A Disturbance in the Green Movement

By Keith Kloor | March 19, 2013 6:42 am

My favorite environmental heretic continues to be in the news. Earlier this month, the best profile of him yet appeared in the Observer. This week, Macleans publishes an interview with Mark Lynas, the UK environmental writer who is doing more than anyone these days to challenge greens on their ideological resistance to biotechnology.

Here’s an exchange that caught my eye: 

Q: You draw an interesting parallel between the denialism over global warming and denialism as it relates to GMOs. Both causes had been close to your heart. Did you reach a point where you had to choose between the two?

A: My overall effort has been to try to crash out an environmentalist perspective that is fully supported by evidence where there’s a scientific consensus. It’s interesting: the GM denialism seems to come from the left, and is particularly motivated by an anti-corporate world view; the climate-change denialism tends to come from the right and is motivated by suspicion of government.

Indeed, that is why in Slate last year I called GMO opponents the climate skeptics of the left.

What’s most interesting (and sad) at this point about the Lynas story is his isolation. His vocal turnabout on nuclear and biotech has made him an outcast in the green circles he once belonged to. Some of his former allies have even tried to discredit him with smears and innuendo. On this development, he says in the Observer article:

I’ve been complaining to my wife, but she said: ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself. You’ve insulted people at the deepest level of their values. You’ve done something completely wounding to their very sense of self.’

This is most certainly true, but so has George Monbiot with his public thrashing of the anti-nuclear crowd. Monbiot is the leading environmental writer in the UK and has a huge bullhorn with his Guardian column. Let’s recall what he wrote two years ago:

The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

Lynas shares these sentiments, but has also extended them to the anti-GMO movement. In doing so he has ignited a much-needed conversation about the longstanding opposition of greens to biotechnology, a conversation which Monbiot has been conspicuously absent.

Why is he sitting on the sidelines? Monbiot is no shrinking violet. The man who excoriated Helen Caldicott for peddling fears and misinformation on nuclear power remains oddly silent on the equally important issue of genetically modified crops. One can only wonder why he has muzzled himself.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    Monbiot has been very cagey on this. First he told me that he wouldn’t oppose the Rothamsted research. And then he wrote a letter of support to the courts for the criminal who broke in and destroyed some of it.

    Magistrates were handed character references from Labour politician and former minister Michael Meacher and writer George Monbiot.

    http://www.thisisnorthdevon.co.uk/Eco-warrior-Hector-Christie-ready-prison/story-16789219-detail/story.html#ixzz2NzRtNZ5X

    I certainly find that disturbing in the green movement.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      Can I put a YouTube in? This was the point where he talked about GMOs. ~47min in case the time thing doesn’t work:

      http://youtu.be/ZSOY5TH7wzk?t=47m20s

  • Joshua

    It’s interesting: the GM denialism seems to come from the
    left, and is particularly motivated by an anti-corporate world view;
    the climate-change denialism tends to come from the right and is
    motivated by suspicion of government.

    and

    Indeed, that is why in Slate last year I called GMO opponents the climate skeptics of the left.

    Not to defend poor arguments about GMOs, but given that you’re both focused in the problem with making arguments not supported by data, do you have any data showing the correlation between “the left” and perspectives on GMOs?

    As I recall, I’ve only seen one attempt to examine for such a correlation – by Kahan – and he showed no such correlation. Am I wrong about that?

    And even if you do show such a correlation, so what? We could likely show similar correlation between “the right” and a high prevalence of views unsupported by evidence. Don’t you think that focusing in on the (supposed but not established) correlation between “the left” and an unsupported view on GMOs, you are pointing at the symptom rather than the disease (motivated reasoning)?

    If the point is to say that people of all political persuasions are prone to motivated reasoning – ok, that makes sense to me. But if you limit your focus to constantly arguing about a correlation between “the left” and unfounded concerns about GMOs, you are just adding to the noise at the expense of talking about the signal.

    • Tom Scharf

      Joshua once again sends the host out to play whack a mole to “prove” the blatantly obvious. If you are incapable of observing the correlation between anti-GMO and the left, then you are hopelessly naive.

