Snack. While you read this post, here are Eat Know Sing’s healthy cookies. Prepared from old fashioned oats, sweet sorghum flour, gluten-free all-purpose flour, maple syrup, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, vanilla, shredded coconut, mashed banana, applesauce, and grated carrot. Best served smothered with butter. And now we have the stage set for choking on our contradictions, as our guest author presents…
A Tale of Contradiction:
Science, Environmentalism, and Authority
Since this is my first blog post, I would like take a moment and congratulate Denzil on putting together this blog and giving me the privilege of writing for it.
I would also like to take a moment to tell you a little bit about myself. As I tell my students at the beginning of year, respect and empathy are the foundation of any constructive discussion. I believe that anonymity breeds a lack of both. With that in mind, this is me in three sentences:
I am a married thirty-one year old Canadian from Northern B.C. who ran away from a small resource town to go to university and never really left. I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars and I believe Terry Pratchett is one of the funniest writers alive today. As you have probably guessed, I work in the humanities and enjoy both teaching and academic life; I’m your average over educated, liberal, know-it-all.
Contradictions really REALY bug me. If you have been following the news lately, you will have noticed a startling contradiction in how the environmental movement employs science. Environmentalists have been trying to save the world’s climate and protect the food we eat. Science has been front and center in both these efforts.
In the case of the climate, environmentalists and the vast majority of scientists are in lock step. Climate change is real and humans are causing it. A couple of years ago Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway even wrote a book demonstrating that the only people who disagreed were either motivated by partisan political views or in the pay of big oil, or both. Disagreeing about the existence, seriousness, and anthropogenic nature of climate change made you an outcast. You became a denialist, someone who refused to accept scientifically demonstrated facts and therefore not worth listening to. Considering the stakes this hard-line made sense and as denialists were exposed and discredited science seemed to be winning. I hoped, along with most, that global warming would be treated with the seriousness it deserves.
At the same time as science and environmentalism seemed to be triumphing over denialism in the climate debate a second struggle was going on. In this debate, however, the close alliance between science and environmentalism broke down. Respectable environmentalists, such the Sierra Club and Michael Pollan argue that genetically modified foods (GMOs) caused physical harm to humans and animals. Most geneticists, nutritionists, and a few environmentalists disagreed and stated that GMOs do not cause bodily harm and are unlikely to do so in the future. Most environmentalists, however, have not backed down. Currently a continual stream of “scientific” studies purports to show that GMOs cause physical harm. The most recent appeared last week. It argued that GM feed inflamed pigs’ stomachs and uteri. Immediately, science journalists pointed to flaws in the study and argued it offered no conclusive evidence.
What gives? It seems Oreskes and Conway could write another book, except this time the “merchants of doubt” are environmentalists I respect.
Why are environmentalists supporting the scientific consensus in one area and engaging in denialism in a different context?
The reason is obvious: political power. Environmentalists wish to benefit from the social stature and intellectual authority of science. By employing scientific fact to support their arguments, they believe they can cause change.
But there is something more going on here.
Environmentalists’ deep commitment to defending climate science and their determination to scientifically prove that GMOs cause harm despite all the evidence to the contrary suggest that more is at work than a simple desire to benefit from science’s prestige. It seems to me that environmental groups and leading individuals are deeply reliant on science, or at least an aura of scientific authority. Nearly all of environmentalisms’ successful claims are scientific in some way. Take Gaia Principle, depletion of the ozone layer, dangers of nuclear radiation. Together they have changed how we think about our relationship with the world, the products we use, and our treatment of waste. Science was central. Gaia drew on ecology, the ozone hole on atmospheric chemistry, and the Union of Concerned Scientists made fallout an environmental issue. On the surface, relying on science does not seem a problem. However, as the contradictions of GMO debate illustrate it can leave the environmental movement in a very vulnerable position.
I think this vulnerability might have historical roots. Emerging in the 1960s modern environmentalism appeared just as the relationship the state and its citizens began to change. The growing reach of the state encouraged a dramatic change in our society. Old voluntary organizations, which brought people together from diverse social and economic backgrounds, the Elks and Audubon Society for example, gave way to smaller professionally organized groups. Dues paying members replaced volunteers and supported a small staff of professionals, often lawyers, scientists, or former politicians. Lobbing the newly activist state for change or swaying the public opinion through education and media coverage. With a government ready to act and willing to listen or with a concerned public this system could be very effective. Environmental groups ranging from Greenpeace, to the Serra Club embraced this structure with gusto.
As effective as this approach could be, it had two drawbacks. These professional organizations need to buttress their authority in some way. People need a reason to give money and politicians and the media need a reason to listen to them. Secondly, it requires them to compete for attention. Immediate and direct threats, cancer for example, are a great way of being noticed. As a result, environmentalism came to rely heavily on scientific authority and the sensational.
The two, however, do not always mix. Contradictions crop up. They will likely continue to do so as long as alarm and expert authority are foundations of environmentalists influence. Perhaps those large voluntary organizations with their democratic principles might be useful alternative.