Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

GMOs: How The Greens Went Anti-Science

Me in the maize (from a recent Newsnight)
For environmental campaigners, it's often our victories we have to apologise for, rather than our defeats.

Greenpeace has never, as far as I'm aware, had to explain its attempt in 1995 to stop the M65 motorway being built by sending a rainbow coloured digger to disrupt the construction work.

However it is still apologising for the mistake by its PR team - actually a guy called Hans with a radio - sending out a wrong estimate of the amount of oil on the Brent Spar, a claim almost nobody printed.

That's because whilst the M65 was eventually built and still spans Stanworth Valley, the Brent Spar wasn't dumped at sea but was towed back to port to be eventually sawn up into giant hula hoops after a humiliating climbdown by Shell that instead helped sink John Major's government.

Similarly if those of us who'd campaigned against Genetically Modified Organisms had failed miserably we'd now be totally forgotten.

Instead we won and the clip of me being nicked is still being used by the BBC to illustrate every news item it ever runs on GMOs. Even my mum is tired of seeing it.

As a result we've been accused of causing mass starvation in the Third World and compared to Climate Change deniers and those who dispute the link between HIV and AIDS.

Things came to a head in May this year with the Take Back The Flour action against a field of wheat Genetically Modified to ward off pests with its a pheromone laden pong. The protesters were fewer in number and easily held back by the security, whilst a phalanx of scientists with laptops were on hand to push the independence of their science. So has the anti-GMO campaign finally hit the buffers?

It's a long time ago now, but I remember being quite amazed at how the whole thing panned out. I was at Liverpool docks in February 1996 when Greenpeace targeted the first shipload of GM soya coming into the country. We carried out a public engagement at a nearby supermarket and the usual question was "what's a GMO when it's at home like?" - and that was from the local group volunteers.

A couple of years later, when Greenpeace had moved on to trying to stop oil drilling in the Atlantic Frontier - a campaign that failed miserably thanks to a spy in the German office telling BP their plans - I started to hear story from from friends in Earth First! that their anti-GMO supermarket actions were getting good public support.

This was remarkable news. EF! had a healthy disregard for PR so anyone caught up in one of its actions usually had absolutely no idea what was going on. Never-the-less some shoppers, caught up in the chaos as EF! activists jammed the checkouts with trolley loads of potentially GM contaminated food which they refused to pay for, had expressed an interest in what it was all about.

This was only a few short years since John Gummer has failed to persuade his daughter to eat a potentially BSE contaminated beef burger and had so sparked a massive food scare. In the end this was a lucky escape as the death toll looks like being in the low hundred, rather than the hundreds of thousands that was once feared.

The country was ripe for another good food scare, and all that was needed was a right leaning tabloid to steam in with some nonsense about Frankenfoods and we were away. Not that we can blame the Daily Mail entirely for eclipsing serious campaigning with Mad Scientists and so on, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth jumped on the band wagon too.

All this meant that by the time Lord Melchett and the rest of us steamed into the field of T20 maize in July 1999 it was all over bar the shouting.

And you can see why the scientists were spooked. From their point of view a bunch of technophobes had teamed up with the forces of reaction and progress had been stopped in its tracks.

What the Daily Mail's agenda was I don't know, but whilst most environmentalists have mixed views of technology, we don't generally hate science. When the ice caps melt and or the oil tanker sinks, its to the science that we look to measure the problem.

So what were we doing helping a right wing rag scare the Great British public?

There was a time that you could find almost as many reasons to oppose GMOs as there were groups opposing them. Indeed it seemed if we could only eradicate these pesky plants we'd have paradise on earth.

For some this was about corporate control of the food chain. Having one giant company controlling every stage of food production seemed like the sort of protectionism Adam Smith was supposed to have saved us from, but funnily enough it was only anti-capitalists who were telling people this.

Then and there were those concerned about the developing world who saw GMOs as the Green Revolution Part Two.

Both these views are valid, but in a sense the actual technology was of only minor relevance to the argument. Certainly it was hard to see how a University loosing its trial crop of blight-resistant spuds in the night was going to seriously impede global capitalism.

