After the Great Transformation

At some point over the last decade, the human population crossed a remarkable threshold. Today, over half of the human population lives in cities and towns, up from one-third in 1960 and only 3 percent in 1800. By 2050, the United Nations estimates, two-thirds of the global population will live in urban settings.

The shift from rural to urban represents far more than a change in settlement patterns. It brings with it profound changes in social, political, and economic organization: the urbanization of the planet has been largely inseparable from industrialization and the rise of market economies.

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Love and Vinyl Chloride

A Deep Ecologist Reconciles With His Father and the Modern World

My father’s child-rearing methods were nineteenth century. Discipline came from the back of a belt, and compliments were few and far between. He rarely showed his feelings and spoke of them even less.

When I finally had enough fuzz on my face, I asked my father to show me how to shave. As a chemical engineer, he approached the issue methodically. It was strictly a technical matter, one that could be mastered with practice, not a rite of passage.

A conservative Republican, he worked in the chemical and plastics industry for B.F. Goodrich. For me, and for my mother, my father’s emotional distance was inseparable from his politics and profession.

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High-Tech Desert

The Great Decoupling of the West's Water

When Bart Fisher returned home from college in 1972, his family’s alfalfa fields outside Blythe in California’s southeastern desert produced seven tons of alfalfa per acre. Today, the Fishers get ten tons per acre from the same land. They do it with the same amount of water as a much younger Fisher and his family used four decades ago.

Growing water-use efficiency on farms like Fisher’s is one of the salient features of the evolution of agriculture in the developed world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Palo Verde and the desert agricultural valleys of southwestern North America. These regions challenge two common narratives about water. The first is that we are blind to a looming disaster, sucking down water and ignoring a reality that will, in the words of Charles Bowden, “slap us in the face and we will have to snap alert. And this slap may come from our kitchen faucet….” It is the narrative most famously captured by the journalist Marc Reisner in his polemic Cadillac Desert, often read as a prediction that we are on a path toward “an apocalyptic collapse of western US society.”

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Modern Pope

Laudato Si and the Effort to Reform the Feudal Church

If you want to make sense of the often coded and conflicting language of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment, the place to start is not to compare it with the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report or the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, but rather to understand it in the context of the tradition known as Catholic Social Teaching.

For Laudato Si, the critically important preceding texts are Pacem in Terris (1963), Gaudium et spes (1965), and Populorum Progressio (1967). Pacem in Terris, written by Pope John XXIII, is an encyclical, like Laudato Si. Peace on Earth, its English name, is the first papal text that was addressed to “all people of good will” in addition to the Catholic community.

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Taking Modernization Seriously

How to Think About Global Industrialization

Can everyone on Earth live a modern life? Can most or all countries succeed in economic development? Is it possible over time for the entire human race to enjoy the living standards of most inhabitants of today’s advanced industrial economies?

These are urgent questions. The global population is expected to grow from a little over 7 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, according to the United Nations. Roughly half of the growth will take place in Africa. Ensuring that a much larger global population enjoys a decent standard of living will be an enormous challenge. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 the human race will require 60 percent more food—100 percent more in the developing world. By 2040, the US Energy Information Administration predicts that global energy consumption will increase by 56 percent; more than half of this energy will be consumed by industry.

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Does Capitalism Require Endless Growth?

Marx and Malthus Reconsidered

The modern notion that capitalism harbors the seeds of its own ecological destruction owes its provenance to a most unlikely duo of canonical economic thinkers. The Reverend Thomas Malthus claimed in the eighteenth century that a collision between the growing number of mouths to feed and the capacity to add productive agricultural land was inevitable. Karl Marx argued in the nineteenth century that technological change would bring with it falling wages, declining profits, and hence, ultimately, the collapse of capital formation.

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After the Baby Bust

The Politics and Ecology of Zero Population Growth

“Lazy workers.”

This, the owners of coffee and rubber estates in Karnataka, India, told us, was why they would tear out dense canopies of trees harboring wild hornbills and critically endangered frogs and replace them with more intensive and less wildlife-friendly crops. Compared to the days when their fathers ran these estates, and the workers required for the back-breaking tasks of weeding, coppicing, and harvesting were more pliable, today’s workers had become defiant and demanding. Laborers now insisted on smoke breaks, higher wages, and even electricity. Worse, farmers told us, they had little choice but to either give up labor-demanding crops or to comply with worker demands, lest their laborers vanish.

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