At the end of the world, there is plenty to do.

“Well, should we just give up then?”

If only I had a dollar for every time I have heard this, always from well-meaning people.Well, if I had a dollar for each time, I would be drinking Laphroaig right now, with many more bottles in the cellar. It is all too common if you talk about climate change, constraints on energy and mineral resources, or the erosion of social cohesion in our complex and overpopulated world. In other words, it is common if you insist on bringing reality into the conversation.

Our faith that progress is an arrow pointed ever upwards is a hard one to let go of—and we think of our save-the-planet work the same way—ever upwards, the best it has ever been, unquestionable.

But I say if what you are doing doesn’t work, it may be that you don’t need to do it Bigger! Faster! and Harder!

Maybe it just doesn’t work.Blasphemy.
Maybe we need to do something different.

So the next response, “You want us to live in caves.” Obviously. Because different equals caves.

I don’t want to live in a cave. In fact, I want to live in a Jetsonian future in which our wondrous technology has liberated us from work while eliminating environmental impact, allowing us to truly find our place in the ecosphere alongside the splendiferous flora and fauna from tiny to titanic. I could be free to pursue something I am actually good at, like designing things.

But if you can stick with reality long enough, you start to realize that living in caves is a plausible, if undesirable outcome, whereas the likelihood of a Jetsonian utopia is that small speck you see disappearing over the horizon.

To review, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for millions of years, and we are well past the Paris Agreement target of 350 parts per million. Anybody who can bear to look at a chart of the global energy mix can see that renewables are not going to replace fossil fuels, even if we do have the resources, energy and social will to divert significant portions of our focus to windmills and solar panels. Which we don’t.

Add on to this an evergrowing population, many of whom are quite rightly pissed off at the level of exploitation their people and resources have experienced. They would like a piece of the pie, and are getting more aggressive about taking it.

Meanwhile, perhaps thanks to climate chaos, the breadbaskets of agriculture are facing persistent drought, while simultaneously being constrained by suburbia.

Our fragmentation of the biosphere is doing plants and animals no good as extinction rates are reaching asteroid-impact levels.


Living in a cave starts to seem like a pretty reasonable response. So should we just give up, then?

No. Giving up is not reasonable. But my father quotes an old hippie saying, “When what you’re doing isn’t working, try anything else.”

And I agree, though I think we can narrow “anything” down quite a bit.

There are three practical things I always suggest—walkable communities, well-insulated homes, and local food.

Our future is going to be much less fossil-fueled, either because we actually choose to stop killing ourselves with oil, or because the disruptions to the ecosphere—the primary source of wealth—finally impact the economy so drastically that we end up in a Greatest Recession. Either way, that is going to mean colder homes and fewer cars.

This will also impact the ridiculously energy-intensive industrialized agriculture system we have now, with huge satellite-controlled tractors, trucks, planes, and climate-controlled storage warehouses.


To those three practical things I would add a fourth activity, less palatable for the solutions-oriented crowd—grieving.

Grieving is a skill we have ostracized in North America, and yet there may be no skill that will be in more demand. Foreshadowed by the images coming from drought-torn Syria, the famine building in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, or by nations slowly disappearing beneath rising sea level, we will see a lot of death and loss.

Extreme weather is becoming more common even here in North America, with events that already sound positively apocalyptic. Again, people will die. Homes and memories will be lost, livelihoods destroyed.

And that is just if it doesn’t get any worse.

Despite our best attempts to banish unpleasantness we actually do have faint memories of how to grieve for those people and places we love. I think the worst pain we may face will be from our loss of progress, our loss of the promise that the future will keep getting better.

There is no brighter future.Given current events, that link, from 2010, is really worth a read.

It is enough to make you wonder if you have done anything worthwhile with your life; and that question does not feel good for anybody.

Anyhow, there is plenty to do, and none of it requires living in caves.


There is one more consideration I would like to ask you to keep in the front of your mind. We don’t have a lot of time, and we have fewer resources.

It would be really great if we didn’t waste them. 

So, I like to think about failure. There is an example I heard once—it was a joke actually, from a time when internet memes were shared as email footers.

