The Green Scientist

This week I’m writing about my attitude to some green issues, and how I think my scientific background informs my approach. The reason I’m doing this is that when discussing green issues, it becomes obvious that I have some very different starting points compared to non-scientists. I can describe my own views, and I believe various of them are shared by other scientists for similar reasons. And it might get a little bit ranty.

First of all, I really like the idea of sustainability: the idea that after our lives we leave the earth in broadly the same state as we found it so that those that follow us have something to live on. I believe we should be trying to preserve our natural environment and the species in them, even the unattractive ones. How we achieve sustainability, and what we actually focus on are the areas of collision.

And so to “Chemicals”: “Chemicals” which are always bad and must be excluded from things. From a scientific point of view this is frustrating: all things are chemicals – atoms joined up together. Even if we’re slightly more sophisticated and claim that natural chemicals are good, and man-made chemicals are bad, we’re still on tricky ground. Anyone for strychnine, belladonna or ricin? Really we can only say “good chemical”, “bad chemical” by looking at the chemical in question. There is a Romantic view abroad that nature favours us and wishes to provide us with nice things: this simply isn’t true. At best nature is indifferent, and in many cases it is actively out to get us.

There’s a biological variant of this stance, in genetically modified organisms (GMO). I think there’s real potential for GMO’s in sustainable agriculture, but it is excluded for essentially ideological grounds and with ideological fervour. Misplaced genes can certainly be a problem but much more likely when introduced en bloc in introduced organisms (rabbits in Australia, rats in almost any island environment, Himalayan Balsam in UK), and we’re surprisingly tolerant of crops that are toxic if prepared inappropriately (potatoes, rhubarb, red kidney beans, cassava). We’re in the bizarre situation where one group can complain of the contamination of the genetic purity of their crops by GMO’s for which there is no evidence of harm, and no expectation of harm. Where the detection of the contamination takes rather sophisticated scientific techniques. And beyond that even people are getting agitated by the thought of eating cattle fed with GMO’s, when we have no way of detecting whether the cattle have eaten the GMO – there is no measurable effect.

The image at the top of this post is another example, I found it buy searching for “belching-pollution” it’s the type of image you often see illustrating a story about pollution but those are cooling towers, the stuff coming out of them is water vapour – clouds. Not pollution at all.

The Food Programme on Radio 4 irritates me every week, and I really like my food. A typical script runs roughly like this:

Supermarkets are bad, lets do a taste test. Here’s Mrs Miggin’s hand-knitted pie, with Mrs Miggins who we’ve been talking to for the last 10 minutes, here’s a supermarket pie, doesn’t it look nasty? I don’t think I want to eat that. Let’s try them both, well Mrs Miggins pie is lovely, but I really didn’t like the supermarket pie. The supermarkets are evil. What’s that you say? “Mrs Miggins pie costs 5 times as much as the supermarket pie”. Well I’m sure that isn’t important.

I think I drifted off the point slightly with that last bit of rant, but it reveals something of my character. I’m actually in favour of people that do stuff, rather than the people that stand on the sidelines complaining that they’re doing it wrong but don’t really proffer a workable solution.

Much of the problem here seems to be an elision over scientific issues and capitalism / globalisation. GMO’s largely became “bad” because they were developed by very large corporations for reasons of profit. I don’t see large companies as intrinsically malign, I see them responding to a set of circumstances which makes them appear malign. The trick for society is to make an environment that makes companies to act for our collective good because it’s in their best interest to do so.

So there you are: I’m a frustrated green, I sign up to the principles but the implementation offends my scientific sensibilities. In a timely fashion, it would appear I’m not alone – see this interview with Stewart Brand in New Scientist.

Thank you for hearing my rant.


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    • Statto on March 21, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    The water vapour from cooling towers may not be pollutant (though I'm not 100% sure that it has no effect on clouds etc), but the warm, deoxygenated water pumped back into rivers from them can be.

    More proof that the 'arrgh, chemicals!' stance is missing a few vital subtleties…even lovely, clean, pure, fresh, natural water becomes a pollutant if you heat it up…

    • SomeBeans on March 21, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    @Statto I suspect cooling towers have a local effect. Good point about deoxygenated water – but isn't there a play off with the flourishing of species in warmer water?

