British politics are getting more interesting. The two parties that have shared power for most of a century, along with the traditional third party, are all in decline. Scotland is undergoing a nationalistic surge, and has become – for the time being – a one-party state. Insurgent parties of right and left are in the ascendency. Much discussion goes on about the nature of UKIP, but the Greens have been under far less scrutiny. Urban liberals, disenchanted with Labour and the Liberal Democrats have drifted greenwards.
The Green Party has adopted the kinds of left-wing talking points that would appeal to disenchanted progressives in search of a new party, but its roots lie in environmentalism. Although the environmental movement has become associated with the left in recent decades, its instincts lie in true, small-c conservatism: a deeply-held belief that the old ways are the good ways. Because of this, the Greens have a dodgy relationship with science and high-technology solutions.
To win voters, the Greens play on a popular, deeply and widely-held belief that the “natural” is better than the man-made, and the traditional is better than the new. Fear of new technologies is as old as mankind, but playing on these fears for votes is the act of a cynical, conservative party, not a progressive one. History has repeatedly taught us that threats to the environment and to human existence are best tackled by embracing new technology, not rejecting it and looking for “traditional” solutions. Technologies that barely managed to feed 300 million people 500 years ago will fail dismally in feeding 11 billion by the end of this century; but just as there is money in selling Ye Olde Worlde Remedeys, so there are also votes.
Ironically, this means that Green environmental policies may in fact be detrimental to the environment and human well-being. I’ve picked three aspects of their manifesto to illustrate this.
Back in the 80s, the London leftie’s vehicle of choice was a Citroen 2CV with a “Nuclear Power? No Thanks!” sticker in the back window. Hatred of nuclear power goes deep on the left, for two apparently good reasons: the chance of horrific accidents, and the link with nuclear war. The fear of nuclear war has diminished greatly since then, but two other things have changed.
First, we now have long experience with nuclear power. All of the apocalyptic forecasts made in its earlier days have turned out to be vastly overblown. “Fukushima!!!”, I hear you cry (as indeed, somebody commented when I posted on this subject on my Facebook page). And yes, Fukushima… one of the worst nuclear incidents in history, and no deaths. In fact, Fukishima convinced previous anti-nuclear campaigners, like George Monbiot, that nuclear was far safer than they had believed. Strip away the hysteria and unfounded claims and look at the facts: nuclear power is very, very safe and very, very clean. Far safer and cleaner than coal, which can probably be implicated in millions of deaths each year. But the hysteria has built up over generations; to the numerically-challenged, zero nuclear deaths are still scarier than millions of coal and oil-related deaths, and the Greens (like all political parties) know that fear is a great campaigning tool. They promise to decommission Britain’s nuclear power.
And although a switch to renewable energy and investment in energy efficiency are both vital (and indeed, are happening fast), what Greens don’t point out is that, in the short-to-mid-term, renewables can’t possibly replace coal and gas power plants. What Green policy means in practise is extending the life of fossil fuel power generation… and that is nothing short of criminal, from a party claiming to care about climate change. In short, winding down Britain’s nuclear generation means emitting more carbon dioxide at a time when we (and all countries) need to wind our emissions down to zero in the shortest possible time.
Climate change denial is ceasing to be a major movement, beyond isolated pools of stupidity (the US Republicans and Australia’s current leadership come to mind). The Greens are potentially more dangerous, because they talk about a zero-carbon future, while pushing a contradictory policy that would continue carbon emissions for longer than necessary. The policy is doubly stupid in exaggerating nuclear dangers, while pretending renewables can fill the gap faster than they can. Anyone who cares passionately about climate change (as well as air pollution from coal and oil) needs to consider casting their vote elsewhere. Nuclear might scare you, but like it or not, it’s an essential part of the battle against climate change.
Genetically Modified Organisms
Nuclear power does pose some genuine risk – even if exaggerated a thousandfold by the Greens. But other risks have been entirely fabricated.
In 1999, the media seized on a study claiming that genetically modified potatoes caused harm to rats that ate them. This quickly became folklore among environmentalists and helped begin the anti-GMO bandwagon. The study was rapidly debunked, but the myth of dangerous GMOs was established, and continued to grow.
Genetic modification is a powerful, general-purpose mechanism. Genetic modification is something humans have been doing, often accidentally, for thousands of years via selective breeding, without which we would not be able to feed any more than a small fraction of the world’s current population. Modern genetics allow science to produce far more dramatic results in far less time. In theory, GM could be used to create giant, man-eating teddy bears; however this is pretty unlikely in practise. But new technologies have always produced a conservative backlash, and since genetics is a complex area of science, it’s unsurprising that the science-illiterate are scared.
In reality, GMOs offer a true solution to two problems to which the Greens pay lip service: global hunger, and preserving the environment. Just as man-made selection has enabled more food to be grown on smaller land areas (thus reducing the need for farmland, and preserving wilderness), so GMOs, and other technologies, can further increase land productivity and so curtail – and even reduce – the need for agricultural land. In Africa, where hunger has always been a fact of life, GMOs allow nutrients to be added to low-nutrition native crops: rice and bananas have been been engineered to produce vitamin A, a vital ingredient lacking from the diets of many African children, thus potentially saving many lives. GM corn produces its own anti-insect chemicals and thus reduces or removes the need for insecticides; what true Green wouldn’t want that? After thousands of studies, the lists of benefits keeps growing, the harms keep getting debunked; but who needs evidence when one has faith?
A genuinely environmental or progressive party would be calling for tax breaks to accelerate such technologies, but The Greens have their woo vote to maintain, so GMOs are attacked rather than praised. The Greens are deeply anti-science on this, as with other issues.
If there is any greater example of the battle between deep middle-class conservatism and reason, it must be organic food. There are two reasons given for eating organic:
Health: organic foods are better for you! They’re not, obviously, but when you sell a product at a vast premium to its competitors you need to make claims like that. This claim feeds into a very old superstition: the idea that “natural” things are better than modern, man made things. It also plays on conspiracy theories about chemicals, government and corporations: the less evidence of harm science can find in non-organic foods, the more “they” must be lying to us.
Environment: this is where it gets really stupid. The Greens talk about “industrialised” agriculture, as if that’s a bad thing. Industrialisation has meant more food can be produced from less land using less labour. It has meant that a steadily reducing proportion of the world’s population is going hungry, despite rapid increases in population. But Greens apparently yearn for the Merrie Englande of old, where buxom, rosie-cheeked milkmaids frolicked in haystacks with shepherds (note to self: check out feasibility of Green Porn market).
The future of agriculture is truly small-g green: it is vertical. It involves multi-story buildings, hydroponics, artificial light and solar power. It allows water recycling to a level that would be impossible outdoors. It doesn’t require soil, and allows agriculture to be removed from the land so that land can be returned to nature. It involves genetic modification to maximise the food that can be created per square metre, and to increase the nutritional value of our food. It involves robotics, and removes the need for hard human labour. It requires few or no pesticides. It will allow mankind to recreate lost wilderness.
Care about the planet and humanity? Then find a party that evangelises science, not one that despises it.