It said, “When an escalator breaks down, you still have stairs.”

An escalator is failsafe; it fails-safe. It fails-useful.

Compare this to an elevator. An elevator fails-dangerous—it is useless, maybe even a deathtrap.

As we become ever more frantic to fix the predicamentsProblems have solutions—fixes. But predicaments must simply be endured. we have created, we will grasp on ever more wild-eyed schemes.

So how will they fail?


The failure of one small farm among thousands is not severe, whereas the failure of GMO crops could impact millions of tonnes of food. The whizbang vertical farms will pour millions of dollars down the drain when they fail. Globalized food systems require multiple systems to not fail—finance, legal, shipping, maybe refrigeration.

An elevator becomes a useless box. But without an elevator, our glittering towers also become useless boxes since few people can climb above four or five floors. Imagine a time of cascading failure, and think of all the concrete, steel and glass wasting away in the sky. Think of all the carbon embedded in all that material, all of the lives spent building these sparkling follies.

As failures cascade, we will weep to see our electric cars immobilized, the asphalt cracking from age on roads travelled mostly by people walking and riding bikes. So much steel, so much aluminum. So many batteries and computer chips. The breakdown of our Space Age fantasy of electric cars will strand incredible assets and waste the embedded energy and labour.

Yet a walkable community remains walkable.

If the heater in a super-insulated house fails, you are still warm.

When your bean crop withers, step to the next row and console yourself with a fresh carrot.


Maybe I will offer one more bit of advice for our sunset years. Again, not mine, but not an email footer either. It comes from my friend J.B. MacKinnon, who counselled me, “Drink enough Scotch, but not too much.”




  1. One wonders whether there are any Behavioral Change Specialists about these parts. I suppose such a person to be particularly busy these days, what with all the behaviors in the world that could do with some changing.

    If one were to come upon this comment he or she could do worse than to have a peek at a newish book by Gloria Origgi:
    Reputation (what it is and why it matters).

    I’ve only spent a couple hours with it thus far… but right off I imagined I knew someone who could take full advantage of any of the contents he* is not already quite familiar with…

    For extra credit I’ll note here that Gloria has another book on the future of writing on the Internet (not yet seen by this commenter). She is also a fellow blogger (at Not that busy Behavioral Change Specialists need anything else to distract them from their uber busy lives.

    *oops – I see I’ve betrayed an attempt at gender neutrality here. Oh well, the very busy Behavioral Change Specialists among us likely don’t have the time to bother with such a minor indiscretion.

      • Just back from reading your StrongTowns piece. Nicely done.

        And yes, balancing between reading and writing is tough enough. One must earn their daily bread, reflect upon matters they imagine significant, seek out the wisdom of others, and share their own wisdom as needed. Perhaps the balancing is difficult, but to honor our fellow travelers we have to make the effort. I appreciate yours.

      • My Dear Mr. Anderson,
        The blogosphere dwindles at your absence. I fear the earth’s great bounties will face an even quicker demise for the lack of your leadership to prevent the onslaught. Not to mention the cooling in the greater human spirit for the paucity of comforting warmth which emanates from the mirth of your prose.

        Too much? I thought so. Sorry.

        But we really could use a smidgeon of Small and Delicious Life. And Earth Day is only a few months hence. Time to sharpen up the pen and hold forth for the masses. Lord knows our US political class won’t be doing this.

        • Thank you Clem. Truly, you are my most loyal reader, and I am grateful for your presence. I will post a little thing today! Or die trying!!

  2. Earth Day 2018 has come and gone without a peep. Have you stopped posting completely? Should I remove my lonely bookmark to your site?

    • Ach, Joe.

      Don’t give up on me yet—though I don’t know what the future will bring.

      It has been an uncommonly busy year. And I have always had a tense relationship with writing—I know real writers, so I feel like an imposter in that space.

      But…I do want to write more, and sometimes I get fired up about things. Of course, I should also be writing an ebook about behaviour change, and that would really cut into my blogging.

      Anyhow, I am grateful you stop by to check occasionally.


