There was a buzz around Westminster the other day — hahaha — as a group of protesters dressed as bees assailed the government. They were angry about the government’s position on a new initiative just passed through the European Union, designed to address an alarming problem: the rapid decline in the European bee population.
In the past decade, European bee populations have declined by up to 60%. Sudden drops in bee populations are not unusual — historically the process has become known as “spring dwindle” — but only as part of the whole population’s process of autonomous self-regulation. In the past 10 years they haven’t bounced back, to the point where the condition has become known as “colony collapse disorder”. And there is a highly likely culprit — systemic insectisides known as neonicotinoids, whose spread in the EU matches the rise in CCD with reasonable correlation.
The European Food Safety Authority concluded the self-reporting of research by the corporations producing the product — Bayer et al, surprise surprise — was inadequate — surprise surprise — and recommended a two-year moratorium on the use of such products. This was supported by all 27 countries as they realised a threat to the bee population was a threat to the whole biosphere on which we depend.
Oh, sorry, not it wasn’t. Fifteen EU members voted for the ban, eight against and four abstained. The pesticide industry lobbied heavily, and it’s little coincidence those who held out against a ban were the poorer countries — and the UK, waving the flag.
The Cameron government argued the correlation hadn’t been sufficiently established, there was too much doubt, given various control tests, spruiked earnestly by the government scientist Sir Mark Wolport. But the tests weren’t published in a review journal, simply released on the internet — because the control areas were so hopelessly contaminated with neonicotinoids that the findings were useless.
This was all pretty transparent. So the UK government had only one argument to go with: the precautionary principle. Or rather, the reverse of it. Suspending use of these chemicals would be, we were told, an alarmist response to inconclusive material. In a particularly irritating exchange on the BBC’s Newsnight, George Freeman, a Tory MP and government adviser on life sciences, said support for the moratorium was “anti-science”.
The opposition to the moratorium — not an outright ban, a moratorium — was based on the usual sleight-of-hand, whereby everything is at the one level. So the threat to the bee population is taken as being of the same status as the threat to, say, the boutique chocolate industry, or anything unconnected to any other part of the world. Of course it isn’t — if bee populations collapse, pollination declines, and the entire food system is threatened. In which case the precautionary threshold should be, must be, lower.
“It’s on issues like bees, and the notion of a wider ecosystem, that a large section of the general public can be won round on …”
The denial that we live in a world in which nature is a prior order on which our life depends is the ultimate illusion of capitalism — and also its primary operating one. Indeed, nature and the higher level of social life are reversed — so the pesticide moratorium was opposed on the grounds it would have on agricultural costs and food prices. Important no doubt — even though its effects were wholly exaggerated — but that makes a threat to the entire food system more important by definition. Masking the fundamental difference between these two conditions has become the business of business, and its defenders. From specific ecosystem issues such as this one, to the most general conditions — such as climate change — the Right has become almost giddy with a kind of nihilism.
Thus Freeman ended his appearance on Newsnight by decrying caution about the ecosystem and pesticides, talking about the glories of our thousands of years of journeying to control nature, etc. Maybe, but the whole point of having control is being able to understand the feedback effect, the systemic nature of what you’re trying to control and its capacity to reverse back on you.
By that measure, the glory of science is the capacity of one part of it to tell you that anther part of it is screwing up the environment to a degree that is beyond the capacity to fully fix, once the process has been seriously commenced. But that’s not what Freeman had in mind. What he was favouring was one-dimensional science, the understanding of nature as a giant hammer to hit it with, in order to get results.
This understanding of science comes not from within it, but from outside it. Science could quite easily be emphasised as a system of prudentia, whose glory is our enhanced capacity to predict future probabilities and thus avoid disasters. The political determination to try and knock the moratorium on the head comes first and foremost from the interests and lobbying by Big Pesticide, the lobby that’s also a great name for a band.
But the cultural framework within which such spiteful, stupid and self-defeating — qua human species being — actions become possible is the nihilism in which the narrowly political determines the attitude one will take not merely towards the evidence, but towards the reasoning process itself. Everything can be subordinated to one thing — a war with the Greens, with the greenish Left, with anything that might suggest that our current system is barely sustainable in the short term, much less the middle or long one.Freeman was lucky in his opponent, in a way, a rather patrician woman from the Beekeeping association. She made the basic point well enough: that as a species we have managed to keep bees in a stable and reproducible manner for thousands of years, and it has taken biotech capitalism only two decades to bring it to the brink of being irrevocably fucked up. But then she appealed to ancient wisdom and other forms of knowledge. Nurgggghhh. That argument, not an invalid one, needs an hour or more to make properly. The shorter answer was that science told us we were most likely screwing this up.
The quick answer to guff about overapplying the precautionary principle is to point out the one area where we do apply prudentia and that is our individual health. You can be damn certain that George Freeman or anyone else will apply probability and the precautionary principle should their own health be threatened by a potentially catastrophic event in the ecosystem that sustains their existence, ie their body. We will in those circumstances entertain a very high risk of being proved wrong, just on the offchance that we’re right, and it is something lethal. But we will also accept immediately the systemic nature of that
That many on the Right who sell fake scepticism do it in a spirit of genuine belief is without doubt. The Right by their very nature have a more concrete view of the world — there’s a way things are, it coincides with what I was brought up to believe, and the extraordinary coincidence of such is never reflected upon – as opposed to the Left, who look for abstract systems and processes as a way to understand the world. It’s why an obviously intelligent man such as Nick Minchin can believe that climate change is “nothing other” than some form of anti-capitalist politics by other means, and search through the evidence until he finds what he needs. The process is as much a support for psychological and ideological identity as it is a strategic political process.
That irrationalism has propelled the Right into disaster in at least one major polity — the US, where its disdain for statistics in the matter of climate etc, was easily rolled over into the field of psephology, leaving large sections of the Republican party flying blind, and openly mocking the “pseudo”-science of Nate Silver, who correctly picked the whole 50-state card.
There are signs that something related is happening on the Australian Right, where the widening gulf between mining and farming as a way of interacting with the world — the hammer versus the ecosystem — creating real political splits. For decades mining and farming could be of one mind — the country was there to rip up and use, and there was always more where that came from. Mining still believes that. Farming doesn’t, because it can’t, because the country is stuffed up, and feedback comes in the form of silted rivers, and topsoil-denuded hills.
Strategically, the question then remains as to what the best way to debate fake scepticism is – given that many people watching TV will be more likely to reason in as equally concrete a fashion as right-wing pundits. The default position for those trying to argue a very simple and obvious scientific principle has been to take the high road, something that fits better with the left/green temperament and attitude, which should in no way be taken as a compliment. It’s also a measure of the fact that many on the left/green side have an imperfect understanding of the notion of probability and the precautionary principle themselves.
Nevertheless, on the basis of the bee debate here, I’m willing to suggest that left/green people engaged in such a debate should at least try an alternative and more aggressive strategy, and assail the other side for their wilful ignorance, their complacency, their stupidity and their hypocrisy, and put some time and energy into getting the short, sharp sound-bite right. It’s on issues like bees, and the notion of a wider ecosystem, that a large section of the general public can be won round on — but can also be tempted back by the “comfortable and relaxed” attitude to the destruction of the biosphere in the name of the bottom line.
For the Right, the bottom line is the ecosystem. It has become an unquestionable and eternal feature of life, and to ask whether it inevitably produces results that threaten the very basis of existence, to challenge the very basis of their selfhood. But the contradictions of these positions are now more exposed than ever. We need simple, direct argument, evocative imagery, and startling comparison to smoke out the hive minds, we need new fables of the bees.