For others though, including me, it was a sudden realisation that most of or countryside was not disappearing under roads or airports, but under monolithic fields of intensively grown crops. The destruction caused by a road might be rather more obvious, but the battery of chemical weaponry deployed by the modern farmer could be just as damaging. Most of the GM crops that were due to be planted were resistant to a broad spectrum herbicide, meaning it killed everything that wasn't genetically modified to resist it.

There were concerns that these artificially introduced traits could escape into the wild either by the esoteric method of horizontal gene transfer, or just by cross pollinating related species. These superweeds now seem to have arrived.

However whilst that is a problem of GMOs going wrong, the problem of them going right may well be worse.

Monsanto claimed that the new crops introduced the concept of 'Total Weed Control'. Farmers might like the idea, but wildlife wasn't too keen.

If Organic farming is what we want and conventional farming a step too far, then GMOs were two steps too far. 'Green Concrete' was my favourite phrase about GMOs, but it just didn't have the same appeal as 'Frankenfoods'.

The problem with all these issues though is that to get any traction, they required people to think of someone, or something, other than themselves. Not very easy in the consumerist nineties.

So we took the line of least resistance and spun an anti-science, food scare story.

Was it worth it?

Well it now seems that sixteen years of growing GMOs in the USA has increased, rather than decreased, the amount of herbicides and pesticides being sprayed on the fields.

On the other hand nobody has actually been shown to have died from eating a GMO, so a cynic might say that both sides were wrong and that GMOs have proved to be neither dangerous nor useful.

The answer is surely that the technology that allows us to transplant genes, that is now so simple you can pretty much do it yourself in your bedroom, is essentially neutral, and its what we use it for and why that counts.

Pretty obvious really, but it seems to have been forgotten.

Winning a campaign is important. If you don't it's just gesture politics. But victory can't come at any cost. What you say has to mean something and you are still accountable for your words. More importantly what you say needs to be consistent.

You can't tell the public to trust the science on Climate Change, but not on GMOs. You can't complain that the technology is in the grip of the evil multi-nationals and then attack independent scientists when they do the work instead.

So I don't regret my actions with Greenpeace; it's good ridence to T20 maize and its like, but I do regret some of the words we used. GM tampons could give you toxic shock - did I really say that? (I can't actually remember if I did - but it was in the script for the Greenpeace supermarket tours I used to lead.)

However there may have been another angle on GMOs that we should have used, but totally failed to spot.

Peak Oil is the end of cheap oil. People usually imagine that it will mean more expensive fuel and fewer cheap holidays, but that may be missing the main point.

The way our food gets to our plate depends at every stage on cheap oil. From the manufacture of the herbicides and fertiliser, to the red diesel in the tractors to the fuel that ships the end result up and down the motorway network. Peak oil will change the game completely.

The alternative to GMOs that campaigners plugged was Organic farming. It might not make you (much) healthier and you might not be bothered about whether its better for the birds and bees, but when the cheap oil runs out at least your organic veg box will still turn up.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Great Trees of England: #2 The 'Robin Hood' Sycamore

Next its time to meet a film star tree.

Landing at the White Cliffs of Dover on his return from the Crusades, Robin Hood's promise to be in Sherwood Forest by nightfall seemed a little rash, but when we next see him at Hadrian's Wall you wonder if the sun really has addled his brains.

This being Kevin Costner in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves though strict historical and geographical accuracy was no more expected than a charismatic performance from the male lead. we are in a Hollywood version of England that is the size of a football pitch and where we're is in the Middle Ages whilst Scotland is apparently in the Stone Age.

Snufkin was here!
Known ever since as the Robin Hood sycamore, the tree that Costner pauses by stands on one of the most spectacular sections of the wall, between Walltown and Housesteads. Here the wall runs along Whin Sill, the great slab of granite that runs across the north of England. It over the edge of Win Sill that the great waterfalls High Force and Cauldron Snout run, and it is an outcrop of Whin Sill granite that Bamburgh Castle is built, and where it runs into the North Sea it gives us Lindesfarne Island.

It was fairly obvious that the Romans were going to use the Sill as the basis of their great wall, and whilst in summer the views are terrific, yo don't envy the guys who had to patrol in winter. The Syrian archer unit they sent here must have thought they'd died and gone to Hades.

