Ekodo: An Ecology of Anger (Part 2)
You can read Part One of this series here.
Imagine a city like Wellington with its transportation, distribution, and communication systems, schools, businesses, hospitals, an airport, café’s, factories, restaurants and supermarkets. Lots of people are getting on with living and working in this interconnected whole. Then imagine that someone wants Wellington to produce something that it does not already produce – say, Persian rugs. And rather than build a Persian rug manufacturing system, they think it easier and more cost effective to gather copies of the Persian rug cottage industry from Iran, and then randomly fire countless numbers of them into Wellington from space.
Booff! One lands in a hospital operating theatre. The doctor performing the operation says “Hey! Piss off!” The little Iranian at the loom does not understand English, smiles and carries on with warp and weft. Pow! Another lands on a construction site beneath the cranes and diggers. The hard hats look at each other in disbelief while a turban-clad weaver scrambles near the concrete truck in his pajamas to find his lost spool of wool and get back to work. A couple of looms land on the motorway causing mayhem, with speeding cars suddenly confronted with a gaggle of rug-bearing workers making neat stacks in the second lane, while three women in colorful headscarves sing a traditional Parsi song as they manipulate the twine with deft fingers.
This is genetic engineering: There is no way to control the location of transgenes in the host genome. When they fire millions of copies of transgenes into a living genome, genetic engineers disrupt the host DNA in immeasurable ways. If you thought that the world was not interconnected you could be forgiven for thinking that your new protein production systems were not capable of disrupting anything. In fact, there would be no theoretical possibility of disrupting a host genome and so unintended and unpredictable consequences are equally impossible – so why waste good money studying impossible non-target effects of genetic engineering?
Of course – if you don’t look for something, you will not find it. If you do look and find something, and publish your results you might just lose your career as discovered by Dr Arpad Pusztai – then Britain’s leading scientist on lectins (plant proteins) – who inconveniently discovered some unwholesome non-target effects of GM potatoes.
I was involved in almost all of the hearings during the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in late 2000 (and interviewed Pusztai after he testified), and continued to work on this topic for some time thereafter. I grew increasingly frustrated at the way that the media was falsely portraying the science of genetic modification, and where the scientific elephant in the room was being continually squeezed under a Persian rug.
Suffice it to say that I got somewhat angry with the way the media twisted the issue into a simplistic conflict story of science vs dummies. There were in fact lots of scientists on both sides of this conflict, and I noticed that the key unspoken thing that divided us was different theories of reality. Those supporting commercial release of GMOs tend to be those who assume that the world was really nothing more than a collection of relatively isolated bits and pieces (‘reductionists’ in philosophy of science speak). Those like myself who remain opposed to commercial release are gene ecologists who recognize that if you want a world that is not interconnected you will need to find another planet.
The Royal Commission ignored the gene ecologists and ruled in favor of the reductionists irrespective of the compelling evidence by the ecologists (some of whom were genetic engineers themselves but who would never let a GMO out of the lab).
I decided to harness my wild anger horses, and yoke them into doing some constructive work. So I used their energy to write lots of letters to the papers and to members of Parliament. But I decided to write in a warm and ‘friendly-but-informed’ style knowing that the sweet-sounding squeaky wheel gets higher-grade oil. I wrote one friendly letter to the Minister for the Environment, respectfully asserting my concerns, proposing constructive and conciliatory ways forward, and offered to meet to discuss if there was interest.
The Minister responded very warmly and suggested that we meet for a coffee to discuss the issues. So we caught up for a latté in Kelburn one rainy afternoon. This is very unlikely to have happened if I had expressed my anger and frustration at her in a blaming and pompous letter. It would have just got flicked off to a Parliamentary or Ministry staffer for the usual ministerial reply.
So I got a relaxed, off-guard one-to-one audience with the nation’s Environment Boss. In that meeting I was able to share my view that there is a middle path in this GM policy punch-up, and that recourse to all of the relevant science would provide a sufficient evidence-based mandate for a progressive and responsible policy framework.
The GM policy debate continues to this day, and many of the core issues remain unresolved. But this episode proved to me that there is a certain power in being positive, and writing the kind of kindly letter that I would like to receive if I was an astonishingly busy and stressed minister doing my best for my country.
Sean Weaver is the founder and host of Ekodo – a professional development life-skills programme for compassionate ecowarriors. He lives in Wellington. See the Ekodo Facebook group here.
Sean is also a climate change solutions consultant through his business Carbon Partnership.