Science and Environmentalism In Conflict

I am an advocate for science. I am also an environmentalist. Most of the time there is not the slightest contradiction between these things, quite the opposite. On global warming, certainly the most important environmental issue or our time (and probably of all time) the scientific and environmental communities could hardly be closer.

There are certainly issues where sectors of the environmental movement are out of step with mainstream science, for example on fluoridation of water supplies1. Likewise there are times when significant numbers of scientists take positions in clear contradiction of the environmental community. However, most of the time these are minority positions, albeit often vocal ones. On other issues the two communities may not be completely in agreement, but they don’t usually disagree – there being many issues on which one or the other doesn’t have a clear position.

There are two areas I can think of where the majority of scientists (at least in the relevant field) and the majority of environmentalists have appeared to clash: Nuclear Power and the Genetic Modification of Food.

In both cases the clash is partly an illusion based on simplistic representations of the debate. For example, several of my lecturers in the physics department gave strong defences of nuclear power2. However, these generally did not address the question of whether nuclear power contributes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If these physicists shared such concerns they presumably would not have been so strident in their defence. However, I know there were quite a few scientists who thought the criticisms of nuclear power on the basis of safety and waste were invalid or overblown, but had serious concerns about proliferation. Since there have always been environmentalists whose main concern about nuclear reactors is proliferation, with other issues secondary, the two communities may not have been as far apart as it appeared.

Fukashima has naturally shifted this debate. It’s all very well for supporters of nuclear power to start arguing they never really supported power stations in earthquake regions, or that the problem lies not with the technology but with the height of the seawall. The simple fact is that a lot of things we were told couldn’t happen did, and the people in charge of the stations have been shown to be negligent and dishonest. Any future assessments have to take into account that both of these will probably happen again. While in theory it might be possible to make nuclear power safe, the additional safety measures (and additional regulation to ensure the safety measures are actually adopted) mean that uranium-fueled nuclear power will only be viable in the most limited locations, if anywhere. It’s possible that thorium or fusion will have more success, but since most of the environmental community has reserved its judgement on these they’re not really a point of conflict. Score one to environmentalists.

Genetically modified crops are another area where simplistic for and against positions elide the complexity. While there are a myriad of positions on this issue, like most issues, broadly they fall into three positions. One holds that GM foods are safe. Another says they are inherently unsafe. A third accepts that they may sometimes be safe, but argues much more testing needs to be done to demonstrate this, and that even if an individual crop is proven safe this does not demonstrate that every GM foodstuff should be accepted into our food supply, instead seeking a process of case by case testing. Depending on where you stand, the level of testing required may be such that GM crops would seldom be economically viable, but that’s really a question of gradation – just how much testing is enough. It gets away from the simple absolutes in which many people prefer to think, and the mainstream media almost always prefers to report.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the view that GM crops have already been proven safe, but the claim that they can never be safe is frankly ridiculous. At its bottom it amounts to creationism. We know that there is interchange between the genes of different species in nature – hell I can only type this because of the energy supplied to me by mitochondria at some stage in our past all eukaryotes inherited from genetic interchange. If the random shuffling of genes through such interchange, or mutation, can produce the species that make up the world today, how can it be inherently unsafe or unacceptable to conduct controlled adjustment of genetic material to produce foods capable of producing larger yields or being grown with less water or in poorer soils?

I’m not really sure how much testing I think is needed, other than that there should be more than we have today, but if the results are consistently positive at some point we’ll need to learn to take yes for an answer.

All of which brings me to the destruction by Greenpeace of a test wheat crop. I do think there are genuine concerns about industry capture of the Office of the Genetic Technology Regulator. Nevertheless, unless Greenpeace have evidence of specific problems in this case the destruction of a test crop cannot be justified. Surely what we need is more testing, not less, to determine if these crops should be used. If Greenpeace are so concerned problems will be covered up, why not collect some samples from the crop themselves and do their own testing? Expensive perhaps, but probably not as much as the legal fees they could cop for this effort.

Perhaps Greenpeace have some devastating evidence on this specific case they will reveal in court, but if that is not the case all they have done is damage credibility of the environmental movement and make the attacks on scientists by climate change deniers look like a case of “both sides do it”.


1 The truly bizarre thing here is that most of the fears about fluoridation were originally cooked up by the John Birch Society who didn’t see why American tax payers should be ensuring the dental health of poor (particularly black) Americans. Somehome these jumped the political spectrum to be taken up by some greenies.

2 Funny how this never comes up when Liberal Students claim academics are pushing left wing politics on their students.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Botany, Enemies of science, Science policy. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Science and Environmentalism In Conflict

  1. I probably wouldn’t use language quite as strong as John Quiggin does here: but I think he’s pretty much got it right.

    Also Tim Lambert

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