human chauvinism in a leftist defense of GMOs

Episode 20 of Escape Velocity Radio, hosted by Derek Hogue and Chris Hannah (of Propagandhi) —
a monthly podcast which journeys into the depths of science, philosophy, history, ethics, the origins of consciousness, professional hockey and the very nature of reality itself—included what they called a ‘leftist defence of genetically-edified foods’ by Leigh Phillips. Whereas the content of the episode was not the first with which I had a different view to the hosts and their interviewees, there was a stark distinction between my views and theirs. What also stood out for me was that I was a little taken aback with what I saw as views seemingly inconsistent with their politics and values.

In many ways, the approach of Leigh to laying out his critique of (left) opposition to GMOs was smart in how it was constructed. He appropriately exposed inconsistent critiques by activists and others opposed to GMOs, utilising this as a foundation for his broader critique. Such critiques do us all a disservice, making it easier for right wing and (naive/self-centred) libertarian exponents to spout their diatribes.

Leigh may not appreciate the analogy, yet his interview reminded me of the approach of conservative political commentator Ezra Levant in his critique of those challenging Tar Sands: smart in his pointing out inconsistencies and having enough nous and intelligence to challenge less-considered (not necessarily incorrect) and sometimes poorly structured critiques.

Leigh’s challenge to activists here is a necessary one. Too often there is a double standard in approaches, actions, and critiques of progressive folk. For example, we are often critical of the robustness of conservative and neo-con arguments, yet often put out similarly weak, even exceptionalist, critiques.

For me, this is where the robustness of the arguments put forward by Leigh, and accepted by Derek and Chris,  fall victim to his own critique. Primarily, his neo-Marxist account of GMOs, and support for GMOs, fails to see GE and GMOs as an anthropocentric solution to an anthropogenic problem. Here he fell into the all too common trap of technological optimism—I could use technological utopianism here, though I think this would be a little unfair.

Leigh’s faith in technology—which is a key theme and assumption central to modernity—came across as emergent from complete lack of engagement with anthropocentrism. There was no reflection on us, as a species (further) fucking with the world for our own benefit with little or no consideration of the implications.

By way of a lack of symmetry/straw man argument, what is widely deferred to when challenging critiques of GMOs and other technologies applied to the nonhuman, is that, as a species, we have been altering the natural for as long as we have existed. In regards to GMOs, proponents often refer to selective breeding, hybridisation etc. There are two levels of issues here—if we are to make a simplistic dualism. Genetic technologies are far in excess of existing practices of changing ‘nature’, and a further anthropocentric imposition. More foundationally, our interfering with nature having a long history, and the benefits our species largely/almost exclusively take for granted everyday, does not make it OK. Reference to such a history is often made. Irrespective, it does not justify claims (spurious or otherwise) that GM should be embraced with open arms.

At its root, ‘traditional’ and more-scientific genetic approaches are rooted in the same anthropocentrism that enables us to uncritically have our way with other animals and the environment more broadly in our everyday fucking over of everything nonhuman.

This is the major shortcoming of Leigh’s defence of GMOs. And if it is correct to label it as a leftist defence, it reflects the old school and naive Marxist analysis of the 60s and 70s which positioned the environment and women’s movements as petty-bourgeois.

At stake here is (parts of) the left continuing to not reflect on the animal question as much as the environment question. Whereas there has been significant gains in consideration given to the nonhuman, the apparent faith in technology that continues to be rampant in both neo-con, centrists and more mainstream leftist politics is the underlying assumption behind any notions that GMOs should be supported.

In essence, the social construction of nature is talked around without any real engagement beyond didactic constructions of human/nature.

Anthropocentrism is a centrepiece of science. To expose this is not anti-science or technology—a charge oft made and repeated (and whereas it seems Leigh’s at-times-simplistic critique falls squarely on this, he is located on the other extreme with his significantly uncritical faith in science and technology). I give Derek and Chris some credit here: in episode 21 they reflect on some comments on the episode, including one that specifically addressed the notion of science as objective…

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