The Merchants of Doom

By Keith Kloor | March 17, 2014 11:54 am

Paul Ehrlich and Ann Ehrlich, two long-time prominent voices in the environmental community, often speculate about the future of humanity. They recently shared this anecdote:

A few years ago we had a disagreement with our friend Jim Brown, a leading ecologist.  We told him we thought there was about a 10 percent chance of avoiding a collapse of civilization but, because of concern for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we were willing to struggle to make it 11 percent.  He said his estimate of the chance of avoiding collapse was only 1 percent, but he was working to make it 1.1 percent.  Sadly, recent trends and events make us think Jim might have been optimistic.  Perhaps now it’s time to talk about preparing for some form of collapse soon, hopefully to make a relatively soft “landing.”

If you want to know why the Ehrlichs think it’s essentially game over for civilization, read their 2013 paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Their diagnosis:

The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption.

Translation: Too many damn people on the earth, driving cars, buying too much crap, all made possible by a globalized, industrialized, capitalistic system. Or something like that. Unsurprisingly, the Ehrlichs don’t agree with those who paint a sunnier view of humanity’s current trajectory. (What might a model sustainable society look like? Paul Ehrlich recently pointed to Australia’s Aboriginal culture.)

Now I’m not the only one to observe that the environmental community, as a whole, has a bleak view of the future.

But is the near-future collapse of civilization virtually guaranteed, as the Ehrlichs seem to think? Is there no reversing this collision course? Here’s what UK environmentalist Jonathan Porritt said last week in an interview: Read More

The Inevitable Failure of a Climate Change Message

By Keith Kloor | March 14, 2014 1:38 pm

Not long ago my wife and I went out to dinner at a restaurant with another couple, who, like us, have two boys. The conversation inevitably turned to our kids, school, family stuff. Their older son made the transition this year to junior high school. I asked how this was going. Pretty well, the mother said, except he had recently become anxious and wasn’t sleeping well. “He’s worried about climate change,” she said. “It’s keeping him up at night.”

Shortly after that outing, my wife and I had dinner with another couple. Again, the conversation revolved around our kids. (They have a 13-year old son and an 11-year old daughter). Their teenage boy, I learned, was also having anxiety and sleep issues. “He’s become obsessed with climate change,” the father told me. “He thinks the world is doomed.”

Now I admit these are anecdotal stories. Not every 13-year old kid is worried about global warming. Generally speaking, most fret about grades, being cool, etc. When I was that age, I cared about mundane things, like boxscores and comic books. My world didn’t widen until I reached high school and college.

If kids today have a greater awareness at a younger age of environmental issues, it’s probably because many schools have made earth science a part of the educational curriculum in earlier grades. For example, the fourth grade students in my son’s Brooklyn public school just performed in a recital called, “A musical journey through four environments: The arctic, the forest, the ocean, the city.” That’s a terrific way to teach young minds about ecosystems. (They also learn about the environment in their science class.)

I’m not sure how climate change is taught to students when they reach 6th or 7th grade, so I have no idea what might have triggered the sudden anxiousness experienced by the two aforementioned boys. It’s also worth pointing out that my social circle is made up of politically progressive, socially-conscious well-to-do families.  (Yeah, the kind of people that unfortunately, also worry about being poisoned by GMOs.) In this case, however, I know that the parents of the two boys don’t have strong feelings about climate change, so I don’t think the trigger was at home.

Nor would I argue that these two examples of teenage anxiety about climate change reflect the typical fears of American youth. Still, for kids who are dialed into global concerns, there’s no doubt they are exposed to a climate discourse that is heavy on  apocalyptic warnings. It is the dominant tenor of the conversation that takes place in the media and in environmental circles.

So it doesn’t surprise me that a 13-year old researching a class project on climate change becomes anxious after reading about a future careening toward unavoidable climate catastrophe. Look it up for yourself: Doomsday is all but assured, we are constantly told. I was flipping through a recent issue of Utne magazine when I came across this re-publication of a 2012 essay by Chris Hedges. He writes: Read More

Environmental Groups are Flirting with Extinction

By Keith Kloor | March 7, 2014 2:46 pm

This April 22, Earth Day turns 44. The green movement is not aging well. Like today’s U.S. Republican Party, it has a diversity problem and speaks primarily to a narrow, graying demographic slice of the United States.

In 2009, Francis Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said to the New York Times:

Our groups are not as diverse as we’d like, but every one of the major groups has diversity as a top priority.There’s great commitment to making the environmental movement representative of what the country is.

That’s debatable. Still, if such a commitment doesn’t pan out, environmentalists will surely become an endangered species. As Barry Yeoman wrote in a 2011 article for Audubon magazine:

For the environmental movement to survive, it must cultivate new leaders who mirror the demographics of a nation that’s now 36 percent minority.

In the Audubon piece, Beinecke says:

If we’re going to have a constituency 20 or 30 years from now, or even 10, it’s critical that we be more inclusive. If we fail to do that, the movement will erode–erode in numbers and erode in political weight.