  3. Brilliant writing Ruben! I stopped blogging a while ago, but am getting hungry for some intelligent thinking about our present predicament. I haven’t looked at your blog in a while and am pleasantly suprised.

    Keep it up!


    • Ah! I am glad you came back for a look. I would love to hear how you are doing. If you haven’t shuttered the blog, maybe a yearly update?

  4. Salt water is not a monocrop any more than mineral soil is. These are growth mediums. Ocean life is very diverse, not monolithic, and produces an amount of biomass (depending which numbers you like) similar to terrestrial life.

    So let’s have a closer look at this Grasshopper. If I were, say, a Martian visiting planet Earth for the first time I might observe the surface of the planet from orbit and note the vast expanse of water on the one hand and land (non-water) on the other. Upon reaching the surface I find both water and land systems teaming with life. From distance the scale and resolution hint at only the two, water and land. Upon closer inspection I (the Martian) might find the water to fall into at least 3 discernable forms: ice, salt, and fresh. The land similarly can be classified, but for the sake of brevity we’ll only class the land into green and brown.

    Continuing down into the environments of the surface I can observe at least two sets of critters: mobile and stationary (gross oversimplification I admit). There are all sorts of members in each set, and this fascinates. In some areas the mixture of different types is very obvious, while in other areas the mixture of different types is quite hidden. The ocean and the brown soil (desert, and bare ground) appear relatively void of critters – the occasional sidewinder snake on the land, the occasional whale pod on the sea. But digging into each I can fathom that there is very much more here than first meets the eye. The ocean teams with life, and the desert and bare soil too are seething with fauna and flora of all sorts – they’re just not obvious to casual observation.

    On the green land it is easy to observe a vast array of different forms. Tall and short, fast and slow, and on and on. Interactions occur between different types – some being eaten by others, some being cultured by others. This is pretty cool stuff. In my notebook I record the habits of a couple of the mobile critters in relation to some of the sessile critters. It appears there are some tiny little critters with six legs who go about cutting tree leaves and moving them to a nest where they feed them to a single fungal critter and then they eat the fungus that grows from the leaf matter. There is similarly a larger two legged critter who plants some sessile beast in long rows and cares for them. In due course the two legger takes these sessile forms, eats some and feeds the rest to fellow mobile critters of a few forms (and in due course the two legger eats these latter beasts).

    I could stretch this out for hours… Mr Martian sends a report home to Mars, it is interpreted as there being vast expanse of “monoculture” on the surface of Earth, etc etc. But let’s not. Instead let’s have a look at a corn crop – something on the order 85 million acres on the land portion I’ll call the U.S. The 85 million acre space is easily observed from orbit, just as the oceans are. Upon close inspection both teem with life. The corn crop stands upon a fertile soil full of fauna and flora. The air above the soil teems with more fauna and flora. Having pressed my Martian University dean for an extension to my sabbatical I’ve been able to observe that in alternating seasons the two leggers put a different sessile onto the first 85 million acres and move the corn crop to a different space of equivalent size. Much of the underground fauna and flora seem ambivalent to the switch, but others take the change very seriously. With all this evidence of the corn ecosystem flourishing with multiple forms I’ve chosen not to christen this a ‘monoculture’ as the home body reading my report.

    We might revisit our Martian friend sometime, but let’s get back to some framings we two leggers have made for ourselves over time. Where have we chosen to place much of the 85 million acres of corn? Upon a vast inland prairie that was once the domain of what? Grass. A vast grassland, (a sea of grass you might say… and isn’t sea another word for ocean?) Now you can rightly argue the prairie was not a single species… but it was still a grassland. We’ve merely changed the grass species (and for style points added a legume species on half the space to lessen risks). There are still vast numbers of other organisms.

    Once in the now long past history of this planet most of the two leggers would merely hunt and gather for their sustenance. If seven and a half billion of these were to be suddenly transplanted to planet Earth of say 1492 their hunting and gathering might resemble an infestation of locusts.

