The Geek Manifesto has triggered plenty of debate, some of it critical, which is something I find entirely healthy. The book was always meant to be a starting point, not a finishing point, and I welcome constructive disagreement — if not straw man attacks on the book’s supposed “linear technocratic vision”.
I’m keen to reply to two particularly interesting critiques, one posted a couple of months ago by Richard Jones on his excellent blog, and another published yesterday by Alice Bell and Adam Corner in the New Left Project.
I’ll start with the piece by Alice (who I know and enjoy discussing these things with) and Adam (who I don’t, but who I follow on Twitter and find interesting). With continued apologies to Richard for my tardiness, I hope to reply to his post very soon.
Their argument (apologies if I have incorrectly summarised), is that my analysis of the green movement in the book, and similar criticisms made by figures such as Fred Pearce, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, takes insufficient account of the political narratives that are inherant in discussions of scientific evidence and the environment. The green movement, they argue, was born out of scientific thinking (such as that of Rachel Carson), and that while “there are times where some members of the green movement could take a more nuanced approach to scientific evidence but that is true of most groups, scientific ones included.”
“Serious green critiques of science have always been about power, not data,” they say. Issues such as nuclear power and GM crops, they argue, cannot be reduced to evidence of potential harm and utility alone:
“It’s tempting to read nuclear debates as being about scientific evidence versus ideology: hard-headed rationalists dismissing those misty-eyed greens who maintain arguments against nuclear as ageing hippies that need to catch up. Except that the nuclear debate is economics too – lots of economics – and politics, lots of politics.”
It’s a thought-provoking piece, which touches on much that is of value. I agree wholeheartedly that it isn’t usually helpful to throw around terms such as “anti-science” and “Luddite” in this sort of debate. I also agree that there are many questions beyond scientific evidence that need to be considered when deciding whether technologies such as GM and nuclear should be embraced by society. I agree, too, that people who appreciate and seek to promote science — the geeks of my book — could learn much from the success of the greens in building a broadly-based lobbying movement (though I also think we must be cautious about adopting tactics that play fast and loose with evidence in pursuit of a larger goal).
Yet as I read the piece, I kept thinking “yes, but…” (which incidentally was Alice’s reaction to reading my book!) It’s absolutely correct that there are important and unresolved economic debates to be had about nuclear power, for example. But if the green movement sometimes raises legitimate arguments about economics here, it too often makes bad ones about nuclear safety. If we’re to answer the good questions about nuclear, we need to make sure the bad ones don’t get in the way. I’d be much more comfortable debating the cost-effectiveness of nuclear power if those who oppose it most vociferously on economic grounds didn’t also oppose it in principle.
It’s a similar story with GM crops. I absolutely agree with Alice and Adam that serious critiques of GM are about power and control of the food chain, not about evidence of safety or environmental damage (I accept I’m inferring this from their article, and if this isn’t what was meant I will happily correct). But I would disagree profoundly that that has been the central argument of most green campaigners against agricultural biotechnology. The argument has far too often been framed in terms of risk to health and planet, which is then used to support calls for a ban or moratorium on all the many different applications of GM, in all crops for all purposes, by public and private sector alike.
If it’s really all about power, rather than a faith-based rejection of a particular class of technologies, then let’s have a debate about power, and consider how public-good GM projects (which have suffered from the greens’ blanket opposition) might fit into the picture. Let’s accept that it makes much more sense to debate the specific applications of GM, on a case by case basis, than to accept or reject it wholesale. I accept that that will certainly mean some applications of GM should be rejected. I’m not sure most green opponents of GM are ready to say the same in reverse.
What both examples give rise to is a strong suspicion that technology has been rejected out of hand, and that there is no evidence that could be expected to change deep green minds. Indeed, when I’ve asked representatives of the Soil Association what might give them cause to reconsider blanket opposition to GM, they’ve dodged the question.
As I’ve been writing this response, I’ve also been struck by what may be an important contradiction in this piece. Alice and Adam point out, very reasonably, that the green movement is historically grounded in science. Yet they then also assert that “serious green critiques of science have always been about power, not data”. For me, these statements jar against one another, in a way that I think illustrates the problem.
Critiques of science that dwell on power have their place, and it’s important that they are made, but should these really be the basis of the green movement’s core arguments? Don’t these strike towards different political goals from protecting the environment? And if so, are not those goals often undeclared? Isn’t there a good case that green critiques of science should in fact be about data?
The politics and the economics matter, a lot. But so too does the science, and having political and economic debates against a background of good scientific evidence makes I think for a richer and more productive discussion.