      • Joshua

        Tom -

        Joshua once again sends the host out to play whack a mole to “prove” the blatantly obvious

        Actually, I didn’t ask for “proof.” I asked for evidence, and in particular evidence that is controlled for confounding variables.

        It seems to me that we should all be consistent in maintaining that standard – wouldn’t you agree? I said that I understand why it “seems” that way, but that the only evidence I’ve seen doesn’t support the assertion:

        http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2012/10/15/timely-resistance-to-pollution-of-the-science-communication.html

        (parts 1 & 2)

        http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2012/10/12/watching-resisting-pollution-of-the-science-communication-en.html

        http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2012/10/14/resisting-watching-pollution-of-the-science-communication-en.html

        • kkloor

          I honestly can’t follow what you’re asking for: “I asked for evidence, and in particular evidence that is controlled for confounding variables.”

          I have no evidence that you are trolling, but it sure looks that way to me. :)

          In any case, perhaps if you read the stories and articles I regularly cite and quote from in my posts, that would help you. But I doubt it.

          • Joshua

            I honestly can’t follow what you’re asking for:

            Did you read the Kahan link? I’m asking for evidence that contrasts the evidence he presents – because the argument you make is in contrast to the evidence he presents. To wit:

            Yet note, the risks posed by GM foods are not culturally
            contested. We are all, in effect, “average” there. Moreover, for both cultural hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians, GM-food risks are in the “middle” of the range of risk sources they evaluated.

            So what I’d say, first, is that there is definitely no cultural conflict for GM foods in the US—at least not of
            the sort that we see for climate change, nuclear power, guns, etc.

            Second, I’d say that I don’t think there’s very much concern about GM foods generally. The “middling” score likely just means that members of the sample didn’t feel nearly as strongly about GM foods as they felt—one way or the other—about the other risks. So they assigned a middling rating.

            Now Kahan’s third point is interesting vis-a-vis your work on this issue:

            But third, and most important, I’d say that this is exactly the time to be worried about cultural polarization over GM foods.

            As I said at the outset of this series, putative risk sources aren’t borne with antagonistic cultural meanings. They acquire them.

            So then if we agree that this is the time to be worried about cultural polarization over GM foods, then the question is how to effectively mitigate the likelihood of acquisition of “antagonistic cultural meanings.”

            As I have told you many times, I see your work on this issue as consistent with that goal – but only to a point. Beyond that point, I think that your work on this issue is counter-productive, and perhaps the net effect, while just one small corner of the debate, is to increase the “antagonistic cultural meanings.” I see the net effect as being perhaps less one of informing people about the impact of motivated reasoning on the debate over GMOs, and more to make one side defensive and the other side vindicated w/r/t their own motivated reasoning.

            In that sense, yes, I think the stories and articles you cite are useful – but at best the potential of that work is not realized and at worst, that work is undermined by your failure to provide the full context — e.g.., over-generalizing about how representative are extremists, and failing to ground poorly supported views among some liberals (symptom) within the diseased environment (motivated reasoning) .

          • kkloor

            Well, I don’t have time right now to read the Kahan links, but I think I know what’s going on here, which I’ll get to in a minute.

            But first, I will say that cultural conflict on GMO foods has already taken place. We’re passed that.

            But regardless, I realize now that your mistake is assuming you know who my intended audience is. I don’t write this blog to appeal to the extremes of the spectrum, people whose positions are already staked out, people whose minds are already made up and politically and ideologically invested in their positions.

            At the same time, this blog also has a separate purpose, which I would have thought you’d have figured out by now.

          • Howard

            In a salute to reading comprehension, we have Kahan responding to Joshua on his pathological misunderstanding of Kloor:

            2.
            Likely I have a view of Kloor in general & on this issue that is
            different from yours. I gather you see him as someone whose point is to
            catch liberals being anti-science or inconsistent & call them out on
            it. If that’s right, then yes, he’ll come off at least as annoying
            & perhaps polarizing, & in any case not very credible. But my
            view of him is that he is someone whose normative goal is to make
            science as consequential as it ought to be in our political life &
            who sees mischief in the way certain actors are framing GMO.

