Gazing the future
Recently, I (re)stumbled upon an article called "Environmental Heresies". A good and interesting read for sure, but, like with all these kind of articles, the author (futurologists, they are called, I believe) makes the same basic mistakes as all his predecessors. I'll give some rebuttal and criticism:
His first point, about slowing demographics, is not very much disputable: it is as it is, and if it's in decline, it's in decline. However, whether we will level out completely, or go down, or up again, is not as clear cut as he seems to portray. The author gives as main reason that people go to cities, but I think this explanation is inadequate, and certainly not enough to explain the changing demographics.
It should be noted, for instance, that, during the middle ages, the amount of children born in cities were no less then those on the countryside. What *did* change, though, is the empowerement of women (most notably in matters of procreation) and social and medical advancements. THOSE are the real reasons why demographics change. It also follows that, if, by some disaster or serious economic and scientific decline we would degrade into former levels of welfare and reduced possibility for women to control any family planning, demographics would go up again. It is therefor not an absolute certitude that the world-demographics will continue to decline...this is only true as an extrapolation, if everything remains more or less the same. However, it is exactly the danger of this sort of extrapolation that the author is (also) lamenting against.
As for genetically modified (GM) crops, I fear he really simplifies the subject too much to be useful in making a rational decision about the pro's and cons. Basically, he over-optimistically only conveys the pros, while barely mentionning any of the cons - as if they were unimportant.
It should be noted however, that with living organisms, you can not simply test it out in the wild, and then expect to be able to put the genie back in the bottle when things go wrong. Once you contaminated a natural area, and the contamination has a sufficiently advantage (in a darwinistic sense) to stay around in the genepool, there is no way in hell you can get rid of it completely, when it turns out it is damaging humans, or other species and ecological systems.
Now, his counterargument that those won't survive in the wild seems rather weak. In effect, some GM genes *already* have contaminated other 'wild' crops, and it didn't sizzle out in the wild, on the contrary (a prominent example of that are some strains of GM corn in south-america). So... it may be that some GMs will not survive in the wild, but you can bet some *will*, however. And he, nor anyone else, can garantuee that such GM or hybrid crops can't be damaging or unhealthy to the ecosystem or local species, including humans.
Also, the reductionistic view of "we're not doing anything else then what people have been doing for centuries" is somewhat misleading too. Yes, people have been breeding crops, and cultivated crops are not 'natural' in the sense that they occur in the wild...but it's an unfair analogy, because one is comparing oranges with apples. For instance, with GM, it is perfectly possible to make genemodifications between two completely different species of plants. In effect, this trans-species swapping of genes with GM, can be done between animals and plants. In all those centuries that "we have always done this" I would like to see any example where this has actually been done before.
No; this is a totally new technique, with new possibilities, certainly, but also new consequences (which we don't know anything about) and new dangers. You can't just shrug those of with claiming, falsely, that we've been using those techniques for millenia. And you can't just merrily test it out in the wild, and see if anything happens.
Apart from that, even purely economically, I doubt it has all those beneficial effects the author claims it has or will have - but more about that at the end.
About his weather and nuclear fission chapter... well, I agree with that part, mostly. I do think the greens are just dead wrong in their crusification of nuclear power. Sure, as the author says, it has problems of its own, but those are really minute compared to the far larger and imminent (and worldwide) threat of global warming (ok, I know, there is debate about that too, but I think not many will actually dispute humans HAVE an effect on the climate, though the extend may not be as clear cut). Fine if you shut those reactors down, IF YOU HAVE A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE - but, wishful thinking aside, there currently is *none*. The author correctly points out, that, even if you combine all other alternatives together, you still will only have a fraction of the energy-production needed. Thus, logic dictates that you continue to use nuclear fission, until those alternatives can actually completely replace them (which is doubtful, and in some countries outright impossible), or a new energy-source can replace it (like nuclear fusion reactors).
In any case, the problem of 'global warming' forces us to make choices, and I'd prefer the new, inherently safer NG reactors with their very limited risks and their total lack of CO2, then 'buying clean air' (which doesn't make the air cleaner) or dreaming about alternative energies that can never, pragmatically, provide the energy needed. And it certainly beats the ONLY other viable option: to mass build classic energy-facilities, which use coal or petrol and would constitute an enormous increase in CO2 and extra global warming.
So, in conclusion; the author is fully right about some things, but a bit too simplistic (and, perhaps, biased) in other points. The nuclear/weather point is, indeed, logical. The world-demographics is correct, though there is a need for caution as to determine what is the cause, and if simple extrapolation is enough to make a conclusion. As for the GM-crops, I fear he is a bit misguided himself; this is obvious by the naive assumption of how much 'good' GM-crops will do - which is, I suspect, derived from an overly (and typical USA) optimistic viewpoint on capitalism, which I don't share.
GM-corporations do not care about worldhunger, nor about the living quality of poor farmers in third (or first, for that matter) worldcountries. What matters to them is maximising profit for their shareholders. In the authors' view, this is fully compatible with eachother, but I rather think that, in the end, you can't have both: if it's really about maximising profit, then it is about holding control of the market, and if it's about control, then it's not about the freedoms and abilities and rights of the farmer. This already can be seen by the fact many GM corporations have forbidden the 'seeds-keeping' right of farmers (=the right to keep seeds of one season to use for planting next year). It's an age-old right, giving farmers some independence - but if it were up to GM corps, it would be abolished as soon as possible, so farmers become fully dependent on THEIR seeds. Or they would create plants that don't have seeds anymore, like a lot of GM corps have already done.
No, rest assured, GM foods are not going to solve worldhunger (which is primarily a matter of distribution, not production; there currently *is* already an overproduction in the West of many foods, after all!), nor liberate farmers, on the contrary. Prime examples can be seen at http://www.percyschmeiser.com/... and http://www.percyschmeiser.com/....
This is apart from the equally fundamental objection that I raised earlier, namely that one can not rule out the possibility of (damaging) GM effects that DO survive and thrive in the wild...and which can't be put back into the bottle once released. I doubt many people would be happy if some corp said: "we've got a whole bunch of genetically modified but potentially beneficial viruses and microbes; let's bring them out in the wild!" There, the dangers are obvious to everyone - but with plants, they fail to realise that it is the same dangerous principle.
I leave it up to the readers to determine the worth of my criticism, but at least I think I made some valid points. Indeed, not only historical analysis, but also gazing the future should always been done while using critical glasses.