I Should Be An Arbiter of Nobility

30 Jun 2009

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And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good -- Need we ask anyone to tell us these things? ~ Robert Pirsig's epigraph to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Years later [Robert Oppenheimer] would remember thinking to himself as he saw the towering cloud of the blast, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" --a quotation from his beloved Bhagavad Gita, in which the god Vishnu exhorts Prince Arjuna to do his duty and pursue martial greatness. From "The Agony of Atomic Genius" by Algis Valiunas

I have a cousin who works for Monsanto, a massive agricultural technology company that, among many other things, genetically bio-engineers living plants. As stated, I think that's a fairly objective description. It's also objectively certain that the name "Monsanto" generally calls to mind much more than just the image of a large international employer or a titanic biological R&D think-tank; depending on which side of a certain ideological spectrum from which one happens to view the company, it's likely regarded as the harbinger of either mankind's salvation or its downfall.

Quite unexpectedly, I began thinking about Monsanto today -- how some of the work being done by the scientists there has commonalities, at least in principle, to the research done by Manhattan Project scientists 60 years ago -- as I was reading a fascinating article on atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer, from which I quoted above. Here's another quote from the same source relevant to this topic:

They shouldn't have done it, the sentiment runs; they were scientists, after all, and they should have known better than to lend their intelligence to so terrible an undertaking. But can scientists really be expected to know better --indeed, to know best? Does their understanding of the workings of nature endow them with a sounder moral understanding than the common run of humanity?

Now, my cousin is quite proud of his genetic experimentation at Monsanto. Sadly, I've fallen somewhat out of touch with much of my extended family. When I remember this particular cousin, the loosely strung-together videos that flash across my mind's eye are consistently absolutely innocent, politically-unaware, warm and fuzzy things like horsing around in our Italian grandmother's home, riding dirtbikes around his childhood stomping grounds, swimming in their pool, cracking lewd jokes, etc. Since childhood, I suppose I've visited with him less than a dozen times, which would include my attending his wedding in St. Louis back (hmm ... ) in the late 80s or thereabouts, and his attending mine in 1994 (at which, quite memorably, he pulled me aside and privately offered some sincere words).

Anyway, he's a good guy and, from what I surmise, an accomplished scientist. And yet here I am 20-odd years down the line and I find myself on the opposite side of the aforementioned ideology. For example, let me share a few hair-raising snippets from a recent, admittedly critical, biotech book:

In traditional breeding the integrity of the organisms themselves places limits upon what can be done -- limits you could reasonably call "natural." For example, you could not cross a strawberry with a cold-water fish in order to obtain strawberries with "anti-freeze" genes. The problem now is that we can break through these limits, but we have not replaced the safeguard they represented. From Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering (2008) by Craig Holdredge and Steve Talbott
About 1 percent of genetic transfers yeild the looked-for result; the other 99 percent are all over the map. ... If there can be immediately obvious changes [in the "new" plant] ... there can be many more unobvious ones. It's hard to test for changes when anything can happen and you don't know what you're looking for. In actual practice, almost no such testing is done. (ibid).

To me, the science of GMO is a system by which a few mega-corporations profit enormously (ostensibly / ironically via a mission of altruistic concern for humanity) by releasing horrifically unnatural, incompletely understood, inadequately tested, and potentially harmful and invasive creations into the natural world.

For most of its history Monsanto was a chemical giant, producing some of the most toxic substances ever created, residues from which have left us with some of the most polluted sites on earth. Yet in a little more than a decade, the company has sought to shed its polluted past and morph into something much different and more far-reaching --an "agricultural company" dedicated to making the world "a better place for future generations." -- Monsanto's Harvest of Fear, by Donald Bartlett and James Steele, writing for Vanity Fair, May 2008.

I don't fault the scientists, for a natural curiosity surely drives them. Were Monsanto a privately funded research lab, of worldwide proportions yet also hermetically isolated from mother nature, I'd be fine with the pursuit and cataloging of knowledge that takes place there daily. However, monetized (and governmentally subsidized) in the ways that it currently is, GMO exposes the dark underside of a capitalism (1) unfettered by any perceptible moral code, at worst, or (2) influenced by a moral code that has itself been modified (read "perverted"), at best.

If you browse through my public writing, you'll no doubt find past, sometimes fanatical support for free-market capitalism. But I always maintained, I think (I hope ), a moral code that, beneath my signature smart-ass nature, respected humanity in my own particular way. My book Tales of the Midwest, for example, documents a wildly mischievous, borderline destructive adolescence, yet never within the pages would I have dared harm a person (other than, admittedly, myself). But, indeed, after considerable reflection toward the end of 2008, I rescinded some earlier views on certain free-market capitalist luminaries, owing largely to the adoption of a more holistic, more compassionate attitude toward not only my fellow man and fellow living things, but also increased sensitivity to the living entity that is this Earth, and likewise to larger cosmic systems, both visible and extra-sensory.

That today's bio-marketers and genetic scientists proudly identify with and suckle the altruistic mega-corporate PR message is crystal clear. One need not merely sense or infer the satisfaction they surely feel regarding their contribution to world hunger; members of these groups will gladly boast about it if prompted. Yet, that intuitive sense positively screaming the antithesis ("And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good -- Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" ) is the proverbial elephant in the lab.

