I posted a pointed to to a moderately pro-GM report the other day. But in the comments section I got pretty revolted by the suggestion that one day we might synthesize all our food. As I said there, I want my potatoes from the earth and my apples from a tree. I don’t think there’s anything especially “green” about feeling this and I’m somewhat embarassed, as someone who is supposed to live by good arguments, by how hard I find it to get beyond the raw data of feeling, intuition and emotion when I try to think about what is of value.
The best I can do, is, I think to notice how much of that is of value in human life has to do with an engagement with the natural world and a recognition of the uniqueness and (sorry about this word) the ‘otherness’ of the world beyond the human. I’m not just thinking about raw untamed nature here (Lear on the heath) but also about the way in which an artist has to work with the natural properties of pigments, a gardener has to work with plants and their distinctive characteristics, and a cook has to work with ingredients. Architects too have to work with materials, with stone, wood and so on.
Contrast this with an attitude that sees the non-human world as merely an instrument for or an obstacle to the realization of human designs and intentions. On this view what is out there has no intrinsic value that we ought to respond to and respect. (And perhaps when we think that it does, we are just engaged in a projection of our concerns onto the world.)
As I’ve suggested, I’m not really sure how to think in this area (is this ethics, aesthetics or what?). And I’m alive to the danger that I’m running together a whole range of different issues that ought, properly, to be distinguished from one another. While worrying about all this, Orwell came into my head. I’m thinking partly of the Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier who is revolted at technology-freak socialists of his day and who observes that the tendency of of modern development is to turn us all into brains on the end of wires. But a famous passage from Coming Up for Air also came to mind: the one where Bowling bites into a sausage:
The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren’t much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly—pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was FISH! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.The attitudes Orwell’s character is repelled by are now found less on the left and more in parts of the right (especially the libertarian right). TechCentralStation is a good place to observe them. But this clearly isn’t a left-right thing. Nor is it straightforwardly a matter of modernism versus anti-modernism. I also want to be alive to and to respond to the excitement and fluidity of the modern world – driven, in parts by markets and technological developement. Nevertheless, Orwell (together here with Rousseau, and Wordsworth, and …) is onto something important, I just wish I could better articulate exactly what it is.
Outside the newsboy shoved the Standard into my face and yelled, ‘Legs! ‘Orrible revelations! All the winners! Legs! Legs!’ I was still rolling the stuff round my tongue, wondering where I could spit it out. I remembered a bit I’d read in the paper somewhere about these food-factories in Germany where everything’s made out of something else. Ersatz, they call it. I remembered reading that THEY were making sausages out of fish, and fish, no doubt, out of something different. It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth.