The green movement is not anti-science. It just knows science is not enough when it comes to decisions about technologies like GM.
You can read Anne Chapman's full report here:
Like scientists, greens are children of the Enlightenment
The Guardian, 29 July 2013
*The green movement is not anti-science. It just knows science is not enough
The green movement obviously owes a great deal to science: the impacts of pollution, the threat of climate change, the loss of species, can only be spoken about because of the scientific research that has made them known. Without this knowledge from science the green movement in its current form would not exist.
Like scientists, greens are children of the Enlightenment. Both tend to think that decisions are, or at least should be, made on the basis of rational arguments, by appeal to the evidence. However, greens are also children of Romanticism. This legacy makes them aware of the limits of science, both in the sense of the limits to its knowledge, and that science is not sufficient to tell us how to live. Science is not enough.
In particular, science should not be the only voice when it comes to decisions about technology: science and technology are not all of a piece, but are distinct, governed by different norms and we should use different criteria when judging them.
It is in this area that greens have in recent years been accused of being anti-science; in particular in their opposition to genetically modified foods and to nuclear power (see for example Mark Lynas or Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto). Science, the argument goes, has judged that the risks from these technologies are low and that the technologies need to be used if we are to meet our future needs for food and energy. Greens' opposition to them is therefore irrational.
A key part of this argument is the concept of risk as it is used in technical risk assessments. Most regulatory regimes require the safety of technologies to be assessed by a risk assessment process whereby possible ways in which the technology may cause harm are identified and their probability estimated. If no harmful outcome can be identified there is no risk; and risks are low if the possible harmful outcome, even if of very large consequence, is considered to be of low probability. In contrast, I argue that greens, and in fact much of the public in general, consider novel technologies such as GM food to be risky, because even if we cannot identify what harm they may cause, the extent of our ignorance is such that for all we know harm is possible.
Technical risk assessment tends to consider probability and size of harm together, as if the two were commensurable: a low probability of a large amount of harm comes out as equivalent to a high probability of a small harm – they both give the same number of "deaths per year". But high impact/low probability outcomes may be of much more concern that low impact/high probability ones. Events that cause some harm, but are not catastrophic can strengthen a system (Nassim Taleb has coined the term antifragile to describe this sort of system). High impact, catastrophic events wipe it out.
Nuclear power is obviously risky. It is not a matter of the number of people it has or has not killed but the fact that it requires elaborate safety systems and armed guards at nuclear power stations. Genetic engineering is risky because it is attempting to engineer a system we have only very partial knowledge of. People are aware that organisms grow, reproduce and spread; they fear that once a genetically modified organism has been released into the environment it will not be possible to get it back, should we later discover that it is not as benign as we originally thought. Green objections to these technologies are not objections to science. They are objections to an over-confidence (which perhaps scientists working on a technology do tend to have) in our ability to predict consequences, control events and not make mistakes.
If we are going to use risky technologies, technologies that are meddling in things that we only half understand, there need to be very good reasons for doing so. This is the second strand of greens' objection to these technologies: that they are not essential to meeting real human needs (as opposed to corporate interests). There are other, lower risk ways of generating energy without adding to greenhouse gas emissions (for example the vision put forward in Zero Carbon Britain), and GM technology is not the best way to solve the problems that need solving in the food system (an argument made, for example, by Colin Tudge)
Finally, our choices about technology help to construct the world that we live in. Technology helps to determine the possibilities for human life, and the relationships between individuals and the organisations they create, as well as the impact that human living has on non-human nature. For the green movement, more than any other political force, technology is political.
This post is part of a series on science and the green movement following debate at this year's Science in Public conference.
Anne Chapman is a member of Green House Think Tank, and author of their report, greens and Science: Why the green movement is Not Anti-Science.