Planetary Pirates

| 12th October 2012
book cover
Leo Hickman reviews the three-part book Earth Grab: Geopiracy, the New Biomassters and Capturing Climate Genes
The companies that say “trust us” are the same ones that created the climate and food crises in the first place

If there was any doubt from the title of this book where the authors are coming from on the fraught and emotionally charged issue of environmental ‘techno-fixes’, such as geoengineering and genetically modified crops, then Vandana Shiva’s foreword sets the tone for what’s ahead, as she explains the term ‘geopiracy’: “In these pages the writers have given us a new term to describe the attempt by a few technocrats to hijack the functioning of our entire planet – whether by polluting the skies, changing the chemistry of the oceans or appropriating the fields, forests and algal blooms that regulate the biosphere.”

The book itself – written by a collective of writers from the Ottawa-based ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), is divided into three distinct, self-contained reports. The first sets out the case against geoengineering. The second, entitled The New Biomassters, discusses “synthetic biology and the next assault on biodiversity and livelihoods”. The third deals with how the “gene giants stockpile ‘climate-ready’ patents”.

It is certainly a timely book, as all the issues raised are very much on the agenda at present. For example, after a decade out of the headlines (in Europe, at least), it is very apparent that there is a renewed promotional push under way by advocates of GM crops, particularly since a handful of high-profile environmentalists such as Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand are now publicly supporting the technology. 

The authors of this book see it very differently, however. They argue that the gene giants are “leveraging the climate crisis to win monopoly control of key crop genes and gain public acceptance of genetically engineered seeds”. It is less a technological objection, and more one founded on social justice and resistance to corporate power: “In the midst of a food crisis compounded by climate crisis, restrictions on access to seeds and germplasm are the last thing farmers need in their struggle to adapt to rapidly changing climatic conditions.”

Similar views pervade the report on geoengineering. But there are also plenty of unusual and unfamiliar observations. For example, the authors note that there is a clear gender bias in the discussion around geo-engineering: “The astute reader will notice that these actors (with few exceptions) are men from northern industrialized countries. This demographic homogeneity for a subject so universal in its implications is dismaying…Overwhelmingly, it is men who do the science, write about the field and who are called upon to comment and testify in policy debates…For all the talk about risks and benefits associated with these technologies, virtually no attention has been paid to the fact that women and men tend to assess risk differently.”

The companies that say “trust us” are the same ones that created the climate and food crises in the first place

Perhaps the most interesting report, though, is the one on synthetic biology – a brand new technology, note the authors, that promises to use biomass to replace all the fossil fuels we currently use with the energy and feedstocks that can be extracted from its lignocellulose. At present, 24% of the world’s annual terrestrial biomass is appropriated for human use, but what, ask the authors, will happen to the remaining 76% when Wall Street realises it has an opportunity to “commodify and monopolize” it?

“[T]he companies that say ‘trust us’ are the same energy, chemical companies, agribusinesses and forestry giants that created the climate and food crises in the first place,” claims the report.

There is an at times strident, tub-thumping-socialist, anti-corporate vein that runs throughout the whole book, which might put readers off, but at the heart of the book is the basic beat of the precautionary principle that motivates so many environmentalists and acts as the foundation for their viewpoints.

What we are all essentially engaged in when we consider this portfolio of technologies, say the authors, is an unprecedented gamble. “Those with similar hubris told us that nuclear power would be safe and too cheap to monitor; that the chemical age [and] biotechnology would end hunger and disease...and that climate change is probably a figment of our imagination.”

As Vandana Shiva remarks in her foreword: “Piracy, once again, is actively underway.”

Leo Hickman is an environmental journalist and author based at The Guardian.

Earth Grab: Geopiracy, the New Biomassters and Capturing Climate Genes is availabkle from Pambazuka Press


Leo Hickman writes for The Guardian newspaper









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