    All this long windedness to make the point that ‘monoculture’ is a word created by man which, while accurate in one sense, too often misrepresents (or is misinterpreted) the ecological reality. Depending on the scale, the oceans and the soil – mere growth media by your reckoning – are comparable to an 85 million acre forest of corn (or soybean, or wheat, or rice, or millet, or… well you get it) in the sense these husbanded species are themselves growth media for other members of the ecosystem. Unless or until we come up with some sort of lottery to kill off billions of two leggers, it seems the least we can do is imitate the leaf cutter ants and grow our own food on as little space as needed so there is space for other critters.

    Hubristic? Sure. Sustainable? Arguably (the leaf cutter have been at it far longer than the two leggers). Are scientists guilty? Some, but others are merely trying to keep the fires burning. Should be bury our heads in the sand? I don’t think so. I’d like to quote a very dear and respected Canadian thinker I know who once offered: “I vote tomatoes”. Now that dude is onto something.

    Oh, the Pope Saint Paul II quote is very nice. Thanks. Perhaps one could use religion to purify science from idolatry and false absolutes such as the notion of ‘monocrops = bad’. At least I could pray for that 🙂

  5. When we breed plants, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say we are piggybacking on nature’s massive laboratory, and trying to focus the experiments in an area we think will be beneficial.

    This is precisely right, all reason aside [since reason is useless anymore]. And it can be argued that applying GMO technology is just further piggybacking. Piggybacking on steroids perhaps. Too much hubris? In specific cases, I agree. But in all cases? Not convinced.

    Seeing the world through a scientist’s lens? Guilty. Scientists are evil because some have misbehaved? Not going to agree. Will agree some are miscreants. But like the GM technology universe – lets judge on a case by case.

    Are some farming efforts too hubristic? Perhaps; heck I might even allow it’s very likely. But I suppose I’m missing the “cave” in this allegation.

    Enormous monocrops are not evil, they are not even a complete fabrication of human imagination. Nature has examples of the same. Two thirds of the planet’s surface are salt water; a gigantic pool of salt water with some islands sprinkled in here and there. Add a handful of continents for good measure so you have dry land for the less aquatically capable… but a 66% surface area devoted to salt water… pretty sizable, no?

    Don’t misunderstand, I think diversity is good. I think human suffering is a tough thing to tolerate. There are likely many good reasons for us to suffer now and then. Touching a hot stove once can teach us about hot stoves. But in the long arc of our existence I’d like to think we can stave off unnecessary suffering… most often it may be best to avoid the near occasion of suffering (under the radar, as you say). But I also imagine we can alleviate suffering by doing our own experiments, by building up our tool chest, by teasing apart the wrinkles of the natural world so that we know in advance which stovetops will burn us, which farming methods will feed us, and so forth.

    On the matter of loving science but not trusting what we’re being told… this is at the heart of the scientific method. Indeed those who would hide behind commercial trade secret laws to deny reproducibility tests don’t deserve to be considered scientists in the first place. But there is also a veil of misunderstanding in the thinking that once we can do something it implies we understand what we are doing. Like children with matches. We are in agreement here.

    But I think it wrongheaded to burn the whole enterprise because we’ve gotten stupid with powers we can conjure and imagine we can control before we really do understand what we’ve wrought. Mary Shelley spoke of this long ago, and she captured many an imagination for her trouble. And the anti-GMO parade has both rightly and wrongly grabbed onto the Frankenstein metaphor in my view (when they speak of Frankenfoods).

    So I would gently push back your chiding my friend and ask a modicum of patience so that science and human effort (where philosophy and sociology are at the table as well) can push along the road of time and ponder what we have wrought, what we have learned, what we still need to learn. Not so that we can beat our breasts and claim dominion over all, but that we acknowledge that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. But also – what ways can we further probe the unknown, how else can we provide for our common succor both now and in a possible future (given that She dodges asteroids and the sun doesn’t burn out our explode).

