in that situation to live through that? You wouldnít. So you canít really argue the fact that saying itís not as important as the rest of the things going on. It is a very important thing thatís happening over there that we need to sort it because, you are all sitting all comfortably, saying everything about it, saying itís a very important matter but you wouldnít like to be there yourselves.
Aidan Doyle (Institute for Research on Environment and Sustainability): Those images remind me very much of the west of Ireland in the 1960ís. Then there was a tiger and then the tiger escaped, so first we had the little rickety railways and indeed mud huts with straw roofs and no native fuel to speak of to exploit. So thereís perhaps a nostalgia in some of those images. There appears to me to be poverty tourism implied in some of those images. Perhaps you might accept that as a slight criticism.
I think it was the Dungeness Bay enquiry of 1988, which established that we ought not to have any further nuclear development along the Northumberland coast. It effectively closed the debate on the proposed nuclear power station at Druridge Bay. I think at the time it was Friends of the Earth, but Iím not sure, who worked in very close conjunction with local people, the National Union of Mineworkers and other interest parties to make sure that that wasnít going to happen. There wasnít going to be a nuclear power station.
Iím aware that I might be slightly crossing over two debates here but, without the lobby of the interest group, the mineworkers and such like, we donít now have the advocacy which is necessary to sustain the argument against nuclear power on Druridge Bay. I think itís very necessary that we do have, however biased, an environmental lobby perhaps at the disposal of people in lieu of or in the absence of expert witnesses.
Jon Bryan: Iíve helped to organise some of the events today. Itsí been a very good discussion, I particularly liked the discussion around GM foods and I liked the way that Tony characterised it in his introduction. I might be mistaken but I donít think he mentioned some of the things itís interesting to find out about GM foods. But he didnít say yes, GM foods are great, or GM foods are not great. I thought it was very good the way that he characterised it, the way that all this money has gone into research, all this science has been produced, and you have to ask questions about why that suddenly kind of stops. I think that gets you thinking along the right sort of lines because, to me, I donít understand it in these terms, Roger, normally, there is an assumption that when people say climate change people assume that itís necessarily bad. Thatís not the case either, because thereís different climates and thereís a change in nature, therefore itís bad, the reason why a number of companies suddenly get rid of GM products and introduce, I think it was Sainsburyís Blue Parrot range, they introduced a whole range of anti-GM or non- GM type foods, they did that because they saw a popular wanting for that rather than there being any scientific benefit itís definitely done in their own interests.
I think Roger might have mentioned it, I think someone mentioned climate change, you may not have meant it in these terms Roger but normally people assume that itís necessarily bad and I donít think thatís the case either because clearly thereís different climates all around the world and people adapt to different climates.
I know that there are some people in the room whoíve come up from London today, wearing coats. Just a very simple thing to do. My mum lives in Cyprus, in the summer there itís unbearable heat, and well what you do is you adapt to it, she sleeps at lunchtime, she stays awake at night, you may not be interested in my mumís habits but this is what she does. People adapt to different climates. So I think the point I am making is that there is an assumption that GM foods are bad and the assumption that climate change is bad and I donít think itís the case because we have the ability to adapt to these things.
Question from the floor: I want to ask a very very quick question to Roger. On your thing about fishermen in Ghana. I was just amazed that you argued that something had to be done in terms of fish stocks because depleted fish stocks would be putting pressure on bush meat etc. The diet in Ghana is, as you know, absolutely appalling and very very low in protein, and why you think anyone should be dependent on either fish or bush meat God only knows. It would be far more sensible in my view, which some people have tried to look into, to domestically breed bush meat like the grass cutter and that would require genetic modification to make it possible because theyíre not susceptible to domestic breeding programmes because they kill each other too readily. But I am sure that through a sensible genetic programme it would be really feasible to increase the protein of something that is considered a delicacy. Itís a cross between a rat and a rabbit by the way, which is a bit off- putting when youíre trying to eat it but itís quite nice. I think itís awful when anyone suggests that people should be dependent on nature in that respect.
You said the problem has been the trawlers coming into Ghana to the coast, which has put pressure on the local fishermen. Thatís true but thatís why the local fishermen want trawlers, they actually want to hit Icelandic waters. They donít even want to fish just off the coast. They only fish on the coast because theyíve still got these backward, backbreaking wooden boats that rot. They want trawlers, and in so far as they want smaller vessels they want them made of, what do you call it, fibreglass, because itís so light.