This diminishing of political influence is already well underway, as Nicholas Lemann observed last year in the New Yorker, in large part because the big green groups operating inside the beltway have “concentrated on the inside game, at the expense of efforts at broad-based organizing.”

But even if Big Green did change its tactics and also add more black and brown faces in its ranks, its future would still look bleak. Part of the problem is that some of the long established groups like Audubon have an identity crisis that they can’t shake. Audubon flirted with diversifying its conservation mission in the 2000s, but has recently pulled back from that effort. (Disclosure: I was an editor at Audubon magazine from 2000-2008, where I had a front seat to the organization’s fitful existential crisis.)

Audubon isn’t the only venerable green group struggling to stay relevant. The Nature Conservancy, one of the most successful conservation organizations, does not appear to have a sustainable membership. As Paul Voosen noted in this article: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Audubon, environmentalism, nature

The Right to Be Manipulated

By Keith Kloor | March 5, 2014 12:09 pm

The list of supermarkets, companies and restaurants hopping aboard the anti-GMO train keeps growing. Last year Whole Foods and Chipotle made headlines for their pledges to go GMO-free. [CORRECTION: Only Chipotle has made that pledge; Whole Foods has committed to labeling any of its products that contain GMOs] Numerous food companies have already slapped such a label on their products.

This week big grocery chains like Safeway have followed suit with a pre-emptive decision to not carry genetically modified salmon (trademarked as AquaBounty), which is awaiting approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). As Treehugger notes:

Should the FDA green-light the fish, opponents of the salmon hope to block AquaBounty’s channels to the market. In that regard, today’s announcement seems like a major win. Kroger and Safeway join dozens of other grocery stores that have already promised to not carry the genetically engineered fish, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Meijer and Aldi.

Anti-biotechnology activists may have been on the losing end of recent GMO labeling ballot initiatives in Washington and California, but their broader campaign again genetically modified foods appears to be succeeding. Never mind that it’s a fundamentally dishonest and disingenuous campaign. It’s not about the “right to know,” it’s about the right to be scared by misinformation and fear-mongering rhetoric. It’s about the right to be manipulated by activists and food companies. As Steve Savage observes: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, food movement, GMOs

How Does Crop Biotechnology Help Food Security?

By Keith Kloor | February 26, 2014 10:36 am

In the U.S. food is taken for granted. There are well-stocked supermarkets and no shortage of cookbooks and eateries to indulge appetites. This bountiful supply allows Americans to focus more on the aesthetics of food and, to an increasing degree, where and how it is produced.

For the millions around the globe who do not live in an affluent society, the main concern about food is more basic: Getting enough of it on a consistent basis. For many in Africa and Asia, this entails growing cash crops and staple foods.

As the Gates Foundation points out, agricultural enhancement in the developing world is also the key to a better life:

When farmers grow more food and earn more income, they are better able feed to their families, send their children to school, provide for their family’s health, and invest in their farms.

One way to do this is through biotechnology. Note that I said ONE WAY, not the only way. Nor is this just my opinion. Global sustainability guru Jeffrey Sachs has said this.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the GMO debate is how it is framed. Forget the cranks who dominate the discourse–I’m talking about smart, influential thought leaders who simplistically portray GMOs as a well-meaning technology that hasn’t delivered on its grand promises.

A prime example is Jon Foley’s recent essay, titled, “GMO’s, Silver Bullets and the Trap of Reductionist Thinking.” He starts off:

To begin, GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security. Mainly, that’s because GMO crops primarily in use today are feed corn (mostly for animal feed and ethanol), soybeans (mostly for animal feed), cotton and canola. But these aren’t crops that feed the world’s poor, or provide better nutrition to all. GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security, but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits. While the technology itself might “work,” it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security.

This is a narrow (dare I say reductionistic) way of looking at food security. Feeding the world’s poor, as Foley knows, also requires improving their livelihoods. It’s about lifting their incomes, helping them break the vicious cycle of poverty. There’s much that goes into that economic development equation but in Africa and other areas of the developing world, the role of commodity crops as an income generator for small farmers is crucial.

To cite one example, look at what happened after Bt cotton was introduced in India. (I’m not talking about a certain popular urban myth.) Recent studies show that Indian farmers who turned to genetically modified cotton have increased their yields, lowered their input costs and as a result, boosted their household incomes. Does that not contribute to food security?

Nor is this the whole story. As University of California plant geneticist Pamela Ronald notes: Read More

Learning to Live with Denialism

By Keith Kloor | February 25, 2014 7:27 am

Periodically, some readers accuse me of characterizing climate skepticism in an overly broad manner. There are various subspecies, they insist. So I should stop painting all climate skeptics as frothing conspiracy mongers.

My rejoinder is that I base my characterization on the loudest, most relentless climate skeptics, who have made themselves the representative voices of their movement.

In a nod to their different plumages, the climate analyst David Victor has in a recent talk identified three types of “denialism”: Paid shills, actual skeptics, and hobbyists, the latter constituting the majority.

