Remaking Political Life

From GMOs to cloning, new technology promises to shake up society—and old party loyalties.

“The real force in our time is no longer politics, but science,” declared Israeli president Shimon Peres last spring in Ottawa. This remarkable statement from a Nobel Peace laureate, whose vast and distinguished career has been devoted to the high politics of parties, parliaments and peace talks, can be seen as a turning of the page. Political power, once the supreme governor of human affairs, has taken a back seat. “The only certainty is that the future will be defined by scientific progress and innovation,” Peres has written. “As a result, the traditional power of states and leaders is declining; in today’s global economy, innovators, not politicians, wield the most influence.”

Eighty years ago, Thomas Mann could safely remark on the primacy of politics in human affairs that “in our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.” By 1959, C.P. Snow was allowing the claims of science room enough to describe “two cultures,” with traditional western learning rooted in the humanities clashing for pre-eminence with the scientific knowledge gathering force and speed. It seems the debate has largely wound down since then. Science won.

And not just in the life of the mind. Consider this. In the 20 years since the Rio Summit and the 15 since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, only one year has witnessed a reduction in the carbon dioxide emissions produced by the United States. That year is 2011. Emissions fell, and fell a decent distance: to 1992 levels, and in a USA that generated almost 40 percent more electricity than it did the last time emissions were that low. Why? Is it because of Washington adhering to the still-unratified protocol? State and local initiatives? Market-based consumer activism? The recession? None of the above. The reduction is principally attributable to America’s electricity utilities shifting from the use of coal to cleaner-burning natural gas. This change, enabled by developments in shale gas–extracting technologies, has arguably done more to help the cause of arresting climate change than anything public policy has thrown at the problem.

Now, the attribution of environmental effects is a game that must be approached with greater care than this writer can reliably undertake. A lot of factors have gone into the reduction of U.S. emissions. Public policy has taken an important role. And there are effects associated with shale gas use that must be evaluated closely. Market pressures have also been critical. Moreover, we are only talking about a relative, and very modest, decline. Still. As far as a political observer can hope to make out, and following Peres’s formulation, the green medal goes to gas-extracting technology, with politics as something of an also-ran, at least when it comes to recent U.S. performance in emissions.

More and more, humankind is placing its bets on repeating the shale gas success. This dynamic, whereby we count on coming up with a technological solution that yields greater results than public policy can generate, is fast becoming humankind’s core strategy for dealing with some of the principal threats to sustaining our world. In our anthropocene era (geologists’ slang for the period in which the physical state of the world is fundamentally conditioned by human intervention), our species is kicking up challenges to sustainability at a rate that far outstrips the capacity of political and governing structures to respond effectively. With science-originated challenges outrunning political responses, a de facto reliance on technological fixes to handle the problems that governments cannot has emerged. This amounts, in many key respects, to ceding our government to technology itself. As this dynamic unfolds, Plato’s great question looms ever larger: Who shall govern the governors? Are we in charge of technology, or is it taking charge of us? And who are “we” in this? Are the world’s significant technological choices made democratically? Who gains? Who pays? Who decides?

Into this immensely important discussion comes Three Bio-Realms: Biotechnology and the Governance of Food, Health and Life in Canada. Written by Carleton University’s G. Bruce Doern, probably the most senior academic observer of the federal government, and the University of Victoria’s Michael J. Prince, the book is an important contribution to the growing political science literature regarding the politics and government of science and technology.

Three Bio-Realms maps the very complex system that regulates Canada’s approach to everything from genetically modified food (part of “bio-food”) to genome mapping (“bio-health”), to things such as cloning (“bio-life”). Doern and Prince systematically sort and classify these “realms” of federal policy and place their governance mechanics within a firm theoretical framework. They also chronicle the evolution of this governance, from the Trudeau era’s regulation of bio-food during the Green Revolution era to the present day, with its wide cast of actors and agencies that currently govern the broad biotech space in Canada.

The book describes a world of policy making somewhat removed from politics in the popular sense of campaigns and elections. “Biotechnology functions,” they write, “in the subdued middle-worlds of political life and governance.” They add that “it has rarely been a high political priority.” Even away from the noise of Parliament Hill, deep within the bowels of the federal bureaucracy, biotechnology is a quiet, almost background presence. “The Canadian biotechnology governance regime does not have a central point of governance within the state … It still has no obvious single institutional centre. From the outset, bio-governance has been constructed in its various realms as a multi-agency appendage and set of subunits to existing federal departments and agencies with earlier, much larger, non-biotechnology mandates.”

A significant portion of this quiet governance is carried out via networks of public-and-private collaborative councils, research institutions and their funders, private industry and non-governmental advocacy groups. There are few giants in this twilit world. “The industry is essentially dominated by small and medium-sized firms with limited cash flow … Most [biotech] NGO interests in Canada are relatively small, with fewer than fifty employees, and many with far less staff than that.” What emerges is a reasonably clear picture of what political scientists refer to as networked governance. In fact, Three Bio-Realms’ capsule history of biotechnology governance in Ottawa is in part the story of the growing prevalence of the networked kind of policy making. Doern has written previously about the subject, and this book is illuminating as to the model’s mechanics and some of its implications.

