Science: GREEN, PLEASANT AND NEEDING TECHNOLOGY
Science and technology are no more natural enemies of the environment than an obsessive longing for beauty and peace. Colin Tudge reports
Sunday 02 November 1997
The sad truth is that industrialised human beings seem to have no coherent idea how to deal with, make best use of, or plan for the future of the land on which we live. And we are even more confused when we try to come to terms with other species. Many of the lobbies with a specific stake in the countryside - including the vegetarians, the organic farmers, and both the pro- and anti-fox- hunters - make many sound points but none of them can offer a consistent philosophy. The various political initiatives are mainly to do with, well, politics, and politics is merely the art of the immediately possible. If we really want to feed ourselves well, maintain a landscape that is secure and beautiful, treat farm animals kindly, and live in harmony with wild creatures, all at the same time, then we need to re-think how to do this from first principles, and on all fronts - logistic, economic, ethical, scientific, aesthetic, and religious. While other animals can influence their environments, it is only human beings who can truly aspire to exercise control and who indeed can choose, consciously, how we want our surroundings to be.
Possibility and desire
First, we must define what we actually want. The delegates at the Rio summit seemed to agree that biodiversity is a good thing - but it was clear that few knew what "biodiversity" really was, or had thought through what it implies. In fact, it means very different things to different people. Those who focus on issues of biodiversity are called either "green" or "environmentalist", and these are two radically separate and in some ways incompatible philosophies. The fact that the two are often conflated leads to confusion. "Greens" (at least, as I am using the term here) see our own kind, Homo sapiens, as one species among many - albeit one with very special talents, and the one to which we happen to belong. Greens seek to share the planet peacefully with as many as possible of the other 30 million or so species that are still with us, with give-and-take on both sides. Even the greenest of greens would not normally expect to lay down their lives for other species although many - like the wardens in African national parks - take huge risks. There are even those who have, in practice, sacrificed their lives for other species, as Dian Fosse did for the mountain gorilla.
But all of us should, if we aspire to greenness at all, be prepared to endure at least some inconvenience. We should not want marshes to be drained because they attract midges, or because the frogs that live on them keep us awake at nights. To object to urban foxes because they turn over our dustbins, or to eliminate otters because they run off with the occasional salmon, is to protest too much. Traditional Indian farmers suffer for their beliefs, revering elephants even when they destroy crops. The farmers receive compensation, but their hard lives are made even harder nonetheless.
"Environmentalists" (by the definitions I am using here) have a quite different philosophy. They like fine landscape and enjoy the songs of birds, but in truth they want only to retain those species that bring demonstrable benefit and would sweep the rest aside without a tear, and as quickly as possible. George Bush won votes for his "environmentalism" but to him, environment meant golf course - or, in more general terms, real estate with trees.
It would be an interesting if pernicious, exercise to make a shortlist of other species that do bring us demonstrable benefit. To keep it simple, we might reasonably focus on the biggies, and let the soil bacteria and so on take care of themselves. Our list would include cattle, of course, and wheat, and many a tree for the timber or fuel it provides, and peacocks and Lady Amherst's pheasants to please the eye. The net could be spread wide, yet I doubt the shortlist would include more than about 100,000 species even if it described a world tailor- made for human beings with all the prettiest and most obviously useful flora and fauna to hand, and with no mosquitoes to spoil the fun.
Ecologists sometimes argue that ecosystems containing just a few species are less stable than those with many, and such a custom-built world would be precarious. But this observation is based largely on experience of domestic crops. What really matters is the overall amount of genetic variation, and whereas farmed crops tend to be extremely uniform genetically, wild species are a lot more various than they look. So although cultivated crops of maize, potatoes, cotton and so on have often proved very vulnerable, the cedar forests of North America are probably as robust as any ecosystem on Earth even though they are dominated by just one or a few species. By contrast (and paradoxically) tropical forest, which is extremely diverse, may collapse when disturbed. All in all, the relationship between diversity and stability is far from simple. Bacteria aside, the world almost certainly could trundle on happily enough with 100,000 species.
