Life’s a Roundup By William Bowles

16 October 2003

I’m not a particular fan of Armageddon for obvious reasons, well obvious to me anyway. I’m pretty much an optimist believing in R Buckminster Fuller’s dictum that as long as we’re around as a species, then we must be considered a success as a species. However…

It would appear that the lure of filthy lucre overwhelms our sense of self-preservation, at least amongst those of our species (mostly male and mostly white) who have the power and the resources to bring the entire process to a screeching halt in spite of my protests.

There’s no doubting that the accumulation of wealth (and the power that inevitably goes with it) has all the hallmarks of a disease, or a fetish as K Marx described it. And as anyone with a fetish knows, money and power is powerful stuff, an addiction as strong as crack cocaine, perhaps even stronger because not only is it socially accepted, it has all the appearance of being a ‘natural’ state of affairs, over which we have no control.

Which brings me right back to addiction, but are we being asked to accept the idea that ‘human nature’ is a kind of addiction too? If so, with the kinds of power we now have over nature, the game is surely up. This would appear to be the state of affairs we are being asked to accept when it comes to genetically modified life.

Round ‘em up and move ‘em out
The news that Monsanto is pulling out of Europe, having failed to convince us ‘old Europeans’ that genetically modified plants are the best thing since sliced bread, would seem to challenge the lie about ‘human nature’. After all, aside from all the issues surrounding GM such as the unknown effects on the environment, health, bio-diversity etc, the main plank has been one of business, Monsanto’s business of course. We’ve been told that we won’t be able ‘compete’ in the global market place, that you can’t stop ‘progress’, that we have to stay on the ‘cutting edge’ of science and research.

Perhaps us ‘old Europeans’ are a genetic mutation, induced by eating nature’s own for too long? Whatever the reasons, the almost total rejection of GM foods in Europe is a sign that perhaps we’ve had enough of ‘business’. And the rejection is not confined to Europe. Countries such as Zambia have also rejected GM.

I’ve always been interested in science and technology, I’ve been reading the New Scientist since the 1960s. Long conversations as a kid with a family friend who was a mathematician and who used to visit us every Christmas, were invariably about the universe, Einstein, all the things an inquisitive child had an inexhaustible supply of questions on. So I’m by no means anti-science, I’m no Luddite (though Ned Ludd’s opposition to machines was based just as much on the lousy quality of the lace the machines produced than on opposition to the machines themselves).

Just the facts Ma’am, just the facts
Much of the ‘argument’ about GM has been obscured by a ‘debate’ between scientists (mostly pro-GM) and ‘touchy feelie’ Greens. The scientists ask us to consider the ‘facts’, to be ‘objective’ and await the outcome of trials, tests and analysis. That’s like saying if you really want to know what an atomic bomb does to people, the best way is to drop one (been there, done that but the world is still full of the fucking infernal devices).

But the ‘scientific debate’ obscures an essential issue, one that has nothing to do with science no matter what the outcome of trials and tests tell us. It’s the idea that science somehow exists outside the social realm, that it’s just about ‘facts’, cold, neutral and objective facts. The scientist, driven by his ‘thirst for knowledge’, is not concerned with anything outside his ‘specialisation’, that’s for the politicians and society to deal with. He’ll just supply us with the facts and ‘we’ll’ make the decisions.

Notice something about the similarity between the ‘logic’ of the scientist and the ‘logic’ of the capitalist? Both claim to be driven, one by a thirst for money (natural) and the other for knowledge (natural).

Let’s get one thing straight, science is not some external force, neither is it objective, objective in the sense that, the kinds of ideas and processes that science explores are socially, economically and politically determined.

Take the case of Monsanto. Prior to GM, one of Monsanto’s sources of income was the manufacture of herbicides and insecticides. Its genetically modified plants are engineered to to be tolerant to its products such as Roundup. Hence the main motivation for producing GM plants is actually to sell Roundup. It’s like Kodak and film. Sell a cheap camera only so you can sell lots of Kodak film. This is business not science or even ‘helping the poor of the planet’, all else is crap, manufactured after the fact.

It’s a man’s history
Or take anthropology, for long, like most science, the exclusive province of the male of the species and being male, assumptions about the history of our species and its behaviour was/is determined by men with all that that implies. Moreover, because the dominant ideology was/is capitalist, universities, the exclusive domain of the anthropologist, followed the twisted Darwinian logic of ‘survival of the fittest’ and it was assumed that in ancient times we chased animals all over the veldt, huntin’ and a-killin’ for a living. Man the hunter, red in tooth and hand.

But when women took up the profession, we started to see an entirely different picture emerge. The idea of man the hunter was challenged. It emerged that our ancient diet was actually over 80% vegetable and perhaps more importantly, the idea of the man as the ‘thinker’ and innovator of ‘progress’ was questioned. For example, one of the earliest examples of pottery ever found has the imprint of a woman’s hand on it, not a man’s. So not only was she slaving over a hot fire, she was also making the tools at the dawn of our history. So much for man the thinker.

The baby business
The discovery of DNA, the code of life, the double helix, opened up a new realm of commodification for the capitalist. The first products to be realised had to do with the reproductive process such as the birth control pill and as our understanding of reproduction has developed, commodification of the reproductive process has proceeded apace. Note that the object of the commodification of life has been on the female of the species and not surprisingly, it’s controlled entirely by men. Clearly, the market and the preconceptions of men determined the development of the pill for women (not for men mark you). And given the centrality of reproducing our species, like the funeral business, the market is vast and endless. The ethical dilemmas we now face concerning the implications of genetically engineering our species, only became inevitable once decisions were made by business to invest in certain kinds of scientific inquiry as opposed to others. The decisions were based on business. What would guarantee the best return on investment?

If science were to have been dominated by women or perhaps idealistically, shared equitably between men and women, the development of science and of course technology, its expression, would have proceeded along quite different lines. Moreover, if our political economy wasn’t based upon an addiction, it too would have funded science in an entirely different way. The nature and content of our collectively acquired knowledge would look entirely different. Life and society would have proceeded along entirely different lines.

There’s nothing inevitable about anything we do. Choices are made but who makes the choices and why? It just so happens that in Europe, after two hundred years of industrial capitalism and the wars and social upheavals it has produced, we are at last, breaking our addiction to consumption and accumulation that also happens to coincide with the emergence of GM. It may well be that at long last the lessons and lure of the automobile, the supermarket, agri-business, the avalanche of consumer products and all the other products of capitalism are starting to wear thin. That it’s this change in our mentality more than ‘anti-science’ per se that is motivating the rejection of GM. Perhaps at last, we are starting to overcome our addiction to novelty that is exploited by the capitalist system in order to keep the entire insanity going, that is at the root of our rejection of change just because business and the ruling political class that it represents, says so.

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