Those approaching Three Bio-Realms must be prepared for some very demanding reading. Doern and Prince’s work is a formal, rigorous and strictly analytical piece of academic political science, operating at a very high level of abstraction. Acronyms abound. The style is forbidding and the terrain unfamiliar. At one point, following a particularly challenging account of the evolution of reproductive technology policy, I came across a reference to a Quebec-Ottawa court battle. A sensation of relief came over me upon returning to the more familiar political territory of national unity and the Constitution. When an obscure Supreme Court decision (Reference re Assisted Human Reproduction Act, 2010 SCC 61) feels like a candle in the window, you know you have been out where the buses do not run.

If navigating this labyrinth is tricky for the reader, it has so far proven well-nigh impossible for politicians. Doern and Prince write,

ministers and politicians may not quite know how to deal with bio-technology in a raw political sense. The bio-world involves complex kinds of science and technology that are beyond the capacity of non-scientist politicians to discuss and communicate comfortably and with some clarity. Because bio-technologies and their governance deal with boundary-breaking notions about the public and private and the social and the economic, they yield further discomfort for politicians who have to try to explain complex forces and values in an otherwise sound-bite age of political discourse.

Even worse for politicians, the general fog of biotechnological understanding conceals a number of hidden reefs. For example, Doern and Prince note that over years of dealing with assisted human reproduction, “governmental sound-bite responses became even more difficult.” The submerged threats arising from questions of genetic testing, reproductive technologies and the extension of life are particularly difficult to navigate for those used to steering a straight-ahead ideological course. “Such issues also challenged the identity of individual politicians across party spectrums whose normal fault lines regarding social versus economic policy and public versus private did not enable them to know quite what to do or say about biotechnology.”

This is perhaps why for now, at least, the political parties have generally stayed as far from biotech politics as they can. This avoidance pattern is less true in Europe and the United States than in Canada, and Doern and Prince offer some interesting explanations why and how Canada has submerged biotech politics to such a great degree. But the day is likely coming when these reefs will remain hidden and submerged no longer.

Doern and Prince pose the essential question that is growing harder to avoid: “which interests benefit from [biotech governance’s] … continuous presence in the nether or middle regions of political life, and what kind of democracy does this reveal or constrain?” Three Bio-Realms makes a sensible call in its conclusions for bringing more forms of democracy to bear on networked biotechnology governance. For them, the evolution of biotechnology governance has taken it from a democratic model of interest group pluralism, where policy has been shaped largely by issues of property rights and with frequent reference to international trade agreements and other big-business agendas, to including aspects of civil society democracy. The authors encourage this dynamic, and call for it to go further. “Some larger permanent arenas linked much more closely to both parliamentary government and federalist democracy are needed, since these bio-ethics issues will become ever more present and complex in the governance of biotechnology and of Canadian society.”

The growing importance of biotechnology and its governance issues will, I have argued elsewhere, lead to greater uptake by politicians and political parties of these issues. This is true as well of environmental concerns (already a big political football) and critical ones regarding life extension (very soon) and machine intelligence (not far off). However, this increasing partisan attention will not come easily. It is no easy task to graft positions on these issues onto existing party imperatives.

Case in point: I recall working on platform development for Paul Martin ten years ago and stumbling upon all this very unfamiliar territory. There was some kind of connection, I imagined, between environmental issues, reproductive technologies and pharmaceuticals policy, but for the life of me I could not describe it. Moreover, I could not figure out a way to construct a recognizable political proposition for my candidate on these issues. So I left them disconnected, recommending to the campaign team that we simply talk about the environment and leave the other hard stuff for another day. I wish I’d had Three Bio-Realms; I probably would have come to the same conclusion, but at least I would have understood why I could not fashion a partisan politics out of bio-governance. These issues have a way of cutting across existing party lines.

Doern and Prince provide the invaluable service of sketching two competing alignments on key biotech issues, which reveals the way in which biotech politics cuts across some party lines and not others. One tendency, shared by a variety of biotechnology producer interests, “tends toward an entrepreneurial analogy, viewing citizens as consumers in a market society looking for and wanting new and improved goods and services. Here a variation of ‘rights talk’ champions the right of individuals and families to the latest technologies, products, or processes that science has yielded. In sum, this is supportive and business-oriented, science-based governance.” The alternative perspective, which comes from “such policy fields as research ethics, gender policy, consumer and environmental protection, genetic counselling, and health care [tends] to favour notions of regulation, an ethic of care (over commodification), and [views] science-based governance in terms of scientific applications as public goods. Important principles here include informed consent, free choice, quality of life, and personal autonomy … Over all, groups and interests here are pre-disposed to a deepening of democratic processes and practices. In sum, this is regulative and societally oriented, precautionary-based governance.”

These two tendencies may at first seem to accord with North America’s existing partisan line-up. But when we examine who supports these alignments, the accord starts to fray. Free-market neoconservatives, who generally wish to minimize government regulation of biotech innovation, share the Harper Conservative Party with pro-life evangelicals who worry about “playing God.” Green energy entrepreneurs share space in Obama’s big tent with vegans who demand warning labels for genetically modified food. My own view is that the growing salience of what I call techno-politics will force a considerable degree of realignment in many voters’ party preferences. The programs and orientations of these parties will likely resemble those noted by Doern and Prince, and resemble today’s alignments. What will change profoundly, I expect, will be the support bases of these competing political movements. As these issues grow in importance, a lot of us are going to wake up and find we are in the wrong party.

Whether it all turns out this way remains of course an open question. What must not be disputed is the urgency of a more serious and comprehensive political response to the challenges and opportunities being thrown up by the accelerating technological upheavals of our time. Doern and Prince have made a valuable addition to our understanding of a key area of this massive challenge. Politicians and citizens need to start translating this important academic work into serious political action.