Yet 100,000 species would represent less than one third of 1 per cent of the 30 million or so that are probably out there. In short, we could create a world customised to our own comfort, which looked natural and indeed lush, and yet perpetrate the mother of mass extinctions. I find that thought chilling; yet this clinically designed pastiche could well be better and more diverse than the one we are currently creating. At least our 100,000 shortlist would almost definitely include the Asian elephant, for example, if only because tourists like it. But as things are, with no such list to fall back on, its future is uncertain. The countryside created in feudal Britain over the past 1,000 years is, at best, "environmentalist". It contains only those creatures which the landed gentry like to hunt and shoot, plus a few imports - pheasant, rainbow trout - to enrich the sport. The inconvenient ones that were here in Roman times or even later (bear, wolf, boar, wild cattle, beaver, storks, white-tailed eagle) have gone, while others such as otters, wildcats and golden eagles have been taken to the brink. In fact, after a thousand years of feudal stewardship, Britain's native fauna is perhaps the most impoverished in the world. And that is true even though the British landscape, at its best, is among the most obviously lovely.
The price of romanticism
Even if we could agree what we want to achieve - biodiversity or country pleasures - there remain vast disagreements on how to get there. Some greens, for example, are scientists while others might for the purposes of shorthand be called "romantics", and are vigorously anti-science. The latter tend to make no distinction between science and technology, and see the two together - "S & T" - as the root of all evil. S & T, after all, produced organochlorine pesticides which, among many other things, almost settled the fate of Britain's birds of prey. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring of the late 1950s, which portrayed a world without birds, was only a small extrapolation from the status quo.
Science provides artificial fertilisers which (the green-romantics claim) pollute our waterways. More generally, S & T has brought us the intensive farm, where all the harshness of productivity comes together. Agricultural labour is cut to the minimum - or in reality, to far below what is sensible - with all the attendant stress to people and animals. The only criterion of success in modern western farming is profit, as made possible by S & T. Now S & T has introduced genetic engineering, in which animals are potentially reduced to bags of productivity, and all humanity gone.
All these charges find easy, obvious support. It is inevitable that science and technology have been and will be used for hideous purposes. Technology, after all, is the means of mass manufacture, and mass manufacture concentrates both capital and power. Through technology, and only through technology, agriculture can become an extension of mass manufacture: "agroindustry", "the factory farm". Logistic and biological realities used to place restraints on traditional agriculture. If too few people were employed, the farms fell apart. If animals were overcrowded, they succumbed to infection. If fields were not laid fallow, the crops became pest-ridden. But technology breaks such boundaries. Machines will do the work, infection is contained by vaccines and antibiotics, and pesticides take care of the crops. The smarter the technology the fewer the constraints. No practice need be sustained that gets in the way of breakneck productivity, regardless of the cost to life, aesthetics or animal comfort.
Given that S & T are so often used simply to override aesthetics, way of life and the normal restraints of humane husbandry, it is hardly surprising that so many people find them objectionable. Some objectors are simply luddite, which gets us no where, although the occasional "iron age" farm can be a pleasant enough indulgence. But other, less whimsical movements aim to provide genuine alternatives to the hyperproductive, obsessively profitable food industry that present-day S & T has given us. Chief among these counter philosophies are vegeterianism and organic farming. Both have much to commend them. Both are right to point out the excesses of present-day farming and land- use. Both show that the land can be used in different ways, and that we could eat differently and a great deal better than we do. Both place aesthetics and humanity above the single-minded pursuit of profit. But both are rooted in flawed arguments.
For example, many vegetarians (known as "ovo-lactos") consume both eggs and milk. They seem at first sight to have no blood on their hands. But it is not so simple. For a start, no modern husbandry is harsher than that of the battery chicken or the dairy farm - although this is only a quibble since egg and dairy farms do not have to be as nasty as they are. A more serious argument is that hens lay eggs in reasonable numbers only for the first year or two of their lives, but can live for many more years; and, of course, they produce at least as many male offspring as female, who are of no use to the laying flock. Similarly, cows cannot give milk unless they first produce a calf, and if well kept they could go through 10 lactations. They too produce as many male offspring as female.
