Science and politics don’t often seem to go together. Science is actually better when politics isn’t involved. Yet politics might actually be improved by a little more reliance on science. It was probably this last part that drove Jeff Gillman, an associate professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota, and Eric Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, to write How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Politics (published by Timber Press).
I recently asked Jeff Gillman a few questions about the book, the authors’ nonpartisan stance, and what difference gardeners can make.
Steve Aitken: Is the government really in my backyard? And if so, can I get them to pull some weeds?
Jeff Gillman: To one degree or another, yes, the government is in your backyard. It regulates what plants you can grow and how you can grow them. Can you get the government to pull weeds? Actually yes—but it’ll cost you! In many locations the government is authorized to go in and remove noxious plants and to trim or remove your trees or other plants if it deems it necessary. And then it can bill you for it.
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JG: Everyone’s taking stands, and unfortunately, some of those taking the strongest stands have the least information. When you really understand an issue it’s hard not to at least appreciate the other side—though you still might not agree.
Should marijuana be legalized? It’s obviously a drug, but it relieves the suffering of many critically ill people. Should we be allowed to use pesticides? They help us produce crops and have beautiful lawns, but they can have some terrible side effects. Should genetically modified plants be legal? They can drastically reduce the use of pesticides, but they can also increase pest resistance to pesticides and they can breed with wild plants.
It’s important to understand everyone’s position and the facts behind them so that we can strengthen our own arguments and so that we can appreciate the opinions of others. Don’t think that because Eric and I are willing to write about both sides that we don’t have opinions! But for the purposes of this book we wanted people to read the facts about the science and politics behind what the government is doing and then generate their own opinions based on their own values.
SA: Let’s see just how unbiased you are. Which would you rather be found doing:
A) Spraying synthetic herbicides on a over-fertilized native plant near a waterway
B) Defying your homeowners’ association by sitting naked while eating a tofu hot dog that you cooked on the warm engine of your electric car
C) Explaining to anyone doing (A) or (B) why other people might have a problem with what they are doing
JG: Since writing this book I’ve endured the pain of C already, so I guess I’d go with the known pain rather than the unknown—though, I must admit, B is tempting because I’m a big fan of tofu. And who doesn’t love to run around naked? But I just can’t see replacing my truck with an electric car.
There are lots of people out there with strong viewpoints who want to hear Eric and me support their side of an argument while poo-pooing contradictory evidence. But it’s not our job as professors or as authors to support their side. It’s our job to tell all of the facts and relate all of the pertinent science and politics that we reasonably can—not just the stuff that supports one side or another.
For environmental issues it’s rare to have a monopoly on The Truth. At the end of the day two reasonable people can have very different viewpoints because they have different sets of values. We need to apply our values to ALL of the existing data, and then make an informed decision.
SA: How do you respond to people who confuse explaining a certain viewpoint with espousing it?
JG: This is a problem I’ve run into a lot lately. Many people think that when I relate facts that support a viewpoint that I must, necessarily, support it. Not true! Being able to explain the other side of an argument and agreeing with it are two different things.
I respond by telling them that I hone my own viewpoints by trying to put myself into the shoes of other people who I respect (particularly scientists) but who have different viewpoints than I do and then trying to figure out why they have these different views. It doesn’t usually change my mind, but it does open it up.
SA: Is there one section of the book that elicits more reactions than the others?
JG: So far the biotechnology, organics, and invasives section have elicited the greatest response.
I can practically guarantee that you’ll find something in this book that you don’t like. And I think that’s a good thing because seeing something that you disagree with will, hopefully, lead you do more research and think more about your viewpoints. That’s Eric and my goal with this book—to get people to think.
SA: Of all the topics covered in your book (invasive plants, fertilizers, alternative energy, etc.), which is the most pressing for our country to deal with?
JG: The most pressing issue is that of alternative energy because it affects so many other issues. In particular, the use (or nonuse, as the case may be) of biofuels can affect global warming, fertilizers, pesticides, and even the use of genetically modified plants.
Biofuels seem like a great idea, and to some extent they are a good idea, but I don’t think that most people understand that, even if we converted all of the corn in our country to ethanol, it would only replace about 14 percent of the gasoline that we use. We need to go beyond corn as a biofuel, and the way gas prices are going now, we need to do it soon.
SA: Who is the best agent of change on these issues: real gardeners or the government?
JG: No fair only giving me two choices! The best agent of change for our environment is a determined group of people, such as gardeners, who are willing to take on the government and who won’t give up despite the fact that there are organized groups who oppose their ideas. That said, that group had better be well educated on both sides of the issue that they’re arguing for or against — and they’d better have some good science behind them.
SA: If you get a guest spot on a TV show—say The Daily Show, The O’Reily Factor, or Glee—will you mention Fine Gardening?
JG: Of course—you guys are the best!
SA: Thanks, Jeff. Your check is in the mail.