Eco-friendly royalty

The BBC Reith Lectures have been a part of the broadcasting calendar for many years, with distinguished establishment speakers carrying out the BBC's self-appointed role of informing and educating the public.

In 1998 John Keegan spoke about war, and last year Anthony Giddens, author of The Third Way, argued for the advantages of economic and cultural globalisation. This year the BBC had five different lecturers talking about sustainable economic development. Most media interest was provoked by the sixth lecture given by prince Charles, who took the opportunity to express his antipathy towards modern farming methods, and attacked science and rationality.

Scientists immediately drew attention to many of the fallacies to which Charles Windsor gave voice. Dr James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, accused the heir apparent of pandering to superstition and raising irrational fears. Chris Lamb, director of the John Innes Center, pointed out that the "traditional agricultural methods" applauded by the prince could feed only one billion people if applied across the world.

The green revolution of the 1960s and 70s, which used plant breeding and agrochemicals to increase crop yields, enabled food supply to increase in step with the world's growing population which now stands at some four billion. As the numbers continue to increase, genetic engineering methods will be needed to sustain the increase in food supply.

Others condemned the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the prince of Wales - he condemns reliance on "the rational insights of scientific analysis", but enjoys the benefits of scientific discoveries in his many opulent homes, and expects the best medical treatment for himself and his children when they are ill or injured. Likewise he praises the harmony of nature while continuing to kill animals for fun.

Charles Windsor began his lecture by talking of "a sacred trust between mankind and our creator, in which we accept a duty of stewardship for the earth". It is immediately apparent that such talk of "stewardship" is intended to make the ownership of and exclusive rights to use vast areas of prime land enjoyed by this parasite and his family appear less obscene. It is remarkable that despite benefiting from all the privileges money can buy (and many it cannot) this aristocrat has turned out to be a useless, unhappy failure, spouting reactionary, incoherent and ill-thought out nonsense on Radio 4.

Windsor criticises the scientific world view "in which anything that happens can be fixed by technology and human ingenuity". What else are we supposed to use to solve the world's problems - reliance on our "creator" or "sustainer" to sort things out by divine intervention? The practical and moral dangers of a return to such medieval superstition are obvious.

Despite token calls for science to be used in partnership with the "wisdom of the heart" he admires so much, from beginning to end the prince's 22-minute speech was full of sentiments which are not only irrational, but also anti-rational. They are an attack on the enlightenment which revolutionised western thought in the 18th century and on the scientific rationalism and materialism which has dominated it since.

As always the prince draws on an eclectic mix of sources and gurus, and in the anti-rationalism of his Reith Lecture the influence of eastern orthodox christianity is obvious. He wrote the lecture earlier this month during a 'retreat' (holiday to you and me) in Greece, during which he spent three days at a monastery where he attended religious services.

Orthodox christianity, unlike most western versions, was never reconciled to the enlightenment and remains deeply hostile to and suspicious of the west because of it. While Roman catholic christianity was built on the rational legacy of Aristotelian philosophy and logic, orthodox christianity always focused on unthinking faith and obedience. It was the perfect ideological prop of autocratic despotisms, including the Russian tsars.

Protestant christianity in contrast bolstered the rising aristocratic-capitalist regime in 18th century Britain, and obviously does not share the prince's antipathy towards the key capitalist/protestant values of hard work, enterprise, conquering nature, scientific progress and technical advance. It is notable that while prince Charles occupies a key position in the constitutional structures formally underpinned by the Church of England, he does so, in the words of the Guardian editorial of May 18, not on the basis of being "a christian by any definition that the Archbishop of Canterbury could accept". The almost pantheistic nature-worship espoused by prince Charles, together with the fact that his sexual partnership has not been legitimised by christian marriage, makes The Guardian hope for some "hard thinking in Lambeth Palace about disestablishment".

The debate in the press this week about Windsor's speech coincided with a new GM food scare. Due to an error involving normal and genetically modified oil seed rape plants being grown too close together in Canada some years ago, cross-pollination occurred, resulting in a small number of seeds harvested from plants containing modified genes. These seeds were imported to Britain as normal seeds free from genetic modification, and planted on 22,000 acres in 1999 and 11,000 acres this year. Oil from the seeds harvested from these plants was used in food manufacture. Although no trace of any DNA remains in the refined oil, and the modified genes were present in minute quantities, when the error came to light the incident was described as "pollution" or "contamination" of food, and there were serious calls for fields containing affected plants to be traced, and the crops ripped up and burned, like the mutant plants in John Wyndham's novel The Chrysalids.

This hysterical reaction to genetically modified food illustrates that the fear of new things and hostility to biotechnology and other science expressed in the prince Charles lecture is widely shared, including by many workers. We need to ask why this is. It is not enough for Marxists to dismiss religion and superstition: we must also seek to explain how they continually reproduce themselves within society. According to a survey published in The Guardian on April 24, in the 1990s two thirds of British people believed in god, with just under half of these believing in a personal god and the rest in god as a "spirit or life force". Twenty-five percent of people believed in horoscopes, 25% in reincarnation, over 30% in ghosts, 50% in heaven, and 25% in hell and the devil.

What is behind this survival of superstition and religion? Is it simply that the capitalists strive to keep the working class stupefied and ignorant, so that we continue to be unquestioning wage slaves and pliant consumers? If this were so, strenuous efforts to educate the working class might be enough to enable it to throw off the shackles of superstition. There must be a deeper explanation for the stubborn persistence of unreason. Side by side with this continued belief in the supernatural, we see a new cynicism about progress and science. Although people use products of new technology, such as computers and mobile phones, the expectation that science will create a prosperous and exciting new world - symbolised by the Apollo moon landings 30 years ago, when hundreds of millions of TV viewers vicariously participated in a (literally) uplifting scientific adventure - is a thing of the past. The TV programme Tomorrow's World always looks so out of date, embodying a world view of an earlier age.

There is of course an element of sense in this distrust of scientific progress. For 50 years progress has been seen as tied up with the development of nuclear and other such weapons of mass destruction, widely perceived as having the potential to destroy the world at any moment. Then there are machines which replace living labour in service of profit and help not to make work easier or more enjoyable, but soulless to the point where the human individual becomes a mere cog.

As has been remarked in the press, public distrust of scientists' and governments' claims that genetically modified food is safe is understandable after similar scientists and governments claimed 10 years ago that there was no risk from BSE. Friends of the Earth are correct to say that people should have the right to know whether the food they buy contains genetically modified ingredients, even if scientific theories assert that there is no danger from such ingredients.

Probably what most people dislike is not scientific research itself, but the commercial exploitation of science for profit. One of the most important criticisms made of prince Charles' speech is that he completely failed to distinguish between the two. It is not scientific rationalism which causes global exploitation and the degradation of the environment, but capitalism, and the solution is not to reject science and technology, but to take them out of the hands of the capitalists and the drive of capital to produce for the sake of production.

Marxism has always asserted that the real cause of religion and superstition is the sense of powerlessness and helplessness to control our own lives. This feeling of powerlessness is dealt with by imagining supernatural entities to be in command of nature and society. It is this alienation which makes up the rational core at the heart of the irrationality and romantic obscurantism shared by prince Charles and millions of others.

Religion and fear of change will be overcome to a large measure only when the working class smashes the repressive structures of the existing state and seizes control of the economy and its science and technology from capital. Then people as freely associated producers will be in a position to democratically manage technological change in their own interests rather than fear it.

The product of humanity thereby returns to humanity. Human freedom is the real beginning of history.

Mary Godwin