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March 23rd, 2009:

End of Battlestar Galactica (Or Why Technology is a Good Thing)

By this time I’m going to hope that anyone following the show has watching the series finale. If you do follow the show but haven’t watched the end yet, stop now.

If you have no intention of watching the show, here’s briefly what happened: In the final half hour of the show the survivors of an apocalyptic war arrive at Earth 150,000 years in the past, inhabited only by pre-lingual humans living in hunter gatherer tribes. They land and make plans for beginning to rebuild their civilization. But no, one guy has a great idea, why don’t they give up all their technology and go back to the land. And so that’s what they do. Burn their ships, throw away their computers, give up “their little luxuries” as one character describes their technology.

It’s easy to see human progress as nothing more than a desire for luxuries and a more comfortable life. To do so overlooks the far more fundamental motivator of technology and progress; battling starvation disease and death. The writers of Battlestar Galactica leave us with the implication that it’s simple enough to walk into a pristine wilderness with nothing but the clothes on our backs and, as long as we’re willing to give up the little luxuries, live a long and enjoyable life. And it frightens me to imagine how many people actually believe that. Because in the show people don’t make the decision individually. One group (a majority?) makes the decision for everyone in the fleet and all the unborn generations to come.

Imagine the man who depends for survival on a medicine that is synthesized in the medical department of one of the ships send callously into the sun. Or a newlywed woman from a family prone to difficult births. Or the parents of a handicapped child, who would be unable to hunt or grow food in a pre-technology society. But the society you belong to has not just renounced their “sinful” technology, but destroyed it root and branch to prevent any hint of dissent, and who cares if a few are sacrificed, willingly or otherwise, on the path to rightiousness.

But that’s just a few people, right? Most of them should be fine in this new life as farmer/hunter/gatherers, no? Except leaving aside the risk of dying from conditions that are completely treatable in modern society (bust appendixes, cuts that get infected, serious allergic reactions), what are they going to eat?

Farming is hard work. It requires specialized knowledge (that most of the members of a technological civilization don’t possess), doing it well requires proper tools (I was waiting for the scene where someone goes “d’oh! Why didn’t we make some practically indestructable plow blades and hoe heads out of modern alloys before we sent all our metal and tools to melt in the center of the sun!”), and most importantly it requires that one actually have crops to grow. 

No matter how hard you look, you won’t find corn growing in the wild. Or wheat. Or potatoes. The domestication of staple crops like these is one of the real gifts we receive from our ancestors*, a gift that was thousands of years in the making. Without domesticated crops, it doesn’t matter how good the tools you have are, it doesn’t matter how much you know about farming. Without those crops, there is no way to survive other than boom and bust life of a migratory hunter/gatherer, a niche the native humans already occupy.

In the end it’s just a TV show, but I fear that the ideals and ignorance put forward in that last half hour reflect the worldview of far too many of my peers who don’t that technology is the frail barrier between all of us and miserable deaths from disease, starvation, and injury, and idealize the idea of a more natural existence.

*Phrasing stolen shamelessly from an interview on Modern Marvels.

Pamela Ronald Talks About The Limits of Organic

If you have a couple of free minutes, check out Pamela Ronald’s new post on Michelle Obama’s organic garden and the limits of organic agriculture as it is currently defined. If you do, be sure to scroll down to the bottom to see the comparison between organically grown sweet corn and sweet corn engineered to resist pests. Sweet corn is one of the crops where a significant fraction of consumers actually prefer to purchase GM over organic, because GM sweet corn will have substantially less worm damage than corn produced using organic or conventional techniques.

Still, I love the symbolism of it, and though it will be costly (vegetables harvested from showcase gardens such as the Obamas’ are much more expensive than produce from an organic commercial farm), it will provide a great education tool for the fifth graders that will help tend the farm and for White House visitors.

I hope one of her assistants plants some corn and teaches them about insects and disease. She can show them how to feel the tip of a mature ear to see if it is filled out. As we described in “Tomorrow’s Table”, they may discover some ears with hollow spots created where a corn earworm has been feeding. 

The corn earworm is not a picky eater and will eat almost any crop that we rotate in such as tomatoes, beans, or lettuce, and the adult moth is a good flyer. Even conventional breeding has failed to solve this problem because scientists have not yet been able to find a corn gene that gives protection from earworm. So organic controls dont work very well for the corn earworm making it difficult to control this pest on organic farms. Most organic farmers and consumers accept this problem in exchange for the benefits of not spraying insecticides.