Journalist Fred Pearce is an environmentalist and a journalist but even during the real nadir of science journalism, the mid-2000s, he was never an advocate or a cheerleader. He always asked the uncomfortable questions, even about people whose side he was on, and he brought new science issues to light while doing it. He has been right for doing so, because scientists are in the forefront of environmentalism, not environmentalists.
What real issue have environmentalists ever gotten to before scientists? The ozone hole? Nope, environmentalists never heard of it before mainstream scientists sounded the alarm, then they jumped on it and raised money using it. Ocean acidification? No environmentalists there until after the fact, raising money again. Instead, activists have given us nonsense derived from Rachel Carson, and they even went a step farther - instead of addressing misuse in agriculture they promoted the idea that DDT causes cancer and got it banned. That lack of responsible indoor usage of DDT led to tens of millions of deaths.
Progressive apologists, spare me the fluffy nonsense how it didn't. It did. Just like eugenics, learn a lesson and move on.
I was on a radio interview a few weeks ago with the Scientific Integrity Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and we agreed on a lot - but not one big thing. She advocated yet more laws and rules and regulations whereas I advocated less following 'leaders' and promoting more individual knowledge so the public could tell politicians what to do regarding science in an informed fashion. It makes sense for an activist group to advocate more government because if there are more laws and politicians who like laws, their paid lobbyists have an easier time promoting their world view. But their world view is not science. While the UCS accepts the science consensus on global warming, they deny the science consensus on energy and food. In two out of three of the most important science issues facing America, UCS, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and all other environmental activists flat out deny science.
Pearce, like anyone sane, has some concern about the role of business in our food supply, but that is also not something new. We stopped being an agrarian society 70 years ago and during my entire lifetime corporations have 'controlled the food supply' just like corporations control every small-town grocery store and farmer's market. Yet food is still cheap in America, even with union labor and Big Ag being all corporation-y and making a profit. What would be more ridiculous than the government trying to grow food? A potato would cost $100 if the government ran agriculture. Instead, they just redistribute money using antiquated policies; it isn't efficient, but it is less harmful than if they actually grew food.
There's no need here to rehash the anti-science beliefs of environmentalists about GMO food, including the latest mainstream media craze about rats with tumors. Anyone gullible enough to believe that a French anti-GMO activist was doing solid work in biology isn't reading this piece anyway. Yet what did activists do when all of science criticized the lack of transparency and suspect model? They claimed the research group was victim of a vast, right-wing conspiracy by government and business. It's 9/11 truther, Obama birther, flat-earther, JFK-was-shot-by-the-Mayans stuff. But it puts rational environmentalists on the opposite side of the kooks who have hijacked the movement. Rachel Carson would be all for GMO foods if she were alive right now, it accomplishes what she wanted to accomplish and she would not like the generation of anti-science activists she inspired.
Pearce quotes Stewart Brand wrote from his book "Whole Earth Discipline" - “I dare say the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than any other thing we’ve been wrong about.”
Indeed they have. A war on food is a war on poor people and the people fighting that war are activists in wealthy countries. People who can afford to buy organic are the 1% - of food. They are either wealthy enough to afford organic soap or lucky enough to be born in a rich agricultural area. Being smug about food choice is easy when you have plenty of it. But their anti-science beliefs, once brought forth, then extend it from food to all science; they regard science as being just like organic food, a world view or an ethical belief and not a rational understanding of the world according to natural laws. There is a reason you can use a protractor in California and draw a circle around a Whole Foods store and find hotbeds of anti-vaccine beliefs. Whole Foods says it puts its stores where wealthy liberals are - you can do that math.
What are pro-science environmentally conscientious people to do? A big problem we have run into, at least in America, is an Us and Them mentality which forces people into Big Tent positions. While the left can criticize the right and say it is dishonest for fiscal conservatives to turn a blind eye to the perils of religious conservatives or climate change deniers, the left actively does something worse - instead of ignoring their cranks they go out of their way to rationalize their anti-science contingent by claiming they are instead "anti-business" or anything except what they obviously are; fearful and distrustful of what they regard as simple another world view - science.
Science is not a valid constituency in the US (yet) because scientists do not vote on science issues. 40 years ago science academia was reflective of America and so scientists were supported by both conservatives and liberals. Only anti-science hippies believed science was out to kill us by being tools of big corporations, but they believed the same things about computers so everyone ignored them. Today, academia is quite partisan and therefore the only people who trust scientists are people who happen to agree with whatever the scientist is saying at the moment - neither the left or the right trusts scientists even as they claim to trust science. Republicans trust geologists on fracking but not the climate scientists on the atmosphere. Democrats trust scientists on climate but not...well, everything else. Fracking is bad, nuclear is bad, GMOs are bad, windmills are bad, hydroelectric is bad, even solar is bad, because it hurts the ecosystem to build anything.
Yet scientists don't think all those things are bad. It just happens that, in 2012, 84% of scientists are voting one way because of other cultural issues. Science has nothing to do with how they vote, no matter how voting may be rationalized. And candidates know scientist votes are not up for grabs, that is why neither side mentions climate change or any other science issue - Obama knows they are already voting for him regardless of his (often anti-)science positions and Romney answered those ScienceDebate questions with more thought and care than Obama did and knows it did not change a single vote. Despite what everyone tries to claim, science makes no difference at all in how scientists vote. It is just a campaigning issue when it happens to validate how they were already voting.
The solution is easy, if childishly unsatisfactory because it is impossible to implement (kind of like when Paul Krugman writes on economics for the New York Times); vote on science issues instead of just abortion or taxes or gay marriage or gun control. Teachers vote for the party that is going to give their union a raise - okay, that is their job so it makes sense. But hunters vote for the party that isn't going to take away their guns, even though hunting is not their job. Scientists have both a job and a passion so why don't they vote based on an honest appraisal of the science issues?
Part of voting on science issues would be calling out people who claim to care about the environment and science, but only if it matches their political agenda and when it does not, they invoke the tiresome 'you must be a shill for...' argument and bleat about straw men and false equivalence and whatever other flawed logic they learned from like-minded bloggers. Criticizing anti-science environmentalists, as Pearce does, would go a long way toward helping to reclaim science as a politically agnostic endeavor for the public good, and it would shore up the perception of the neutrality of scientists when they discuss science issues.
Read more from Pearce:
Why Are Environmentalists Taking Anti-Science Positions? by Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360
- If Climate Change Is Really Important, Let's Have An Adult Talk About Nuclear Power
- Celebrating 50 Years Of Weapons Grade Junk Science
- What Democrats In Congress Can Learn From Anti-GMO Activist Mark Lynas About Science
- Friends Of The Earth Hate Clean Energy- And So Does President Obama
- U.S. Senate Rejects GMO Labeling Amendment