At a recent workshop I gave in Scotland a woman proudly presented me with a newspaper article titled Hurrah! Red Meat is Good for Us After All. She was very proud of this discovery. Here are some direct quotes from the article: “A report demolishes the “myths and misconceptions” about meat saying that most people eat healthy amounts that are not linked to greater risk of disease. The author of the paper [and a member of the Meat Advisory Panel], Dr. Ruxton, said, “Many young women were iron deficient and should be eating more red meat. There is no reason to eat less red meat if you enjoy it. You don’t need to eat meat every day; you can eat fish twice a week.”
You can imagine my surprise but hey, it’s science. Who can argue with that? The organization that released the report was the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. I challenge anyone to come up with a more scientific name than that. On closer scrutiny, I discovered the SACN is totally funded by Pepsi, Nestles, MacDonald’s and other junk food manufacturers. The article didn’t mention that.
Only a few days later I was presented with an article written by John Robbins espousing the terrific health benefits of eating chocolate. Holy cow! Another big surprise. Was this the same John Robbins who wrote Diet for a New America and who brought many of the inequities of the American diet to a broader public? In fact it was. This author and champion of vegetarian and vegan diets was pumping up interest in eating chocolate based on some science about its benefits published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The American Cocoa Research Institute (ACRI) in McLean, VA has sponsored some of the studies that have pointed out the antioxidant rich benefits of chocolate. We shouldn’t worry though. It’s all science. Robbins seems especially taken with both the antioxidant levels in this sugar rich snack food and the news that it can lessen the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. He goes on to say that the polyphenols in chocolate inhibit the clumping of blood platelets, a major cause of atherosclerosis. Wow! John, I love it when you slip in the polyphenols; it’s so scientific. I only have a couple of questions.
Why would someone who is a vegan and has spent decades promoting a low fat diet and more vegetable consumption be concerned with getting enough antioxidants or reducing LDL cholesterol? Anyone using the diet he suggests in his books is already doing that. He gives us the answer to this intriguing question in the last lines of his recent Huffington Post article. It turns out John has always had a love for chocolate and red wine – there you go. Why beat around the bush? Why not just say you love a piece of chocolate and get it over with? Why the science and the silly rationalization for what is simply a habit you enjoy? The answer is that it makes it seem right. There has to be a scientific answer to every question; it is the only rational path of action.
It seems that science always beats the drum of rationality when critiqued – it is a voodoo chant of arrogance. The credence of scientific pronouncements has nothing to do with rationality or logic. It is simply blind faith and a superstitious belief that a priesthood in white lab coats surrounded by impressive technical gadgets somehow has conquered the invisible forces that rule our lives.
The recent nuclear crisis in Japan further highlights this point. In the days immediately following the earthquake and disastrous tsunami in Japan, attention was slowly pulled away from the human suffering and placed on the developing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Watching on the BBC and Sky News I saw a parade of nuclear experts and marveled at the cool adjustment of the message as the information became grimmer.
The first reports were reassuring: “The Japanese are experts in the nuclear industry” and “These reactors are better than Chernobyl” and “This generation of reactors is very safe.” It seemed almost naive to assume that there could be any problem. This message morphed over the days through “Well, it’s complicated” on to “Nobody’s perfect” and ended up in “S*** happens.” The nuclear power issue is complex in its detail but not in its broader implications for human safety, the environment or the economy in the long view. Or is it? There is a troubling fact that can impact this debate - the support of nuclear energy from “environmentalists’. Major among these has been Stewart Brand, the famous producer of the first Whole Earth Catalog. Brand has stepped forward as the wise uncle of the environmental movement who has seen the light and now supports fully the nuclear power option. We need to ask, what light has he seen?
Brand has been very clear in his support of the nuclear power option but, to my knowledge, has not responded clearly to the detailed criticism from other environmentalists. George Monbiot, an influential author on environmental issues, has also joined in supporting nuclear power. The shift in position of these two men and others like them will become a powerful tool for attacking environmental and health concerns.
If there is no solution to nuclear waste other than to hide it away for the next generation to deal with, if nuclear reactors are so dangerous that they cannot be insured, if they cost so much to build and are painfully slow in paying off the investment and if a nuclear incident resulted into complete melt-down the outcome would be catastrophic, why do we want to build them and why is there so much support for them? The answers to these questions may give an uncomfortable insight into human nature.
Like the genetic modification of foods, oil drilling and many other commercial applications of technology, the only people who benefit are the corporations involved…and these applications are sold to the public on the basis that we can live exactly as we do and not face the discomfort of change. And to the naysayers or skeptics, remember that oil executives claimed that oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon spill were “Impossible”, Monsanto has legions of scientists who argue for the safety of GM crops and their ability to feed the world, every major drug firm has a gang ready to scoff at side effects. This is the way of the world. We continue to listen to the fairy tales that are spun in the service of profit only because of a fear of change.
Society seems to live in the foolish hope that somehow governments will control the excesses of commercial interests but we are unwilling to elect politicians who have the courage to suggest that the system is corrupt and that fundamental changes are essential to create a better world. If governments refuse to stop the production of unhealthy food or can’t stop the toxic spills into waterways, how do we suppose they will find the will to police atomic energy or big oil companies? And when we’ve got scientists backing up the arguments, in an environmental context no less, that support these companies, what can we do?
The solution that is most unwelcome is that massive reductions in energy use are essential and that our market- driven way of life needs serious review. Until our patterns of consumption and our behaviors change we will continue to rely on the promises of science to alleviate the suffering caused by our own habits. There are no silver bullets or philosophers’ stones that will save us from our common sense. Until we live as if life matters we are locked into a spiral of disastrous short-term fixes that distance us from our humanity and leave our mess for the next generation to clean up.