OPINION: I never thought it would end. Certainly I never thought that I might be alive to see the beginning of its end.
I am referring to the Enlightenment – the intellectual movement that began in the 17th century. It saw the end of Dark Ages and ushered in the Age of Reason. Mystical and religious certitude and bigotry gave way to reason based on objectively derived evidence.
Rather than praying to God for a good crop you adopted the latest technologies to ensure the crop did not fail. And if it did fail it was not seen as a consequence of your failure to appease God through prayer, but because you did not fully understand or fully implement the best knowledge and technology. If you prayed it was for more science, please.
The Age of Reason ushered in a period of spectacular and sustained progress. Consider some simple indicators: a long life in the Dark Ages would be about 30 years. Today we can reasonable expect to live for about 70-80 years, a result of the science of medicine.
Before the science of plant nutrition was understood, a good crop of wheat was about 1 tonne/ha. Today that same hectare can grow 10-12 tonnes/ha thanks to improved plant genetics, better weed and pest control and improved knowledge about soil fertility.
These are but two examples of the enormous benefits that accrue overtime from adopting a scientific, evidence-based approach to solving the problems that arise and confront us.
But consider the recent political decisions made by this Government. "We will stop further oil and gas exploration". "We will stop further investment in irrigation". In effect we will turn off the lights of the Enlightenment. 'Stop the world I want to get off.'
I can in my more benevolent moments see the logic that is driving these political decisions. Global warming is driven by carbon dioxide. The major source of carbon dioxide is fossil fuels. Therefore stop exploring.
Similarly, water quality is a problem. Nitrate leaching is one cause. Increasing stocking rates increases nitrate leaching. Irrigation results in higher stocking rates. Therefore stop irrigation.
This type of thinking is logical to an extent, but it is nevertheless incomplete – it is not holistic because it is does not consider the full consequences.
Against the backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment these two recent decisions are backward looking – they seek to solve emerging problems by going backwards.
This also is understandable to some extent. Progress often comes with risk and uncertainty. Sometimes the romantic comfort of the past is more compelling than engaging the courage to progress.
For example: people feared the introduction of the steam train. Will the human body cope with such high speeds? A flag waving human must precede the huffing, puffing engine to warn of the imminent danger. Imagine what might have happened to space exploration if the first animal into space – a monkey – had died? Imagine if the 19th century Luddites had won their argument that new technologies would lead to unemployment by destroying jobs – surely bad for progress?
Real sustainable progress requires courage and the steel in that courage comes from a confidence in the importance and value of evidence-based progress. And we should be emboldened in that faith when we consider the progress mankind has made over the last three centuries.
Yes, mistakes will occur and problems will arise as we continue to progress, because perfection is never achievable: What distinguishes a progressive society is how it approaches these apparent challenges.
The Paris Accord represents our collective international response to the threat of CO2- induced global warming. It is estimated that the cost of complying to the requirements of the Paris agreement will cost planet earth about $100 trillion and that, at best, this might limit warming over the next 100 years by an irrelevant 0.17 degree C. Such expenditure will, (and I am speculating), plunge the civilised world into an economic Dark Age for no great benefit. Destroy the world to save the planet?
A rationalist, given that we now know the stakes involved, would at least review the assumptions - is the science right? Maybe there are other mechanisms, not just fossil-fuel-derived CO2, controlling the earth's climate? Maybe the skeptics have a point. Let's check it out before turning off the fossil fuel taps and in the process depriving the world of its cheapest form of energy and propelling humanity back to the Dark Ages.
Certainly a rational person, and especially one convinced of the threat of global warming and the possibility of more droughts, would increase, not stop investment in irrigation?
That is not to argue that water quality and nitrate leaching are not problems – they are. But to stop irrigation as a solution is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The rational approach is to find ways of reducing nitrate leaching even under high-producing irrigated pastures. This requires more science, more evidence, more rational thinking.
Am I seeing the beginning of the end of the Age of Reason? A future where policy development will be based on a fear of the unknown rather than a confidence in the future?
Having dragged ourselves out of the despairing Dark Ages across the plateau of the Enlightenment, we now must decide between a future based on rational progress or bow to the new goddess of mystical thinking embodied in extreme, irrational, environmentalism.
Dr Doug Edmeades, MscHons, ONZM (Services to Agriculture), is an independent soil scientist based in Hamilton. He welcomes feedback - firstname.lastname@example.org