See the French translation
It is just nature; neither good nor evil, it favours the strong over the weak.
Nature favours the parasite, the weeds, the pathogens; it abhors the vulnerable, the fruit and the flowers. This need to romanticise nature, treat it as a victim in a cynical narrative where Father Profit is abusing Mother Nature is gathering growing support among the dreamers and the artists. They are using this anti-science prejudice to fight against pharmaceuticals (medicine for humans) and GMOs and pesticides (medicine for plants). It is a prejudice I hold in the highest disdain for as much as nature favours the strong over the weak, science is designed to protect the weak. I am one of the weak.
About ten years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare vascular disease that specialists had recognised should have killed me. But the research community found a means to prolong my life, and with some luck, hard work on my side and discoveries from the amazing pharmaceutical researchers, I am not yet a victim of nature, but rather victorious with science. Every day I take a chemical cocktail, fighting to live long enough to enjoy my grandchildren.
Science was founded as a means for the weak to fight against nature. Francis Bacon heralded the arrival of a new field of study that would protect man from the ravages of nature. With science came a stronger sense of humanity: life was not meant to be poor, nasty, brutish and short and scientists committed to solving the problems of nature, protecting man from its Hobbesian forces. For over 400 years, science has brought us better means of shelter, medicines, better seeds and agriculture; it has brought us comforts and technologies that have improved the quality of life.
Science advances humanity, protecting the weak against the forces of nature. Industry was built on this principle and has effectively weaponised science to be more efficient in advancing humanity. The anti-industry bias in our media today is spread by people who have never worked in a company (but have an arrogance of ignorance to feel they know better). Like so many others, I woke up every day going to work at a chemical company, Solvay, knowing that our pharmaceuticals were prolonging lives and improving the quality of life; that our advanced polymers were innovating transportation, communications and home-building; that our disinfectants were preventing diseases and keeping the forces of nature at bay. In so many other companies, from GSK to Dow, from Apple to Samsung, from Bayer to BASF, millions share this belief that humanity is advanced by the research they do (despite the paranoid propaganda of the anti-science, anti-industry activists).
The Ugly Return of Malthus
Global population and life expectancy have increased far beyond Malthus’ worst nightmare, and still we are making progress. We are staying strong into old age as science, the face of humanity, protects the weak from the ravages of a nature that favours the strong. I am still alive today because of science – its medicines, devices and technologies have kept nature from rearing its ugly face.
So you can imagine how offended I was to read Olivier De Schutter’s recent article condemning the enormous gains in agri-science. In true neo-Malthusian narrow-mindedness, Professor De Schutter feels that the recent impressive agri-technologies that have increased global food yield to meet an ever-growing population is only setting us up for a greater fall. He claims yields cannot continue to increase (note his clever wordplay that yields have only increased in 57% of global areas), that “superweeds” are taking over and pests, viruses, fungi and bacteria are growing stronger.
This is just nature; neither good nor evil, it favours the strong over the weak.
De Schutter doubts that science can continue to solve problems (as also did Malthus) but he has some fatal flaws in his assumptions. He claims that the science that has brought us an “industrialised monoculture” (vocabulary indicative of a non-farmer) has failed. I wonder where agriculture would be today were it not for science and technology. Are we ready to go back to the glory days of 18th century Malthusian farming practices? De Schutter is predicting a return to the dust-bowls of the 1930s (due to climate change). That may just happen if we adapt the narrow organic agro-ecology mindset he is proposing. The Monsanto Tribunal dogmatists with whom De Schutter has sided have rejected the no-till approach to farming that a large part of the research community has determined is the best way to protect soil.
Science is not dogmatic. If a practice works, science will adopt it; if it fails, science will reject it and find alternatives. If agro-ecological farming can produce better, more efficient farming techniques, science will not reject it. But would agro-ecology accept CRISPR genome editing or no-till farming with herbicides if it proves to be more efficient than ploughing under more meadows or better at preventing impoverishing farmers? That is the difference between science and fundamentalist dogma. Malthus was indeed a man of the cloth!
The Relentless Force of Nature
But De Schutter is correct that nature is relentless. Weeds will get stronger; parasites will learn to resist our present means of protection. The greater the advances in science, the greater the problems we will face. But this is not due to science, but rather, thanks to it! We are no longer losing large populations from famines and failed crops and with that populations are growing faster. Modern medicines and technologies are extending lives, beating cancer and heart disease that used to kill most of us in our 50s. Living longer, the challenges to science are increasing as we confront hitherto unknown brain diseases. Do we want to return to greater food insecurity or shorter life-expectancy for some eco-religious dogma and historical revisionism?
I am personally well aware of the relentless force of nature. The three pills I take every day to prevent a severe attack have served me fairly well over the last three years, but with age and perhaps a weakening of the effectiveness of the chemical cocktail I take, my vascular issues are returning to uncomfortable levels.
This is just nature; neither good nor evil, it favours the strong over the weak.
I am starting a new series of medical tests next week so that researchers whom I have trusted with my life can continue to protect me from nature’s recent show of force. In those three years, technology has no doubt advanced, and I am optimistic that science, the face of humanity, will find a solution for me. If not, I am hoping what research learns from me will someday help my children who may very well have this same disease. In a Malthusian world with less trust in science, the weak ones like me would never have lived long enough to have had children (or even dream of the joy of grandchildren). Nature would have made certain of that!
I am weak! I get my strength not from nature, but from humanity!
I don’t like using the term chronic illness. What I have is simply nature attacking the weak, but the “chronically ill”, with the protection of science, are fighting back for longer periods. With me, as with everyone, nature will eventually win, but, much to the disappointment of neo-Malthusians, science keeps getting better at finding solutions to protect the weak.
This is humanity at its best. I sometimes wonder how those arguing against vaccines, plant protection products and emerging technologies reconcile the inhumanity of the consequences of their dogma with their elevated sense of sanctimony. Our humanity is defined by the continuous drive of the sciences to protect the weak, not the drive of the righteous and strong to undo the achievements of science.
And I accept that I am weak. Many of the anti-science advocates, with an “arrogance of ignorance”, confidently inform me that my health issues are due to my lifestyle, diet and exposure to non-natural substances. They know nothing about me! That since my diagnosis, I have lost 18kg, became a vegetarian, run three marathons a year (qualified and ran Boston), am preparing, in my mid-50s, to run the Mont-Blanc Ultra Trail this August.
I have fought back hard, became so much stronger, but still I know full well how nasty nature can be. I have no respect for cosmopolitan zealots with an arrogance of ignorance thinking they can tell me personally what is wrong with my health and how a diet with more lemon juice will solve all of my problems. These same people tell industry what is wrong with them, tell farmers what they can and cannot do and think that reading 140 characters counts as research and experience.
Professor De Schutter has chosen to put his trust in nature. He must be a strong person. Professor Zaruk has chosen to put his trust in science. He knows he is a weak person. Where is humanity in this discussion?