6/22/2003

I had an interesting conversation Friday night with a chap who turned out to be a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Green Party. I have a curious love/hate relationship with the Greens. Prior to the mid-nineties, I might have described myself as fairly green. I'd voted for them once or twice. Then I started working at a place called the Glasgow Environment Centre, designing their newspaper and flyers and so forth on a part-time basis. That's when I stopped thinking of myself as a Green. Now, some of the people that came in there were seriously hardcore - people who lived in trees, literally; particularly people who lived on-site at a local park (Pollok) which had been granted generations before to the people of Glasgow in perpetuity. They were protesting - quite rightly, along with many local residents who previously hadn't had a political thought in their life - against the building of an enormous motorway right through the heart of this enormous swathe of natural woodland preserved along with surrounding parkland in the heart of the city.

However.

As I got to know some of these people better, I found strains of thought amongst them which I found at times incredible. While by no means suggesting that they were in any way genuinely representative of the majority of people who either worked for or supported the Green Party, it was pretty clear to me that at least several of them weren't too wild about having to deal with things like, say, democratic process, in order to achieve their aims. Most worrying was when one or two previously apparently quite rational Green activists suggested that one solution to the problem of the deforestation by people living in South America was to go there and kill as many of them as necessary until they stopped.

A little bit of background; the Environment Centre was explicitly a local government funded scheme with a heavy bias to employing people who hadn't worked in a while. When I started there, I'd been unemployed and miserable for a year. I still suffered bouts of extreme illness which meant I sometimes turned up at the office, then turned around and went back home. The illness is eczema, by the way. I've had it chronically since I was a baby, but have it much more under control these days. The Environment Centre was for me an enormously good thing, as I had a solid experience of working in an office-y environment (mind you, no suits; combats, t-shirts and bicycles were positively de rigeur.) I've barely been out of employment since my year there, and I still feel gratitude for the experience.

However, because it was funded by the government, and one of its primary functions was to produce a monthly newsletter for the people of Glasgow about environmental issues, they basically couldn't say anything which might contradict the local government's own stated policies, since this might well lead to the severing of funds to keep the place running. Hamstrung and tied, basically. Unfortunately, most of the heavily Green workers there had other ideas; to them, the local council was the enemy; the local council was responsible for the new Pollok road-building. Because of this, the editor of the newsletter continually produced copy which the controlling body of the Centre simply would not accept. Because of that, the monthly newsletter was functionally bi-annual while I was there, producing precisely two issues during my time.

I found I had a great deal of spare time on my hands.

Now, the people hired to work at the Environment Centre had a point. Clearly, part of the Centre's raison d'etre was so the local council could point at it and say how much they were helping generate environmental awareness for the city. The people producing the newsletter and their co-workers would rightly say their hands were tied, as to address any environmental issues meant addressing the blatant faults of the local council, and on and on, round and round in a circle.

So why do I not feel as much sympathy for my fellow co-workers at the Centre as I might?

Put it this way. One article I had to typeset, written by the editor, concerned his suggestions for improving the environment vis-a-vis cars and congestion. His suggestion - and I swear, he wasn't taking the piss - was to remove cars entirely from the whole city, and force everyone - and I mean everyone - to ride around on horseback. He further suggested stables for these horses, placed conveniently close to football stadiums.

Can you imagine sixty thousand people descending on Hampden or somewhere for an Old Firm match on horseback? Just exactly how much horseshit would that generate? And it's not like you can just park the things. And what about feeding them? How in the name of whatever do you get all that feed into the city?

Hmm, maybe .... by trucking it in??

It was about this point that I began to detect a certain contempt for other people not just on the part of this particular individual, but of many who passed through the Centre. Again, not a contempt shared by the majority, but enough so - along with many other incidents too numerous to mention - that made me reconsider describing myself as a Green.

So anyway, it was nice to have a civilised, reasonable conversation with a member of the Green Party and think that yes, David Icke really was an aberration. The conversation centred around GM foods. Now, I've got to tell you, as a science fiction writer, I'm fascinated by the whole idea. After all, we've been genetically modifying crops and livestock for as long as civilisation has existed. GM provides a shortcut to the same end, but without taking generations of breeding and slowly gathered knowledge. I'm aware of certain arguments against gm; whether or not such genetically modified crops can be kept separate from natural crops.

Personally, I tend towards a degree of shoulder-shrugging on this. If it can happen, it will happen. I shook my head when politicians used to come on television and say ways had to be found to prevent human beings from ever being cloned. Whether or not it happens to be right to do so is one thing; whether it happens regardless is another. This is how the world changes beyond recognition for some people as they get older; how you wake up an old person one day, in a world you possibly have trouble recognising. The world changes, and what was unacceptable a few years ago suddenly becomes acceptable. Like live sex on Big Brother, or gay Bishops being elected in the Anglican Church, or many other signs of the time now and throughtout history; things that some people simply can't tolerate because their world view won't allow them to. The same, I suspect, will happen with subjects like human cloning and the control of gm food. It might not be the best future by any means, but it'll still be the one our grandchildren will wake up in.

But one thing the guy said really stuck with me. It was something that simply hadn't occured to me at all: gm crops and their relationship to globalisation. He pointed me to a couple of websites which, he told me, threw an interesting light on precisely who benefits from the development of genetically modified crops.

Let me tell you, what I found scares the crap out of me. This following is from an article by George Monbiot, first published in The Guardian: follow the Monbiot link here to read it in full.

A brief excerpt: "The principal issue, perpetually and deliberately ignored by government, many scientists, most of the media and, needless to say, the questionnaire being used to test public opinion, is the corporate takeover of the foodchain. By patenting transferred genes and the technology associated with them, then buying up the competing seed merchants and seed breeding centres, the biotech companies can exert control over the crops at every stage of production and sale. Farmers are reduced to their sub-contracted agents. This has devastating implications for food security in the poor world: food is removed from local marketing networks, and therefore the mouths of local people, and gravitates instead towards sources of hard currency. This problem is compounded by the fact that (and this is another perpetually neglected issue) most of the acreage of GM crops is devoted to producing not food for humans, but feed for animals."

Make of that what you will, but again it brings up another, more general argument. We live in a modern civilised world entirely because of science and rational discourse. But to what degree do we have control over the research process? The money comes from those who can finance it, and that's almost always big business or governments, usually the two tied in together. It would be about this point that many of the Greens I met previously would suggest that science was responsible for what was wrong with our world, but I know you all out there reading this know better than that.

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