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Loony Lefty

In some of my recent discussions with my more right wing friends I have got the impression that they think I automatically accept everything they see as being “lefty”. One of these things is undoubtedly environmentalism. For example, they like to think I would automatically accept everything that the Green Party or Greenpeace might support.

I just want to make it clear to these people here that that is not true. I don’t accept every policy of any organisation, whether that organisation is left, right, political, religious, or even scientific. For example, I’ll summarise my thoughts on Greenpeace’s policies.

According to their web site, Greenpeace works on the following issues: stopping climate change, defending our oceans, protecting ancient forests, demanding peace and disarmament, saying no to genetic engineering, eliminating toxic chemicals, ending the nuclear age, and encouraging sustainable trade. These aims are all open to interpretation, of course, but I don’t want to go into too much detail on each one here. There are two aims which I really don’t agree with though: saying no to genetic engineering, and ending the nuclear age.

If you look at most of the problems Greenpeace want to stop you will see they are inherently damaging to the environment. For example, allowing climate change (which is real and does need to be acted on) and destroying forests are both things which really need to be addressed. But genetic engineering and nuclear power are not inherently problematic. Sure, if anything goes wrong they could be disastrous, but no more so than if many other technologies failed.

So I think Greenpeace are involved in these issues more from an ideological than a practical perspective. Its very easy to pick on these two scary technologies which ignorant people are worried about but, if they are used correctly, they are both very beneficial and potentially essential to making the Earth a “greener” place.

Here’s why Greenpeace want to stop genetic engineering: “While scientific progress on molecular biology has a great potential to increase our understanding of nature and provide new medical tools, it should not be used as justification to turn the environment into a giant genetic experiment by commercial interests. The biodiversity and environmental integrity of the world’s food supply is too important to our survival to be put at risk.”

No one wants to turn the environment into a giant experiment and the controls over new GE organisms intended to prevent this are very tight. There will be accidents but there’s no reason to believe these will result in problems which are genuinely different than the ones we already encounter with new organisms produced through natural selective breeding and through existing species being introduced into new environments. Genes are being swapped between organisms all the time – its very common in bacteria.

Why should GE, where the gene changes can be tightly controlled, be more dangerous? Of course, it isn’t. Quite the opposite is true. And the criticism that corporations can’t be trusted has some justification but that’s the way the economic system works and the same criticism could apply to any technology or human activity. Why should it be so significant just for GE?

On the positive side few people understand how much the world’s food system is based on GE organisms. One of the pioneers of this technology, Norman Borlaug, has been credited with saving more lives than anyone else in history: an estimated one billion people! Genetically engineered crops can produce 10 to 20 times what an unaltered crop can. That’s what GE can do and abandoning it based on some ill defined risks is absurd.

Another major benefit of GE is that genetically engineered crops can produce far more food from the same amount of land which reduces the need for clearing forests. By trying to eliminate GE Greenpeace are ensuring that one of their more worthy aims is much more difficult to achieve!

So what about nuclear power? Here’s what they say about that: “Greenpeace has always fought – and will continue to fight – vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants.”

The fact is that nuclear power is very safe. But what about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island? Weren’t these major disasters? Chernobyl was a very old type of reactor which was grossly mismanaged and not maintained. The type of accident that happened there simply cannot happen to a modern reactor. And the incredible incompetence which lead up to the accident is hardly likely to be repeated anywhere else.

Also, it was an accident which lead to many deaths (30 to 60 directly, and 1000 to 4000 potentially) but look at it in perspective: many times as many people (50,000 to 100,000) die every year in America alone as a result of lung cancer caused by coal fired power stations. Chernobyl was bad, but nowhere near as bad as people think.

And Three Mile Island was completely contained by the safety systems. Even though it was an old reactor it was still remarkably safe. So nuclear power is actually one of the safest and least environmentally damaging technologies and the risk Greenpeace talks about doesn’t really exist.

Nuclear energy is also basically carbon neutral. Why not encourage safe nuclear plants and make a major contribution to stopping global warming? The only reason I can think of is some ignorant reliance on out of date information and an adherence to ideology rather than practicality or reality.

So there you go. Although I’m a loony left liberal atheist greeny I still don’t agree with everything my friends at Greenpeace support. They are simply wrong and they should be more careful that their policies are genuinely aimed at producing the best environmental and social outcomes rather than just following a party line based around some illogical beliefs about what’s natural and safe.

In the near future I hope to add two new sections to the skepticism section of my web site covering these two issues (GE and nuclear power) so if you would like to see the facts and statistics behind the discussion here you might have to wait until I have completed them.

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