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How Technologies Go Bad: Nukes and Genetically-Modified Crops

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Somewhere between Ludditism and Blind Trust

Every technology has its unique promise and pitfalls.

It takes a Luddite to forever rule out safe and affordable nuclear power, but it takes blind trust to believe the industry and its experts when they say that day is nigh. Maybe one day fusion reactors will finally work, or advanced fission reactors will become error-proof, gobble up much of their own waste, and be so cheap that no one can refuse them. So I've heard, but judging from the industry's track record, I wouldn't bet on it.

Nuclear reactors should prove idiot-proof, madman-proof and greed-proof before further deployment. No, we don't make demands like that of other technologies, but other technologies have less potential to do great harm. Proponents want it the other way around; they'd build first and work out the details in ensuing "generations" of operating nuclear powerplants, a game of on-the-job roulette.

Fracking is a bad idea whatever its side effects. Frackers argue that substitution of natural gas for coal in electrical generation reduces carbon emissions from the powerplants. It's true, but if the energy companies get their way, and eventually we burn all the recoverable gas, oil and coal, then fracking will have added to cumulative carbon emissions by making a lot more gas and a little more oil recoverable.

Monsanto and other big actors in GM technology transfer a few traits to a wide array of crops. Ecologically, it's a bad approach. Through contractual arrangements and aggressive protection of patent rights they foster agriculture's reliance on a few varieties. One consequence is to increase monopoly power over agribusiness.

GM crops could fit into a sustainable agriculture free from monopolistic domination. Personally, I do not find them peculiarly frankensteinian (GM animals are another matter).

But the spread of allergens in GM crops and the spread of genes from crops to wild plants are real threats. Once again we are supposed to trust the experts and companies involved.

Once again, no.

While it is unscientific to assume every GM crop is a health threat, each and every one could be, and the burden of proof is on their owners. Trials need to be carried out over extended periods and by disinterested parties, requirements that are rarely met.

Say no to fracking. Demand oversight of GM crops by government agencies in full view of the public and with attention to long-term consequences. Require labeling of GM foods; if proponents have a good case, let them put it to the public instead of hiding. Demand a change in priorities in government support for energy alternatives, toward renewables. Back and practice energy conservation. Make the nuclear-power industry pay in full for the economic losses from accidents. If that policy bankrupts the TEPCOs out there, good.

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Dan Vasey is a home brewer and reformed academic, living in Australia and retired from teaching after stints in Colorado, Papua New Guinea and Iowa. An anthropologist and human ecologist, his research specialty has been population and agriculture. (more...)
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