Sometimes to keep things organized, it's best to jot down a list. So, faced with a flurry of news items and e-mails about unscientific goings-on, I find myself filing them according to the political philosophies of the people responsible for the goings-on. All of them are in some sense "greens," but I discern seven distinct types or subspecies, if you will. It's worth noting how their priorities differ. (I suspect this list will come in handy in the future.)
In rough chronological order of their historical emergence, here are the seven varieties, accompanied in each case by a plausible slogan or mating call, if you will for that subspecies:
Alternative medicine users (mating call: "My homeopath is no psychopath!"): There may be a big current boom in herbs, worts, potions, and the like, but in some sense these practices date back to before the dawn of civilization, since we know that hunter-gatherer tribes employ natural remedies and healing rituals. Sometimes it seems we haven't learned much since then.
Witness an e-mail forwarded to me a few days ago that recommends a thirty-day colon-cleansing regimen as the key to health, saying the technique will not only lower your cancer risk but give you "more energy, less allergies, clearing of acne, cessation of migraines, and many other results." See my e-monograph on alternative medicine elsewhere on HealthFactsAndFears.com to hear about other unproven claims.
Organic food advocates (mating call: "What would Bilbo Baggins eat?"): The arguments over the scientific claims of organic agriculture go 'round and 'round, but ultimately, this group is more attached to an agrarian vision of the good life than to the spurious health claims they make. Members of this group aren't so different, really, from nineteenth-century British Tories, who lamented the sight of quaint peasant farms giving way to industrialization.
Unfortunately, quaint often means inefficient, and that's certainly true of organic agriculture. The Hudson Institute's Alex Avery notes that raising all the crops in the U.S. with organic fertilizer, for instance, would require some 1 billion additional cattle to produce the fertilizer cattle that would need new grazing space at least as vast as the entire U.S.
Safety fanatics (mating call: "Eeeek!"): For about a century now, activists have been getting ever more suspicious about our food supply, appliances, vehicles, asbestos insulation, etc. Anxiety never seems to abate as wealth and comfort grow. Anxiety simply attaches itself to ever-smaller threats (a doctor's expression for hypochondriacs may be apt for the safety fanatics, too: "the worried well").
Take acrylamide, a substance in bread and fried foods that can give rats cancer if given to them in astronomical doses but poses no known risk to humans. An FDA director told USA Today this week: "We don't know if it's a human carcinogen. Some animal carcinogens are. Some aren't." But that doesn't stop Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest from telling reporters that acrylamide is a "probable" human carcinogen, "an invisible contaminant that's never listed on labels," nor does it stop him from urging people "to eat less of the most contaminated" foods. In keeping with CSPI's usual practice, Jacobson also attempts to look like a moderate by assuring us that "People shouldn't panic." We won't, no thanks to CSPI.
Environmentalists (mating call: "In Gaia we trust!"): They're keen to save the wonders of nature but not terribly fond of the one wondrous species that talks, reasons, invents machines, and expresses concern about the state of the planet.
Environmentalists tend to assume that nature, in the absence of humans, would be a thing of harmony and unchanging bliss that any changes for the worse must be humanity's doing and any changes for the better nature's doing. How troubled they must be then, by reports such as a new one in the journal Geology, which suggests that periods of global warming occurred in the distant past long before humans were around due to such natural causes as the release of gas from sediments crushed during continental drift.
Animal rightists (mating call: "Let my pandas go!"): I'm all for decreasing animal suffering, but animal rightists, like the environmentalists, seem to think we humans are the unique cause of that problem ignoring the fact that nature would still be a merciless frenzy of rape and murder even without humans in it. Those amoral, furry and scaly monsters have claws and fangs for a reason, and they aren't afraid to use them.
Animal rightists will be just as disappointed as environmentalists over a new report suggesting that natural climate change not human hunters, as long believed killed off the impressive megafauna that roamed North America until about 10,000 years ago (such as my personal favorite, the giant ground sloth). Would we really want these things roaming around today anyway? More importantly, though, do we really want ailing monkeys from medical research labs wandering free after being liberated by animal rightists?
Anti-biotech activists (mating call: "Genetic purity is moral purity!"): Opposed to tinkering with plants in labs despite several productive millennia of tinkering with them even more haphazardly in fields and gardens the left-leaning genetic-modification-haters are finding some allies on the anti-cloning right.
Since most anti-biotech activists are by definition also members of the "safety fanatics" subspecies and thus terrified of even the tiniest, harmless traces of arsenic in drinking water how, one wonders, will they react to a HealthScoutNews announcement this week that scientists have created a genetically-modified plant that removes arsenic from the environment?
Anti-globalists, a.k.a. "anarchists," a.k.a. the antiglob, a.k.a. globophobes (mating call: "Workers of the world, go back to your own country!"): When all else has failed when your utopian socialist vision has turned into a dystopian hatred of the whole modern world you can always just behave like a vandal and throw pies at the corporations that do the things that anger all the green subspecies mentioned above.
Last month's anti-globalization protests in Washington, D.C. were a reminder that this movement has become not so much a footnote to the left or to liberalism as a deranged, green interloper from somewhere beyond the political spectrum an interloper that may do as much as radical Islam to make neo-liberals and neo-conservatives band together, defending the political center against the extremists. If the anti-globalization activists remain hell-bent on impeding commerce, modern agriculture, science, dam-building projects, foreign investment, and virtually everything else humans do to keep themselves healthy and well-fed, the rest of us may find ourselves reacting by growing increasingly fond of the establishment, no matter where we fall on the old-fashioned, twentieth-century-style right-left spectrum.
Regardless of how these seven green subspecies feel about the way the world is headed, though, at least by existing they're ensuring the planet's political "biodiversity." Why not see how many of these subspecies you can spot in tomorrow's news? They're not likely to go extinct any time soon.