Moore ecopragmatism

Confessions of a Greenpeace founder
New book describes environmental group’s descent into extremism, author’s conversion to reason
By Patrick Moore, Special To The Sun January 7, 2011, Vancouver

The main purpose of my new book is to establish a new approach to environmentalism and to define sustainability as the key to achieving environmental goals. This requires embracing humans as a positive element in evolution rather than viewing us as some kind of mistake. I believe we should celebrate our existence and constantly put our minds toward making the world a better place for people and all  the other species we share it with.


A lot of environmentalists are stuck in the 1970s and continue to promote a strain of leftish romanticism about idyllic rural  village life powered by windmills and solar panels. They idealize poverty, seeing it as a noble way of life, and oppose all  large developments. James Cameron, the multimillionaire producer of the most lucrative movie in history, Avatar, paints his face and joins the disaffected to protest a hydroelectric dam in
the Amazon.
I believe:
– We should be growing more trees and using more wood, not cutting fewer trees and using less wood as Greenpeace and its allies contend. Wood is the most important renewable material and energy resource.
– Those countries that have reserves of potential hydroelectric energy should build the dams required to deliver that energy. There is nothing wrong with creating more lakes in this world.
– Nuclear energy is essential for our future energy supply, especially if we wish to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. It has proven to be clean safe, reliable,  and cost-effective.
– Geothermal heat pumps, which too few people know about, are far more important and cost-effective than either solar panels or wind mills as a source of renewable energy. They should be required in all  new
buildings unless there is a good reason to use some other technology for heating, cooling, and making hot water.
– The most effective way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is to encourage the development of technologies that require less or no fossil fuels to operate. Electric cars, heat pumps, nuclear and hydroelectric
energy, and biofuels are the answer,  not cumbersome regulatory systems that stifle economic activity.
– Genetic science, including genetic engineering, will improve nutrition and end malnutrition, improve crop yields, reduce the environmental impact of farming, and make people and the environment healthier.
– Many activist campaigns designed to make us fear useful chemicals are based on misinformation and unwarranted fear.
– Aquaculture, including salmon and shrimp farming, will be one of our most important future sources of healthy food. It will also take pressure off depleted wild fish stocks and will employ millions of people
productively.
– There is no cause for alarm about climate change. The climate is always changing. Some of the proposed “solutions” would be far worse than any imaginable consequence of global warming, which will likely be
mostly positive. Cooling is what we should fear.
– Poverty is the worst environmental problem. Wealth and urbanization will stabilize the human population. Agriculture should be mechanized throughout the developing world. Disease and malnutrition can be largely
eliminated by the application of modern technology. Health care, sanitation, literacy and electrification should be provided to everyone.
– No whale or dolphin should be killed or captured anywhere, ever. This is one of my few religious beliefs. They are the only species on earth whose brains are larger than ours and it is impossible to kill or capture
them humanely.

Dr. Patrick Moore is a co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace and chair and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. in Vancouver. His new book, Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist, is available at www.beattystreetpublishing.com

Update From the comments at Biofortified
Occasionally, stating the obvious can nonetheless be astounding, such as this tidbit from Moore’s article:

“When a majority of people decide they agree with all your reasonable ideas the only way you can remain confrontational and antiestablishment is to adopt ever more extreme positions, eventually abandoning science and logic altogether in favour of zero-tolerance policies.”

David Tribe

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

43 comments

  1. Occasionally, stating the obvious can nonetheless be astounding, such as this tidbit from Moore’s article:
    “When a majority of people decide they agree with all your reasonable ideas the only way you can remain confrontational and antiestablishment is to adopt ever more extreme positions, eventually abandoning science and logic altogether in favour of zero-tolerance policies.”

  2. This is a nice pithy list, but he is also creating a straw man here. Sure, there are philosophies of primitivism, and such paradigms are incompatible with the dominant culture.
    On the other hand, many rational arguments are made against specific examples from his list. In anything we do trade offs exist. These are nearly always complex, often hidden and unexpressed, or viewed over different time frames.
    Aspects of the dominant world view that are legitimately questioned include:
    1. Economic efficiency as a primary value.
    2. Technological progress as inevitable.
    3. Resource substitution allowing nearly uninterrupted economic growth.
    4. Markets are able to solve social and environmental problems as fast as they arise (in spite of the short-termism built into financial models by discount rates).

  3. This is a pretty good list, and while I would not know enough about the economics or efficiency of geothermal heat pumps compared to wind and solar power, there is little that I would outright disagree with, except for one, and emphatically so:
    “- There is no cause for alarm about climate change. The climate is always changing. Some of the proposed “solutions” would be far worse than any imaginable consequence of global warming, which will likely be mostly positive. Cooling is what we should fear.”
    I think this is dead wrong. We have evidence from crop research that finds everything from lower yields of rice due to global warming, to less predictable weather and dry conditions, and that’s agriculture alone. I have heard talk about benefits to agriculture, but the peer reviewed research is indicating that these benefits are modest, and the drawbacks need to be taken into account. There are other enormous social and economic costs involved outside of agriculture.
    The problem with this position on global warming is that environmentalists will use his stance on global warming as a litmus test for other ideas that they may not have a strong opinion on. It will give them reason to ignore his other ideas. Granted, it may be his opinion, but it will harm the acceptance of his message.

  4. Jason,
    Those four aspects of the dominant world view may of course be legitimately questioned. Nonetheless, they are there because they are well-founded.

  5. Karl,
    I don’t wish to open the can of worms most recently dubbed ‘climate disruption’. I would rather look at the notion of Moore’s position on the topic and your notion that it “will harm the acceptance of his message.”
    I am quite certain that you are aware of many agro biotech projects which have been branded as ‘helping combat global warming’ to get legitimacy and funding. That sort of thing is pernicious, and easily leads to the false perception of ‘a consensus’ of scientists on the topic of climate, when in reality, the actual consensus is that they are all chasing funding for more research.

  6. I’m not sure that a list entitled “what I believe” can really be called creating a straw man, particularly when followed by a description of the “dominant world view” which appears to largely be a straw man (all but point 2, which imo is just common sense depending on how you apply it – I’m assuming either you worded it wrong or I’m misinterpreting – technological progress is essentially inevitable – although the nature of such or the direction isn’t)
    I’d also agree with Karl that the climate change bit here does smell somewhat of crankism – and would strongly disagree with Eric that there is anything other than a consensus on climate change amongst scientists (at least those who count – I’ve yet to see any evidence that the “dissenters” on the issue amount to anything more than the equivalent of Seralini, Putzai and the UCS – although in general less scientific in their approach and more loathesome.
    It also, and this is just me being nitpicky, seems ridiculous to say, in the same sentence, that we needn’t fear climate change – but should fear cooling (what in the bejaysus is cooling if not climate change?)

  7. Ewan:
    Early morning quibling can be tough:

    (all but point 2, which imo is just common sense depending on how you apply it – I’m assuming either you worded it wrong or I’m misinterpreting – technological progress is essentially inevitable – although the nature of such or the direction isn’t)

    I’m only guessing here, but I think you meant “technological change”, because ‘progress’ generally implies a positive direction.

    It also, and this is just me being nitpicky, seems ridiculous to say, in the same sentence, that we needn’t fear climate change – but should fear cooling

    Here it seems you meant the same paragraph. But I do think your point is spot on… cooling is change too.
    Those quibbles aside, what I’m trying to parse is your “strong disagreement” with Eric in the 4:47pm reply to Karl (below). I agree there’s quite the concensus on climate change. The debate seems to center on the cause. Here there also appears some concensus (anthropomorphic) but less strong. So, Eric… could you expand on your last sentance:

    That sort of thing is pernicious, and easily leads to the false perception of ‘a consensus’ of scientists on the topic of climate, when in reality, the actual consensus is that they are all chasing funding for more research.

  8. Meh, database error ate first attempt at this (must remember to paste responses to word first…)
    1. Yes, paragraph – I’d use the timestamp as an excuse but for the near certainty that I’d make exactly the same mistake again even if it wasn’t 2:30am (I do make a lot more erroneous statements and comprehension mistakes at 2:30am – makes the next day more interesting though as people are far more likely to jump on utter nonsense! (and given the choice between doing nothing while Igor goes back to sleep and doing something… well, there we have it (and PS3 is verboten due to erm, some reason or other my wife has, probably a general dislike of the PS3…))
    2. Progress isn’t something I generally think of as positive – perhaps I should if this is a universal thing – I progress towards the grave, cancer progresses from stage to stage etc etc – I think if you read my comment with that in mind it’ll match your interpretation of what you think I meant.
    3. As far as I’m aware if you were to say that climate change is an air tight phenomenon then you’d have to at least give AGW a water tight rating – I don’t think that any number of projects on the issue lead towards any sort of false consensus perception – there are a lot of very spurious lack of consensus perceptions out there anyway – I blame media ‘balance’ – afaik even if considering a world of shades of grey rather than black and white all the shades of grey are pretty darn similar on this one unless you’re a whack-a-loon.