Caspar Hewett: What I will do is take each of you for a minute each, which I know is short, then some more quick questions and then another minute at the end so you can sum up. Iíll let Roger go first.
Roger Higman: Very briefly. First of all, on people living in mud huts. No, of course we donít want to see that happen which is exactly why we are environmentalists, to try and stop the degradation that is happening to the environment, that scientists are saying is happening, which will actually put people back into poverty. We have to find ways of meeting everybodyís needs as we have said.
In terms of climate change, is it necessarily bad? No, but if it gets beyond a certain point, yes. Again, I suggest you look at the impacts report if the IPCC, itís all there, vast amounts of it.
In terms of diet, I agree with an awful lot of what you have said. But the fact we have to accept is, what we have to get to grips with is that people are now dependent on those sources. The second point is there is nothing wrong with taking fish from the sea, it is perfectly acceptable. We just have to do so in a way that continues to supply the resource. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with taking bush meat out of the forest. We just need to do so in such a way that ensures that there is a continuous resource so that we can keep on doing so.
So what weíre arguing for is management of that, rather than just squandering it. And yes, if we can find ways of improving supply, that might be worth looking into. By domestication.
Viv Regan: Iíve got some sympathy with what the guy at the back said about poverty voyeurism. If you see the footage of the film what you see actually, what you get from it is that the people who we went to visit, who were living in shit, have massive, big dreams. They have massive aspirations for themselves and for their children and thatís important to see and to witness. But however much Iíve got sympathy for it, actually thatís the reality, and itís a disgusting reality that in the 21st century people are still living like that and theyíre going to be living like that for a very long time because nothing is really going to happen, because we have goals now that are so low in horizons for the developing world they can stay there. The Millennium Development Goals are miserable.
I wouldnít have it if I went down to the dole office and they said you know what, development is off, technology you know, the society we live in, itís all off. But, we have a nice little plot of land for you, you can grow a few cabbages. It just wouldnít happen here, but it happens there. Someoneís got to say it.
Tony Gilland: Two very brief related points. Hopefully, Roger will answer these in his summing up if he gets time. One is exaggeration, something weíve been discussing quite a lot today, itís cropped up quite a lot, often when we have these discussions certain issues are exaggerated big time. We had the nuclear discussion earlier and the point was made that, actually the UNís latest report has found, so far, deaths attributable to Chernobyl, 56. Compare that to the thoughts at the time. It seems today that when anything seems to go wrong, we assume the worst and have a Hollywood style approach to it.
Same with BSE, a very frightening episode. The deaths attributable to BSE, if there is a link with new variant CJD, are 159, and the scientific consensus seems to be that itís a plateau and itís now coming down. Compare that to the half million that the chief medical officer talked about at the time. So it does seem to be the case that in our society we exaggerate problems in order to scare us into doing something, and that seems problematic.
Question from the floor: To Viv, I think you should keep saying it and keep saying it and keep saying it until Friends of the Earth are friends to the people in Ghana as well as to their friends in the rest of the world.
David Byrne (Student, Newcastle College): I was just thinking, a lot of the problems we face today I think; political, environmental and humanitarian. I think most of them just boil down to fear. I think if we just learn to be a society that can take more risks, maybe with GM crops, I think weíd could actually be doing better. Some of the time I think weíre living in at a stage where some of us are content and so we donít want that to change at all. I think took a few more risks maybe, with our money or our positions, to try and help someone else or the situation, I think weíd have a much better society then. Iím just wondering if anyone agrees with me or not.
Question from the floor: Iíve probably said too much already, Iíd just like to make a last couple of points really. If I can encourage all the panel not to lump all environmentalists together, thereís a huge diversity in there, thereís plenty. There are environmentalists for and against nuclear power, there are environmentalists for and against GM crops, I donít think itís always helpful just to lump everyone together.
