An act of the dark ages

Nandor Tanczos of the Greens refused to condemn the vandalisation of genetically modified (GM) potatoes in a Crop and Food Research Institute laboratory. This is a matter of profound importance.

First, note that Green co-leader Rod Donald approved “civil disobedience” in some cases in respect of GM crops when the government announced its position on the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification — though on Monday co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons explicitly condemned this particular act.

Next, set aside Tanczos’s excuse that this was non-violent political protest.

Such action has a proud history. Gandhi used it to great effect to free India from British rule. This country’s most celebrated example is Parihaka in 1881, an ineradicable stain on the British escutcheon and a brilliant feather in the cloak of Maori history. Protest in 1981 that was mostly non-violent put a stop to official rugby with apartheid South Africa.

But is the smashing of private property non-violent? Is the destruction of research work non-violent? Is the damage done to a career non-violent?

No, it is not. Destroying the potatoes was an act of violence, the act of terrorists. “Intellectual theft”, Marian Hobbs called it.

No villages or glass towers were bombed, no babies slaughtered, women raped or men tortured and killed. But it took three years out of a life’s work by a law-abiding citizen. That is violence as surely as taking an eye or a tooth.

A parallel might be to spray an aspirant organic farmer’s crops with conventional pest-killer just before certification was due after years of work.

But there was another and deeper violence. Life Sciences Network chair William Rolleston pinpointed it. The attack was on knowledge — more accurately, on the pursuit of knowledge.

It was an act of the dark ages. It was an attack on what has driven the huge improvement in the human condition in the past half-millennium.

A distinction between humans and animals is that humans create wealth. They accumulate capital: economic, cultural, social and human (knowledge). Societies which neglect any one of these suffer for it.

This was not understood, for example, by Karl Marx. He devoted a life’s work to analysing economic capital but overlooked human capital. This hole in his analysis led millions of followers up an intellectual and eventually social and political cul de sac.

Human capital, accumulated by inquiry and imagination, is a critical factor in increasing economic wealth. The sad history of pre-1900 China demonstrates the price of rejecting new knowledge. Western Europe’s great social improvement over the last half-millennium demonstrates the value of pursuing, acquiring and using new knowledge, of building human capital.

Medieval Catholicism stamped on new knowledge. Some versions of modern-day Islam do too. Western European protestantism celebrated it.

The problem with new knowledge is that there is a dark side as well as a light side, a destructive dimension as well as a constructive one. For 500 years or so the societies which have done best have punted correctly that the benefits outweigh the disbenefits.

Now we have in our midst some who believe some forms of knowledge are so potentially dangerous that we must close our minds to it. The medieval popes would have approved. Not many ordinary folk today would.

Go back a couple of centuries. A dangerous substance was being inquired into and experimented with. No one knew what it might be capable of. There were fears of serious damage to our bodies and even possibly our souls if it was unleashed.

And in fact, this substance, once understood and put to use, has done a great deal of damage, killed many people and enabled the construction of devices of great destructive power.

It also turned out to be one of the greatest liberating forces and one of the most potent facilitators of economic and social advance.

It was electricity.

No one knows where GM will lead. We can be sure some damage will result but also some good.

Modern-day medievalists say we must not even inquire. They claim a moral right to destroy the work of the inquirers.

The potato raid is not just GM or not GM. It goes to the core of our belief system. That is why it is so profoundly important.