  9. And that is where we disagree fundamentally. Those four tenants are all false belief systems.
    What happens is that when paradigms collide one group considers the other practically insane. The other interesting thing is that critics of any dominant paradigm tend to know more about the one they critique than those who hold it.
    I don’t have time to get into this in super detail but may provide some hints here and those who want to look into it further will find ample resources.
    Re. Economic efficiency. Look up Jevons Paradox aka the Rebound Effect. Also, study the relationship between efficiency and Resilience. The first is an economic truism, the second from ecology.
    Re. Technological progress as inevitable. Every single complex society has had technological progress (which in this context is generally given positive value and meant to ‘advance’ in power, efficiency and reach). And, every single complex society has eventually collapsed and reverted to a more technologically primitive state. For good histories of this see Joseph Tainter or Jared Diamond.
    Re. Resource substitution. This is only possible with unlimited energy inputs. With no energy limits we can mine ocean water for minerals. Otherwise, economic processes predominately take geologically and biologically dense sources and create waste with greater entropy. And we know that in biological and technological systems there are non-substitutable components, e.g. “No phosphorus, no thought.” See Fredderick Soddy for that quote and more background.
    Re. Markets solving problems. Climate change is a great example. It is not profitable to solve climate change in a predominantly market capitalist system with discount rates greater than essentially zero. You could read the Stern report to get a feel for this.

  10. Yes the Jevons Paradox is really interesting. But be careful quoting Jared Diamond– his last book was a bit flaky in parts.
    On the Jevons Paradox, may not demand for some items, like food, have trajectories that are different to coal?

  11. I think the Jevons paradox holds for food too.
    Consider the US production of feed for livestock and ethanol. As production becomes cheaper, we shuttle former food products into areas that would have been considered ridiculous previously.
    This is a classic Jevons paradox–efficiency of production goes up, hence we use more.
    To get away from this paradox we need to place actual limits on total production. Would make sense to convert much annual cropland into pasture, for example, removing corn and soy acreage from production and bring ruminants back onto predominantly pastured-hay-silage feed systems. Soils would build carbon and biological diversity, water would be less polluted, animals would have healthier fat profiles, etc.

  12. If you’re going to impose production limits it would make more sense to actually be pragmatic about things and reduce animal production full stop – instead of changing corn acreage to pasture for livestock jsut let it go wild – retaining efficient systems with an imposed limit to production seems to me a far better way around the Jevons paradox than simply carrying on with inefficient systems (considering that if we hadn’t improved coal burning efficiency, or fuel efficiency of cars etc there is absolutely zero evidence that the world wouldn’t be in a worse place now than it already is – either because other innovations couldn’t occur (arguably the case with coal) or because the system carried on regardless (argaubly the case with fuel efficient vehicles)

  13. I agree with you in the general sense–increase efficiency but cap production.
    But you seem to imply that pasture systems are less efficient that feeding grains. Why do you say that? How are you measuring efficiency?

  14. I vaguely recall doing some of the calculations a long time ago, but have absolutely nothing concrete at the moment – my feel is that an acre of grain feeding cows in a feedlot is likely to feed more cows than an acre of pasture – purely in terms of land area utilized then my assumption is greater efficiency in this area.

  15. Jason, just a few points:
    1. Economic efficiency as a primary value. Economic arrangements are means to achieve ends — the things that have primary value, i.e., safe food, clean environment, etc. The only primary value which can be attributed to economic efficiency itself is that efficient is better than wasteful.
    2. Technological progress as inevitable. Technology is value neutral, progress is not, the latter being defined in many ways by many people in many circumstances. If technology makes possible what people call an improvement over the status quo, then progress is inevitable. People always want things better than they are and will work hard to achieve that. This has held true at least since the dawn of agriculture, and things are unlikely to change any time soon.
    3. Resource substitution allowing nearly uninterrupted economic growth. This, too, has been apparent from the last 5,000 years’ experience.
    4. Markets are able to solve social and environmental problems as fast as they arise (in spite of the short-termism built into financial models by discount rates). By definition, markets cannot solve problems as fast as they arise, because the problem must arise before the market responds. So the question becomes, what arrangements respond most quickly and efficiently? Since markets are more efficient than governments at allocating resources, markets will always have the advantage until something better comes along.

