Not harbingers of progress, says Colin Tudge, but symptoms of folly. Why do we continue to make the same mistakes?
Rishi Sunak has been desperately trying to explain to a bewildered nation and his own party and perhaps to himself why HS2 was a brilliant initiative when the government of which he was a part gave it its full support (levelling up etc) and now it isn’t (covid, Putin, global warming. If he’d waited a bit he could have added Gaza to the list of putatively unforeseeable events that are beyond anyone’s control and turn the best-laid schemes agley).
HS2 has a great deal in common with GMOs, including the gene- or genome-edited crops that are their current manifestation. They are all seen to represent progress – and progress is taken ipso facto to be good. (The clue’s in the name.) The details are somewhat vague but the progress is dimly perceived to be leading us towards the sunlit uplands, ever-exciting yet tranquil, where we can all eat like gourmets and get from A to B or indeed to the planet Zog in no time at all without doing any work or bothering our little heads with thought. Some of us perhaps, the dreamers and hippies, might choose instead to wander in the latter-day Eden in a generalized state of ecstasy – which they’ll be free to do provided they don’t smoke dope, march with placards, frighten the horses, upset the apple-carts, make ripples, generally make a fuss, or indeed “threaten the very fabric of society”. The market and high tech, with a steady hand at the tiller (“strong and stable government”) can be relied upon to take care of all our wants and needs. What’s not to like?
The reality, of course, is very different. There’s a huge literature on the downsides but here are a few salients:
First, on HS2, it makes no sense in a small, crowded, and intricately crowded island like ours, where very few people ever want to travel more than 200 miles at a time, to build trains that run at 200 miles an hour. If trains run at more than 100 miles an hour which they already do then the main problem is not the speed of the trains but the time needed to get to the station by car or tube or park ‘n’ ride. And if the train is comfortable (huh!) and has wifi and or a decent restaurant (double “huh!”) then a two-hour journey can be more relaxing and generally more fruitful than a one-hour journey. The same people who are presumed to need to cut an hour off their train-time will happily spend two hours at lunch.
Then again, because very fast trains need to travel in straight lines HS2 has been run through or next to and in either case has ruined some very attractive and fully functional villages and their communities and cut through ancient woodlands – and only an idiot, or a wilfully ignorant mountebank, would suppose that a few replacement saplings are the ecological equivalent of a centuries-old oak. But then government at all levels is largely run by wilfully ignorant mountebanks, or indeed by idiots.
As for genetically modified (including genome-edited) crops: well, as discussed elsewhere on this website, they have been around in principle for 40 years with a 10-year lead time before that, and although billions have been spent on them and huge commercial companies have grown up on the back of them, and governments and ambitious politicians have thrown their weight behind them, they have not in all that time provided any foodstuff that is of unequivocal value to the human race or to the natural world. The GM maize and soya that are already becoming the norm are mainly intended for intensive livestock which are raised by very dubious means and are of very dubious value (when value is measured in anything other than short-term profit). There has been and still is much excitement around nutritionally “fortified” GM crops such as “golden rice” with added genes that code for Vitamin A and GM tomatoes with the capacity to produce more vitamin D – but the precursor of vitamin A is carotene, which is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature, and who among those who are short of vitamin D could afford gene-edited tomatoes? In general, it seems, high-tech, industrial farming with genetically modified crops and livestock does not produce anything better than traditional farmers and growers could produce with far fewer unintended consequences if only the economy was geared to their needs and not to the needs of high-tech corporates. As things are, the traditional farmers go bust, and drift into the largely hypothetical new towns, or into some favela, while the fashionable, “neoliberal” economists who now are dominant, and “progressive” politicians and gung-ho technophiles dressed as intellectuals, wish them good riddance.
And this indeed is the crux. For what HS2 and GM crops have most obviously in common is that both are driven by the widely accepted but largely unexamined need to maximize material wealth, and to concentrate that wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The shortcomings of both technologies were obvious from the start. The decades of pain that have resulted from them and the huge waste of resource could and should have been avoided altogether, with a little humility and compassion and applied common sense. But these qualities are what the present world seems to lack – and, so history suggests, what the world has always lacked.
Truly, even at this eleventh hour, we need the Renaissance and we, people at large, need to make it happen. We cannot afford to leave the world’s affairs to the powers that be.