    I like what Chris is up to as well. I might differ in how far out the dystopian reckoning is; I might suppose we can still steer some inventiveness toward escaping or avoiding some suffering if we set our minds to it. And I agree with you there will be many things we push buttons to do today that will require more than buttons once simple fuels are used or deemed too dangerous. But regardless of whether reason is convicted in a court Homo hubris… I imagine the brains of many Homo sapiens will still search for insight, for solutions, and for the edification of curiosity. We seem to be wired that way.

    • Some more quibbles:

      I did not say scientists are evil. I said it is reasonable for people to not believe everything scientists say.

      Salt water is not a monocrop any more than mineral soil is. These are growth mediums. Ocean life is very diverse, not monolithic, and produces an amount of biomas (depending which numbers you like) similar to terrestrial life.

      And I would note that you say “just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should”, which sounds very friendly to “Now that we can do anything, we must do less.” 😉

      And then this just came through my facebook. I would be interested to hear what you think about it.

      “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” – Pope John Paul 2

  6. (and on a totally different note, the Heritage Harvest Seed Co., out of Manitoba, has three varieties of soybean; Agate, Envy, and Hidatsa.)

    Now the curious among us need to know if you plan to plant any? Please respond you will plant some of all three, in replications, keep copious notes on performance and suitability to purpose, and publish the same for the future benefit of all mankind (womankind should care as well). A grateful planet thanks you in advance.

    • Sadly, I have nowhere near enough space for saving even kale seed. I am feeling quite claustrophibic as I look at the pile of seed packets and ever shrinking garden space.

      I tried growing edamame years ago and had a truly sad and pathetic harvest, so I gave up on them.

  7. The curmudgeon in me wants to complain about the failure of GMO crops leading to the loss of millions of tons of food (sorry for my spelling of tons). With some extreme effort you might plausibly paint a scenario under which an outrageous loss of food could result from GMO crops failing to do their thing. But I’m not persuaded.

    True, the proportion of GMO crops among the BIG two in North America (vs. the remaining level of non-GMO for the same species) is pretty lopsided. [my BIG two being corn and soy, for which the combined proportion of GMO is likely in the neighborhood of 90% today]. And a complete failure occurring within the span of a single growing season does smell pretty disastrous (assuming one might smell a disaster). But that is not likely. Southern corn leaf blight in the early 70s was the sort of doomsday epiphytotic one can conjure, but it resulted in a ‘mere’ 15% loss of the US corn crop. Ok, 15% is more than millions of tons, but a 15% loss can also result from inclement weather (too little rain in season, too much rain at planting/harvest, too much wind, and so forth).

    There are already chinks in the armor for GMO corn (the Bt version for control of Western Corn Rootworm for example) and for Roundup Ready corn and soybean genetics in the Midsouth where Parlmer Amaranth is resistant to the chemical (and many other herbicides) and thus not controlled by regular chemical means [though another ‘solution’ is rapidly being deployed to the rescue (snark intended here)]. So these are negatives and they do point toward a possible ugly scenario. But there are still the old ways of dealing with both the rootworm and the pigweed (Palmer is a type of pigweed).

    And next I hear you complain that there are other negatives associated with GMO crops (I knew I liked you for some reason) – yes there are, but there are also still non-GMO versions of these crops being grown. And we members of Homo hubris have so many tricks up our sleeves when it comes to multiplying our seed stocks.

    The proportion of GMO crops in the late 90s went from 0 to 75% in the span of a few years. Logic suggests we could dial it back just as fast.

    There are many things we’ve done ‘to’ ourselves in the spirit of doing something ‘for’ ourselves. But I think our present level of GMO crop use is not going to do us in faster than we can respond.

    • Oh-ho! And now the knives come out… I had to pour myself a glass of wine to steady my nerves, though the sun is not yet over the yardarm in my corner of the British Empire.

      My first line of defense is that I said GMO failure could impact millions of tonnes. I did not say people would starve to death. So, since you agree that a loss equal to that seen in living memory is possible, I can polish off my wine and get on about my day.

      This would be too generous to GM boosters though, since pretty much the first line in the sales pitch is that GMOs are needed to feed a growing world population.

