42. Protesting Monsanto’s Hijacking of Evolution

Monsanto is a name which brings together a whole rainbow of complex issues, ranging from the moral and economic to the agricultural and genetic. It is a name which brings out real anger in protesters around the world but it also affects the hungry, the poor, farmers, scientific researchers, investors (shareholders), employees of the company, the PR industry, and politicians. All of these are uneasy about a corporation which, while hijacking evolution, has carefully intertwined the good and the bad.1

On the one hand, scientific research and genetics have enabled the creation of new strains of seeds which are more resistant to diseases and pests, which produce more proteins and less wastage, are resistant to drought and saline conditions and which are generally favorable to farmers. Monsanto spends the equivalent of about 10 per cent of its annual sales on research and development.

On the other hand, associated products, such as sprays against viruses, fungi and destructive insects have also had devastating effects on bees and unknown side-effects on birds, frogs and even humans. The effect on the declining bee population and other species by the use of toxic sprays remains a most challenging issue — but Monsanto is not alone in this matter.

A contentious aspect of Monsanto’s operations is its insistence on contractual obligations which force farmers to buy Monsanto seed every year without any recourse — reversing an agricultural tradition going back to our very origins. Some critics contend that this goes against nature, others that it is against religion, but almost all agree that it is a policy motivated by corporate greed and excused on the ground that it enables continued research in biological engineering to take place.

There is no need for Monsanto to continue this program. In France, for example, when it sells unaltered seeds because the genetically altered versions have been prohibited by French law. (Despite all the money spent by Monsanto on PR and less open methods to persuade the French public and politicians not to ban the sterilized seeds.)

Monsanto has also spent millions fighting GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) being labeled on food products. Indeed, most developed countries have mandated labels at the insistence of environmental and consumer advocacy groups. However, this has not occurred in the United States, where the Food and Drug Administration maintains (because of the intense pressure exerted by Monsanto), that engineered food is no different than conventional food and so needs no labels that reveal details of production.

Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe, however. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. In the US, the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale.

A key issue remains how Monsanto sells and licenses its patented trait that allows farmers to kill weeds with its own Roundup herbicide while leaving crops unharmed. This particular genetic strain is now in almost the entire crop of soybeans grown in the US where Monsanto employs intellectual property law to prohibit farmers from saving seed. For example, Monsanto’s license (covering transfer of the seeds) forbids saving seeds and also requires that purchasers sign separate patent license agreements. Monsanto and other corporations contend that they need such product control to prevent seed piracy. Insidious is the word I use to describe this policy of patenting seed alteration and
then forcing farmers into contractual obligations.

And I am only one out of millions of protesters. Last year saw a global protest by the Occupy movement with impressive turn-outs. Despite the intensity of the opposition to a number of Monsanto products, the corporation did not change its position on any of the contentious challenges it faces. It simply spent even more on PR. As of this writing a global March Against Monsanto is scheduled for both May 24th and 25th on the internet, leading me to wonder whether this corporation is trying to undermine the protest movement!2 One can hope that global anger will eventually be effective in altering the management’s intransigence.

If Monsanto were to drop compulsory purchasing of its patented seeds, for example, it could produce an astounding turn around of its public image: It might it even lose its ranking as the most despised corporation in the world! The millions of dollars it could save currently being expended on PR, law suits and protecting all its offices, plants, employees and distributors from attack would more than make up for the losses on abandoning its compulsory purchasing programs.

1Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004) p.72
2See internet: Protest Marches Against Monsanto 2014

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41. The Digital Follies

As a writer looking at our future potentialities, it is my job to caution readers that current trends suggest that we should consider the reckless speed at which we are developing robots and automation around the world. Given the competitive nature of capitalism, it is no wonder that Silicon Valley geeks are working all-out to increase the capacity of their products. Today’s digital follies are far wilder than anything Disney or Playboy could have imagined. James Lovelock, the brains of celebrated ‘gaia” (the acronym for God Answers In Absentia) suggests that we should contemplate collaboration rather than confrontation with the upcoming generation of clever robots.

