A need for gray

Nothing quite gets the Grumpy Geophysicist into a full blown episode of grumping than people who see the world in black and white and paint with broad brushes. Since we’ve pounded on stupidity on the right some (injection wells and earthquakes, global warming, evolution), it feels like it is time to remind the political left of its own failings.  Let’s talk fracking and GMOs.

First, the broad brush and fracking.  As mentioned many times before, the equivalence of “fracking” with “oil and gas development” is a misnomer. It is more like the relationship between turning the key in an ignition and driving a car: a small part of a broader activity. What most protesters mean when they say “fracking” is “dense oil and gas development.” It is unwise to write legislation that confuses the two, as arguably the city of Longmont did in attempting to ban fracking but allowing oil and gas development. Hey, you can drive your car, but just don’t turn on the ignition.

OK, on to black and white. Many fracking opponents essentially oppose all oil and gas development. A few do it because they want to keep as much of the fossil carbon in the ground as possible, but most do it because they don’t like the risk of polluted groundwater, the smell of drilling operations, the noise and trucks. All fine reasons to oppose development that produces those outcomes, but is shutting the whole industry down the best possible answer?  Arguably not: if oil and gas development of unconventional resources yields fewer overall environmental impacts than, say, mining tar sands or mountaintop removal of coal, then in the grand scheme of things, it might be better to shut down the worst offenders while allowing the unconventional developments to continue. Similarly, automobiles kill tens of thousands annually; we could ban them to solve the problem, but instead we try to make them safer. Demanding solutions to the impacts of unconventional oil and gas development is a fine response: better checks on well cementing and waste water pits, legal remedies for when aquifers are polluted, reasonable setbacks from residential areas, etc. When you make a contest all or nothing, you risk getting nothing.

How about GMOs?  Well, first off nearly everything you digest is modified genetically from a purely natural ancestor. The argument is that modern gene-splicing techniques are producing foods hazardous to humans or the environment (let us set aside a parallel argument related to the ownership of seeds with some of these products, which has less to do with the science of creating the plant and more to do with the odd legalities of owning a genome). To this point, the available GE foods show no sign of having an adverse effect on people (feel free to read the NAS report on genetically engineered foods). The irony of many GMO opponents stocking up on unregulated, untested and occasionally dangerous “natural” supplements is palpable. Blanket bans on GMOs are not warranted scientifically, and increased crop yields with decreased use of herbicides would seem an overall good. That said, there are possibilities out there that could justify particular plants being banned; right now the main focus has been on developing plants resistant to certain herbicides or pesticides, but changes in the edible part of the plant could produce allergens or other compounds hazardous to humans or the environment.  So while existing crops appear safe, we know less about emerging crops. Arguably the same risk has existed with traditional means of altering plants. There are other issues tied to the proper use of engineered plants that arguably should be regulated (e.g., avoiding the drift of pesticide resistance to wild plants or the wholesale destruction of bee colonies through crop management associated with GE plants). So, once again, gray seems warranted: consider what a particular new crop is designed to do (whether from gene splicing or traditional agricultural practices), regulate it as necessary and ban it only if it makes sense.

UPDATE 11/4: The New York Times recently ran a piece indicating that the claims for GM crops of increased yield and decreased use of pesticides and herbicides is falling short. Part of this might be caused by the motivation of the company creating the organisms (Monsanto is not interested in selling less herbicide, for instance), part the puffery of how much new stuff should be better than old stuff. None of this indicates that existing GM foods are unsafe, and there is an indication that insecticide use does decrease, but that other claims on behalf of GM crops are not supported.

The world is a complex place, and much of what happens is out of our direct control, a reality that induces fear and anger. The simplicity of black-and-white answers is appealing and arguably drives far too many of our political disagreements. It used to be said that politics was the art of the possible. When we replace our legitimate concerns (water pollution, poisonous food) with blanket solutions (no fracking, no GMOs), we prevent the negotiation of truly beneficial compromises.  Before you simply blame some elected legislature for not doing what you want, look in the mirror and ask, am I seeking solutions to my actual concerns–or even a better understanding of those issues–or am I demanding blanket capitulation to a sweeping solution from my opponents? If the latter, is it any surprise that legislation produces gridlock? Is it wise to make the perfect the fatal enemy of the good?

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