      This is, of course, crap, as we already produce surplus food, plus in at least the rich world we waste 40% of our food. And yet we still have people dying of starvation. This is an old story, the same dynamic as the Irish Potato Famine. Under capitalism, people starve for lack of justice, not lack of food.

      For me, I am underwhelmed by the human intellect, and downright tired of hubris. I love science, but hate how we have graven its likeness.

      Humans run their little field tests, supervised, let us hope, by some sort of ethics committee. In the meantime, nature runs a billion parallel experiments, with nothing but death for the failures.

      I simply don’t think it is mathematically possible for us to win this one.

      I think an exact parallel is drug-resistant bacteria. We discovered antibiotics, and like toddlers with matches stumbling around bedazzled by the flames, we began putting antibiotics in and on everything.

      And now we have bacteria that resist all known drugs.

      The ecomodernists bray that we must invest in research, but they are just captivated by the flickering flames, unable to let themselves do the math.

      It turns out there are two very simple things we must do to fight drug-resistant bacteria: wash our hands, and don’t let so many humans collect in one spot.

      Parallels… as you have counselled, if you want to combat the bugs and weeds, you can’t let so much corn collect in one spot.

      I have searched for a metaphor for this whole farce, and the one I am trying to refine right now goes something like this: After complaining about his tepid coffee, a passenger is thrown out of a plane flying at 30,000 feet. All the way down, he is talking about how all we need to do is develop a special parachute for this situation. Meanwhile, we know how this is going to end—perhaps we can’t calculate the exact moment of impact, but we can see how fast the ground is approaching.

      So, maybe a collapse of GMO corn will not result in mass death—but it sure isn’t going to make life any easier. But we need to remember the future we are looking at—global weirding, so one year may be floods and the next drought. Or maybe it will just gently rain the whole year so the seeds rot and there is never enough light. Add on a GMO failure, followed by another weird year or the continuation of the same GMO failure. Maybe Gaia throws a new bug in, or a new fungus, one that has hopped north thanks to the warming climate, or maybe even a novel organism from Her billions of experiments. Pretty soon you have a seed problem. You certainly have a problem with markets as businesses and farms fail. Without the subsidized corn from the U.S., aid organizations will not be able to buy as much food.

      The sooner we humans can admit our limits, and start working within the bounds of nature, the sooner She will stop chucking us out of planes.

      (and on a totally different note, the Heritage Harvest Seed Co., out of Manitoba, has three varieties of soybean; Agate, Envy, and Hidatsa.)

      • Dude, for the next glass – think decaf.

        It’s late here, I have to sleep. You’ve made some good points, but you’ve blown a few as well. We can work this out without anyone getting hurt. I’ll get back to you.

        • Ha! I used to own a coffee shop, and so, with a mainline supply of the sweet drug, I limit myself to one cup in the morning.

          • The reply chain here is confusing me. So, Joe, I see where you are coming from and now I have a greater sympathy. But I will carry on – not look down – the ground approaches too quickly. Stiff upper lip, and all that rot.

            What I really want to reply to is Ruben’s justification of his GMO stabbing. Where I think it worth defending the existence of the GMO technology is not in its present manifestation for commercial plant husbandry… but it’s place upon the path of scientific discovery.

            If I might be so bold to tweak your airplane metaphor a bit I offer the Greeks have set you up with the story of Daedalus and Icarus. If we laud Daedalus for creating GMOs and fault Icarus for the hubris of abusing the technology then in my estimation we hew a touch closer to my impression of current events.

            True, Icarus meets the ugly fate we might all be exposed to if matters get out of hand. But I’m simply more optimistic that even if we don’t do the maths properly we might still escape Armageddon if we do them well enough and more than the maths – if we evolve toward a more beneficent outlook toward each other.

            Upon rereading your last reply I think the only issue I really think goes too far is the notion presented here:
            Humans run their little field tests, supervised, let us hope, by some sort of ethics committee. In the meantime, nature runs a billion parallel experiments, with nothing but death for the failures.

            There are two things, the first pokes me directly so I’m not impartial and won’t pretend to be. Where I work we conduct many thousands of these ‘little field tests’ every year. With hubristic blinders firmly attached I confess we march ahead with all these ‘common garden’ experiments in the thought we are somehow helping humankind by helping soykind be more than it currently is. Like an Army commercial here to your south… be all you can be. And in the end there is a commercial system that rewards those of us who discover, who sift out the right combinations of genes and multiply their seed and distribute these seeds and with them any husbanding insights a grower might need, and so on and and so forth. It keeps the plane in the air long enough so that miscreant coffee consumers might be expelled. But this gets too long winded.

            The second point is where the biologist in me cringes the most. I don’t imagine Mother Nature doing billions of experiments with purpose in mind. I don’t imagine She is out to get us. She does appear to occupied with birth and death. And death, as ugly as we humans want to paint it, is a necessary aspect of life. Extinction fits in the same mold. Ecologists like to rail against extinction – “extinction is forever” they will mouth. True. So? Because extinction equals caves? [had to steal that, will buy you a cup of coffee when we meet] No, extinction merely opens the field so there is room for more experimenting.

            Having GMO technology, a match the children might set fires with, can and has allowed us to discover other aspects of biology. So the GM technology in and of itself is not evil to me. Daedalus is a good guy, Icarus a fool.

            • Your two points I feel as one. I am not critiquing the way we breed and select plants, I am simply pointing out the scale difference. The scale difference is imposed in many different ways:

              Funding— most of us need to be paid to work, and that requires a lot of other things falling into line.
              Ethics— and this is good. It would be poor form to plant a bunch of crazy crossbreeders next to our neighbour’s seed stock, let alone the concerns about transgenics.
              Statistics— if we wish to learn, we need to measure and compare.
              Area— we can manage small test plots, then perhaps we can handoff to test farmers. Meanwhile Nature is using the whole planet as a petri dish.
              Et C.

              And so the point about death is not one of believing in purpose, just an observation of efficiency. It may actually be an argument against the belief in purpose. Reagardless, Nature is very effective at mass prototyping and testing.

              So, when we try to overwhelm nature, we set ourselves up for eventual failure, because she dwarfs us in scale. When we try to work within nature, perhaps to slide by under the radar, we may make great advances. This is everything you have mentioned before about crop rotation, fallowing, interplanting, beneficicals, et c. et c. et c.

              When we breed plants, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say we are piggybacking on nature’s massive laboratory, and trying to focus the experiments in an area we think will be beneficial.

              Now, toddlers with matches…

              The monocropping to the tune of 90% of corn and soy being GM is a function of our industrial mindset, not of GM. I think we agree that too much of any plant anywhere will come to ruin. Nature abhors a monocrop, and will fill the empty niches with bugs, weeds, fungus, birds, soil depletion, erosion, whatever. She is not out to get us, at all, since she doesn’t think or care. All she does is creatively fill niches, all day and all night.

              The thing is, GM is a like a super-industrialized mindset. Technology! Rocket Ships! And so the mindset that produces GM tends towards ever greater amounts of monocropping. And lo, nature has sent in the shock troops. bT corn is losing its efficacy against the bugs, who can mutate faster than we can respond.

              Sure, this, like Daedalus’ technology, is not guaranteed to be used poorly. But, like the wings, the real world application seems to be unwise.

              So I would gently chide you, my friend. The Enlightenment Myth of Reason has been shown to be false, yet it still drives us.

              Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

              Yes, this is technically true. And yet the U.S., which is positively saturated with guns, has a gun death rate five times higher than Canada, right next door.

              GM crops aren’t bad, just some farmers use them badly.


              I guess what I hear is that you are a scientist, and so you see the world through that lens. I would argue that farming is much more like politics.
              And so we need a realpolitik about how the science will be applied.

              Now, if we could put a pin in that conversation, here is another angle on GM.

              Because I see nature running a million more experiments than we ever can in our wildest dreams, I think the chances are very great we will always lose. And so the failures of bT crops and Roundup Ready crops is the statistically near-certain outcome.

              Therefore, I think the time, effort and attention we give to this strategy is largely a waste of time. You say it advances science, so I will defer to your expertise. Can we do GM science usefully with realpolitik farming? That is, more with agroecology than with millions of acres of monocrop? I defer.

