We must resist the siren calls to abandon technology and global free trade



The outbreak of a global pandemic in recent weeks has amplified the noises from those who see global supply chains, a massive human population, and free trade between them, as the source of most ills. Environmentalists, including the UN agroecologists, who want to see aeroplanes grounded and food locally sourced are seeing their dreams come true this week.

Yet if this is the solution to global problems, then there are no halfway houses. Large populations have only been a phenomena of the last century, supported by technological innovations that have allowed for dizzying proportions of growth. Humans have indeed multiplied and subdued the earth to make it fruitful. So, what next?

At the end of the Battlestar Galactica remake the rag tag crew of humanity find themselves beached on the shores of a new planet. We recognise it as Earth, landing in present day Tanzania, at the cradle of civilization 150,000 years in the past, with the crew’s robot-human love child entering the hominoid population as mitochondrial Eve to make modern day homo sapiens. Mind-bending stuff.

But the moral of the story is a sad one. Having battled for survival across four seasons of blistering science-fiction meets political and legal-drama action, everyone decides that they do not like their technology any more.

The feeling is that it always leads to nuclear war and death. So they fly every piece of kit they’ve got into the sun, and take up isolated micro-populations on different continents without so much as an MMR vaccine among them.

We can deduce that everyone dies. It is a mad strategy. Isolating yourself without so much as a sharpened bone to filet a fish. They have no immunity. There aren’t people to trade with. A change in the weather and most would be wiped out.

This is the conceit that a return to nature is what humanity needs. We would grow what we need from the ground and eat it around the wood fire while chanting fertility songs to the stars that circle above us. There would be no patriarchy, no racial oppression, just a safe space and a Citizens Assembly.

It’s just that we know that none of that is true. Civilization has emerged from a primordial brutish soup. Prosperity based on free trade and technological innovation has allowed for not only the growth of populations and our societies but also the rights and legal protections that an educated and civilised prosperous society can afford. Yet it is these very technologies that we now want to reject.

For example, it is advances in medical technology too that has allowed for increased longevity of a large populace, including vaccinations, antibiotics, pain medication, surgery and the rest, to prevent or treat conditions that would have caused our ancestors their early deaths.

In recent years, it is synthetic organic compounds, some of which are called pesticides, that have contributed to the huge spike in global agricultural production that has allowed for our huge population growth. Without them we wouldn’t have enough to eat. Chemical pesticides are even used to grow organic food. They are critical for tackling, for example, the locust plagues swarming upon Uganda and Kenya at the moment.

It is advances in fertilizers and pesticides, and new innovations like satellite technology to assist in their application, that have allowed for a growth in agricultural yield while protecting the environment.

It is advances in genetic technology, including CRISPR, the ability to alter traits within a gene without importing genetic material from another organism, that bodes well for improved yields resistant to pests and environmental challenges.

And yet, the very technologies that have allowed us to reach this point are now scrutinized and rejected. Anti-vaxxers believe the scientific community are conspiring to make their children autistic. Environmental campaigners believe genetically modified crops a means to subject subsistence farmers in Africa to the monopolistic grip of multinational corporations. Supermarket shoppers are convinced that produce grown without pesticides or chemicals, with no plastic involved in their transport, are going to be healthier for them and the planet.

This is honestly the sort of suicidal lunacy of the crew of a fictional television series. The coronavirus, if anything, is a reminder of our mortality and frailty as a species. We are so used to the marvel of modern technologies to pretty-much eradicate most of the pains our vulnerabilities are open to, that not having a vaccine for a new pestilence is rightly terrifying.

Yet, if we are to ban neonics, halt the development of genetic modification of crops, and plunge headfirst instead into idyllic fantasies about allotment-based food security to prevent our vulnerability to supply-chain collapse, we may as well accept the societal collapse XR both anticipate and agitate for, and make peace with it now.

Boris Johnson stood resolute against the black door of number 10 hair aglow in the sun at his first speech as Prime Minister embracing technology: fibre-optic broadband and, unshackled from EU precaution, embracing genetic modification. As the country, or Twitter, drowns in the anguish over how to respond to COVID19, let us take stock of the advantages of technological progress and rather than resist them, embrace them with enthusiastic optimism for the sake of future generations.

Chris Bullivant is a freelance writer who has led two Westminster think tanks and worked on K Street in Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter: @chrisbullivant