The Education of an Ecomodernist

From Eco-Romanticism to Radical Pragmatism

Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.

But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress

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The Cooperative Advantage

How Innovation Rewrote the Rules of Foreign Policy

If you wish to conduct some latter-day colonial expansion on behalf of the US government, look no further than US Code 48, Chapter 8: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano” — dried bat or bird droppings — “on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”1

In short: find an unoccupied rock in international waters on which a seagull has relieved herself and you can claim it for America.

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Embracing Creative Destruction

Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World

Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.

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Beyond Food and Evil

Nature and Haute Cuisine After the Chez Panisse Revolution

“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.” So begins the recipe for “Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen,” a typical selection in San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s new cookbook. Fresh lichen powder, needless to say, is not available at the grocery store. Nor can you order it online. You have to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees. Then you have to turn technology loose on it: clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it. 

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After the Culture Wars

The Decline of Social Conservatism and the Rise of a New Political Order

April was a tough month for supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Hailed by Conservatives for refusing to pay the government to graze his cattle on federal land, Bundy went from right-wing folk hero to widely-denounced villain when he suggested that black people were better off under slavery. Right-wing pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly were forced to condemn the sentiment, walking back their previously enthusiastic support for Bundy and his cause. “Those comments are downright racist”, emphasized Hannitty. “They are repugnant. They are bigoted.”

In the wake of Obama’s decisive 2008 and 2012 victories, Republicans have been grappling with the fact that they increasingly appear to be a party of people like Cliven Bundy and his erstwhile supporters. The GOP has managed to hang onto political relevance thanks to gerrymandered congressional districts and lower turnout among youth and minority voters, but with Hispanics and multiracial Americans among the fastest growing demographic groups, the endgame looks clear: a predominantly white, socially conservative Republican Party is unlikely to be competitive in national elections.

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The Coming Realignment

Cities, Class, and Ideology After Social Conservatism

Read a summary of the essay here.

Following Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, pundits posited that a new Democratic majority would dominate American politics for generations to come. But according to Michael Lind, no such majority will hold: political conflict is with us to stay, though traditional terms like 'left', 'right', and 'center' will take on new meanings. Thanks to a shift in generational values among Millennials, social conservatism is experiencing a rapid, terminal decline. As issues like “God, gays, and guns” become less and less relevant to Americans' worldviews and political preferences, the Left/Right axis will experience a radical realignment. Economic attitudes will become the central battleground of politics, leading to the emergence of two new groups, the populiberals and liberaltarians, each clustering in its own unique geographical niche. Forget “red states” and “blue states": the rural and peri-urban Posturbia and the urban Densitaria will be the key new constituencies on tomorrow's political map. The implications for American politics and policy couldn't be greater. 

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Harmonic Destruction

How Greens Justify Bioenergy’s Assault on Nature

Look at the brochures of just about any environmental organization and what you will see are images of an energy system that appears to lie weightlessly on the land. Solar panels gleam atop suburban homes. Wind turbines sprout from fields where cows graze contentedly. It is a high-tech, bucolic vision that suggests a future in which humankind might finally live in harmony with nature, rather than waging ceaseless war with it.

But there are other images to consider as well. Trees clear-cut, chipped, and fed into boilers. Once diverse forests turned into monocrop plantations. Wild places sent under the plow. And melting ice caps from global warming. This is the underside of renewable bioenergy — biomass, biofuels, and biogases – one that is decidedly at odds with the ethos of pristine eco-friendliness described in the brochures.

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Don’t Blame the Internet for Political Polarization

New Media a Force for Democratization, Not Subjugation

Leading intellectuals blame the Internet as cause of our increasingly isolated, polarized, and fragmented society. Evgeny Morozov (above right), author of Net Dellusion and To Save Everything, Click Here argues that the web distracts youth from political engagement. The critique isn’t new: thinkers and writers from Socrates to Theodor Adorno (above left), have feared that new media, whether books, newspapers, radio, or TV, would undermine democratic rule. With the benefit of hindsight, these concerns seem grossly misplaced. Each new form of mass media started as a tool of elites but over time has a massively democratizing effect. Furthermore, political polarization was driven by forces that long predate the Internet, including the rise of libertarian conservatism, the disappearance of Southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans, and democratization itself. In the end, the “filter bubble” that most increases polarization and threatens democracy is the ideological one in your head.

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Post-Truth Pluralism

The Unlikely Political Wisdom of Nietzsche

The last decade has seen heightened progressive concern with alleged conservative mendacity. Last year, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman criticized the rhetoric of the recent presidential election campaigns as reflecting our “post-truth politics.” Satirist Stephen Colbert has lampooned political spin as “truthiness,” which is as much an indictment of contemporary American political culture as it was of bloviating conservative TV hosts. After he lost his bid for higher office, Al Gore wrote The Assault on ReasonIn the early George W. Bush years, then-comedian and now Minnesota Senator Al Franken wrote a best-selling book called Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)Chris Mooney’s 2005 book The Republican War on Science was a best-seller among liberal audiences. In his 2010 novel, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen portrayed a Bill Kristol–type character as hypocritically denouncing Islamist lies about 9/11 as Zionist plot while defending the Platonic idea of the “noble lie” to justify the invasion of Iraq. 