  16. Ewan, it depends on how you compute external factors, particularly all the unwanted outputs. If you look at everything (as in a Life Cycle Analysis) then meat from pastured animals is better than meat from animals finished on grain. The problem is – could we ever meet the per capita demand for meat with pastured animals only. No. I wrote about this a bit a ways back – https://biofortified.org/2008/09/life-cycle-analysis-in-animal-agriculture/

  17. I basically disagree with all you said. You are repeating the standard myths. (I think the Mayans, among others, would disagree with your view of history).
    What I mean by “primary value” is that economics has essential said that it must be value neutral. However, it does say that all we can actually measure and call “good” is the efficiency of allocation. This is done by the price mechanism.
    The price mechanism is governed by a lot of things, including financial discount rates and the irrationality of human fads and desires. While one can argue that “efficiency” arises from within this system as delineated, the boundary of economic analysis is quite narrow. What are left over are called “externalities” and grandchildren are essentially worth nothing.

  18. Jason: Re. Technological progress as inevitable. Every single complex society has had technological progress (which in this context is generally given positive value and meant to ‘advance’ in power, efficiency and reach). And, every single complex society has eventually collapsed and reverted to a more technologically primitive state.

    False implied causation here. Name one society, complex or not, that hasn’t “fallen”. There is no reason to believe that had the complex societies been less advanced technologically, that they wouldn’t have fallen. Falling also necessarily implies reversion to a more primitive state. Your argument says to me you are afraid to walk out the door because someday, you could get hit by a car.

  19. Actually, social complexity theory (and the historical record) shows how complexity has diminishing returns. What eventually happens is that the costs of social complexity (and the technologies that support it) outweigh the benefits. This is when decline sets in.
    What is also interesting to appreciate is what leads to social complexity. Economic growth processes tend to. The society essentially becomes larger and more complex, but then undermines its resource base and fails to cope due to higher costs of inputs and management difficulties.
    Getting back to the original article. There are many people that don’t like certain projects because embedded in those projects are assumptions about future maintenance costs. Typically, project proponents assume that X years from now we will have a society capable of benefiting from and maintaining said project. Those with a different view of how societies rise and fall are concerned that we often misallocate investments planning for a future that is unlikely to occur. E.g., Bridges to nowhere.

  20. @Jason: “every single complex society has eventually
    collapsed and reverted to a more technologically primitive state.
    For good histories of this see Joseph Tainter or Jared Diamond. ”
    The difference modern societies have is science- we can analyze
    scientifically both the state of the world and how to adapt and
    innovate solutions to problems that arise- including climate
    change. And that gives us a huge advantage over earlier societies
    that collapsed, which is why we cannot extrapolate from the past on
    this issue.

  21. So, I take it that you are saying that falling is inevitable. While I don’t disagree, it does not counter the assumption that technological progression is inevitable, at least at some point in development. Which leads to your diminishing returns curve. The problem there being, we have no idea where we are on the curve. If we assume we are approaching the end of that path, do you suggest we just give up and decide not to waste time “progressing” any more? Rather defeatist, no?

  22. Great response! I do think we are nearing the end of this cycle, and it is the largest of them all. It comes down to appreciating the special role of energy in building complex systems. We have used up enough of our natural endowment of fossil fuels to now see the marginal cost of extraction going up very quickly. This means that the flow rate of key resources doesn’t respond to the price signal sufficiently.
    But this is not about giving up on progress or technology. On the contrary, we have enormous inefficiencies and waste because of our abundance. It is a matter of realizing that we are at the end of this phase and altering how we invest. Something we are not apt to do since most think we will forever grow and grow and grow our way out of problems. We also need to understand that efficiency shouldn’t be used to simply get bigger a la Jevons Paradox, but should be used to give us the breathing room to build a more lasting system.

  23. Nice post on life cycle analysis in ag. This is a very useful tool. The only difficulties are it is very hard to do and understand. Devils are the details such as setting boundary of analysis and deciding what to include/exclude.
    What is interesting to me is that all foods include more industrial energy inputs than the food energy coming out. That is really poor performance.
    By contrast, if you go to say, Guatemala, and measure the net energy of a farmer using labor and animals they will have a positive net energy.
    What we have essentially done is replace costly labor with (recently) inexpensive capital and energy. This means we appear extremely labor efficient but are otherwise inefficient from an historical energetic perspective.

