Follies to the right, follies to the left

Published January 25, 2014 

It’s a popular refrain that the facts have a left-wing bias. Sometimes. But that doesn’t make the progressive left immune from the same sort of selective consciousness its members so quickly denounce on the right. Empiricism is demanded of the goose, while the gander indulges its own versions of evidence denial.

Certainly the ability to stare facts in the face and not see them is strikingly evident on the political right—particularly in the United States but in other parts of the Anglosphere and beyond it as well.

A plurality of American Republicans believe people have existed in exactly their present form since being created from mud one day 6,000 years ago. They share with Canada’s Conservatives and Australia’s Liberals the view that science, which got lasers and flight and iPhones right, have it wrong about the climate. Canada’s Conservatives are so disdainful of empirical evidence they’ve been purging the country’s science libraries.

So far, so familiar, and so stupid. But here’s the thing: many shibboleths of the supposedly progressive left are no more defensible in the light of actual evidence and informed judgements. If evidence is to be our guide, the left needs to be rethink its gag reflex over:

Genetically-modified Organisms

Humans have been genetically modifying other organisms for centuries: that’s why modern-day corncobs are 25 cm (10 in) long, and examples retrieved from archaeological sites in Mexico, where maize originated, are only about 10 cm (4 in) in size. We’ve just been doing it through time-consuming selection of natural variability: letting nature produce random mutations, and keeping the ones we liked. Nature, of course, has always done this; that’s why among our strands of ‘human’ DNA are large shreds that our ancestor creatures co-opted from other life forms over the millenia. Now scientists can go to the source and do quickly by design what nature used to do at random, but the result is about the same — only more useful and a lot faster.

Does that produce Frankenfood? No more than the kilogram or so of non-human DNA roaming around each of our bodies makes us Frankenpeople. Among the scientific bodies that have reviewed the evidence and declared food from genetically-modified plants or animals as safe as ‘conventional’ foods are: the United States National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the Royal Society of Medicine, the European Commission (yes, even in the face of ordinary Europeans’ hostility to GMOs) and the French Supreme Court, after hearings on the subject. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences even found that genetically engineered crops reduced the use of pesticides and herbicides, and “have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.”

Nuclear Power.

I know: Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island. Awful. And used fuel: what to do, what to do? But let’s compare safety records with the other forms of significant energy supply on offer, and be honest about that used-fuel problem. To take the second first: the problem is not how to dispose of used nuclear fuel, it is the persistence of reflexive local opposition that has made every materially feasible site to do so politically radioactive.

As for comparative risk, capturing energy incurs costs across any number of dimensions, from the 24/7 racket of a fracking site outside your bedroom window, to the loss of a traditional homesite under the creeping waters of a new hydro-electric reservoir, to climate change. But for a back-of-the-envelope comparison, let’s just look at the number of people who die from the production and distribution of some of our main sources of energy.

The most deadly single energy-related accident of all time was the result, not of nuclear or petroleum or even coal generation, but of hydro-electricity. Usually one of the most stable and renewable of energy sources, hydro can devastate when the dams used to produce it break — as happened in China in 1975, when a flash flood from a ruptured reservoir killed some 170,000 people.

Fossil fuel-related accidents routinely post death tolls in four figures.

Coal mining accidents killed more than 5,900 Chinese in 2005, and another 4,700 the following year (the country celebrated a new low in coal-mine deaths in 2012: a mere 1,384 fatalities). The 47 people who died when an oil train slammed into Lac Mégantic, Quebec, and exploded last year, were a tiny fraction of the more than 1,000 who lost their lives when an oil pipeline burst into flame in Nigeria in 1998.

Swiss researchers, collecting data from both OECD and non-OECD countries, estimated that between 1969 and 2000, the fossil-fuel (coal, oil, natural gas and liquid propane) supply chain killed an average of 1,600 people every year. Most of those deaths were in the last quarter of the survey period, suggesting that actual annual figures may now be higher.

The confirmed death toll to date of all three nuclear calamities is under 60, all from Chernobyl. A handful of Fukushima first responders have reportedly died from non-radiation-related injuries. Epidemiologists estimate that radiation from Chernobyl may cause some 4,000 further future premature deaths. A speculative estimate has suggested a quarter that number of early-onset fatal cancers from Fukushima—fewer than the number of additional deaths as a result of hustling 150,000 people out of the evacuation zone around the damaged plants. All in, perhaps 6,600 mostly future early deaths and 1,660 actual ones (1,600 of those among Fukushima evacuees) over 35 years.

Roughly the number of people who die from fossil fuel production and delivery every 12 months. (I won’t get into the additional reality that all three of those nuclear plants were early models, dubiously managed, while nuclear design has, like everything else, moved ahead over time.)

High-voltage power transmission lines

High-voltage power transmission lines attract complaint both on aesthetics and the grounds of fringe science. But decades of experience with high-tension wires strung across the world’s most crowded landscapes have failed to provide credible evidence of significant health effects apart from occasional inadvertant direct contact with conductors. Meanwhile, if we are going to enlist substantial renewable energy production from intermittent sources like wind, wave and sunshine in our round-the-clock power grid, we have to be able to move it from places where it is being generated to places where it is needed. These are often widely separated. Electrical transmission is by far the safest way to get that energy from place to place—even if it ruins your view.


On this subject, both left and right have blind spots. Those on the ‘free-market’ right exaggerate their ideal’s perfection, and overlook the evidence that markets have demanded regulation ever since Hammurabi laid down the rules for hiring oxen-drivers in the clay tablets of Babylon. But too many on the left treat the very idea of markets as the work of the devil, demonize business indiscriminately and denounce trade as inherently destructive.

They forget that trade is a defining human behaviour. Millennia before the limited liability partnership, indigenous North Americans were swapping fish grease for flint and decorative feathers for ceramics along trade routes that ran from the top to bottom of the continent—the ‘globlization’ of their day. We developed markets in prehistory because they demonstrably excel at filling needs in real time at the lowest cost and greatest mutual benefit. We will need this ability more than ever in an era of volatile food supply and increasingly acute scarcity of other critical resources (the current temporary natural gas bubble notwithstanding).

None of these — GMOs, nuclear power, transmission lines or markets — are without flaws or hazards. But the evidence for their usefulness and relative safety deserves an honest appraisal. At least as honest as the one that progressives on the left demand from the right on subjects like climate change or evolution.

Copyright © 2014 Chris Wood


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References and further reading:
The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, The National Academies of Science.
Chernobyl: the true scale of the accident. The World Health Organization.
Severe Accidents in Fossil Energy Chains: Individual Chain Results and Aggregated Evaluations. Peter Burgherr and Stefan Hirschberg, Paul Scherrer Institut, Switzerland.