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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Warning: More Than Nursery School Attention Span Required

What is “scientific”? I wonder if my friends and I see it the same way.
I was delighted by the first two paragraphs of Wendell Berry's letter published in October 22, 2015, issue of New York Review of Books (received in my p.o. box this morning) before I looked down to see his name, upon which my delight increased tenfold. Finishing his letter, I went on to read Edmund Phelps in what was billed as a reply, whereupon my delight vanished.
Berry's points, sufficiently clear that one need not possess a degree in economics to understand them, are that (1) agriculture is a huge part of the American economy and that (2) current industrial and chemical practices visited on the land are toxic and unsustainable. Nowhere in his so-called reply does Phelps address these points. Instead he leaps to a generalized defense of "modernity," as he defines it,dragging a string of red herrings across the path.
Phelps sees threats to free speech, in the university classroom and elsewhere. This is no answer to economists ignoring agriculture or to the current and widespread destructive practices of corporate-scale farming. And where is his evidence for the claim that free speech is "ever more limited"? Who in this country has been jailed recently for speech? What newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses have been shut down? As far as university classes go, administration guidelines to faculty probably have much more to do with the fact that higher education is now run more and more on a modern business model -- mustn't alienate "customers"! -- than with any fears of government censorship.
And does Phelps really find mandatory testing of new products an undesirable curb on ingenuity? Is this a scientific, "modern" view? Would he return us to the days of thalidomide on the market?
The general attitude of Phelps is one I have encountered before, often in individuals with backgrounds such as engineering. They seem to feel that whatever comes out of a laboratory is, by definition, "scientific" and, therefore, to be adopted without question. I find this view unscientific in the extreme. A more enlightened view of modern science is to recognize its necessary reliance on ceaseless experimentation and testing. Independent studies of agricultural practices point in a very different direction from corporate-subsidized studies. I recommend readers to the monthly magazine AcresUSA, "the voice of eco-agriculture," published since 1971.
If I were a cartoonist, I would draw a picture. Wendell Berry and the Acres people, along with all the organic farmers and CSA families I know, would be standing at the edge of a precipice, holding up big detour signs, while a river of lemmings, wearing t-shirts with slogans for GMOs, CAFOs, and agrichemicals would be running at them full-tilt, pushing them aside to leap to their doom. Sadly, if the lemmings succeed, the rest of us will not be left standing on the cliff but will be dragged along to our doom.
Surely, "the West's modern project" – that which Phelps takes himself to be defending against Wendell Berry and imaginary quashers of free speech -- can do better. All that's needed is objective and rigorous scrutiny of the evidence and a willingness to adapt. Is that not modern and scientific?


I posted the foregoing on Facebook, having modified somewhat a letter sent to NYRB editor. Facebook (for those few unacquainted with that bantering, slogan-ridden, wisecracking social media platform) does not generally offer high-level exchange of thought, but I did receive an insightful comment from one friend, who included this link. The bottom line is that as bad as things were before, they are worse since 1996 with the rollback of the Delaney Clause, a legislative protection in place since 1950 and now removed by Congress, with only one voice raised in protest. Read it and weep. For those who attention span has   already been overtaxed, here are a few highlights: 

"With the Delaney Clause dead on the floor of Congress, some 80 pesticides that were about to be outlawed as carcinogens will now remain in use. Call it the Dow-Monsanto bail-out bill, since these two companies make most of the chemical killers that were on the list to be banned."

“Chemicals go a long way in a small body,” Clinton said. He could have been more specific. The new law now ensures that when children eat strawberries, they will also be ingesting the deadly chemical residue left by benamyl, captan, and methyl bromide. The average apple and peach has eight different pesticides embedded in it. Grapes have six and celery five. Children get as much as 35 percent of their likely lifetime dose of such toxins by the time they are five."