Earlier this year I explored how Monsanto, the world’s most successful agricultural biotech company, became the poster child for the anti-GMO movement. (The best book-length history of how this came to be remains “Lords of the Harvest,” by NPR’s Dan Charles.) What fascinates me–and undoubtedly infuriates anyone who works at Monsanto–is how hard it is for the company to shake its villainous public image.
Many people working in the global sustainability arena tend to be focused on one of two knotty issues: 1) climate change or 2) food security. The former is devilish because we have to figure out how to power the developing world while reducing our overall carbon footprint. The latter is also complex because we have to figure out how to feed billions more people in the coming decades while reducing our overall agricultural footprint.
As for agriculture, there’s a widely held belief that growing demand for food will require ever more cropland, resulting in devastating ecological consequences. But perhaps this future is not as certain as some think. Jon Fisher, a researcher at the Nature Conservancy, recently dug into a trove of agricultural data and was pleasantly surprised by what he found (his emphasis): Read More
Several years ago, I wrote about about an insurrection in the environmental movement. A new group of greens–called eco-pragmatists–had taken on the old nature-centric guard, which still held sway but also had rendered environmentalism anachronistic and ill-equipped to address complex 21st century challenges, such as climate change.
It was a battle between what I called the green modernists and the green traditionalists. The latter, I wrote:
has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists. Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true.
The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action.
If you think I’m exaggerating, read Yale historian Paul Sabin’s “The Bet,” which chronicles environmentalism’s incessant warnings of imminent doom since 1968. (I recently reviewed the book here.) Green modernists, I wrote in 2012, dared to remake environmentalism:
Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace.
This was heresy. For the Anthropocene, as I noted in a follow-up piece at Slate, had already been characterized by green thought leaders and earth scientists as an irredeemable disaster for the planet.
The future of environmental discourse, I argued, would turn on how the Anthropocene was ultimately defined:
Both [green] modernists and traditionalists agree that human activities since the Industrial Revolution have given the planet a global facelift. But the two camps differ on what the Anthropocene means and how it should be interpreted.
Fast forward to the furious debate playing out this week, kicked off by a recent talk by Andrew Revkin, which he discussed at his New York Times Dot Earth blog. The title of his talk is called “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” which, as he explains, has quotation marks “around the adjective ‘good’ to stress that values determine choices.”
A number of people took offense to the notion of a “good” Anthropocene. Read More
When Greenpeace generates global headlines, it’s often for dramatic, gimmicky stunts, like scaling an oil rig or breaking into a nuclear power plant. This week, the environmental group is making news for a different kind of high stakes behavior: losing $5.1 million on a bad financial bet.
It seems that a Greenpeace employee had been dabbling in the volatile currency trade market.
First, it is necessary to move on from the well-worn logical fallacy that anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad. The application of this fallacy to agriculture is an excellent illustration of why it is so flawed. Plants evolved by natural selection, driven by the survival of the fittest. As a result, naturally, they are defended to the hilt from herbivores of all kinds, including humans. We know this. No one sends their children into the woods saying “Eat anything you find. It’s all natural, so it must be good for you.
It’s hard to exaggerate just how much romanticized, outdated views of nature influence the discourse on agriculture and other sustainability issues.
A prime example is this recent post from Greenpeace Africa about “ecological farming.” Below the picture of the smiling Kenyan woman, Greenpeace explains the eco-farming she is engaged in.
This woman is part of a community-based organisation that trains farmers and promotes ecological agriculture and other development technologies among small-scale farm holders in Kenya. Ecological farming is a way of growing food that works in harmony with nature — not against it. While chemical-intensive agriculture uses artificial fertilizers and pesticides to alter the environment, ecological farming works to enrich the soil and protect crops in ways that don’t destroy the ecology of the surrounding environment.
This mushy notion of nature-friendly agriculture is widely held in green circles. Perhaps “ecological farming” is another way of saying organic is better than conventional, in which case you should read this myth-busting piece by Christie Wilcox.
One of the best books I’ve read in the last year is “The Bet,” by Yale historian Paul Sabin. The author penned a New York Times op-ed around the time of its publication. As Fred Pearce wrote in his New Scientist review, Saban “has produced an absorbing narrative of how two people’s ‘clashing insights’ unleashed on the world polarized views of the environmental and resource threats we face in the 21st century.”
Those two people would be the economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich. When you see those names paired together, their famous wager will surely be mentioned in the same breath. Saban’s book is a must-read if you want to learn how the stage was set for the acrid, polarized climate debate playing out today. This incubation is something I discuss in my recent review of the “The Bet.”
Admirers and detractors of Paul Ehrlich are aware of the enormous influence he had on the trajectory of the environmental discourse. This passage from “The Bet” speaks to the conflicted assessment of Ehrlich by his peers just as he was making his mark in the early 1970s: Read More
In 2008, the animals rights group PETA was lambasted for a new ad campaign.
Although the billboards were quickly taken down, the ridiculous article discussing the supposed link between autism and milk remains on the group’s website. Steven Novella and a columnist for the Telegraph (among others?) seem to have just discovered the article and mistaken it for a new campaign. Still, it’s worth noting one thing the Telegraph columnist said about the PETA article. Read More
Guest post by Jess Scanlon
As the summer driving season kicks off with Memorial Day weekend, more cars than ever will be skipping the gas station in favor of electric charging ones. These include the 88 Tesla “supercharger” stations in the United States. Tesla is the high-end option of the modest but growing electric car industry. The company produces sporty roadsters (such as the one pictured above) and high-end sedans, like its Model S (prices start at $70,000), which Consumer Reports last year rated a “nearly perfect car.”
The most recent Tesla Supercharger station, debuted in April in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, a suburb of Trenton located near exit 7A of the New Jersey Turnpike, a road many drivers will use this weekend on their way to the Jersey Shore. It is part of Tesla’s expanding coast to coast network of free electric charging stations.
Regular readers of Collide-a-Scape know that I’m interested in popular narratives that shape public discourse. I’m specifically interested in how science and environment-related topics are covered in the media, and how this coverage tends to create dominant narratives.
Along these lines, I’ve explored the genesis and amplification of varied media narratives, from Jared Diamond’s collapse meme and Paul Brodeur’s power lines/cancer connection reportage to Vandana Shiva’s GMO/Indian farmer suicide storyline.
One interesting pattern, as these cases suggest, is that sometimes the emergence and staying power of a particular narrative owes to an influential science writer, well-placed journalist, or popular activist.
In other cases, a narrative coalesces around a stock villain, such as Monsanto as the great Satan, or a phrase like the “new normal,” a term that associates severe weather events with man-made climate change.
I like to explore how these memes originate and what sustains them. I have the feeling that not everybody shares this interest. So when another journalist researches the archives for a story on how agricultural biotechnology became so controversial, it’s worth noting. Here’s the opening scene Brooke Borel sets for her piece recently published at Modern Farmer: Read More