So what do vegetarians suppose should be done with all the superannuated hens and cows, and all the superfluous offspring? If every calf born to a milch cow was allowed to live its natural life, then the entire world would be packed solid with retired cattle within a few years. In practice, the calves are killed. We could argue that to cause a calf to be born, and then slaughter it, and then turn its body into compost, is so wasteful as to constitute a sin. It seems better by far, if we are to keep cattle at all, to raise the calves for a couple of years until they are a worthwhile size and then kill them for beef - which is how, traditionally, things were done. If all the animals concerned are kept well, and slaughtered quickly and cleanly, the cruelty is minimal, possibly far less than is usual in the wild. More to the point: humane beef farming involves no more suffering than does lactovegetarianism - and probably less, since with beef on offer we do not need so many dairy animals.
Of course, vegans claim purity by not eating animal products at all, and they and the lacto-ovo vegetarians claim to be wildlife friendly because it takes at least 10 times as much land to raise a kilogram of beef protein as it does to grow a kilo of wheat protein. This argument misses a couple of crucial points, however. First, if people rely on wheat (or any other crop) they are advised to produce a surplus, because sometimes crops fail and it is wise to keep some in hand (as Joseph pointed out to Pharoah). But in most years the crops do not fail, so there is a surplus. If there is no livestock to eat the excess, it is simply thrown away. Besides, a wheat plant has a stalk and leaves as well as grain: and ruminant animals, like cattle, can largely be raised on the straw.
Then again there are plenty of places, as in much of mountainous and rainswept Britain, where farmers can raise grass for sheep or cattle, but cannot ripen or plough grain. Thus almost any system can be more economical in land if there are animals to take up the slack. Overall, this means we can produce more food per hectare if we include a few animals than we can without any at all. Farms intended only for vegans would take up more space than a mixed farm. The trouble begins only when the whole agricultural system is geared to livestock, and grain is raised specifically for them. In short, vegetarians and vegans show that we can do without meat, which is a good thing to demonstrate. But they have not shown that it is desirable to do without it entirely. No meat at all is in many ways better than too much, but a little is best of all.
The organic movement has much to be said for it, too, but again should not be taken too literally. As a rule, it is good to return manure to the land and minimise the use of pesticides. More generally, organic farming implies benign husbandry (grass-fed cattle, free-range pigs and poultry) which are preferable on several counts: humanitarian, aesthetic and culinary, since traditional breeds of animals grown slowly on a varied diet are infinitely more tasty than the modern hybrids hustled to the abattoir.
Some of the claims made for organic farming, though, are not entirely true, and some of the concomitant attacks on S & T farming are unjust -at least if we consider how the latter could be, and not how it often is. It is not true, for example, that manure is always less polluting than modern, artificial fertilisers. It can even be worse, since it is hard to apply many tonnes of manure to crops at precisely the required time, whereas it is relatively easy to dose young crops with "NPK" just as they enter their maximum growth. Nothing pollutes more than manure left over winter on a bare field to run away in the rain with no crops to soak it up. Spreading manure at the wrong time is bad practice. But the point remains: sloppy organic farming is at least as bad as sloppy high-tech farming.
It is, of course, absolutely right to minimise the use of pesticides, especially the crude application of the crudest varieties. Research now in progress is providing pesticides based on pheromones which work by luring the pests away from crops and preventing their numbers building up at all. The ideal must be to combine the finesse of the best organic farmers with the techniques that are now, or could soon be, offered by industrial chemistry.
"Integrated control" is the name of the game. The pity is that the organic movement and the industrial chemists should so often be at loggerheads. If they worked together to produce a cleaner and more productive environment - and better food and more humane husbdandry -they could do wonders. Why must technique be divorced from sound philosophy?
