Environmentalism's Fear-Loathing of Technology
Extracts from Science Under Siege by Michael Fumento
Just as agrarian utopianism is part and parcel of the cult of the natural, so too is technophobia. Declared one congressman on the floor of the House:
This begins a new era in the history of civilization. Never before has society been confronted with a power so full of potential danger and at the same time so full of promise for the future of man and for the peace of the world. The menace to our people . . . would call for prompt legislative action, even if the military and economic implications were not so overwhelming.
The year was circa 1950 and the subject was nuclear energy, you say? Guess again. The year was 1857. The subject was the internal combustion engine.
To technophobes, progress is anything but progressive. "We continue to delude ourselves," says Jeremy Rifkin, "that this is the age of progress." Thus, while some people oppose nuclear power because they feel it is too dangerous, or too impractical, others oppose it because they fear it would be too practical.
"It would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we might do with it," wrote Amory Lovins in Mother Earth.
"We . . . could do mischief to the earth and to each other." Wrote Paul Ehrlich, in a statement that also betrays his elitist position: "Giving society cheap, abundant energy. . . would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun."
In an article in Quest magazine, titled "The Case Against Abundant, Cheap Energy," Dartmouth professor Noel Perrin wrote: "I don't want nuclear technology (or solar, or any other kind) to work because the blessings of abundant energy are even more to be feared than its risks" (emphasis in original).
Two years later he would write in The New York Times: "What's needed from the nuclear industry is an actual catastrophe-such as it almost gave us at Three Mile Island. . . . We do need a nuclear accident-a nice big one. Soon! Three Mile Island would have done nicely. . . probably no more than a hundred people would have died from the initial contact with the radioactive steam."
There's no reason to accept the good professor's estimate on deaths, but that he apparently thought these people would be expendable is certainly revealing of his mind-set.
Similarly, after the news broke that researchers at Brigham Young University might have discovered a way of producing cold fusion, with its promise of cheap. safe energy, the technophobes were aghast. "The worst thing that could happen to our planet," commented Jeremy Rifkin.
And (Gregg) Easterbrook (of the Wall Street Journal) writes of the sad tale of John Todd, an environmental biologist who became concerned that modern sewage treatment systems were ecological failures because they produced toxic sludge.
It occurred to him to mix the sludge with microbes that naturally metabolize toxics. A trial run in Providence, Rhode Island, worked beautifully. "So are environmentalists happy about this breakthrough?" asked Easterbrook. "No, they're furious. Todd says some of his old friends no longer speak to him: By discovering a solution to a man-made offense, he takes away an argument against growth."
Such mindless fear of progress and technology eventually has to provoke reactions among the more thoughtful environmentalists. Such was the case in 1977, when environmentalists led by Rifkin were involved in a spirited fight against recombinant-DNA genetic engineering.
Environmentalist literature began to bristle with stories about supergerms, environmental disasters, and breakdowns of world ecosystems. Groups including the NRDC and Friends of the Earth threatened to sue the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to block federally funded research, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) fought it as well' Books appeared with names like Biohazard, Playing God, and Genetic Politics.
Late in 1977, Lewis Thomas, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York, resigned his long-standing position as a member of Friends of the Earth's advisory council, saying: "I am in flat disagreement on straightforward scientific grounds with the rigid position taken by their organization."
Weeks later, Rend Dubos, a founder of the NRDC, stunned the organization by resigning the position of trustee he had held for ten years. Dubos, whose name was on the letterhead used in NRDC correspondence on the genetic engineering issue, informed HEW in an angry letter: "I had no idea that NRDC was involved in the recombinant-DNA problem, for which it has no competence. . . . Failure on the part of the NRDC to communicate with me . . . reveals either an irresponsible lack of familiarity with the literature in this field, or an intellectual dishonesty in using my name for a cause that I regard as ridiculous."
The British novelist and physicist Charles P. (C. P.) Snow died in 1980, before most of the crises discussed in this book had arisen. But he well understood the nature worshipers, the technophobes, and the agrarian utopians. In this 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, he wrote of "literary intellectuals at one pole-at the other scientists . . . Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension."
Said Snow: "One truth is straightforward. Industrialization is the only hope of the poor. . . . It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don't matter all that much. It is all very well for one . . . to reject industrialization do a modern Walden, if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy. . . then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion.
But I don't respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose. In fact, we know what their choice would be. For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into factories as fast as the factories could take them."
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