Comment posted to Philip Stott’s pro-biotech website (http://www.probiotech.fsnet.co.uk, now partially defunct), 15 Sept, 2001
Archived on www.simonbatterbury.net/pubs
Stott is a public commentator on environmental issues based in the
In the late 1990s things seemed to change quite quickly. Events at SOAS (rumoured to be the failure to secure a hoped-for senior management post) prompted his retirement. Around this time, SOAS Geography Department was earmarked for closure, but several staff were taken on by or merged with the Geography Department at King’s College. Anyhow, once retired, Stott spent more time with his websites and other activities, and is still is a panellist on the BBC’s widely appreciated Home Planet radio show.
Unlike most academic geographers he has attracted public attention. He is now considered by his critics as a ‘climate skeptic’, a term he dislikes, i.e. unconcerned about the negative impacts of global warming, and the internet is full of discussion about, and challenges to, his ideas on a variety of controversial topics.
Stott has embraced the internet from an early stage, beginning with his ecotrop.org website, that offered instructive articles and commentaries on (mainly) ecological fallacies in research and the media. The site was suddenly replaced by pro.biotech, where Stott shifted much of the focus to biotechnology, supporting genetic modification of foods very strongly. Some pages on that site still work. That’s when I became disturbed and I submitted this comment to the guestbook, which at the time consisted mainly of supportive emails.
Strangely, the pro.biotech site was closed down the next day, reappearing later with a new format and without this comment, or indeed without the guestbook itself. In its next incarnation there was no way to lodge a comment. So I suppose it hit home.
I review this material occasionally and ask my
students to glance at Stott's book on Tropical Rainforests.
I helped set up and run the MA in Environment and Development at LSE, and now
work as a geographer at
Stott's critical analysis of myths and orthodoxies is valuable, and he gives a good fire-and-brimstone account of 'sustainability'. Much of the pseudo-science and science on the site is, however, open to debate or in some cases quite easy to refute - although the previous incarnation, 'ecotrop.org', was worse (one day it suddenly disappeared to be replaced by ‘pro-biotech’, without explanation).
I would point out that in the professional community of scientists and geographers working on these issues, Stott is in a tiny minority of those who believe human-induced global warming may be [easily] mitigated (or is actually unimportant in the climate record), that the sterling work of environmental activists has little value, that GM food is largely risk-free, that tropical rainforests are sufficiently protected, or that the capitalist motive of agro-food and energy companies somehow doesn't impose its own agenda on 'science' (which means we should question privately funded research, and be skeptical of claims based upon it, including sentiments at the recent pro-biotech conference in the UK).
One issue on which I can speak: As one respondent to
this guestboard said, to justify the need for GM on
some supposed 'population crisis' or 'productivity crisis' in developing
countries is just plain wrong, and insults farmers who do a good job feeding
their families - and I speak as someone with years of work with African farmers
behind me. I have also worked in a plant breeding establishment, ICRISAT, in
Geographer Michael Mortimore,
with 28 years of fieldwork in northern Nigeria behind him and author of a
sterling account of agricultural intensification in Kenya (More People less
Erosion, Wiley 1994 - see www.drylandsresearch.org) successfully argues the
case for a vision of agriculture driven by human adaptability and population
growth, fuelling investment (we term this a Boserupian
view, after the Danish economist). In
this scenario, GM would probably not have a place because it won't be needed
(see his Roots in the African Dust, CUP, 1998). Paul Richards’s work (Indigenous
Agricultural Revolution, Longman 1985) describes local farming systems in
Of course moderate, environmentally conscious geographers like myself have their own political and personal agendas just like Stott - perhaps we should find the time to espouse them more openly. People like Bill Adams (Cambridge), Tim O'Riordan (UEA), Andrew Warren (UCL), Carolyn Merchant (Berkeley), Diana Liverman (Arizona [Oxford] ), Piers Blaikie (UEA), some of Stotts' own students Katrin Schrekenberg (ODI) and Tim Forsyth (LSE) and particularly the witty and intensely informed anti-biotech work of Margaret Fitzsimmons (Santa Cruz - grandaughter of pithy pro-farmer/anti-growth geographical legend, Carl Sauer) are just some of the beacons in this field, and people that readers may also consult. You will find points of agreement with Stott on matters of science - e.g. over the importance of understanding complex non equilibrium dynamics - but the policy recommendations they draw out from data and fieldwork differ radically. To summarise many papers and different studies :-
And can anybody really assign credibility to a
company like Monsanto? Ask Prof. Glenn Stone
Maybe there are just more of us in this intellectual grouping, so the minority has to speak louder and have a website - that is fair enough. But it might also be that a critical realist approach to science, and to environmental issues in general, offers a slightly less shrill voice, and certainly a more precautionary one, than the material presented to us here. And, given the imminent closure/merger of the SOAS Geography department by the university authorities (some staff will be redeployed, but nonetheless it is a tragedy for British geography and area studies that should never have been allowed to happen by those involved), I wonder what people closer to these debates in SOAS make of all of this? Their voices are strangely absent.
Some of these points may seem to academic and focussed, but one thing geography and environmental studies teaches us is to always set an argument, discourse, or narrative in context.