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Revolution, reform or education?

Revolution, Reform, or Education?

On November 30, 1987 the radical environmental group Earth First! spread rock salt on strawberry plants in the field site where, two days later, Advanced Genetic Sciences of Oakland was to test genetically engineered frost-preventing bacteria. It was the third time field tests of genetically engineered organisms, had been the target of vandalism in California ("Strawberry Plants Attacked in California Field Tests," Nature, December 10, 1987, 512).

Earth First! has a philosophical champion in Christopher Manes, associate editor of Earth First! Journal and editor of Nerthus, its philosophy supplement. Rejecting anthropocentrism and the stewardship model of environmental ethics, Manes sees the biocentric epistemology informing the activism of Earth First! as the dialectical output of the very technological culture it opposes. In such biocentrism, where mankind no longer occupies the privileged center of the living world, and people, animals, plants, or other natural objects are recognized as being more than the uses to which they are put, environmental ethics perforce becomes a source for "a critique of technological totalization." Environmentalism becomes, that is, less an ethics or philosophy than a task, and a revolutionary task at that. As Manes argues, "Keeping to the task means keeping to the here and now with the dictum, 'resist much, obey little,' directed at the periphery and core of technological culture."

But not all environmental or animal rights activists subscribe to a revolutionary ethics, however well articulated. Many are learning instead to operate effectively "within the system." Some, in fact, are working together to exploit existing legal mechanisms to delay, disrupt, or shut down targeted research projects. In Berkeley for example, a group calling itself In Defense of Animals has joined forces with Berkeley Citizens for a Toxic-Free Environment, filing suit to halt construction, on grounds of potential environmental hazards, of new facilities designed to house both research animals and a special containment laboratory for work involving infectious agents.

To Andrew N. Rowan, director of the Center for Animals at Tufts University, such collaboration between environmentalists and advocates of animal rights indicates the growing sophistication of the animal rights movement: "They recognize that the animal rights issue is not sufficient to challenge research on legal grounds. The movement has become much more aware of political realities and much more skilled at exploiting them" (Activists Beset UC, Stanford Labs," Science, March 11, 1988, 1229-32).

Both revolutionary and reformist activists trade in the same fundamental capital: the scientific ignorance of the general public; what Stanford president Donald Kennedy identifies as a "vague and alarming mistrust of science [and] of the elitism of expertise." In responding to activists' suspicions, the scientific community must take seriously its responsibility to educate the public to legitimate research needs, and risks. And the public must accept responsibility to act as informed, thoughtful consumers of the fruits of research. We need, in short, to open an educated dialogue in which to negotiate how we want to shape or future, and at what cost.
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Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Aug 1, 1988
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