From The Scientific Alliance (UK) newsletter.
25th March 2011
Politicians should be unprincipled
Sticking to principles is, you may think, an admirable quality. Indeed, describing anyone as ‘unprincipled’ can hardly be regarded as a compliment. But principles define our way of thinking and making decisions and can blind us to evidence which is inconsistent with our world view. Objectivity is something we should value in all walks of life and in policymaking it should certainly be the norm. However, politicians are all too often big on principles, despite the reality that the most successful governments are often of the pragmatic centre rather than based on doctrinaire politics of any particular shade.
A big principle which currently dominates transport policy is that private cars, road transport generally and short distance air travel are intrinsically bad and must be minimised. In the energy field, the mantra of renewables – uneconomic and unreliable wind and solar power – blinds policymakers to the need to maintain an affordable and reliable power supply while maintaining the fiction that current biofuels are of net benefit. And in agriculture, romantic notions of farming on ‘natural’ principles ignore the realities of food demand growing without extra land being available…
Transport, you might argue, is to some extent a luxury once the essentials of life have been taken care of (although I doubt that many voters would buy that one). A reliable energy supply is vital for the whole of modern society but, at a pinch, power rationing might be bearable on occasions. But food is absolutely vital. Society is arguably only three meals away from breakdown. What seems important now quickly slips down the priority list when food is scarce.
This point seems to have been taken by the scientific and political establishment, with the concept of sustainable intensification of agriculture being the new received wisdom. But, in parallel, the EU continues to encourage organic farming for its supposed environmental benefits. At the same time, effective crop protection products are under increasing pressure as part of a vain struggle to make the world risk free. Because the principles of environmental protection and safety run deep in the European psyche, we are in danger making our farmers less productive and competitive at a time when the global demand for food continues to rise steadily.
And not just the EU: if an article in the Farmers Guardian (Agroecology is the key to food security – UN) is anything to go by, the entire world is set on this course. Actually, for many developing countries where crop yields are often pitifully low, almost any cultivation method – including organic and similar approaches – will produce an improvement. But the author of the report, Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, rejects intensive farming for systems which ‘mimic nature’. By this view, subsistence farmers should be encouraged to have a better level of subsistence, but not to develop any further. Yet another fashionable principle is in play here: encouraging poorer countries not to develop as we in the prosperous North have.
It seems that some principles are shared by much of the political class, but not necessarily by those who elect them. In the fields of transport, energy supply and farming, governments appear to be intent on taking away current freedoms because they believe these principles trump them. When a mainstream party has the courage to break ranks and offer a more pragmatic approach, it will be interesting to see how many votes these principles are worth.
The Scientific Alliance
St John’s Innovation Centre
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB4 0WS