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The Making of the Obesity Epidemic: A Breakthrough Debate

Obesity today is described as an “epidemic,” one of the most significant health threats to Americans (especially the poor), and a rising global concern. In response, public health advocates have launched an all-out assault. They have made school lunches more nutritious, restricted access to junk food, campaigned against slickly marketed and unhealthy food, and boosted access to healthy options through farmer’s markets and grocery stores. 

Behind many of these efforts lies the idea that access to food is somehow to blame for obesity — namely, too much access to unhealthy foods and too little to healthy ones — and that the corporate agro-industrial complex is a major driving force behind this problem.

In “The Making of the Obesity Epidemic,” published in Breakthrough Journal No. 3, sociologist Helen Lee shows where this view came from, how the evidence for it is increasingly slim, and how a narrow focus on food availability has distracted our efforts from the kind of interventions that are far more important for public health.

“Turning the overweight into victims of Big Food or agricultural subsidies (rather than, say, unlucky genetics combined with the increasing availability of affordable and delicious snack food) made it much easier to mobilize political support for a big public health campaign,” wrote Daily Beast columnist Megan McArdle. “They may have won the battle, and lost the war.”

In a column discussing the essay in The Week, Marc Ambinder wrote: “Liberal activists should read it. It’s uncomfortable because it suggests that our beliefs do not comport with the science, and our preferred solutions are tied to a conception of the good life, rather than a realistic appraisal of how life is actually lived.” 

Today, Breakthrough Journal publishes two additional responses. 

In “Beyond Counting Calories,” Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, writes that Lee is correct to take on the food desert thesis, but says the flaws of the current debate go even deeper. “The prevailing discourse,” she writes, “has obscured other possible causes for obesity, from environmental toxins to chronic stress, and failed to address the broader influence of market capitalism, which has deeply shaped our neighborhoods, habits, and health.” 

In "Obesity Pragmatism," Julian Morris of Reason magazine laments the misguided efforts of government and health advocates. Instead of taxing junk food or mandating calorie counting, Morris argues, effective anti-obesity interventions will embrace the fact that eating habits are, “first and foremost, a matter of individual responsibility.”

The essay:

The Making of the Obesity Epidemic,” by Helen Lee


The Ecology of Obesity,” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

Beyond Counting Calories,” by Julie Guthman

Obesity Pragmatism,” by Julian Morris

How Public Health Experts Turned Corporations into Public Enemy #1,” by Megan McArdle

Getting Obesity Wrong,” by Marc Ambinder


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The Making of the Obesity Epidemic

How Food Activism Led Public Health Astray

In the 1990s, many public health advocates homed in on food availability as a significant influence on obesity. Major anti-obesity campaigns now center on radically remaking school and neighborhood food environments by reducing access to unhealthy foods and improving access to healthy ones. With this approach advocates have fostered a reductive story about obesity that appeals to liberal audiences but doesn’t comport particularly well with the evidence. Against the popular discourse, those most at risk for obesity would be far better served by strategies demonstrated to improve overall health than calls for more grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

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The Affluent Economy

Our Misleading Obsession with Growth Rates

Nostalgia for the boom economic growth years of the 1950s and 1960s is misplaced. Americans of all classes have grown materially richer every decade since. The lower growth rates today are a function of the slower metabolism of large economies, not a sign that American capitalism is fundamentally broken. Higher rates of economic growth might be desirable, but whether or not they materialize, the stagnation discourse misrepresents the country's economic health. We will be better at solving unemployment and poverty by starting from the recognition that rising prosperity remains the norm of American economic life.

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Wicked Polarization

How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America

Thirteen years after he authored The End of Ideology, Daniel Bell would argue in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism that rising affluence and changing values would result in greater social fragmentation and create a crisis for democratic governance. What Bell did not foresee was that all that heterogeneity would ossify into a new polarization: the enforcement of orthodoxy by powerful ideological institutions, the narrowing of partisan platforms, and gridlock on many of the most serious issues facing the country. This issue of Breakthrough Journal is dedicated to understanding the forces behind wicked problems, including ideological polarization itself, and what can be done to overcome them.

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The Polarization Paradox

Why Hyperpartisanship Strengthens Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism

Whoever wins November’s presidential election is almost certain to face a Congress more ideologically divided than at any time in the past century. Though movement conservatives have accounted for much of the rise in hyperpartisanship, liberals have tried to match fire with fire in recent years. But highly partisan tactics, far from being politically neutral, actually strengthen conservatism and undermine liberalism. Instead of achieving their goals of advancing a progressive agenda, outfits like Media Matters and the Center for American Progress are self-defeating for liberals in the long run.

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On Justice Movements

Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor

The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.

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The Polarization Paradox: A Breakthrough Debate

It has become conventional wisdom that we live in a deeply polarized time, and conservatives deserve the bulk of the blame for a predicament that has replaced what genuine disagreement and compromise remained with dangerous political brinksmanship. The question for liberals is how to advance an agenda in a hyperpartisan political environment.

In their Breakthrough Journal essay, “The Polarization Paradox,” Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele argue that adopting the partisan tactics of the Right is a losing game for liberals. Polarization serves conservatives by ratcheting up gridlock, undermining support for government, and exacerbating apathy among groups that tend to favor Democrats. Liberals, they contend, should instead invest in a politics that will undermine partisanship.

Yet polarization – and the broader structure that drives it – appears unlikely to go away any time soon, and the Obama era has shown that Democrats simply lack the capacity to unilaterally change the game, writes Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt in a new Breakthrough Journal debate. The partisan infrastructure progressives created has proven adept at countering the propaganda of the Right and articulating a much needed political vision, Schmitt argues, while efforts to reach out and forge compromise have achieved little. The task for liberals is to invest in a politics and infrastructure that advance their agenda even in the face of a structurally polarized system.

Read “The Polarization Paradox,” by Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele.

Read “Polarization Is Here to Stay,” by Mark Schmitt.

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Against Cosmopolitanism: A Breakthrough Debate

When the eurozone was on the brink last fall, Michael Lind's summer Breakthrough Journal essay, "Against Cosmopolitanism," appeared prescient. What just a few years ago seemed to be the permanent alignment of interests between the radically different economies of Germany and Greece was replaced by an awareness of the currency union's fragility and contingency. Economic integration had outpaced political integration. The nation-state wasn't giving way to global governance. It was prevailing everywhere.

Not so fast, say Ulrich Beck, one of the world's most influential living sociologists and author of the landmark 1986 tome, Risk Society, and Nils Gilman of Monitor 360 and Michael Costigan of Global Business Network. Cosmopolitanism may not be up to snuff but the nation-state isn't doing so hot either, they argue in a new Breakthrough Forum we publish today.

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Planet of No Return: A Breakthrough Debate

Has humanity crossed a so-called "planetary threshold"? Will the Earth soon be no longer capable of supporting humanity? Or do such limits even exist?

As a growing consensus among scientists has recognized the onset of the Anthropocene -- in which humans have become the dominant ecological force on the planet -- some have expressed concern that human civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. In his Breakthrough Journal essay "Planet of No Return," environmental scientist Erle Ellis argued that this view was at odds with science and human history -- it has been human limits, not natural ones, that have shaped human development.

Not everyone agrees. Now, in a new Breakthrough Forum we publish today -- featuring responses from Bill McKibben, Nils Gilman, Robert Dello-Russo, Ronnie Hawkins, and Francisco Seijo, as well as a reply by Ellis -- the debate over what the Anthropocene means, and how we ought to respond in the coming decades, takes center stage.

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Conservation in the Anthropocene: A Breakthrough Debate

In their Breakthrough Journal essay, "Conservation in the Anthropocene," Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Robert Lalasz showed that conservation is losing the war to protect nature despite winning the battle to create parks and game preserves. While the number of protected areas has risen, species in wild places have fallen. Conservationists must shed their 19th Century vision of pristine nature, the authors wrote, and seek a new vision, one of "a planet in which nature exists amidst a wide variety of modern, human landscapes."

In a new Breakthrough debate, a host of passionate 21st Century conservationists face off with the authors over the resilience of nature, corporate partners, and the state of conservation today.

The Essay:
"Conservation in the Anthropocene," by Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier.
Read a summary of the essay here.

UPDATE: The debate continues at the New York Times. John Lemons, an emeritus professor of biology and environmental sciences at the University of New England, has taken Kareiva to task at Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog.

Kareiva has replied here.

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Evolve: A Breakthrough Debate

Evolve - ape vs human hands.jpg

In "Evolve," Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued that only by embracing modernization and technological innovation can we overcome this century's formidable environmental problems. Humans have long been co-creators of their environment, and what we call "saving the Earth" will require creating and re-creating it again and again for as long as humans inhabit it.

In a new Breakthrough Debate, two scholars lend criticism to this new "modernization theology."

The call to put "faith" in modernization is cause for concern, contends Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. "The troubling history of modernization gives us every reason to be deeply suspicious of anyone who suggests we should simply take it on faith," he writes.

In another response, Leslie Paul Thiele, professor of political science and director of sustainability studies at the University of Florida, argues against a "black and white" view of technology. "The issue is not about being for or against technology," he writes. "The question is this: do we invest in the education and empowerment of citizens such that they can wisely -- which is to say, selectively -- utilize technology in ways that help sustain both a high quality of life and a healthy environment?"

The Essay:
"Evolve," by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

The Responses:
"The Myth of Prometheus," by Leslie Paul Thiele.

"Oh Me of Little Faith," by Jon Christensen.

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