  24. Jason:
    Externalities should be accounted for. No argument there. But you lost me at “grandchildren are essentially worth nothing”.
    And earlier you offered the example of a Guatemalan farmer producing a positive net energy – is there a study you can point to that describes how this was determined?

  25. Jason:
    After sleeping on it I might have figured out the worthlessness of grandchildren concept. But it disturbs me on a couple levels. As a means of illustratng the narrow boundaries of economic analysis it fails for me because grandchildren exist right now in our present economy. Not only are these folks here among us, but they are siginificant consumers.
    It also disturbs me in the way I suppose it is intended to… the notion that any means of accounting might be so simplistic and short sighted as to completely ignore an extremely important population.

  26. Jason – on collapsing societies etc – is there any evidence that socienties that didn’t advance technologically have fared any better than those that did? Has there been evidence of survival of a society which decided to cease technological development at an arbitrarily chosen time?
    My gut feel is that societies, like species (or sub populations thereof), are destined from the getgo to eventually go the way of the dodo (only without being immortalized in cartoons and pithy sayings) – given that technological advancement is pretty much inevitable (direction of and impact of not predictable however) it therefore comes as no surprise that societies fail at the pinnacle of their technological achievement – it would be like being surprised that every species that went extinct did so just at the point it had reached the furthest point evolutionarily from its nearest common ancestor to a close sister species – clearly the answer then is that for optimal survival as a species one should not evolve at all (can I get a hell yeah from all the coelocanth’s in the audience?)

  27. I use that phrase as a catch all for discount rate/net present value accounting systems. I have kids but no grandkids. If you calculate the value of anything very far into the future it is practically zero. This means our current financial system is structurally incapable of “caring” for much beyond the next few months to few years.
    Whenever a project has a lifetime of decades the return on investment criteria become very difficult to assess. Therefore, the expected rate of return must be very high to hedge against this risk.
    We are incapable of “solving” any long-term sustainability problem with the current way money is created and values are measured. There’s a new book out that gets to this titled “0” which takes a quote from Oscar Wilde that goes something like “society knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

  28. Most academic libraries would probably have the book by Pimental et al called “Food, Energy and Society.”
    The basic methods are straightforward. You measure the energy used to produce food (tractor fuel, human labor, animal power, embedded energy of external inputs) and then you measure the energy content of the harvest. The ratio is called Energy Returned on Investment (EROI) and is a general technique also used in assessment of energy system payback.

  29. Ha! Good way to think of this. My primary academic background is in evolutionary biology and ecology so I am with you all the way.
    Something to look into is what is called The Maximum Power Principle. Basically, power is work per unit time, and societies that are able to be more powerful tend to overtake those that are less so.
    For example, let’s say two societies have equal endowments of oil reserves, near-surface mineral ores, fine topsoil, fresh water, tall forests, etc. One decides to use these are a slow, sustainable rate, making sure that there’s no significant pollution and keeping the harvest rate equal to regeneration of renewable resources. The second decides to quickly liquidate these assets to grow and become strong. As soon as it starts to run low it then looks to its neighbor and says “They have plenty, let’s go get it.”
    That pretty much sums up what is going on right now.

  30. If collapse is the inevitable result of progress, that proves conclusively that organic farming is mandatory. And I can even imagine someone making that argument.

  31. Again, I would generally agree with you. Eliminating waste and increasing efficiency are worthy and necessary goals. You might also find that most posters here would posit that technologies like GE are aimed at doing just that. Sure, there are counter examples, but generally they are conceived to do more with less or more without conventional input. As for fossil fuels, see Moore’s (and Stewart Brand’s) arguments for geothermal and nuclear above.
    Sorry if I’m confusing things here, but I find your line of argument difficult to follow at times. If we are using technology to increase efficiency and reduce waste, etc, are we not then progressing technologically? And if we are doing things more efficiently, that many times requires higher levels of organization, e.g. complexity, to accomplish. That is, to follow your path could require you to increasingly your embrace your demon, complexity.
    You might find the following of interest, if you don’t know of it already : “Implications of the Copernican principle for our future prospects”. J. R. Gott III, Nature, Vol 363, 5/27/1993. He attempts to quantify the probability of collapse of a given entity. He also determines that if we are here to observe humanity now, it is likely towards the peak of humanity, since that is when most humans would exist to be observers. Interesting read.

  32. This is a conundrum. A larger and more complex society needs ever more energy, other resources, new technologies and management skills to maintain. Therefore, to keep a complex society going you must make it more complex!
    What I am saying is that this has an endgame and we are about there. We have hit the point where getting bigger and more complex causes more troubles than it solves.
    I see technologies such as GMs as part of this evolution. I am not flaming pro or con something since I tend to view it in a broad context. What I am saying is that we actually need to be thinking about developing technologies that require less external inputs and fewer parts–i.e., less complex–since that is the world ahead.
    One of the problems I therefore see with GMs is the way they are licensed, produced and distributed. This adds a layer of complexity to the system that makes it less resilient long-term (though it may promote some greater efficiencies in the near term).

  33. I wouldn’t argue mandatory but I would argue that we should have a greater breadth of production systems/styles. Putting it all in one basket–something as critical as the food system–doesn’t make sense.
    Current organic farms only have some small advantages in this context though. I make no claim that USDA certified organic is any broad solution. But many of the methods and practices offer appropriate responses in my view.

  34. This is basically the argument made by the Technocracy movement in the US.
    I sort of wish it were true but my own experience is that most people don’t appreciate the scientific method. As long as science confirms existing beliefs the coast is clear. But go against a cherished belief system and evidence has a hard time getting across.

  35. Adding response to end of thread to multiple posts due to limitations in nesting buggering up response perspective! bear with me as I’m likely to get confused (complexity leading to ultimate decay)

    This means our current financial system is structurally incapable of “caring” for much beyond the next few months to few years.

    The project I work on has no chance whatsoever of making any money until probably 2018 or so at the earliest, I joined the team more than 3 years after it was conceived. (we advanced a gene to phase 2 this year, which is a big deal ™) There are numerous other teams I work alongside who do exactly the same, and one guy working in the lab who has significant investment on a project which has very little chance of commercialization before 2020 if not later.
    Even big business can focus beyond the next handful of years.

    I sort of wish it were true but my own experience is that most people don’t appreciate the scientific method. As long as science confirms existing beliefs the coast is clear. But go against a cherished belief system and evidence has a hard time getting across

    Categorically doesn’t reflect how science works – are you sure you’re not thinking about creationism or anti-vaxxers, or Greenpeace or something?

    I wouldn’t argue mandatory but I would argue that we should have a greater breadth of production systems/styles.

    I like to hear this from someone from the organic side of things – makes a refreshing change from the whole ‘GMOs must be banned’ bandwagon.

    I see technologies such as GMs as part of this evolution. I am not flaming pro or con something since I tend to view it in a broad context. What I am saying is that we actually need to be thinking about developing technologies that require less external inputs and fewer parts–i.e., less complex–since that is the world ahead.

    I see GM technologies as categorically less complex than methods they replace (using insecticides vs not using, using less herbicides as compared to using more, using less water as compared to using more) and the only reason they aren’t used in the systems you view as less complex less resource using is simply due to the ideology of those writing the rules for said systems – an organic system using Bt genes inserted is, in my opinion, less complex and less resource intensive than one which uses Bt sprays and all the associated costs thereof.

    One of the problems I therefore see with GMs is the way they are licensed, produced and distributed. This adds a layer of complexity to the system that makes it less resilient long-term (though it may promote some greater efficiencies in the near term).

    You need to be a tad careful about your near and long term definitions here if your arguement is going to hold water – licensing production and distribution of GMOs is only protected in the short term – in the long term they become essentially open use (with the only added complexity being a global approval maintenance for a given trait) – if there are efficiencies to be gained in the short term then this overlaps with the period of added complexity and thus you have to balance complexity with efficiency I guess, longer term all that is required is a sensible regulatory approach and patented traits become public use and everyone gains (which is how patents are supposed to work – I look forward to having conversations 10 years from now when all of the first generation of transgenics are public use and thus the boogeyman of corporate ownership has been dispelled thoroughly)
    Also looking at simplistic arguements of complexity vs efficiency – arguably organic systems are a lot more complex (and get more complex the further you get from the USDA definition and into what would be considered a more hard-core approach true to the roots of the movement) than are conventional farming systems, and arguably (dependant on your definitions I guess – I like to look at land useage as a prime wossname which is why I’m still of the opinion that a feedlot is probably a better place for a cow than on pasture – although this relies somewhat on land not utilized being returned to the wild, which is wildly hypothetical and unlikely I admit) less efficient therefore if you’re going down this line of thought you either have to radically redifine complexity and efficiency or abandon the arguement that complexity is what causes downfall (I don’t think for a minute that it does – again returning to the original arguement complexity will go up regardless, populations/species/societies will crash regardless therefore any society which crashes will do so at its most technically advanced stage – correlation rather than causation)

  36. What I am saying is that this has an endgame and we are about there. We have hit the point where getting bigger and more complex causes more troubles than it solves.