Andy Revkin at his New York Times Dot Earth blog has excerpted highlights of the talk, including this passage that probably doesn’t still well with the missionary contingent in the climate-concerned sphere: Read More

The David Rose Award For GMO Reporting

By Keith Kloor | February 24, 2014 2:54 pm

The fundamentally flawed and distorted climate reporting by David Rose in the UK’s Daily Mail is often called out by science journalists and bloggers. His repeated misrepresentation of climate scientists has prompted the UK’s Met office to publicly respond on numerous occasions. It’s unfortunate that one reporter continues to flout basic journalistic principles on an important scientific issue, but at least he does not go unchallenged.

The same cannot be said for John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, who is the David Rose of GMO reporting. Vidal’s coverage of genetically modified (GM) crops is not as outlandish as Rose’s climate coverage, but it is just as slanted. Both have an obvious bias that colors their articles.

For example, look at Vidal’s 2012 story on the discredited rat tumor study by Gilles-Eric Séralini. Respectable science journalists blanched at the circumstances surrounding the study and examined it critically. Vidal, on the other hand, went out of his way to take it seriously.

Last year, Vidal reported on an Indian village where farmers were supposedly producing record crop yields without herbicides and GM technology. One of the soil scientists quoted by Vidal wrote an interesting commentary on the piece, including this bit: Read More

Truth Always Wins

By Keith Kloor | February 14, 2014 3:42 pm

The politicized and polarized nature of the climate debate is well established. Those who track the testy, emotionally-charged conversation on agricultural biotechnology wonder if the GMO discourse is heading down that road.

I’ve argued that the rhetorical tactics of GMO skeptics and climate skeptics are similar. Others have also come to see these commonalities (cherry-picking studies, trafficking in pseudoscience, etc). Additionally, it is unfortunate that numerous greens and progressives have allowed ideology to trump science when it comes to GMOs.

One might conclude that a public dialogue shaped by interest group politics and scientific distortions is a recipe for polarization. But that would be a wrong assumption. As Yale’s Dan Kahan recently said: Read More

The Allure of the Rural Idyll

By Keith Kloor | February 12, 2014 11:51 am

When I want to escape the cacophony of civilization, I head to the country. I love to see all the grazing cows as I drive through a quaint rural backroad. The lush, wholesome scenery is exactly like the images on my organic milk and yogurt containers.


Maybe I come across an antique shop, where I find a wooden ironing board from the late 1800s. Not that I’d use it, but at least I’d have something in my cluttered urban dwelling to remind me of a simpler time.

I love the warm, fuzzy sensation I get when I see all the barns and farm fields in the country. It makes me feel rooted to the earth. The landscape is just like a beautiful painting you admire from a distance.


And don’t you love the smell of woodsmoke in the winter? Nothing is more home and hearth than a wood-burning fireplace. It’s primal.

And what about the people that live in the country, who tend to the cows, the fields, and the rustic barns? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, environment, farming, nature

The Frothy Anti-GMO Stew

By Keith Kloor | February 10, 2014 11:49 am

Have you ever wondered why some people are fearful of GMOs? Even if you shake your head at this question, it is important to ponder because most discussions of genetically modified crops are shaped more by emotions than facts. This is why the evidence-driven search for truth by Nathanael Johnson was not appreciated by anti-GMO food activists.

So what’s driving GMO fears? For one thing, the science of agricultural biotechnology is still fairly new and poorly understood. As the journal Nature explained in a 2013 editorial:

Fears of the unfamiliar and ‘unnatural’, and concerns about health or environmental impacts, have frequently prevented approval and adoption of the crops, especially in Europe, where protesters have destroyed experiments.

To really grasp what’s behind this, you have to understand the underlying psychological reasons that lead people to be scared of GMOs. David Ropeik provides a great explainer in the current issue of Cosmos, as Australian science magazine. His piece is part of a package of articles that explores various controversial issues surrounding GMOs and more generally, agriculture. I’ll be discussing many of these pieces in this space over the next several weeks. (Disclosure: I’m a senior editor at Cosmos.) The stakes for agriculture, the environment and food security are considerable. There are unfortunate consequences to biotech opposition, as Cosmos editor-in-chief Elizabeth Finkel notes in her feature:

Paradoxically, activists are attacking precisely those technologies that are helping to reduce chemical use and lifting poor farmers out of poverty.

But it’s not just activists who are opposed to GMOs. As former Guardian reporter Leo Hickman wrote last year:

Polling indicates that, despite a small drop in recent years, opposition to GM food in the UK – and to a greater extent across the rest of Europe – is significant and rigid.

It’s important to understand why this is. Hickman next provided a succinct explanation:

There are many reasons for this – a complicated cocktail of emotion, psychology, politics, ideology and science – but the blunt reality for advocates of GM crops is that they still face a steep incline before them.

In my piece for the special Cosmos edition on agriculture, I examine the part of the stew that concerns politics and ideology, specifically the Monsanto factor. I write: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


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

See More

Collapse bottom bar

Login to your Account

E-mail address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »