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We should guard against the dangers of nature fetishism

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If you asked people to name the most dangerous ideologies of our time, common answers would be authoritarianism, racism and Islamist extremism. I’d propose another contender: nature fetishism, which is the belief that “natural” things are good and “unnatural” ones bad. A couple of decades ago, nature fetishism may have seemed a harmless fad, just a cutesy marketing scheme for overpriced “organic” consumer goods. But nature fetishists have become unwitting killers. They fired up the deadly anti‑vax movement; their opposition to genetically modified foods has worsened hunger; and their victories against nuclear energy are helping fry the planet.

Every era of rapid technological advance produces a back-to-nature movement. Its supporters tend to be city-dwellers whose contact with actual nature is arm’s-length. 19th-century Romantics were reacting in part against the Industrial Revolution. Modern nature fetishism dates from 1970s protests against nuclear power stations – which is where Germany’s pioneering green movement originated. For decades, if you lived in a rich country, nature fetishism was a low-risk investment in building your personal identity: you could safely oppose nuclear energy knowing that you would still have hot showers; you could refuse measles vaccines knowing that enough other children were jabbed to keep yours safe; and you could reject GM foods knowing that you yourself wouldn’t starve.

Nature fetishists believe that modernity kills. They prize “purity” and despise corporations. Opponents can be dismissed as shills for the nuclear, pharmaceutical and/or GM industries. Yet most fetishists are cannier than they sound. Few will endanger or even inconvenience themselves for their beliefs. For instance, the fad for treating cancer with herbs instead of drugs and chemotherapy seems to have faded. Nature fetishists are savvy in choosing which bits of modernity to reject. “Nobody seems to have a problem with the unnaturalness of indoor plumbing,” notes the writer Joel Silberman.

But the fetishists are happy to let the planet or starving faraway people suffer for their beliefs. Take their opposition to nuclear energy, galvanised by three accidents: at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. No matter that the first disaster killed nobody, and that even Chernobyl’s death toll — probably somewhere in the thousands, depending on which estimate you believe — pales beside the eight million killed prematurely by fossil-fuel pollution every year. No matter, either, that today’s nuclear plants are a fair bit safer than Soviet models. Fukushima provided a natural experiment in what happens when a modern nuclear installation melts down: a report by the UN found “no adverse health effects among Fukushima residents . . . directly attributed to radiation exposure”.

We need nuclear energy to fight climate change. Nuclear will long remain our best way of providing reliable, low-carbon energy at large scale. Even by 2050, when the US intends to hit net-zero carbon emissions, renewables will account for only 42 per cent of the country’s electricity generation, projects the Energy Information Administration. Yet nature fetishists have helped turn the US, Germany and Japan against nuclear. Developed countries are on track to lose two-thirds of their nuclear capacity by 2040, predicts the International Energy Agency. Bizarrely, nature fetishism has become anti-green.

The nature-fetishist war on GM foods is just as damaging. Of course the GM industry needs tight regulation. But GM could help feed the undernourished tenth of humanity. It also has the potential to engineer new crops that require fewer fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Academic studies consistently find that GM foods are safe to eat. In any case, as scientists keep pointing out, almost all foods are genetically modified. “There are no wild, seedless watermelons,” notes American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. “There’s no wild cows . . . We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It’s called artificial selection . . . So chill out.”

Nonetheless, fear of “Frankenfoods” is so widespread that European law makes it very hard to plant GM crops. Here again we see the assumption that “unnatural” things are more dangerous than natural ones. (Note that cancer drugs are unnatural, whereas tobacco and cyanide are natural.)

The same nature-fetishist groups who attack GM foods often attack vaccines too. In fact, some are claiming that Covid-19 vaccines turn people into genetically modified organisms without human rights. Admittedly, the noisiest strand among the world’s anti-vaxxers now consists of American Trumpists, many of whom are willing to die for their ridiculous cause. Still, nature fetishists are their fellow travellers in a movement that may be as deadly as jihadist terrorism.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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