If the weather is kind visiting the tree is a pleasant enough walk though from either the Roman Army Museum or Housesteads fort.

Reenactor from Comitatus with draco
A milecastle, known as Castle Nick, sits about 50 yards west of the Sycamore. On the, probably rare occassions, the garrison dragged itself away from the fire and looked north to the lands beyond the 'civilising' influence of Rome they would have seen the lowlands owned by Rome's allies the Votadini tribe. This area north of the wall was probably patrolled by Roman cavalry, which leads me to a bit of speculation.

We know the Romans posted cavalry from Sarmatia up here, probably based at Ribchester in Lancashire. The Sarmatians were fierce nomads from what is now the Ukraine. Their battle standard was the Draco, effectively a wind sock in the shape of a dragon.

You imagine this might have made a bit of an impression on the locals, and it's interesting to find that according to Welsh legend Cunedda, the founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, came from the tribe of the Gododdin, who were living in Votadini territory after the Romans had left and may be the same people.

It is Cunedda's great great great great great grandson, Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon who was supposed to have first flown the modern Flag of Wales later adopted by Henry Tudor. Dragons, red or any other colour, don't really have much of precedent in Celtic lore, so the question is always where it came from, so maybe Cunedda brought the Draco with him when he emigrated from Northumbria.

There are other mechanisms by which Roman dragons could have reached Wales, but as someone from  the Red Rose county I like the idea of the Welsh flag coming via Lancashire.

Age of Arthur post holes at Birdoswald Fort
The other bit of speculation about the Sarmatians is that they were once led by a chap called Lucius Artorius Castus. He was real enough, although we don't know for sure that he came to Britain, but it's an interesting thought that a fellow called Arthur could be leading armoured cavalry on various adventures around what would later become England in the second or third century CE, especially as the Sarmatians have plenty of stories about swords sticking out of the ground and being chucked into water and so on.

This isn't the only possible connection between Arthur and Hadrian's Wall. The fort now known as Birdoswold, where clear evidence of use in the post-Roman period has been dug up, was really called Camboglanna. This may conceivably have evolved from Camglann, which isn't a million miles away from Camlan, the site of Arthur's last battle. Further west at Burgh-by-Sands the fort of Aballava had, by the sixth century, become Avalana in the local lingo.

This has all been thrown together in the 2004 film King Arthur, staring Clive Owen as Art and Keira Knightly as a rather frail Celtic warrior-woman Guinevere. This probably no more geographically or historically accurate than Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but it does at least help old Arthur escape from Glastonbury.

Arthur or not, this part of the world is Hen Ogledd, the old Welsh speaking north. The sycamore is too recent an import to our ecology to feature in this culture, and is perhaps just a visitor to this place like me. It certainly an elemental spot, dominated by sky, wind, rain and earth, in which visitors such as the Romans seem to have left but the faintest of impressions and our own modern world almost none. It is these thoughts, not second rate Hollywood movies, that fill my imagination as I say goodbye to this tree.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Worst of Bond

So it's half a century since 007 appeared on the silver screen.

Fifty years, twenty two films and not a single Oscar. Not a great record really for a British icon. I suspect if the Carry On team had made it through fifty years even they might have won something.

I enjoyed the Bond books. I liked the concise Chandleresque style, the celebration of gluttony and alcoholism and the chance to get inside the mind of the sort of right wing nutter I usually only meet on the Guardian's Comment is Free section.

I even liked John Gardner's books, which started off not knowing if they were a sequel to the books or the films and were at first a pastiche of both before developing a quirky style of their own.

As for the films though? I remember happily watching Goldfinger every Christmas when I was young, I remember thinking From Russia With Love was surprisingly good when I rewatched it recently, I may be the only person in the galaxy who thinks On Her Majesty's Secret Service is good in part because of George Lazanby and not just despite him, I enjoyed the Daniel Craig reboot and thought Skyfall was a very good Judi Dench movie. But the rest of them? So so.

Various nominations for the best of Bond are flying around at the moment, but what about the worst of Bond? Here are my nominations.

Worst Car Chase - Dr No 

You can usually rely on some four wheeled action in a Bond.