Since having a pacemaker inserted, Lovelock thinks it only may be a short time before his body will be hooked onto the internet, receiving spam!1 This delightful prospect has yet to fully sink in. As it is, my brain daily rejects dozens of pharmaceutical offers filling my laptop. What if this spam soon will be infiltrated into my brain via an implanted chip? How would I then get rid of the stream of commercial rubbish? Would I even be capable of pushing a delete button?

Lovelock thinks “computers are getting more and more organic all the time.” He points out that they are already being made out of carbon and says “I can envisage a process whereby an endosymbiotic person with things in it will sufficiently fuse the two life systems together (so) that it will become a single person that will breed true.” How’s that for a Frankenstein film where “it” becomes an entity “that” breeds true? Breeding false would even be more fantastic — although in films this happens all the time. The sex scenes of tomorrow should be particularly entrancing as the “things in it” might suddenly spring out of it to the accompaniment of an updated operatic version of “la transviata.”

I have been seriously wondering, while writing this blog what tomorrow’s robots really would be like: would they have one eye or many? Would they have mouths or just speakers? Would they be made of pliable plastics or metal? Would they be asexual, bi-sexual, or just different? This is important not only in terms of the mechanics of construction but also in terms of any eventual forms of “breeding true” or other less intimate “collaboration.” We currently think of robots as “it.” However, they may find it demeaning to be talked about in this manner. The looming social complications are such that I think we should stick to the familiar theme of conflict between the sexes before we start including the two species. After all, the robots might think of us like we now tend to think of the Neanderthals.

No one seems to have considered whether sexed robots would be endowed with buttocks? Or whether these ‘carbon’ creations should go topless? Will they ever need to be dressed at all? (Most unlikely. Oh, well, that could be the end of the fashion industry altogether. Result: millions more out of jobs.) The robot/humans will not feel the cold so they won’t need warm clothes and if it gets really hot through climate change, nano air-conditioning could be installed in their bodies before parts began to melt.

Neuroscientists using super-computers, DNA scanners, and nano-probes are making steady advances in understanding the mechanism of the cortex and other brain sectors. They still have a way to go before they understand the operation of consciousness which they are certain exists as a unit to be explored. The futurologist Michio Kaku2 claims we are on the verge of digitally mapping and modeling the structure of the human brain which will then lead to replication. Once neuroscientists have made that breakthrough, the workings of the brain itself will be exposed and they should then be able to increase, decrease or alter its powers. I shall spare you the yet unfilmed scenes of mice brains being microscopically studied by neuroscientists exploring the inner workings of consciousness.

The unplanned digital revolution is overthrowing our way of life and the consequences are hardly being recognized. All our business — from banking to the stock market — has been affected; so have our privacy, our social habits, our workplaces and our education. Our communication as human beings is being altered at a pace no one a few generations back ever imagined as a possibility.

Nor could they have foreseen the condensed vacuity of twitter politics nor the deep tremors shaking our mating habits. The social impact of the arrival of the robhums (robot-humans) has not even been considered by any EU commissioner in Brussels!

With youth unemployment so high and climbing globally, should we truly be working on advanced new robots? As it is, many of the youths who have received university educations can’t find jobs. Were they over-educated or under-programmed? I seem to be encountering some kind of robots at my local co-op shopping counter every day. I encounter a different class of financial sector robots on the London train clicking their laptops. Given the number of close-to-robots we have right now on this planet, do we really need to create robhums?

Scientists working at MIT or in the labs of Microsoft, developing the new possibilities of nano-technology, are far removed from the radical consequences nanos may have on our way of life. They leave this, and the introduction of robots, to “the market” to decide which products will be successful — irrespective of the consequences. And the impact will be far reaching. Are “pure” humans all going to be branded (for more than commercial reasons) with nano-tattooed digital identities? Will those evading or trying to escape such control be coded as nano “enemies” or “terrorist suspects”?3 Yes, there is no doubt about it, ‘pure-bred’ robots will be far more trustworthy.

How far do we want to go? Are there any limits? Ultimately will the rapid and not carefully thought-out advances of science lead to “new brains” controlling our currently rather uncontrollable species?

A few decades ago President Pompidou told the French in blunt terms and with a Gallic hunching of the shoulders: “La Belle France, c’est fini.” That is to say, the France we have known is finished. Let’s face it: If the robots and humans are ultimately connected, “the good times” will be at an end for all that remained ‘human’ in our great-grandchildren. So much for the Digital Follies of today and tomorrow!

