Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Robert Evans says he found an endangered plant while hiking near his Sebastopol home last month. Authorities say he found a crime scene. The state Department of Fish and Game has concluded that someone transplanted the protected Limnanthes vinculans -- a low-growing white wildflower commonly known as Sebastopol meadowfoam -- onto land slated for 145 houses and apartments, a controversial project called Laguna Vista. "People joke about this all the time -- stopping a development by putting an endangered plant in its path," said Gene Cooley, a Fish and Game botanist who surveyed the meadowfoam last week. "I have 25 years' experience with state and federal agencies, and this is the only instance I know of where it's actually happened." Sebastopol meadowfoam is endangered under state and federal law, and thus cannot be legally transplanted without special permits.

At least five agencies, including the city of Sebastopol, are looking into the alleged "translocation." But not everyone agrees that the plants were planted -- including Evans, the man who found them. "The idea that someone would dig holes and put those plants in is insane, " said Evans, a retired school administrator and member of the Laguna Preservation Council who is a leading opponent of the housing development. Evans says that if anyone is guilty of tampering with the meadowfoam, it's project supporters who made the plant appear to be transplanted.

Sebastopol meadowfoam is a small herb found in just a handful of wetlands, whose profuse white flowers prompted its name. In a city where three council members are registered Greens, it has the potential to become a thorn for developer Schellinger Homes of Santa Rosa. The city is awaiting a draft environmental impact report on the 21-acre project on the margins of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, south of downtown Sebastopol on Highway 116.

Evans said he spotted the meadowfoam April 10 during one of his many hikes on the property. He called Sonoma State University biology Professor Phil Northen, who called authorities after determining the plants were naturally occurring. Northen said Sunday that he plans to challenge the state's finding. Even though it comes years after the project was started, the meadowfoam's discovery wasn't a scientific shocker: Laguna de Santa Rosa is within the natural range of the species, and the plant has been known to sprout from seeds that had lain dormant in the soil for years.

But Cooley, who visited the site last Monday, said Sunday that it took about an hour to conclude that the Sebastopol meadowfoam -- along with patches of the more common snowy meadowfoam -- had been transplanted. He wouldn't give details, saying he didn't want to educate potential copycats. Marco Waaland, who owns the firm Golden Bear Biostudies, which is working on the project's environmental impact report, said the plants "weren't even rooted into native soil." "I'm dismayed that someone would try to use ecology in an unethical, unfair, unjust way," said Waaland. "It seems like a desperate act to me."



He admits to being one of many who 'fell under the spell of Rachel Carson' when reading her book, The Silent Spring, in 1962. In the late Sixties, as a Labour treasury minister, he took time off from 'contemplating the economic problems of the UK' to attend a conference at which Paul Ehrlich - the widely read prophet of doom - was 'the star attraction'. Taverne later joined both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and in the mid-Seventies - to make his 'small contribution to cleaner air' - gave up owning a car in favour of a bicycle. 'It is a most enjoyable way to travel about London', he says. 'You can be sure of arriving on time, and you suffer none of the frustrations of being stuck in traffic jams or not finding anywhere to park' ...

Despite his longstanding concerns for the environment, Taverne doesn't pull his punches when it comes to attacking 'irrational and fundamentalist forces' in the environmentalist movement. 'I am a militant rationalist', he tells me. 'Not that I think all that matters in the world is reason, or that poetry and music do not matter. But where reason is applicable and things can be judged by evidence, then we cannot discard reason and evidence.' Taverne set up the charity Sense About Science in 2002, and his March of Unreason contains a wealth of evidence against the benefits of alternative medicine and organic farming and for the benefits of genetically modified food.

Taverne is concerned that irrational practices - 'eco-fundamentalism' and fundamentalist religion - are flourishing, and undermining the health of civilised society. He is 'a great admirer of the Enlightenment as a glorious period in the history of mankind', and warns that we are in danger of turning back the clock. The 'back to nature' movement is 'a deeply disturbing anti-Enlightenment reaction', he argues. In The March of Unreason, Taverne warns that 'many people have become increasingly sceptical about the benefits of new technology and no longer trust experts. Possible risks from new developments loom larger in the public mind than possible benefits and we hear constantly about the need to apply "the Precautionary Principle", as if it is some scientific law that needs no further explanation.'

Although Taverne is 'an optimist by nature', he does not believe we should view the world through rose-tinted glasses. But he does think it is 'an extremely unfortunate feature of life if we are pessimistic'. His optimism allows him to view the 'back to nature' movement as 'a passing fad'. 'Homeopathy and alternative medicine: they all claim it works', he says. 'Of course it works. The placebo effect works. Witchcraft worked when people believed in it. Anything that makes people feel better is, in a sense, a good thing, but it is also a form of deceit.' He thinks that alternative medicine will do a lot of damage, but that 'in due course people will come to realise - perhaps through education - that modern medicine is much more important than going back to ancient superstitions'.

He also believes that the popularity of 'organics' will fade. 'But at the moment', he says, warning me that he feels very passionately about this issue, 'organic farming is deeply damaging. The idea that we can save the world by going organic is not just an illusion and a throwback to pre-historic days; it is also positively damaging. Organic farming is a very inefficient use of land'.

Taverne's critics are, it seems, as passionate about this issue as he is. 'Writing for the Guardian, I get a certain amount of abuse if I write something in favour of genetically modified crops or if I question any other fads - but if I write something attacking organics I get a torrent of abuse.' The first line of criticism is usually that he must be in the pay of big companies. It seems almost impossible to put the case for progress, science and development today without being accused of being in bed with big corporations. Taverne has no illusions about the motivations of such corporations, warning that they have to be watched, 'like all organisations with an agenda'. 'But I don't find that companies are necessarily more motivated to cause ill to mankind than the movements designed to save the planet', he says.

Neither pressure groups nor companies are accountable or democratic, but at least companies face the discipline of the market. As Taverne points out, 'If a company produces a dud product it may ruin the company. Look at what happened to Distillers (Biochemical Ltd) after the thalidomide scandal. It disappeared.'

Taverne does not believe that pressure groups face a similar kind of discipline. 'Their only test of success is whether they increase their network of support. And the more scare stories they raise, the better they will be at raising money. They suffer a bit if scare stories are exposed, but not much, as we seem quickly to forget about that.' He points out that the Brent Spar saga did not do much damage to Greenpeace. In the mid-Nineties, Greenpeace initiated a campaign to stop Shell from dumping a disused giant oil rig in the Atlantic ocean. Shell might be one of the most powerful companies in the world, but in the face of Greenpeace's effective media campaign and a Europe-wide boycott of its petrol stations, it caved in and left Brent Spar in a Norwegian fjord instead. The Natural Environment Research Council later confirmed that disposal in the mid-Atlantic would have been a cheaper and environmentally more beneficial way of getting rid of the rig.

The 'dogmatic environmentalists' that Taverne persuasively criticises in The March of Unreason have a lot to answer for. But I wonder whether Taverne is endowing them with too much power? In his book, he traces 'some of the reasons for this change from optimism to widespread suspicion and pessimism towards science that exists today, and identif[ies] the rise of the environment movement as probably the most significant'. He warns that 'there is a semi-religious streak in the green fundamentalists. When they say "I don't give a damn about the evidence because I know I am trying to save the world", then they are not a million miles away from the creationists who say "I don't give a damn about the evidence because it is written in the Bible"'.

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Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

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