Who can forget Goldeneye with Famke Janssen in her attractive Ferrari 355 taking on Pierce Brosnan in his Aston Martin DB5? Or Never Say Never Again with Barbara Carrera in her sexy Renault 5 Turbo being chased by an fifty-something Sean Connery riding a motorbike in a toupe?

But when it all began in Doctor No the budget didn't quite run to that sort of thing. So here we have a rather tragic back projection, with the inevitable tire squeal even though this is a gravel road, cars going over the same bit of road twice and the one that goes over the cliff at the end is not the one that started the chase. But worst of all we have Mr Bond, in his sports car, being menaced by a hearse.

Yes, a hearse.

Oh dear.

Worst Joke - Goldfinger

Connery's Bond was known for his wit. Really though this was just metaphors taken literally, such as, to a man shot by a spear gun, "he got the point". To a man electrocuted in a bath, "shocking" and so on.

Bond was also a bit of a snob then as well. In From Russia With Love he had Robert Shaw, one of the best Bond villains ever, bumped off after he revealed himself to be a SMERSH agent by ordering red wine with fish. Actually a lot of red wines go well with fish, but clearly it's not the done thing in the Secret Service.

In Goldfinger Bond decides to try to combine wit with snobbery when he comes out with "My dear girl there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs". 

Bond appeared in the movies pretty much the same week the Beatles appeared on the air waves.

Both are sixties icons, but only one is cool.

Worst Fight - You Only Live Twice

Over the years Bond has fought Her Majesty's enemies with a wide variety of weapons; rifles, pistols, machine guns, knives and a sofa.

Yes, a sofa.

Roald Dahls's script for You Only Live Twice, the first film where they ditched Fleming's book entirely, is pretty much the archetypal Bond film. Travel to an exotic location, superpower confrontation, lots of seemingly random violence, some (implied) sex and a showdown with the supervillain in his preposterous secret base. Indeed you can argue they've been remaking the film over and over again for the last 45 years.

Since then nobody has beaten the Nehru suited Donald Pleasance as a Bond baddie, but 007 has at least found more dangerous weapons to use.

Worst Outfit - The Spy Who Loved Me

If the image of Bond in the sixties is Sean Connery in a dinner jacket, for the seventies it has to be Roger Moore in a Safari suit.

Before I go any further though I should add that it is the decade that is at fault here, not Mr Moore, who had been quite dapper himself in the sixties when he played The Saint.

Of all the fashion disasters he was forced to endure though, the prize goes to the yellow ski suit in this film. It even has flares.

The real thing is perhaps not as bad as the Action Man version, and Bond does at least accessorise well with rocket firing ski sticks and the Union Jack parachute, but it is a Grade A seventies fashion crime.

The ski jump is good, I'll admit, and all the more impressive for being done without CGI, but the rest of the film is the familiar story of exotic location, superpower confrontation, lots of seemingly random violence, some (implied) sex and a showdown with the supervillain in his preposterous secret base - in this case a ship.

The Bond franchise itself was tanking by this point and with a ludicrous sub-Star Wars space battle in Moonraker the series really did Jump The Shark. Moore carried on even though he was clearly too old to be seducing anyone without a bus pass, until eventually put out to grass, with his Safari suits, in the nineties.

Worst Car - Tomorrow Never Dies

Bond of course always had the cars. The Aston Martin DB5 with the machine guns is justly famous. The Lotus Esprit submarine justly less famous. I mean, a Lotus that goes underwater? Come on. Most can't even keep out the rain.

However by the nineteen nineties we had a corporate Bond for a corporate age in Pierce Brosman, and guys in suits had realised there was money to be made in product placement. Out went venerable British machines, and in came whoever would pay the most money, in this case BMW.

But which Beamers would he take. The 320is that had recently won the British Touring Car Championship? No. The 'repmobile racer' the M5? Nope.

Instead they went for the 750il, the one that accountants drive.

Whilst it's amusing to think of 007 fuming at side junctions 'cos nobody would let him out, this isn't really the hard living image Ian Fleming did so much to popularise (and practise). This really was Bond plc and the rest of the film is just as dull, nothing but exotic locations, superpower confrontation, lots of seemingly random violence, some (implied) sex and a showdown with the supervillain in his preposterous secret base - in this case a ship.

