George Monbiot is the eloquent environmental campaigner who would be down a hole protesting were it not for claustrophobia. Science, particularly genetics and biotechnology, is his latest target. Julia Hinde reports
Were it not for claustrophobia, the last few weeks would have seen George Monbiot down a hole with Animal, Swampy and the rest of their motley crew of protesters. For Monbiot is right behind their bid to prevent unnecessary road building, regarding their week-long occupation of an underground tunnel near the proposed A30 road near Honiton in Devon as wholly admirable.
Monbiot, 34, is the acceptable, and increasingly fashionable, face of environmental activism, treading a sensitive line between "direct action" and eloquent intellectual justification of protests aimed at preserving our countryside.
No stranger to Twyford Down or other campaign sites, he speaks with pride about outrunning security guards - most recently at the now defunct Pure Genius, a sustainable village set up in a former Guinness plant by homeless people as well as by campaigners. The latter were determined to highlight what they saw as the misuse of derelict land earmarked to become yet another huge supermarket. Bailiffs finally removed the makeshift village, but not before much local and national publicity for the cause.
Monbiot's activities have not been confined to Britain. He first went in search of social injustice in the Third World aged 24. A modern-day explorer, he ventured to the far east of Indonesia to investigate reports of forced mass migration away from overcrowded Java to underpopulated parts of the country. Ostensibly devised to improve the economic prospects of the migrants and to take pressure off the land, Monbiot had heard that the programme had a more sinister purpose - to dilute tribal traditions in the far east where there were rumblings of dissent.
Now, ten years on, he fears that tribes such as the Dani of upland central Irian Jaya will become victims of a new programme which, he claims, uses modern science in a monstrous manner. "It's a diabolical scheme," he says, describing a programme in which scientists visit remote tribal groups believed to possess unusual genetic blueprints, take genetic samples and store them in gene banks. "Just like you would with endangered wildlife," he adds. "In no sense are they concerned with why these people are dying out."
Monbiot says the genes are being patented in the hope that ones with an ability to fight leukaemia or other diseases may be found. "This is happening now," he says, citing examples from Papua New Guinea. "I think it is a monstrous application of science, comparable to Joseph Mengele's experiments in Nazi Germany. There is a very strong argument for stopping this now. It's not normal exploitation. They are taking part of an individual - their very blueprint."
Monbiot's intense distrust of the Human Genome Diversity Programme is part of his general anxiety that modern science is taking a dangerously narrow focus, an anxiety he aired this week in a strongly worded Amnesty lecture attacking contemporary scientific values, particularly those governing work in the fields of genetics and biotechnology.
An Oxford zoology graduate, who was until recently a visiting fellow at Green College, Oxford, Monbiot believes that current and future scientific developments present us with potentially some of the most devastating environmental and social problems imaginable. "What is going on in labs both fascinates and worries me. It is impinging more and more on environmental and social justice. There are certain critical issues that have not received the full attention which is their due or, if they have, the ethical issues have been fudged. These are areas of genuine concern that are not being attended to. If we don't, we could see technologies that have potential benefit for man turning against us.
"I am very concerned at the blurring of the line between pure and applied science so that it no longer exists. Today a great deal of research is initiated with its final commercial application in mind. Scientists are no longer driven solely by a curiosity about the way the world is put together and about how we live our lives," he adds.
Monbiot may not have practised science for a decade, and his knowledge of genes and lab advances may be only second-hand, but his conviction is real and he speaks with the same animated concern that punctuates his discussion of land rights. What concerns him most is the "very powerful surge towards reductionism" visible in life science labs up and down the country - at the cost of a larger-scale view of the world, which is what science, in Monbiot's view, should really be all about.
"There is a great concentration on molecular biology and genetics. It's exciting and there are huge commercial incentives to engage in this research. I don't necessarily blame individual scientists for pursuing this, but while they have their heads down, the real issues that science should be addressing are being ignored.
"Forests are disappearing terribly fast. Just when we need broad analysis of these situations and a great scientific effort around how we can best save them, what do we get but the replacement of broad-based ecological forestry work with molecular taxonomy? Such work has no environmental or social justice component. It may be very useful to the timber industry, but it does nothing to protect the forests."
Industry, he says, will support and benefit from such reductionist research, regardless of whether or not government money is available in support. Government money should, he says, instead be used to support more visionary science.
"Take health," he suggests, fiddling with the small round silver-framed glasses that perch on the end of his boyish face. "In university faculties huge investment is being put into gene sequencing. What would have a much greater effect on the health of people around the world would be good primary health care, sanitation and clean water. We now know a lot about many Third World diseases, but we are not doing nearly enough to stop them. There has been a shift from preventative medicine to a more expensive, more exclusive therapeutic medicine."
Monbiot happily confides that the more he discovers, the more concerned he becomes. Genetic engineering is not much help to the rural farmers of Africa or South West India, he says. Rather, technological advances are indirectly leading to the ruin of small landowners who are forced from the countryside to city slums because of advances thousands of miles away.
Indigenous crops, bought by large pharmaceutical companies from impoverished Third World farmers, are being genetically engineered and then sold back to the farmers from whom the original crop, the product of 10,000 years of natural development, was bought. The new crop, with the aid of implanted genes, outgrows the original. So the impoverished farmer, if he is to compete with his neighbour, must buy the new seeds to survive. But it is not just a question of buying the new seed once, says Monbiot. Instead he cites examples of farmers being charged a royalty for the patent.
"This favours enormously the big farmers who have their eye on the international market and wipes out the small peasant farmer. This is the next step up from the Green Revolution. That in many ways was inequitable, leading in many countries to a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. But the use of patents takes it up an order of magnitude."
Monbiot's concerns for the ethical use of genetic advances are far reaching and raise issues that he believes no scientist can justifiably ignore. Britain's tough stance on xenotransplantation, the transplant of genetically modified animal organs to humans, Monbiot suggests, could result in commercial companies, keen to capitalise on potential new technology, choosing to undertake clinical trials abroad, in countries with less stringent human and animal rights records, such as China.
Concerns that transplants of genetically modified organs could result in the spread of as yet undiscovered and potentially catastrophic retroviruses leaves Monbiot convinced that xenotransplantation is an international issue needing international action. "I would like to see some sort of equivalent of the sexual tourism laws covering xenotransplantation," he says. "It's the equivalent of sexual tourism. If they can't do it in England, they go to Thailand."
He is also deeply concerned by what he describes as Britain's historical lack of ethical decision-taking before controversial new technology becomes available. "At the moment all ethical issues which affect science are taken after the technology becomes available," he claims. "I am very worried about our past ad hoc decision-making. I would like to see us planning an ethical framework before technology becomes available." If not, he says, demand for a new technology will supersede ethical considerations.
According to Monbiot, academics have responsibilities to society they cannot ignore. "I think many academics are very privileged in that they have more information about their subject area than anyone else. When it becomes abundantly clear that something is going desperately wrong in an area in which they are working, it is their duty to make sure other people are informed to avert things from going so wrong.
"I think there is a tendency among academics to draw a line too rigidly and say our work is only to collect the data and then our responsibility to society stops. I think everyone's responsibility to society extends beyond the narrow remit of their job."
And this is true of scientists too. "The way science looks at the world is the way the rest of us come to look at the world. If science says the genetic scale in forests is more important and scientists take their eyes off the overall picture, then environmental destruction will continue, " he says.
"There is a real danger of a gulf developing between scientists and ordinary people, as the public begins to lose a certain amount of trust in the idea that science is there for the good of society. That is why I think it is important to help science to wake up and look at the real issues. Not everything that is possible should be permissible."