Ethics and ecofascism
Designer Food: Mutant Harvest or Breadbasket of the World. – Gregory E. Pence
Gregory Pence teaches bioethics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the United States, and he is no stranger to controversy. His views on human cloning, where he argued that it is wrong to rule out the potential for such procedures and portrayed opponents of cloning as 'genetic fatalists' who cannot entertain new ideas and scientific progress, made him a target for quite vitriolic censure.
His new book, Designer Food: Mutant Harvest or Breadbasket of the World, will similarly upset the 'naturalists' and those who oppose even modest applications of science and technology as a means of improving the human condition. It is not so much what Pence has to say, but more the clarity with which he expresses his views – a rare and refreshing exception from the normally more cautious and hedging style of bioethicists. He simply does not mince his words. Take, for example, his analysis of one of the leading groups opposed to GM foods:
"How has Greenpeace International arrived at the morally bankrupt position that preserving plants is more important than feeding millions of starving humans? What has gone terribly wrong in the ethical footing of this elitist organization that it has slipped to this terrible place?"
Another 'heavyweight' anti-GM activist receives similarly short shrift:
"Although trained as a physicist, Vandana Shiva writes as an agricultural, Hindu theologian who wants to preserve each species as a natural kind and maintain an ancient India where 80 million cows formed the background both of the religion a farming system where women did most of the milking, feeding and recycling . But such thinking and writing distort the complicated truths about humans today. For example, I don't know any Indian girls who want to be milkmaids, but I know a lot who want to be physicians."
There is, perhaps, little that is really new in Pence's book about biotechnology itself. There is a clear, 'text book' introduction to the development of genetically modified foods and their safety compared with conventionally grown, and pesticide-sprayed, crops. There is also a tidy summary of the basis of many food fears – the issue of BSE / CJD in particular. It is, however, in the exercise of his own profession as an ethicist, and his critique of the moral positions of those that oppose GM so vociferously, that the book comes alive.
The term 'ecofascism' is used by Spence not as a loose, political insult but as a carefully reasoned and justified description of many of those in 'green' organisations and the ecology movement who for too long have laid claim to the moral high ground. He highlights the clear parallels between the fundamental tenets of contemporary environmentalism and those at the heart of National Socialism in the 1930s. He also comments:
"Members of today's Green parties in Europe seem to view their environmentalism as separate from Nazi ideology. This is a dangerous mistake. The importance of Nature in Nazi ideology had real consequences: it led to breaking up estates and holdings across Germany to make organic farms. Hitler's and Hess's vegetarianism followed a devotion to purity and a horror of pollution that paralleled their thinking about race, eugenics, and ultimately, their actions in the Holocaust . The acceptance today . of starvation for peoples of developing countries to preserve environmental purity over acceptance of genetic veggies is not far removed from the claim, then, that racial and environmental purity must triumph over the needs of poor, non-German citizens."
This is strong stuff. And it needs to be said and heard. Pence cannot be dismissed as crank or Monsanto lobbyist. His credentials and intellectual rigour are such that while many might disagree with his views, or squirm in discomfort at this attack on their ethical position, he cannot be ignored. Those who for too long have relied on emotion-laden mysticism to sustain their holier-than-thou Green posturing must now be required to re-consider their ethical and moral credibility.
Peter Marsh – 25 April 2001