    This is where I have a problem, and apparently Moore and others do as well. It’s always the 70’s style apocalyptic, doom and gloom, “endgame” mentality. It is never a “solve the problem and move on” philosophy. Enough with the pointing at problems and crying that the end is near. Time to buck up and face the problems with creative solutions. That necessitates an open mind and, yes, possibly a complex solution.
    Your future view assumes nothing will change. History, however, shows a different story. The trends to the endgame that you keep reiterating are often interrupted by sudden shifts which reset the clock. Technological change is often at the root of those shifts. A change in energy reliance, for example, could be such a shift.

    What I am saying is that we actually need to be thinking about developing technologies that require less external inputs and fewer parts–i.e., less complex–since that is the world ahead.

    I believe you are making a bad assumption here, i.e. that complexity is necessarily related to the number of parts. This simply is not true. I would also disagree that the world ahead is less complex. Just the trend in world population levels would deny that assertion. So I will follow you re: more efficiency and less waste, but object to the notion that humanity must lower it’s sites and make due with something less. I’m looking for solutions that raise expectations, not lower them.

  37. A lot of the discussion in this thread is very interesting but it is ignoring one important point: that is that the events in history are not predictable.
    Karl Popper is one person who made it big story about us being unable to predict history and one of the best examples of the inadequacy of big picture theoretical stories about general human history is the dopeyness of Karl Marx.
    His big picture class theory doesn’t predict the future. So not to disagree with many of the points made we should also bear in mind that there are real flaws in claiming that we are at the particular point in some predictive scenario. There are too many flies in the ointment to smoothly predict the future and it is well may be chaotic in behaviour.
    This not to say that we should not try and influence the direction of future events towards better outcomes, and that influence is not possible.
    When it comes to these ecology theories relating to energy use and efficiency we should be very sceptical because they are often based on very weak empirical foundations, and they might not have very good predictive value.
    The predictions may have some value but we should be very careful about the limitations in our ability to predict what will happen interms of general trends.
    One example about technology prediction limitations is the amazing things that have happened with the Internet and computer technology. Who would have predicted the exact extent of Google and Amazon market penetration before it happened. Similarly in the past, ecologists like Paul Ehrlich predicted we would have global famines, and didn’t predict that there would be a green revolution. That is my three cents worth. Be careful with grand theories that don’t have error bars and strong empirical support. They are merely informed opinion in disguise.

  38. Pretty amazing situation you have job-wise! Some folks with deep pockets and long-term vision are behind it. It would be interesting to look at the financing conditions. If it is a venture capital situation then those who put up the money will have a huge windfall if all goes well. Typically in these situations 9/10 fail and 1/10 gives you a 100:1 return. (But I don’t know the specifics, just saying that long-term private investments are often under these sorts of conditions).
    When societies are in the growth and adding complexity phase, the complexity tends to accrue at the higher ends of the social order. For example, central governments tend to play larger roles than local ones, big businesses out compete smaller ones, etc. This allows for individuals to become highly specialized and thus their own lives may be less complex. E.g., who needs to cook and clean anymore if you earn a high enough salary?
    During a decline phase, the reverse tends to happen. As the center looses control, more burdens are placed on lower levels of the social hierarchy. For example, somebody may find they need to work at two or three jobs instead of one to make ends meet. Informal economies rise, meaning more work is in non-monetary exchange. Local governments have more responsibilities, etc.
    The same is likely to be true for farming systems. The simple systems of today, such as swaths of corn and soy, are only possible because at higher levels all the other inputs and exchange mechanisms are in place. If farms loose access to external inputs in any major way then at the individual farm level life will be more complex indeed.
    So I agree you are insightful here. Difficult for me to get into all the details in some short posts like this!
    Regarding science. I am not talking about the way science works, but the way science is used by non-scientists. Lucky is the scientist that feels like their work is understood and any novel conclusions rapidly adopted by society to change the way things are done. It does happen, but just as often it doesn’t.
    I also am interested to see what happens when more GMOs are in public domain. One reason why I am here is to learn more about this side of things. I also wish more of the funding was public to begin with and they didn’t begin with pesticide tolerance traits. Got off on wrong foot in the PR Dept.