Science In The Service Of Beauty
There is truth in the cliche that S & T are neutral, and could in principle achieve anything we want them to achieve. They do not have to be deployed in the service of ugly policies, but could help us to create a countryside in which biodiversity, physical beauty, productivity and the humane treatment of animals and human beings were key considerations. To put the matter more strongly, now that the world is so crowded, and people have such high aspirations, and other creatures are so squeezed for space and resources, the chances of maintaining our own species in a contented state while also conserving a proper proportion of other species without deploying the most subtle of S & T are approximately zero. In short, to attack S & T per se is nonsense. The true task is to find out what they can really do, define what we want from them, and then contrive to match possibility to desire.
Once we realise that S & T can be benign if we want them to be, many a modern myth starts to fall away. For example, the high-tech hyper-intensive farm can be the most environmentally friendly, precisely because it takes up less room than an extensive one, and can leave more room for wilderness (if we want to use the leftover for wilderness). Here of course we have to distinguish between plants and animals: intensive wheat is fine because wheat, as far as we can tell, has no emotions; but animal husbandry should be emphatically humane, and so more relaxed and expansive. Then again, science in the shape of animal psychology can help us to define ways of raising animals that truly meet their needs. And such research is already going on
In the world at large, many argue that the only technology "appropriate" to poor countries is of the "intermediate" or "traditional" kind. Genetic engineering, for example, is commonly presumed to have no role except in "developed" countries. The truth is far more interesting and complicated. Traditional technologies certainly have a huge part to play in the poor world, as the late Jean Gimpel demonstrated in Nepal, where he introduced water-mills based on those of medieval cistercians.
The highest of technologies can help those in the poorer regions, too. The people who can really benefit from genetic engineering include, say, the sorghum subsistence farmers of the Sahel. Sorghum resists drought and heat - yet it is not resistant enough for the Sahel. Domestic sorghum varieties worldwide do not contain the genes requires to endure its rigours, so genetic engineers from ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institution for the Semi-Arid Tropics) are seeking and introducing genes from other plants. A super-resistant sorghum would be a huge improvement, meaning life or death for the very poorest farmers. If anything, it is these farmers who have more need of such technologies than we do in the West, where we are well-fed already and employ genetic engineering mainly to make straight cucumbers. The task is to make the most expensive technologies available to the poorest people without bringing them entirely under the political control of the suppliers. This is no easy task, but it is surely possible if the aim is clearly identified.
Conservation hasn't a prayer without the aid of very good science. Big animals in particular evolved to occupy continents. Many shifted through hundreds of miles in a season in search of grazing. In the natural state, their populations fluctuated alarmingly, and on the grand scale this did not matter. Once we bundle them into reserves we alter all the ecological rules. Populations cannot be allowed to fluctuate; if they grow too big they destroy other types; if they dwindle they are liable to disappear. Invading species from all around - "weeds" - have to be kept out. Missing components - nest-boxes, water-holes - may have to be provided. In short, "reserves" are artificial constructs and need to be maintained. Very sharp ecology is needed to determine what needs to be done, abetted these days by the entire shooting match of genetics, soil chemistry, statistics and behavioural studies. A non-interventionist alternative would merely condemn the occupants to death.
In fact, if we are serious about "the environment" then we have to dig deep on many fronts. We have to ask what our attitude to other species really is: are we really green or do we also want a shortlist of convenient creatures, like the feudal landowners? We need an economy that is not simply geared to profit, for in such an economy science and technology - the most potent agents of change - will surely turn the countryside into the most unsympathetic of factory farms. We need in particular to liberate science and technology from the shackles of maximum profit, and see what they can really do.
We need to plan the countryside as a whole: a co-ordinated mosaic of city, managed wilderness, intensive farm and pastoral land that is designed to be beautiful, productive, humane and yet diverse. And we also need to realise that "beautiful" and diverse are not the same thing, and that some of the most majestic landscapes created in the 18th century to bring the Enlightenment to the countryside are actually rather barren, when assessed by diversity of species. Ultimately, we have to recognise a new aesthetic. A landscape that can support real diversity might not be the most beautiful by present standards, but we will have to learn to love it, and look beneath its surface to its purpose to see its real value.
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