San Francisco, 8th June 2004: BIO 2004. The worlds largest gathering of the biotechnology industry is happening here in San Francisco over the next few days. It is truly a gathering of the biotech glitterati with over 20,000 delegates expected to attend.
Out on the streets, hundreds of protesters gathered this morning under the banner "reclaim the commons". Saying NO to patents on life, NO to corporate driven industrial agriculture, and saying NO to an industrial medical model where research is focussed on far fetched solutions for the rich minority, while the majority of people in this world are denied access to basic medicines.
The clash of cultures and of world views on the street was extreme. Bespectacled scientists in tweed jackets carried their brief cases past pink haired young punks. Young corporate high-flyers dressed by Georgio Armani strolled past elderly women offering flowers and placards saying "food from farms not from the lab!".
The dialogue was almost exclusively visual. Words flew, only to bounce meaninglessly into the swirling mass of police. San Francisco's finest stood unflinching, pumped up with testosterone. Their pose interrupted only by an occassional, sudden, and disproportionate burst of brutality towards an unsuspecting protester.
It seemed like nobody was there to listen. The chieftans of the biotech industry don't need to listen to anyone. They are busy redesigning our future and they certainly don't need any input from dumb non-scientists who can't even pronounce deoxyribonucleic acid, let alone spell it.
For many of the conference delegates, there is no need to listen or to reflect on the social, economic or environmental impacts. The only reflection was from the mirror sunglasses of the cops, as they once more ensured that corporate intests are pursued with minimal disruption by 'the people'.
For our part, we weren't there to listen either. We were there to speak - to raise a voice for the voiceless. We listen to the hype about Biotech week in week out. Biotech is where the future is. Biotech is needed to feed the hungry...the endless string of increasingly lame public relations lines. Today was a day for making heard the voices that are systematically supressed.
Unfortunately it was also a day when a small number of protesters yelled abuse at every delegate. In my experience, this is rarely a useful tactic. Not everyone attending the conference is an 'evil nazi' as some people seemed to imply. Some attending the conference are no doubt just researchers in some obscure and potentially benign offshoot of biotechnology. While these individuals may be undeserving of verbal abuse, they do need to consider the political and social dimensions of their work and the industry of which they are a part. But having people yell at them is unlikely to trigger the desired critical response.
So for today at least, the gulf was widened. The walls built a little higher.
At one level, this seems problematic. Somehow communication needs to happen. The likely impacts of biotechnology are far too important for the decisions to be left to scientists alone. Serious and ongoing public debate around these issues is urgently required.
But when power and money are at stake (as they invariably are), civil and obedient dialogue is ignored. It is as impotent as the rhetoric hurled around on the street. The only dialogue that is heard is the dialogue that happens in a civil DISobedient way.
The conflict over GE foods is far more than a debate about gene transfer, or risk assessment models or whatever. It is a debate about politics, about power, about who benefits and who bears the costs. It is not only a debate about what our future will look like, but about who has the right to define it.
Scientists will continue to complain about radical tactics and the polarisation of the debate. But in the face of an unaccountable technological juggernaut, communities around the world will continue to take non-violent direct action to protect their interests. They will continue to resist technologies that increase the power and wealth of corporations at the expense of our communities, our health and the environment.
It is impossible to have nice discussions around issues where so much is at stake. Nice is just an acronym for Not Insightful or Critical Enough.