This may be related to Monday’s posts. Every single time I take my pencil to paper to evaluate the environmental and economic costs and benefits of various trendy new “green” programs, particularly those nearby, all manner of howls arise. Some folks, as I’ve said, just consider it plain mean to question anything that is done with good intentions (I’m beginning to doubt even that assumption). But I have heard a number of times that I shouldn’t be so harsh on the very grounds that it is good economics.
The argument is pretty simple. Have you ever heard of companies making risky investments? Sure. Do all of a company’s projects work out? Of course not. And do companies sometimes build proto-types to demonstrate an idea? Indeed! So shouldn’t things like the Eco-bench be exempt from my pencil and paper, and be treated rather differently? Isn’t that just a classic example of a demonstration project, something that we expend resources now in the hopes of future, affordable and environmentally friendly success stories?
In the case of Eco-bench, what is exactly being demonstrated by sticking solar panels on top of a table. Tables are a pretty old technology. And solar panel technologies are over 100 years old. Now, I am optimistic that industrial scale solar PV is getting close to grid parity without subsidy, and when it does I think it will add a nice small new chunk to our energy mix, but it’s laughable to suggest that a college slapping a picnic table with a charging station on it is demonstrating much of anything. I guess this is the new word for symbolism.
But ignore that. The point of this post is different.
I almost always encounter these kinds of demonstration project defenses when it comes to supposedly “Eco-friendly” projects. Of course few of them end up being eco-friendly. But think about the vitriol, apprehension and even violence that “E”nvironmentalists put forth in their opposition to programs they despise. Nuclear energy is not really what I am thinking here because at least an “E”nvironmentalist could point to some past nuclear accidents to support their opposition. Consider instead something like Genetically Modified Organisms. As some of the readers know, GMOs have been used in many products, but especially foods, for a few decades now and there has been no evidence that they have caused harm to anyone. Not even a little. None.
And GMOs have the potential to dramatically improve people’s living standards AND the plant. The most recent example of this is the drought resistant corn that is being developed by Monsanto (evil Monsanto!). By inserting a gene from a bacteria in the DNA of corn, the crop will tolerate dry conditions more readily (reducing the need for irrigation), it will take up less water in non-drought conditions (improving the water table), and its better yields reduce pressure on land under cultivation and the need to use herbicides and pesticides on a larger area of land. It seems great.
But when GM crops are even tested (much less rolled out) in Europe, violent “activists” threaten to destroy them. And now that the prospect for expanding GMO to deal with drought in the US is on the horizon, of course the Union of Concerned Scientists is concerned.
Monsanto’s “DroughtGard” Corn Barely a Drop in the Bucket
Report Finds Limited Prospects for Genetically Engineered Crops to Combat Drought and Conserve Water
“Farmers are always looking to reduce losses from drought, but the biotechnology industry has made little real-world progress on this problem,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “Despite many years of research and millions of dollars in development costs, DroughtGard doesn’t outperform the non-engineered alternatives.”
To which I say: (1) so, why do you care? The stuff has never caused harm to anyone. Private corporations are producing it and private farms are purchasing it. If they wish to purchase a seed because they THINK it is good for their water use, then let them. It’s not like these seeds have been shown to increase water use – you know, like many of the green projects on campus that claim to save resources by using more resources than conventional methods. Let people choose the products that they wish to choose. If customers really did not want to eat foods from those crops, surely someone could make a killing by selling it to them. If Monsanto makes seeds that no one wants, you’d think the UCS and the anti-market folks out there would be excited, no? Wouldn’t selling seeds that are more expensive, but ineffective, be a pretty sure way to find yourself in bankruptcy? So what’s the urgency about?
(2) But more important, how come I don’t see the “E”nvironmentalists coming out to defend this potentially great technology as a “demonstration” project? Really. So what if the seeds are a “drop in the bucket?” So what if the seeds have yet to demonstrate that their yields are better or use less water? “We” are merely providing a motivational factor for other research to come along and make it work. “We” are merely providing a market launching off point for someone to take advantage of. Without the first movers who buy the iPods when they are $2,000 or the VCRs when they are $2,000 maybe we never get really great and cheap audio and video technology today.
But I hear crickets. Even as these technologies are being developed privately, are not being forced on anyone, have not been demonstrated to harm anyone, and have tremendous potential to do what their GMO brethren have already done – feed people and improve the planet. But no college campus I have ever been on has a demonstration plot of GMO corn or wheat or rice growing anywhere at all. Indeed, I bet your college even has some plots of environmentally sustainable gardens on campus. I’ll look around for ours, my three cents is that they are here somewhere, I probably don’t walk where they are.