    • Statto on March 21, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    With a massive 'not my field!!!' plastered over the top…I'd guess not as most of the species in river x will be suited to the natural ambient water temperature, and it would require colonisation by alien species (which may itself be bad) to take advantage.

    Though if anyone is quoting anything beyond inference from GCSE chemistry/geography feel free to leap in!

    • Clare Dudman on March 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I'd have thought warm oxygenated water would be of small concern next to the effect of hormones flushed into the system. Industrial effluent is fairly closely monitored in this country at least – it's what's normally thought of as natural and healthy (e.g. farm silage) that causes more of a problem. I know a bit about this since I used to monitor the water supplies for Welsh Water. There was an occasional accidental industrial spillage, but that was rare. Farms were a much more frequent problem – the effect of fertilisers is much more catastrophic on a waterway and the build-up of algae than warm water.

    I agree with your stance on industries and chemicals, SomeBeans. I find it really irritating when I have to sit and listen to the 'it must be okay – it's natural' homily.

    • Stephen on March 23, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    I share your impatience with some of the nonsensical use of terms such as "chemicals" – although I doubt whether even those that use the term in the sense of "chemicals = bad" really don't realise that everything is a chemical. They are using the word as a shorthand for something like, "a substance that has been manufactured by an industrial process, and which would not exist without that process". It still doesn't follow that such a substance must be bad, but it's disingenuous I think to pretend that the history of the chemical industries is so unblemished that you can't begin to imagine where the "chemicals = bad" identification came from. And especially in the context of agriculture with such incidents as the DDT scandal.

    Actually, I wasn't really going to get hooked on that red herring (#fail!) but I did want to take issue with the GM justification which trots out the notion that direct intervention in the genome of an organism is either the same thing as, or just an extension of, traditional breeding programmes. It isn't, and for a simple reason. Let me offer an analogy. If I design a database for use by non IT users, I'll need to design not only the data structures of tables and fields, and the all-important relations between tables, but I'll also need an interface that controls how the users interact with the data. The interface will allow access to some data fields, and not others. It will impose some rules of logic to ensure, for example, that I can't put a date into a currency field, or a postcode into a name field. And it will, if it's any good, also guard against impossible values, so that if I try and enter a date of birth that makes a person 560 years old, I'll be prevented. Error trapping, in other words. The natural world has evolved highly sophisticated ways of controlling genetic interactions, and the physical structures of things like sex organs act a bit like the user interface of a database. Not all genetic combinations are possible simply because the species barrier prevents those things ever coming into contact. After all, what is a species other than that group of organisms that can successfully interbreed? I'll spend a long time smearing elephant sperm onto the styles of primroses before I'll succeed in introducing elephant genes into primroses. Databases need robust user interfaces if the data they contain is to maintain its integrity. It is an arrogant user that wants to be able to shove any old data into any old field, and the chances are that such a user will create chaos.

    For the avoidance of doubt this is an analogy, not a literal description of identity! But I think it demonstrates that the anxiety many of us feel about GM is not based on phoney notions of "natural", nor on a lack of understanding of genetics, but on a healthy scepticism about the imperfect knowledge of science, and its frankly poor track record of being able to anticipate all the downstream consequences of its prescriptions. Of course it is true that the wholesale introduction of "alien" genes through the human induced migration of species is just as much a threat, but that hardly seems a good reason for introducing a novel threat that could potentially also cause environmental havoc. And that's before we get onto the politics of patents, and the dubious right of companies to "own" the food organisms on which we all depend.

    • Nora Lumiere on March 24, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    I agree with you about the GMOs; such an excellent opportunity to eradicate hunger.
    I notice you named "bad" natural chemicals but no "good" man-made ones.

    • SomeBeans on March 24, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    @Clare once again you have shown yourself to be a women of many and varied talents!

    @Stephen I'd say the balance for science and technology up to this point was pretty positive, we have longer healthier lives than our ancestors. We spend less of our time looking for enough to eat (we've sort of overshot on this one in the UK and US) The price paid for this has come from the environment, and our unsustainable use of it, but I don't see there being a "natural" way for 6 billion plus people to live sustainably on the planet.

    @nora_lumiere good chemicals: how about anaesthetics – they're all synthetic. Soap is pretty important in preventing disease via better hygiene. Plastics definitely good in preserving food with some risks from plasticisers and stuff like PVC whose breakdown products are a bit toxic. Alcohol is a good chemical, to my mind, not sure if it counts as natural or not.

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