Morning Belz, May 19
Anti-vax, anti-GMO and anti-nuclear, a modern trinity.
What do vaccines, genetically-modified crops and nuclear energy have in common? They’re all very useful — one could argue transformative — technologies that solve huge problems. But they face major public headwinds in the U.S. and in Europe, for reasons that have little to do with science.
I’d never considered the similarities between the three things until I listened to Yascha Mounk’s conversation with Mark Lynas this morning on the Good Fight podcast (abridged transcript here).
Lynas’s story is fascinating because he was an “eco-warrior” in the 1990s, an anarchist anti-capitalist who, according to the Guardian, would “pile into vans with gangs of up to 30 people and spend nights slashing GM crops with machetes.” He was an early force in the anti-GMO movement. Then, he had a change of heart. At a big conference in January 2013, he surprised many of his colleagues by saying he had been wrong all along.
“I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I'm also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment,” he said. “As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely."
About 40 minutes into the podcast, Lynas argues that anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-nuclear sentiment is pretty much all cut from the same cloth. Ding! These sentiments are psychological phenomena, not scientifically rigorous, and held mostly by people in positions of luxury in the West.
We cannot have 100 percent certainty that the COVID vaccines will have zero negative long-term effects, but that would run counter to the history of vaccines. Meanwhile, the vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna and AstroZeneca appear to be extremely effective, miracles of modern science. Yet France is one of the most anti-vaccine countries on earth. Vaccine skepticism is on the wane in the U.S., but 32 percent of Republicans still say they won’t get the jab. I’m not sure how tribal the opposition to vaccines is, but to the extent that it is, the tribe does not include many people over 65. Older Americans, who face real risk of death from COVID, do not have the luxury of anti-vaccine sentiment, and of course they are getting vaccinated. As of late last week, 84 percent of Americans over 65 had received at least one dose.
Genetically-modified crops, which hilariously remain mostly banned in Europe, have brought real benefits to humanity, including in the developing world. Genetic modification makes crops that are more nutritious, higher-yielding and less in need of pesticide. It allows cropland to be used more efficiently, which limits deforestation, and should be a key component of the human response to climate change. And major health groups, including the American Medical Association and World Health Organization, have concluded that genetically modified foods are safe for consumers.
Yet, the deep opposition to genetically-modified plants has won the public relations war.
“It’s too late now because most of the world has got this idea that GM crops are wrong in some way,” Lynas told Mounk. “And the opposition is — you used the word ‘moral’ — it is moral. It is not about a risk-benefit analysis. It’s as if it’s sacrilegious to do what scientists are doing with GM crops, and the level of moral opposition is therefore absolute.”
Ask a conventional U.S. farmer about this in a sympathetic way, and you will make a friend for life.
And finally, there’s nuclear energy. It’s the obvious, most efficient way to free ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels for generating electricity. Yes, of course, renewable energy is also a big part of the solution and will continue to be, especially solar and wind. But the ecological impact of a nuclear power plant is so much smaller than the impact of a field of solar arrays or windmills that can cover hundreds of acres. Nuclear fission can power a whole city on a much smaller footprint.
The opposition to nuclear is largely built on perception. Chernobyl. Fukushima. Scary episodes. Netflix historical dramas. But as Lynas points out, the number of deaths per kilowatt for nuclear is the lowest among power generation methods. Even solar is slightly more dangerous, he said, because people slip from roofs and die when they’re installing panels.
No deaths were caused by acute radiation syndrome in Fukushima, though the evacuation of the surrounding area did cause dozens of people to die for unrelated medical reasons. Chernobyl’s death toll is a matter of considerable debate. The internationally-recognized number of direct deaths was 31, though many thousands more likely died before their time as a result of radiation. In any case, it was obviously a massive disaster, and one that can and should be avoided in the future.
And yet despite all the attention on climate change, the U.S. is building exactly one nuclear power plant, in Georgia, near Augusta. It’s the first in three decades and was 92% complete as of April.
China, India and Russia are building many more, with about 50 nuclear power plants under construction globally.
Germany, that bastion of science and progress, is in the process of decommissioning all its nuclear power plants. France has one coming online in 2023. The United Kingdom has two coming online in 2026 and 2027. The rest of Western Europe is staying away from nuclear energy for now.
Anyway, the U.S. and Europe are weird. We say we like science, but in a lot of ways we really don’t. Have a great day.
“The two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom. We may go further, and say that (to) the degree in which we are fortunate enough to get away from the one, we approach the other. Life presents, in fact, a more or less violent oscillation between the two.” — Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851
About: I send this email most weekdays in an effort to stay informed and in touch.I was a newspaper reporter for 14 years, most recently at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I explained why my family left Minneapolis here. Now we live just outside Chattanooga and I work on Scuffed News. Please share this newsletter with anyone you think might enjoy it. And please consider supporting this work with your money on Patreon.