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Imagine the deeply buried doubt some of these Ph.D.s (especially, one hopes, the younger generation) must certainly feel over the implications of patenting plants and animals, the unrelenting RIAA-like "seed police" enforcement arm, the undeniable toxicity and unsustainability of crops that spring forth specifically awaiting their patented, Monsanto-manufactured pesticide counterparts, and all of the future nightmares to come. True altruism does not manifest as such abominations against mother nature -- just as so many prior "accomplishments" from Monsanto have proven to be (e.g., Agent Orange, DDT, Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, Roundup and -- oh, they must be so proud of this new one -- the so-called "Terminator" technology that prevents plants from producing their own seeds).

That GMO is now entirely market-driven, consumer safety be damned, is ultra-clear. A while back, I was doing some research for our Pure Jeevan blog, looking into whether or not most of the papayas imported from Hawaii are GMO. I came across a document online (possibly this one, or something very similar from another government domain based in Hawaii) that essentially outlined a government-sponsored marketing plan aimed at reviving the Hawaiian papaya market, as well as specifically fostering a "a more general understanding and acceptance of GMO technology in agricultural applications." That governmental post states:

In the case of papaya, completing the deregulation process for Rainbow and SunUp in Japan is critical to assuring Hawaii's most important market niche in Japan. In addition, given the heightened level of activism opposing GM technology, using the success of transgenic papaya as a spring board for discussions with targeted clients should be very useful in assisting with acceptance of GM. (ibid).

"Success" is of course equated solely with "assuring Hawaii's most important market niche." So, let's see ... The scientists are in it for the knowledge. They're paid (very well, btw) by corporate leaders who are motivated by earnings per share and other such key SEC ratios. The corporate leaders then lobby and court politicians by demonstrating that, if their GMO technology is applied, more money returns to the politicians' districts. And, hey, all anyone has to do is eat papayas, which are universally regarded as healthy!

One of the obvious bastardizations, of course, is that a GMO papaya looks pretty much exactly like an organic one. And, if it's grown without further pesticide sprays, it may also taste nearly identical. Hell, it may even taste sweeter if the scientific team responsible for its creation has artificially amped up the genes related to sweetness. The problem, of course (as stated in the quote above from "Beyond Biotechnology"), is that, while the papaya may be sweeter and resistant to whatever scourge afflicts Hawaii, those genetic changes each represent only 1% of the overall genetic expression brought about by the genetic tampering.

As there is no way to test for the safety of something when you don't even know what to test for, the consumers are rendered guinea pigs, effectively presented with a wager (not that many of them even care) each time they purchase those artificially /temptingly cheap fruits: Do you believe that the other 99% of each of the genetic changes forced upon this item of produce might possibly affect you in some negative way?

Soon, I've read, we'll be growing pharmaceuticals. One of the pieces I cited above foresaw a flue vaccine delivered via a GMO banana. Apparently, that sort of thing isn't too far off on the bio-tech horizon. Soon, we'll all be able to O.D. on polio vaccine when Grandma uses the wrong bunch of bananas in her famous sweetbread.

But, the scientists and politicians have these risks 100% covered, I'm sure. Just Google "Agent Orange" and see if any health problems arose from what was deemed a harmless defoliant by all parties involved in its production in the 1960s. "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On June 30, 2009, Doc wrote:

"Buyer Beware!" Forgive me as I don't recall the phrase in it's original latin or greek.

I remember in high school reading a short story about a scientist who had discovered an atomic bomb like weapon and would turn it over to the government the next day. That night an agent from a protest group comes to his house and does his damndest to convince the scientist not to do it. The whole time they are talking, the scientist's retarded brother is sitting there. Nothing the agent can say will convince the scientist not to turn his research over to the government, as he needs the money badly to care for his retarded brother who needs round-the-clock care. The telephone rings and the scientist goes to the other room to answer it. The agent pulls a pistol from his pocket and debates with himself if he should just kill the scientist to keep him from doing what he is about to do. The agent decides that killing him would break his moral code and he can't bring himself to do that, so he leaves by the front door while the scientist wraps up his phone call.

The scientist returns to the room and notices that the agent is gone and heaves a sigh of relief that he won't have to argue with him any more. He is at ease for just a moment until he sees his retarded brother playing with the loaded pistol.

The final line of the story was what the scientist thinks to himself, "Who would give a gun to an idiot?"

It has been too long ago for me to remember the author or the name of the story but many, many times over the years this tale has come back to me and I find it to be as haunting now as it was when I was 17.

I am pleased that I am not the only one who gives these things more than a passing thought, but much more than that, I am delighted that you have found a spiritual awakening that makes you question beliefs and hold them up to a different light to see if they still hold true.

You seem to have found yourself in a transitional phase, and while that isn't always a good thing, this one has been especially good for you. I applaud your effort and would encourage you all that I can as this sort of thing rarely happens and needs to be nurtured so that it can reach it's fruition. If there is anything I can do to help, ask. Send me an Email at culture of beer at gmail dot com. I don't check it often, but I will now.

More than anything, I'm glad to see you writing again old friend, and as simplistic as it sounds, that you sound like you are happy and filled with wonder again. Never lose that.

Doc

On June 30, 2009, Doc wrote:

"Caveat Emptor"

"Let the buyer beware!"

Latin.

Thanks Flannery.

Doc

On July 2, 2009, Anonymous wrote:

Wonderful post, Bro!

~Sis

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