(If you liked this, why not read my other blog on crime fighting cars of the sixties and seventies.)

Monday, 1 October 2012

Green Water Navy

Trouble Over Oily Waters

One hundred years ago this year Winston Churchill made a momentous decision. The world's greatest navy was to stop running on Welsh coal and go over to Persian oil. If you want a date in which the world entered the Oil Age, this is it.

There were sound technical reasons for doing this - more power, less smoke and less shovelling being the main ones - but a lot of people still thought he was mad. The British Empire at that time covered a quarter of the globe, but mostly this was the quarter with no oil in it. Before the Navy could defend the country, it would now have to defend its own fuel supplies.

The critics may have had a point, as two years later a British and Indian army invaded Iraq to safeguard its fuel, suffering a disaster at a place called Kut in the process. We invaded again in 1941 and embarked on ‘regime change’ in Iran in the same year. We then handed the title of Top Nation to the USA and they did a bit of regime change of their own in 1952.

They also launched an invasion in 1979 that was disrupted by the weather and ended in a massive helicopter pile-up in the desert, whilst Iraq has subsequently been invaded not once but twice.

That's quite a lot of blood for quite a lot of oil. Our politicians don’t seem to see a problem with this, but the greatest navy in the world has other ideas and this summer the mighty USS Nimitz led a task force on manoeuvres near Hawaii where the ships and aircraft used a 50:50 mix of conventional and biofuels. 

In The Navy

Now the USS Nimitz is an aircraft carrier I’ve actually heard of, as in 1980 it was sucked through a time warp back to 1941 – unless that was just a film.

It was also the subject of a reality TV series in 2008 in which we discovered she has a Wiccan coven on board. Not that this is a big surprise as the US military is pretty pagan-friendly these days. You can have ‘Wiccan’ on your dog tags and, if you don’t make it home, a pentacle on your gravestone. 

Since last year they are also gay-friendly, and now they’re growing their own fuel some may be thinking they’ve turned into a bunch of floating hippies. Further evidence of this is the case of the USS Acadia that had to return home from Gulf War I as thirty six of the crew were pregnant, gaining itself the inevitable nickname of ‘The Love Boat’.

However the Navy still drops bombs, fires missiles, lands marines, launches fighter planes and engages in various other non-fluffy activities. And that’s the point of the Great Green Fleet experiment as, apart from a few nuclear powered vessels, all of this requires oil.


Biofuels are carbon neutral, meaning the carbon dioxide they release when burnt is balanced by the carbon dioxide the crops they were made from used whilst growing. However they don’t have a totally unblemished record. 

First there was the ‘splash and dash’ racket, whereby small quantities of oil from crops was added to ordinary petrol in order to qualify for the lucrative US government subsidy. 

Then some uncomfortable truths were found about the palm oil that was being used to make biofuels. Grown on cleared rainforests or swamps, which are massive carbon sinks, palm oil was actually responsible for more greenhouse gases than ordinary oil.

Finally there is the problem that agricultural land is finite. As well as preventing climate change we do also have to feed seven billion human beings. Fertiliser production itself produces masses of carbon dioxide, so we really want to use as little as possible which means less intensive, not more intensive, food production. We may not have land spare for growing food.

However, despite these rather serious problems, if you want to run a jet fighter without damaging the climate or having to invade Middle Eastern countries, biofuels may well be your only option.

End of the Oil Age?

This has not been popular with a Congress awash with oil money, even though US politicians like to boast about “supporting the troops”. However the Navy is sticking to its guns and claims the exercises have been a success and is planning a permanent Green Fleet by 2016. 

The US Army too, fed up of having to guard its oil tankers from insurgents, is to launch a program of experimental fuel cells, electric and hybrid tanks.

Churchill got some stick in 1912 too, but his oil powered navy went on to win two World Wars.  His decision also turned out to be a landmark in history, a point where the Coal Age ended and the Oil Age began. Whether the voyage of the Great Green Fleet will in years to come be regarded as the moment the Oil Age ended is for future historians to decide.