Since one of the infrequent commenters here actually asked, I dug up what I wrote about Prince Charles (One of Time’s Heroes of the Environment) in Newsweek International, June 14th 1999. It’s basically just another example of my tedious banging on on the subject of “nature”, but still current, in that I don’t think my views on this aspect of the subject have changed much in the intervening eight years.
Getting Nostalgic About ‘Nature’
In the debate over genetically modified crops, the question isn’t what’s natural–it’s what’s right. And that’s hard political work.
One of the few diverting aspects of Britain’s largely joyless European election campaign has been the Natural Law Party’s approach to the issues. Other parties say simply that a particular version of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe would be a rather good or bad thing–whatever. The Natural Law Party [now defunct, alas], on the other hand, promotes the values of Transcendental Meditation and yogic flying, an advanced form of the art which consists of flapping your knees while bouncing around in something like the lotus position. Apparently this has already lessened levels of violence in both Merseyside and the Middle East. The Natural Lawyers do, however, have one concrete political policy. The party wants a Europewide ban on all genetically modified crops.
In this, if in little else, the Natural Law Party is very much in the mainstream. The British public has taken against genetically modified crops in a big way. Activists uproot them and supermarkets attempt not to furnish their customers with them. This week the Prince of Wales–a landowner and organic farmer–came out against them for the umpteenth time, a piece of non-news that still managed to provoke headlines throughout the realm.
Europeans have in general been more skeptical about genetically modified crops than Americans, who have so far swallowed the idea, and the food, with relatively few qualms. And among the Europeans the Brits have been particularly adamant in their refusal to have any truck with such things. The recent history of British agricultural politics–the culling of millions of cows for fear that their increasing madness was spreading into the population at large–has left the public profoundly distrustful of unnatural tinkering in the food chain. The prince says that he wants us to reject all genetic modification and instead work with nature for the long-term benefit of humankind.
The problem with this desire is that nature has no interest at all in the long-term benefit of humankind. Nature has no interest in anything. And even if it did, mankind has been overriding nature routinely for millennia. That’s what agriculture is all about. A natural Britain would be a woodland that could feed only a few–when not covered by the glaciers of a natural ice age. Selective breeding–a subject royalty understands in its bones–removed nature from the farmyard long before the first endonucleases started to cut up the first artificial strands of DNA.
People like the prince use nature not biologically but nostalgically, to refer to a time when things were not so dashed artificial. This is the perennial window dressing of the reactionary, nature as an ideological prop for people whose notion of what is natural tends to include their own position in society. For the prince–doubtless considered by many, if not himself, as Britain’s natural sovereign–nature is part of our very souls, which is why we have an instinctive nervousness about tampering with it. His love for authentic British farming practices is thus part of his sense of what the nature of the British people is, an ideology of blood and the Soil Association.
It is no shock that a man whose own genes have a constitutional importance should worry about genes elsewhere. And some issues that the prince brings up are legitimate causes for concern. The effect of genetically altered organisms on the wider environment needs to be understood better than it is today. The idea that this technology may be controlled by very few companies is disturbing. It fuels widespread fear that genetic modification will serve only as a handmaiden to agribusiness, rather than producing higher-yielding crops to be distributed equitably among farmers in developing countries. But these are all arguments for getting the genetic modification of crops right, technically and politically: not for abandoning it as intrinsically immoral simply because it is unnatural.
The question is not what is natural. It is what is right. Reaching a judgment about that means balancing a lot of different issues and interests: the freedom a company should have to pursue profit within the law; the fear of harm to health or the environment; the altruistic wish to develop technologies that genuinely help developing nations; the self-interest that leads people to want cheaper or better food. Balancing these things is hard political work. But it is possible, and democracies have shown themselves in the long run to be pretty good at it. Democratic efforts to such ends, however, are not helped by a counterproductive nostalgia. Being unhelpful is not against the law, nor should it be. But the fact that Charles gets a platform on such matters purely because of the situation he was born into is still offensive. The bouncy-bottomed Natural Law Party may stand for a lot of tosh, but at least it stands for elections. That puts it one up on the prince.
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