The Risk-Monger

This year’s Green Week is on the theme of biodiversity, and the statements and positions I have been hearing have left me with an uneasy feeling: Is this the direction that policy-makers and the European Commission should be going?

What sort of Luddite would argue not to worry about the loss of biodiversity? No one. And that then allows well-meaning and probably very kind public officials and environmentalists to propose measures to address biodiversity loss. Who after all would oppose them? Well, allow me to try.

Biodiversity is a very complex concept as the interconnectedness of nature implies that there are no clear solutions to problems that are themselves multi-layered. If a butterfly’s flapping wings can affect the balance of nature, how much more man’s construction of an energy plant or the planting of biofuel feedstocks? We have a sense that biodiversity is being lost, but reliable data or sound methodologies for gathering data is missing or highly debateable (the TEEB project, if it is not spoilt by politics and activism, will take decades to provide data worthy on which to base policy measures). We are told by excited activists that we do not have decades, but their information is anecdotally based. Can the Commission introduce regulations without reliable data? With tools like the precautionary principle and an emerging environmental ethics, DG Environment may be emboldened to try (until now, they are just calling biodiversity a “campaign”).

Without a reliable evidence base and an interconnectivity that allows for political hyperbole, what are some of the consequences of policy-makers pushing the theme of biodiversity?

· Anyone can use biodiversity as a bully-pulpit to reinforce their environmental campaigns. Anti-GMO activists cite the loss of biodiversity (in reality, any organised agriculture leads to a loss of biodiversity and GMOs that can coexist with weeds and require fewer pesticides would be better for biodiversity). Climate campaigners warn us of the loss of biodiversity, but this is unclear as certain areas will gain in biodiversity with any possible warming. Because there is no means for reliable evidence, we can say anything, and we do.

· IUCN head, Ashok Khosla, informed Green Week participants that we could save billions of dollars if we stopped using synthetic pesticides and relied on natural pesticides. I am astounded that generations of farmers and researchers have not seen that, and that we all could have been so stupid. There was, however, no further information provided, none was needed and we all nodded our heads. Like so much coming out of the IUCN on biodiversity, Khosla’s remarks were rhetoric rich and evidence poor.

· Being rhetoric rich in biodiversity claims is exemplified with the case of the bees. Pollinators are in crisis with the recent episodes of colony collapse (bees going off and not returning to their hives). The potential consequences are frightening for the future of agriculture so we need to find a solution. But first we need to identify the cause for the colony collapse and scientists are baffled. No problem, the environmental activists have the answers. We are told that the bees are dying due to contamination from GMOs. We are also told that it is due to electro-magnetic fields. Actually, it is because of our use of pesticides. Then there is the argument that it comes from poor land management and intensive farming that have weakened the bees. Let us not forget that the cause of colony collapse is global warming. The only thing that the activists can all agree on is that the colony collapse is due to man’s mistreatment of nature (they have ignored the scientific view that there was a virus affecting the colonies). And because it is due to man’s activities, we must act immediately to change our behaviour (but which behaviour? I guess it does not matter).

This is the second problem with biodiversity – there is an implicit anti-humanity campaign that has developed from the emerging eco-religion. The movie Avatar best illustrated how evil man has become (military and extractive industries are only out to destroy nature) and how much we could learn about the wealth of biodiversity if we could just plug our pony-tail into a tree. Avatar is of course fiction but it captures the mood that loss of biodiversity is about man’s assault on nature. Eco-religious preachers warn us that man exploits nature and must be stopped (keep man away and nature will repair itself – it is assumed that nothing man can do is for the good). That this philosophy purveyed Green Week frightened me for I believe that man is capable of providing solutions to help restore biodiversity. But the anti-progressive, anti-modernity rhetoric of the eco-religious sects ensure that researchers are blocked in their efforts.

Let me take one sentence from Commissioner Potocnik’s introduction to the DG Environment Green Week programme: “Nature gives us clean air, fresh water, food, materials and medicines”. I can only gasp when reading this and remind the Commissioner of his previous brief. Unless we are willing to accept a major cull of the human population, we must accept that we do not get enough from nature to sustain all of us. Nature has not provided enough fresh water for our growing populations, and if we had not developed water management schemes, synthetic disinfectants and water purification processes, major populations would have died out. Food? Farming practices, as much as activists bash it, have increased yields enormously and have proven Malthus wrong ten times over. Global populations could not survive on idealistic organic farming practices, and I suspect that man, as evil as we are told we are, has provided solutions to meet growing food needs. It is true that certain medicines have come from nature, but a lot more diseases have. Man has intervened to provide cures from penicillin to disinfectants to vaccines for most threats. Man is living longer not due to nature, but despite it. Should we be so afraid or pessimistic that science could turn its attention toward restoring biodiversity?

So with biodiversity, we do not need evidence to justify our rhetoric, we can fit it to suit our activist campaigns and we can use biodiversity loss to bash humanity and the good that research is capable of. That the former Commissioner for Research can find himself uttering total nonsense proves this point. I do not think I am a Luddite for being frightened.

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  1. Actually, I would argue that its the other way around. Water gives us nature, clean air, food, materials and medicines. Where there is water there is life, but because of the technocratic mindset, water is simply treated as another isolated variable used in the production process whether it is building cities, humans or anything else for that matter. I would say the whole EU and wider global inclination towards greenhouse gas reductions completely avoids the problem of water runoff as a result of development. Or simply, it is not ignorance but power. The whole eco-religion has been capitalized and discounted for its ability to make large sums of cash for major capital groups and their politicians as well as give protesters something ‘cool’ to fight for making them feel as if they are morally superior even though much of their arguments are based on misleading knowledge. I guess Veblen was right, at any given place in time society’s development is based on the struggle between creativity and power.

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