New Internationalist

René, what have you wrought?

Issue 333

A ghostly apparition appears to John Gough as he sits observing the trial of British Greenpeace activists charged with pulling up genetically modified (GM) crops. Gough’s mind wanders into a conversation with the 17th-century founder of modern scientific method, René Descartes.

Norwich Law Courts. England. Twenty-eight Greenpeace activists in the dock for destroying GM crops. In the middle of Peter Melchett’s testimony I drift off.

Do it all the time, a habit of mine, drift in and out like flotsam. My mind becomes a vast ocean, reaching back to distant horizons as I listen to the ebb and flow of conversation. Not always good when you are supposed to be taking copious notes in Court 2 on a Tuesday morning.

Everybody’s lips move but I cannot hear what they are saying. A jumble of associations dance on the veneered courtroom walls. Of being comfortably numb. Deaf. Dumb. Decisions behind closed doors. WTO. GMOs. The Scientific Revolution. Galileo, Descartes, Newton. Nature as a dead inanimate system, mere machine, divested of meaning.

Most of all, Descartes. Is this the world we have created, René? Has it taken us 300 years to realize the full implications of your thought? Is this what we have come here today for? The sense of déjà vu, the sickening inevitability of it all.

René Descartes, you stand in the dock. We have become slaves to your System, that people now bow down before, fearful of the power and authority of the Church Cartesian. You stand accused of crimes against nature and humanity, of philosophical perversity, absurdity, the death of animal species and cultural diversity, of lies and hypocrisy: in short, driving us all up the wall.

For what you were proposing was a new religious revelation, a radical revision of nature that had not really occurred to any other social animal. Welcome, he said, to the Scientific Revolution, a process that will sweep everything in its path and brush up every nook and cranny of the universe, leaving no nation, notion or nerve untouched. Welcome, he says, to the New Philosophy, New Science.

If Galileo is the remonstrator and Newton the engineer, then Descartes is the author, the prophet and embodiment of the New Science. There is nothing in this world that is not in some sense anticipated by him.

And so I’m dreaming again, watching another spectacle, another showdown in the war. On 26 July 1999 science and nature, the mechanics and organics, synthetic and naturals, fought it out on a three-hectare field in the Battle of Lyng, Norfolk, England. ‘The Luddites are at it again,’ says René. ‘When will they ever learn?’ No, I think, maybe this time the tide is turning, eyes are opening. One hour of sacrifice and integrity is worth more than an eternity of your congenitally blind philosophy.

So like gods we observe them in the courtroom, waiting for the verdict, the aggregate opinion. Maybe just for once the gods are all with us, gods of Beauty, Love, Mystery and Trees – before we put them all into beams. The theme, of course, is nothing new. We have been here hundreds of times before. Just another space-time location, script and variation in the surrender of spirit to materialism.

Lord Melchett is speaking. ‘You see, the theoretical and natural sciences have little recognition or experience of the essential problems involved in nature and the everyday world of farming.’ The gist of the rest goes something like this, angled a little toward modern physics. Nothing in life is linear or rational. Actually nature is a web of relations that reaches out toward other things. Carelessly throwing GM into nature is like throwing a stone not only into a pool but into the ocean of life, the natural world. It’s a form of ‘live pollution’ because it reverberates in unpredictable and unknown ways.

Carelessly throwing GM into nature is like throwing a stone into the ocean of life, the natural world

Peter Melchett is talking about his own organic farm in Ringstead, Norfolk. A farm is not exactly a controlled situation where everything fits together. Not exactly a lab. Seed and pollen may be dispersed in any number of ways associated with farm practices and machinery – by wind, birds, bees, spillage from trucks, tractors, broken bags. GM cannot and will never be safely controlled, because it will spread, cross-fertilize and replicate itself by any number of means, interfering with conventional and organic crops. Profitable maybe. But senseless and careless. Hence the Greenpeace cutter, tractor and truck ready to load up the GM crop and send it back to its owners, AgrEvo. Lawful excuse? Imminent danger to nature. The crop was about to pollinate and contaminate the surrounding area.

Some time over 400 years ago our culture put on a blindfold and stuck its head on the block. Out went the lights and we got lost in the dark. The ‘Divine Engineers’ made distinctions about nature never conceived by any other tribe or creature. To them nature was merely a machine made of mathematical relations. Peeling away the mask of nature revealed matter, the ‘real’ world, the ‘primary realm’ of quantity where a thing exists by virtue of its measurability – its size, shape, number, position – its ‘objective’ properties. That these objective relations might in themselves be objectionable and senseless – as the likes of Blake and Coleridge lamented – is only just occurring to the modern mind. Science announced the death of nature. Just as Descartes said, everything must be wiped clean, ‘even the very existence of life and consciousness, for these belonged to the realm of ‘secondary properties’, which just happened to include sense and sensibility, quality, colour, warmth, harmony, friendship, honour, dignity, morality and meaning – and other conscious acts and ethical etceteras. They were stumbling blocks, belied reality, had to be peeled away and surrendered so as to ‘discover’ the ‘objective’ truth. One day everything would be discovered, or so it seemed, and science marched on in the name of truth and progress, liberating us all from the lie of spirituality. So rendering reality-as-it-is, the New Philosophy was given the carte blanche to hoodwink humanity. It was in a sense a bargain. Surrender the soul and get power in return.

If a cat is merely a complex inanimate system then vivisection is a perfectly rational act. And if the cat is the world then it’s just a bigger experiment.

Only by proxy of God could the New Science claim its objective mandate, because only an external creator from the ‘outside’ could guarantee its truth. Truth, then, was always ‘out there’ in the cold: the world was merely a machine, a computing system, and only those Divine Engineers who could understand the language of God were capable of fixing it. Much like the modern architect, without reference to harmony or colour, individual or vernacular, out came the geometry sets, all pristine and primary clean. God forbid any sensible questioning of the physiocrats or the moral mandates. For within the imperative ‘is’ was contained the conditional ‘ought’. If a cat, for example, is merely a complex inanimate system then vivisection is a perfectly rational act. And if the cat is the world then it’s just a bigger experiment. Spiritual objections merely betray ignorance of the true nature of the world, for its objects and relations are qualitatively different in kind to anything natural or human.

Smile, open eyes, awake to Lord Melchett and the Greenpeace 28, the whirr of an air conditioner and the modern universe. Strange place to be. WTO, GMOs, they are all the same to me, come from the same testament and liturgy, with its acronyms, transformation rules for taking away the flavour, the essence of reality and replacing it with an acrimonious synthetic quality.

If Greenpeace don’t win, at least they don’t lose. The jury clear them of theft but is undecided on criminal damage. But for me it’s René who stands accused. And, strangely enough, he did wonder whether, underneath the basis of his New Science, there was not some ‘malignant demon who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful and has employed all his artifice to deceive me’. Case of the blind leading the blind, René? Or are we still playing peek-a-boo?

As you can imagine, I am not exactly the sort of person to entertain a dinner party à la mode Cartésienne. Actually, quite a bore. ‘Stress management’, ‘pro-active thinking’, ‘performance’, pretty predictable metaphors, all so cool and abstract, all dandy and Descartes, metaphysical and common, potent and deceitful.

Best fill the wine glass and get some fresh air. Go out and see the stars. Alone. Away from it all. Is this a harvest for the world? Hear the Crown want a retrial. Here we go again, René, me and Greenpeace and the crystal ball. Excuse me if I snore. Or cry out loud.

John Gough is an eco-journalist based in Norwich, Britain.

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