          • Joshua

            Actually, howard – go back to the thread. I corrected Dan on his (understandably) inaccurate speculation about my reading of Keith.

          • Joshua

            At the same time, this blog also has a separate purpose, which I would have thought you’d have figured out by now.

            I have noted how many “reactions” you get – and so yes, I am “figuring it out.” You have made somewhat similar comments (less cryptic) before. Not sure how it all adds up, though. How does consideration of your audience relate to the points I made?

          • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

            it’s probably best if you just ban people like that. their comments are beyond worthless and it sets the tone for the rest of the commenters…keeps the group “tight” and encourages value added comments.

          • Joshua

            lol! That’s the ticket.

            Set the proper “tone” by calling for someone to be banned, and encourage “value added comments,” such as comments calling for people to be banned. There’s so much “value” in that!

          • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

            hey, i can’t help it. your comments are just worthless and i don’t want people like you getting in my way. try not to be so dumb

          • Joshua

            Seriously, bro – you “can’t help it?”

            You can’t bring yourself to stop writing comments to “dumb” people, calling for them to be “banned” so that you can set the proper “tone?” And you consider that to be “value added?”

            And “get in your way?” Where, exactly, are you going? Where do you think you’re going to get to by writing hypocritical, illogical, and unaccountable blog comments? To blog comment stardom?

            Dude, assume some responsibility for your own actions, stop blaming other people for your decisions, stop being delusional, and try to be consistent with the standards you profess to have.

          • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

            wow, you are a very serious. does this mean you don’t like me? i’m very perceptive and i think i can detect a tone…

          • jh

            “And if it weren’t for these confounding variables, my plan would have worked, and I’d control the ENTIRE UNIVERSE!!”

            (mystery machine drives off into the sunset)

  • RagnarDanneskjold

    Nuclear is the closest thing to a political free lunch because climate change skeptics are generally pro-nuclear (at least in the U.S.). Yet even on that issue, there is zero progress. If both sides were acting in good faith, there would be a concerted effort to build next generation reactors and both sides would be happy. I assume it’s almost ignored because everyone assumes nuclear power is a dead issue.

    • Joshua

      Progress on nuclear would require federal financing support and a centralized energy policy (not dominated by fossil fuel interests).

      So it would take significant movement from both sides of the political aisle. Given the preference for gridlock and finger pointing, my Magic 8-Ball says “Outlook not so good.”

      • harrywr2

        The Chinese will provide ‘proof of commercial viability’ in exchange for ‘domestic intellectual property rights’.

        Commercially it probably doesn’t make much difference because the Chinese were never going to pay for intellectual property on more then 1 or 2 units to begin with.

        So we might as well let the Chinese pay FOAK costs in exchange for an unlimited domestic license to copy.

        Most of existing commercial reactor R&D and FOAK cost burden was predicated on exports…if the biggest energy game in town isn’t interested in importing more then one copy of something then they should bear some R&D and FOAK costs.

        It took the Chinese how long to ‘clone’ advanced solar panel manufacturing and pretty much drive every solar panel manufacturer that various national governments subsidized at massive cost out of business?

        Why should the US or Europe subsidize something the Chinese are going to clone anyway? Let them pay their fair share.

  • Buddy199

    I’ve been complaining to my wife, but she said: ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself. You’ve insulted people at the deepest level of their values. You’ve done something completely wounding to their very sense of self.’

    ————–
    Yeah, well that’s the way it is if you decide to be principled rather than a popular lemming. Logic sometimes does offend people at the deepest level of their non-rational, emotional sense fo self. There are few things more upsetting to most people than a well thought out, substantial, logical argument that is diametrically opposed to their point of view, forcing them to re-think things.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Why is he sitting on the sidelines? Monbiot is no shrinking violet. The man who excoriated Helen Caldicott for peddling fears and misinformation on nuclear power remains oddly silent on the equally important issue of genetically modified crops.”

    Presumably because if he did, somebody would bring up all the times he too was peddling fear and misinformation on genetically modified crops.

    http://www.monbiot.com/category/genetic-engineering/

    Prizes if you can spot any hints of an anti-corporate world view…

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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