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1Stephen Moss, Interview with James Lovelock, The Guardian March 31, 2014, p.8
2Michio Kaku, The Future of the Mind, 2014
3Bryan Appleyard, “Hot gospellers,” The New Statesman, April 4, 2014, pp.23-25

40. In The Public Interest

The ideals implicit in the term “in the public interest,” have been with me ever since I left my teens. The writings of John Stuart Mill and the British utilitarians, with their concern about the greatest good for the largest numbers, were at the basis of my original curiosity about this complex social concept. In the early age of television when color was first introduced, I was particularly appalled by the intrusion of commercials and sponsorship in American broadcasting when compared to the paternalistic controls of the airwaves being promulgated by Lord Reith at the BBC. Now there was my role model of an organization being run for and in the public interest.

I must confess that coming from an artistic family, I had little but contempt for banks, commerce, and the stock market (which I regarded as a professional high-stakes gambling den.) I saw corporations as carefully structured legal ways for investors and directors to escape liabilities and all responsibilities except for making profit. And in my mind, a profit by one party always entailed a loss by another. While capitalism seemed a frail system, state socialism as practiced by the Russians seemed to blend control, compulsion and terror. American democracy, however, seemed to hold ideals full of promise but often remiss in the actual fulfillment of commitments to “the public interest.”

One of my heroes during that era was the essayist Walter Lippmann who wrote that “the public interest may be presumed to be what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently.”1 In his time the term “in the public interest” was central to politics, policy debates and the proper functioning of government. While there was general consensus that furthering the well-being and general welfare of the people was a positive goal, little agreement existed on exactly what constituted the public interest.

Another scholar at that time, Pendleton Herring, wrote that “The concept of public interest holds the ultimate ethical justification for the demands that the state makes on the individual. The high value placed upon freedom and justice calls for the readiness of the citizen to make sacrifices if necessary and to share responsibility for sustaining the values of the polity.”2 Indeed, the public interest demanded considerations that transcended the immediate, the selfish and the merely expedient. The collective impulse of human beings and the need for social bonding and community were implicit in Herring’s concept of the public interest. The principles of justice, caring, health, education as well as economic interdependence were also fundamentally involved.

I think I reflected that spirit in my first book, One Viewer (1959) which examined the violation of ‘the public interest’ by the nascent industry of that time. I quoted one spokesperson, Richard Salant (who later became President of CBS) to the effect that, “We’ve let ourselves get pushed into agreeing that the words ‘public interest’ in the Communications Act really mean that kind of programming in which not much of the public seems to be very interested.”

Since then politicians in Washington and London have steadily undermined the public interest by selling a variety of airwaves (which rightly belong to the nation) to corporations and individuals, to the overall detriment of the people. The way commercials began to dominate what Americans saw on their television screens remains both a national scandal and a national tragedy. Other natural resources, such as water, oil, gas and coal, began to be sold by the state to corporations and even to foreign nations. Usually the excuse given by politicians was that the sale helped reduce (temporarily) the national deficit. As a consequence the Chinese, French, Germans and Americans now own most of the water rights and much of the power supply in the UK. For whose long term interest is this?

Today neo-conservatives believe that the public interest is best served when there is none. Some libertarians believe that when the public service is driven by government then authoritarianism or even totalitarianism could result. Both these extremists hold that government should get out of the way of corporations if well-being is to be attained.3 When it comes to the decline of concern about “the public interest” over the last 50 years, the lobbying and pressure exerted on both Congress and Parliament have come from the legally irresponsible global corporations whose driving motivation is profit. Just about the only demands shareholders of the corporations ever make concern profits (and their gains are always taxed at much lower levels than the earnings of the workers resulting in gross inequalities of wealth) with consequent losses for the state of a nation’s common good. There has been increased concern about the evasive corporate tactics in off-shore havens to shelter their gains and avoid taxation so instrumental to the functioning of the state in furthering the well-being of the population.