And particularly to Viv, I suppose I would just say, try to encourage you not to reject environmentalists, not to reject sustainable development. Engaging with people who are environmentalists who are into sustainable development I think will help achieve the same things that they want and you want which is a better, a good quality of life for people who are currently in desperate poverty. I think environmentalism and sustainable development has a lot of solutions there. It doesnít have all the answers but I would encourage you not to reject it as something that has nothing to do with your agenda. I think it does, and I would just encourage you not to reject it and say it has no future.
Question from the floor: Who do you think funds the GM science that goes on in this building. Itís not the BSRC. Have a guess. Itís Monsanto. Thatís off the record though.
Caspar Hewett: Iím just going to bring up a couple of questions that havenít been dealt with. There was the question of what people see now as progress, which nobody has actually answered, and which I thought was rather a fun one. There was the point about loss of advocacy, which nobody picked up. Thereís the assumption that experimentation is bad. There was Tonyís point about exaggeration. There was the point at the back about we should take more risks and I would like all of your opinions on that one. And the point about engaging with sustainable development and, you each have only one minute each to go about it in the original order.
Viv Regan: Tough, Iíve already rejected environmentalism, itís wholly antihuman, totally undemocratic and Iím not going to go there. I agree, I think thereís a lot about this fear that we have here in the West. Oh, weíve got too much , oh, we consume too much, were pretty bad people and very very fearful. And yet we have the good life. I want more of the good life, but we do have a good life, and I want that for absolutely everybody. I want Ferraris For All! I want the best for everybody. So what is it that people are afraid of? Is it that we just want to keep it to ourselves and we donít want them to have it? No, thatís not good enough. So, Iím still rejecting environmentalism, sorry.
Iím not sure I can answer all your points. Take loads of risks and imagine. Just go wild with your imaginations, test it out, and try it out. Progress, as one Ghanaian said, we all need to upgrade our brains, constantly, all the time.
I wanted to say something about this finite planet thing that is threaded through the discussion. Weíve all got these resources on this planet called the earth and weíve got to take this out here, put this in there and make sure that doesnít dribble over there. What is this finite planet thing, I just donít see it? All the discussions about natural resources and resources running out, most of these kind of predictions have been hopelessly wrong. Petroleum is still here. Limits of energy, you know thereís no basis in science about it, it ignores what weíve got, it sees the earth as a closed system and ignores our capacity to tackle problems.
The Stone Age didnít end because the stones ran out.
Roger Higman: Youíre standing on the planet and if you canít see it youíre really ignoring the reality.
Viv Regan: That wasnít what I was saying, but Iíll let you carry on.
Roger Higman: If you look to what earth scientists are saying, they are saying, we depend, for our oxygen, for our water, for our food, for the things that actually make us alive, on the supply of resources from the natural world. We have to make sure that we protect that supply both for our benefit and for the people that come after us. Obviously, there may come a point, at some point where we can leave this planet behind. At which point, space is the limit. But until then we have to accept the scientific reality that we depend on those resources.
In terms of experimentation, yes Iím all for experimentation, Iím all for taking risks, Iím also all for making sure that those who do experiment, and who take risks actually honour the damage they doing to other people. They donít experiment with other peopleís lives. If there are people who do pollute, then they are liable for that pollution, if people do destroy then they are liable for that destruction. In terms of meeting peopleís needs, thatís what the whole thing is about. We are trying to find a way of meeting everybodyís needs because we cannot, cannot, with the technological capability that we have at the moment, continue to enjoy the sort of wasteful lives that we have in this country, and share and expect that people in other countries do the same because the planet cannot take it. And that is the science unfortunately. I wish it wasnít but it is.
Tony Gilland: I think that Roger has a very static view of reality. I certainly endorse his approach of looking reality in the face but I think his is a very static view. For me, I think one of the key dividing lines for us today is do you think limits are given or do you think limits are movable? And if theyíre movable, itís humans that move them, its human ingenuity that changes things. In other words, if we believe that we can learn from the past in order to project ourselves into the future and shape our own futures rather than being dependent on a static, given reality then we have some hope. If you donít believe that, then I think you might as well just pack up and go home, or go camp out with Roger and see how you all get on.
Experimentation and taking risks. Obviously part of that, the key thing about that is not about being cavalier but about being prepared to fail. We have to be prepared to fail if we are going to make any progress in any department of life.
| Home | Future Events | Previous Events | People | Articles | Reviews | AboutUs |
© C J M Hewett, 2012