              I would much rather we spend our time and money trying to improve our science of collaborating with nature.

              And even if we can do GM science with agroecology, there is always the lure for Icarus. Realpolitik says farmers will always rush to the siren song. So, at some point, if you want fewer people to get shot, you have to have fewer guns.

              I haven’t even gotten apocalyptic yet. I will not be surprised if the national electricity grid and the internet die before I do. So, vast swathes of science and medicine are going to die as well. I am interested in Chris’ Peasant Republic because I see it as getting better in the face of crisis, not worse. We are going to lose the capacity for much of what we are currently doing, so again, I would much rather we spend our few resources on things that have a greater chance of being durable and sustainable.

              Now the real nasty stuff, transgenics.

              The thing is, scientists have been wrong about many things, and that has killed people. Like smoking being harmless, or radiation, or thalidomide, or DDT, or monocropping, or infant formula, or resource supplies, or global warming.

              Scientists have also flat-out lied about many things, like vaccines causing autism.

              And there has been a bunch of just bad science, as we see in the reproducibility crisis.

              Again, since the enlightenment, we have overvalued reason. We have worked on the premise that reason will be able to eventually answer all problems, even moral or religious ones. The science is now to the point that it is proving that science cannot know everything.

              But we spent a heady few decades doing whatever the scientists told us to do, and now the pendulum is swinging back the other way. As listed above, sometimes that is justified, and sometimes it is just unproductive anti-intellectualism.

              And yet here we are. Even lovers of science like myself simply do not trust what I am told some of the time.

              And so, I doubt I could ever be convinced that it is a good idea to insert animal genes into plants. Sure nature does amazing things with bacteria and DNA swapping and all sorts of cool stuff.

              We could get hit by an asteroid tomorrow. If She is going to destroy us—not by design or choice, simply by filling a niche with an organism that outcompetes us—if She is going to destroy us, that is what it is. I think we have proven that we are not capable of responsibly using matches. Our house could burn down any day—but that doesn’t mean we should light the curtains on fire.

            • This related item just in:

              “Subcomandante Galeano pushed the scientists to seriously consider justice from the perspective of a scientist. To confront the issues of pursuing a (supposedly) apolitical and ahistorical science, he asked:

              “With all of the damage that the capitalists have done to the people through their misuse of science, scientifically can you create a science that is truly human in order to avoid falling into a science that is inhuman, and if it is possible create a truly human science, who can create it?”

              This question (and the other questions the Zapatistas asked of scientists) are essential for scientists to ask regularly to themselves, at lab meetings, to their mentors, to their mentees, in classrooms, and at conferences. Science that ignores these questions is not apolitical; it is oppressive.”


              • Thanks for the link, Steve, and for bringing up the precautionary principle in your blog. The neverending supply of hubris is definitely a large part of what concerns me regarding GMOs.

  8. Because different equals caves.

    Brilliant! you are now up to 17 words on the RA wordcounter widgit at GP…

    Wonderfully done – you have laid down a remarkable line in the sand. I must be off to consider first if I even have a chance, and then if the courage should be summoned I’ll have to muster every sober brain cell I can to craft a suitable contender in the Earth Day blog off.

    And fear not, I shall return here to comment more specifically about assertions, thoughts and ramblings laid down in this piece. Because – well, that cave thing 🙂

    • 17 words on the RA wordcounter widgit at GP…

      OK, I understand the 17, since the last count was 13, and I know that GP is short for your blog, Gulliver’s Pulse, but what does RA stand for? I could guess Really Astute, or Real Author, or something similar, but it is easier to just ask.

      Believe it or not, I just figured it out! Ruben’s last name is Anderson (as I discovered in About Me). It’s so hard keeping up with you professional bloggers.

      Excellent Earth Day posts from the both of you.

      • Well blush. Thanks so much Joe. You are correct, RA is Ruben. And see – you really can keep up with us and it will be easier as you go. I now need to up my game a level to create another blogging trope to push us further away from the masses (just kidding).

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