  39. I mostly agree with what you say here. Nobody can make very specific predictions about the future. I see the future as a range of scenarios and may assign rough probabilities to each.
    On the other hand, I am speaking about very broad trends and tensions that I believe are well founded in science. While one shouldn’t predict anything with much specificity we all have to make decisions today based on an envisioned future.
    My main beef is that I believe most people hold a vision of the future that is highly unlikely to occur and are thus making poor decisions today that worsen the potential outcome.
    An analogy might be the weather vs the climate. I would never make a weather prediction far in the future, but we might be able to state with some probability range what the climate may be well ahead of time.
    That said, I often ask myself where my blind spots could be and think it is healthy for everybody to do so.

  40. I hear you clearly. Your reaction is absolutely normal. I am the odd one for sure. Nobody wants to feel that they are stepping back, in retreat, giving up, etc. All advanced societies at their peak feel that they are exempt from worries of failure. After all, they can look back on their fantastic history of growth and progress going back hundreds of years!
    And for those of us alive today this is even more heightened since we have advances no others have ever enjoyed. The question is why? Isn’t it science, capitalism, and our creative spirit? Won’t we always have those to turn to when problems creep up?
    I see those usual explanations as secondary to energy. We won the fossil fuel lottery and leveraged that into a more highly complex and powerful society. When you can feed 100 people with one farmer, you have a lot of slack to use for other things. Think about this: one gallon of gasoline can replace the labor of 500 humans for one hour. And we complain when it costs $4.
    Regarding the term endgame, I mean it not as a doomsday phrase, but to describe the arc of civilization as it slows down and enters decline. For us this probably began in the 1970s.

  41. Pretty amazing situation you have job-wise!

    I like to think so… I guess, given the post you made, my normal disclaimer is required (I intermittently give it, and apparently you’ve not seen it! (and I’ve yet to macro it which I really should do…)) – I work for Monsanto, all views expressed are my own and not theirs, yadda yadda – so it’s not venture capital, it’s about as mainstream big ag as one could hope for. The numbers generally bandied about for any such projects are ~$100M to commercialize and returns I’m guessing (and here I’m hazy) are projected at $500M+ per project to be considered awesome.

    So I agree you are insightful here. Difficult for me to get into all the details in some short posts like this!

    I hold no great stock in short posts for shortness sake – the discussion here has been interesting because and not in spite of the length of the posts going to and fro (I find the lack of attention span and near tweet like nature of many posts in many places to be more of a distraction than the arguements put forth – and appreciate the effort you’ve been willing to muster thus far in actually describing your position rather than trying to sloganize it)

    I also wish more of the funding was public to begin with and they didn’t begin with pesticide tolerance traits.

    Well, technically they didn’t! Flavrsaver just happened to fail commercially – and if I remember right RR and Bt were released in the same year, so it is arguable that insect resistance was at least co-released with a pesticide resistance trait – I think however that it was inevitable that some “easy” (although not altogether easy as GAT shows…) binary (ie works or it don’t) trait would be the first to market rather than hard to do non-binary traits (yield & stress types)

    Regarding science. I am not talking about the way science works, but the way science is used by non-scientists.

    Now you’ve clarified that it actually becomes obvious this is what you meant in the first post – I’m painfully aware that the general public tends not to accept science that doesn’t confirm their beliefs and latch onto “science” that does – chipping away is all that can be done – I’ve had some minor victories along the road and hope that more silent readers of various discussions are swayed also (prior to my interest shifting to discussions on GM I did actually persuade one creationist to at least admit that the evidence behind evolution was overwhelming, although whether he did this because he agreed or because he was overwhelmed by over 40,000 words on the topic is as yet an unknown))

    I also am interested to see what happens when more GMOs are in public domain.

    May we live in interesting times.

  42. “There is no cause for alarm about climate change. The climate is always changing.”
    No more nonsense needed, thanks!
    …in the meantime I go outside and let some dolphins die… you know, dolphins always die 🙂

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