So where are we headed? Is profit truly the be-all and end-all of our species? I can’t believe we don’t have higher social, cultural and spiritual aspirations. That is why I am writing this blog.4 Like the public interest, our common good is not static. It shifts — both with our understanding and with scientific advances — our attitudes on what is possible, what we as human beings can create. In one word: progress. Continuing technological and scientific breakthroughs in communication are increasingly connected to the demands of the public interest. Crucial elements such as population increase, social inequalities and environmental considerations all have an impact on changes in the public interest. So do such commonly enjoyed services as transportation, water supply and energy distribution. Few people are prepared to sacrifice their current comforts for the potential risks involved in the construction of more nuclear reactors as a source of cheap energy. We now recognize threats posed by Chernobyl and Fukushima. Is it for the Common Good or in the Public Interest to proceed with building more?

Is the continued fervor for “privatization” of the few remaining publicly owned resources truly for the Common Good or is it for the enrichment — as it has proven to be — of a select group of the wealthy? Transportation, education, prisons, health and child care are all under consideration for private outsourcing. This despite the revelations of Blackwater, KBR and Wackenhut in the US and G4, Atos and other groups in the UK. Many American States (16 so far) have introduced legislation to rein in the reckless outsourcing of public services to for-profit corporations and private entities. This will help to keep taxpayers in control of their services and increase both accountability and transparency. Nevertheless some states like Georgia have been considering such follies as the outsourcing of that state’s foster care system. In the UK the practices of miscreant outsourcing groups has proved to be an increasing embarrassment to the coalition government.

There are currently many ideas and groups debating new organizational forms for public services offering alternatives to the current impasse between profit and non-profit organizations. The possibility of such innovation has appealed to the British government and new arrangements have been made for the railway infrastructure (Network Rail) and through high performance NHS trusts in Foundation Hospitals. The government itself has come out in favor of a Community Interest Company to encourage social enterprise in the Public Interest.

The Gubelkian Foundation has assisted in establishing bodies not only looking at the design and potential of such new organizations but also to project the obstacles and difficulties these might face in delivering effective services. These include: How much autonomy would the organization have, including independence from government and political control? To what extent could the public purpose of such an organization be assured? Could private profit be made from its public service? Who would own the assets of the organization and how could these assets be disposed of? Who would be responsible for the direction and probity of this body? How would it raise capital to provide its service to greater numbers of groups or people? Indeed, how would efficiency be determined and achieved? The range and scope of these crucial questions is impressive indeed.

In democracies, the private-interest view of government assumes that politicians want to be elected (or re-elected). This is the public sector equivalent to the private sector assumption that businessmen try to maximize profit. Further, just as businessmen must respond to customers, and thus often are forced to do those things that the customers want, so politicians must respond to voters. This need to respond to voters has led politicians to enact socially beneficial programs which are sometimes greater than the economy can support. Following a decade of rather excessive spending by the Labour government, the aim of George Osborne at the Treasury has been to drastically reduce spending. The UK has cut public services by 8 percent since the coalition came to office but plans for the future are that the cuts by 2018 will total a reduction of 20 percent in eight years. The adverse affects of this will be on all but the richest and are unlikely to be ‘in the public interest.’

As opposed to the public-interest economic view, the private-interest of economic theory holds that those who are involved in government have the same motivations as those in the private sector; that is, they are motivated by a narrow concept of self interest: wealth, fame and power. If what is in the public’s interest is also in the private interest of government decision-makers, the public interest will be served. If there is a conflict between the public’s interest and the private interest of governmental decision-makers, the public’s interest will lose. It is the incentive structure that determines behavior, suggest these economic theorists. A poor performance by government indicates a bad incentive structure, not a problem with motives.

Even if we know everything and the rules for it, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, “the public interest” remains a puzzle. It has been called “the central concept of a civilized polity. Its genius lies not in its clarity but in its perverse and persistent moral intrusion upon the internal and external discourse of rulers and ruled alike.” Thus, as a value-laden concept, “the public interest” is to be much admired for its utility as a myth. I recognize it as more than just that: I view it as a basic recognition of our interdependence which encompasses the scope and diversity of our humanity for the good of our species in the years ahead.

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1Walter Lippmann, Essays in the Public Philosophy, (1955) p.42

2Pendleton Herring, “Public Interest”, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, (1968) Vol.13, p.171

3Marcus G. Raskin, The Common Good, (1986) p.24.

4Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004)

5Stephen K. Bailey, “The Public Interest: Some Operational Dilemmas” (1962)