Complicating the Narrative

Ecomodern Dispatches


October 31, 2016 | Emma Brush

A new poll shows Americans to be “overly optimistic” about renewables, says Vox's David Roberts. Which is of course a euphemism for misapprehension, and one that has only emerged in the American psyche as of late. No matter how recent this trend in public conception, however, does this take in fact represent a substantive shift in the environmentalist narrative? And does it do us any good?

Roberts hedges his bets on the question of whether a public erroneously confident in wind and solar is positive or not. Yes, we need to retain a sense of urgency, he says, but we also need momentum. Momentum for renewables these days, though, tends to position itself against some of those other things we also need momentum for—like nuclear. That kind of momentum can turn into something more like obstruction, as Roberts recognizes when he acknowledges that “an overly triumphalist narrative obscures the difficulty and sheer quantity of decarbonization work ahead.”

David Hart calls this triumphalist narrative a brand of “magical thinking.” “Easy answers alleviate stress, avert change, and attract followers,” he says. “Yet wishing that something is so does not make it so.” What we really need is more nuance in our discussions, and the ability to entertain a range of possibilities that might even conflict with one another. It is extremely unlikely that one energy technology will rule the day, as Ted Nordhaus points out in a recent article for Foreign Affairs. Instead, we should open ourselves “to a range of possible technological futures.”

What other frameworks, policies, and discussions will better serve the complexity and uncertainty of our present moment? That is a question up for debate.

The Complexities of Climate Change

In response to the Kigali agreement, the University of Chicago’s Michael Greenstone points out the paradox of air-conditioning, both a contributor and an essential adaptation to climate change, that complicates policy in countries like India … Nives Dolšak and Aseem Prakash at the University of Washington respond to the causal connections drawn between climate change, natural disasters, and conflict; scapegoating climate change, they say, obscures accountability and effective policy-making, “a move that would be catastrophic” … In a similar vein, Michelle Nijhuis features biologist John Woinarski’s work, which underscores the many factors beyond climate change, including lack of human intervention, that have led to three recent extinctions in Australia … Brad Plumer reviews the many “stutter steps” the world is taking to mitigate climate change, which we’ll need to embrace in the absence of disruptive technological innovation …

Attitudinal Adjustments

Ted Nordhaus uses the faulty history of energy forecasts to highlight our present need: “not better analysis or models but a better public spirit”—one that embraces all zero-carbon solutions … Andrew Revkin reflects on the emergence of the Anthropocene concept in the inaugural edition of Conservation Magazine’s new iteration; “what matters most,” he says, “is not resolving some common meaning so much as engaging in deeply felt discussion, fresh lines of inquiry, and new proposals for sustaining the human journey” … Yvette d’Entremont unpacks a host of myths that often accompany environmentalism, from the supposed superiority of organic produce to anti-nuclear prejudice … Zhai Yun Tan delivers good news for big-city dwellers: a new Gallup poll shows that individuals living in big cities tend to be happier and healthier, due to more extensive infrastructure sponsoring active lifestyles …

Where’s the Beef?

Our own Marian Swain reviews the “Impossible Burger,” the hyped-up plant-based burger that “bleeds”; similar innovations, she concludes, could offer ripe opportunity for decoupling food consumption from environmental impact … Jonathan Kauffman also spotlights the Impossible Burger and its “beefy verisimilitude” … Eliza Barclay tackles other questions of meat consumption—which is on the rise in the U.S. once again—mulling over factors like price, food culture, vegetarianism, and production upgrades … Luke Groskin and Alison Van Eenennaam introduce us to two hornless bulls, an example of “precision breeding” that cuts cost and enhances animal welfare … Michael Battaglia discusses the finding that the use of a certain type of seaweed as feed for cattle could decrease methane emissions and drive up efficiency … Sean Illing and Bruce Friedrich of The Good Food Institute chew over the future of lab meat …

Conservation Conversations

Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier identify the shortcomings of biodiversity as a conservation metric; “conservation needs to attend to a richer set of values than simply the count of species in a particular area,” they argue … Emily Anthes also probes the concept of biodiversity, mulling over the “nuanced picture of the ways in which humans shape life on this planet” and the conceptual—and actual—challenges this complexity poses for conservation … Will Jones describes the necessity of mixed land-use strategies when it comes to elephant conservation—an approach that will lead “to a much brighter future: lost wildernesses reclaimed with the wild African elephant flourishing” … George Monbiot pushes for rewilding “the wet desert” of the British countryside “to allow nature to come back, to allow people to have much richer places to explore” …

Going Nuclear

Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz urges Congress and industry to operate with greater urgency when it comes to nuclear, calling for relicensing, interim storage of spent fuel, and greater support for climate goals, writes Jack FitzpatrickDevin Henry reports on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s new reactor, the first to come online in the U.S. in 20 years … Lenka Kollar describes her journey to become “a nuke” … Debbie Carlson highlights small nuclear reactors, which may prove to deliver the zero-carbon power of nuclear in cheaper, safer, more flexible fashion … Robert Walton and Meg Murphy delve into the history and recent breakthrough of an MIT fusion reactor … Dan Yurman outlines the Bipartisan Policy Center’s recent report on consent-based siting for nuclear waste, which advances an inclusive, transparent, and flexible approach … Heather Smith talks with Berkeley’s Rachel Slaybaugh, a nuclear engineer who discusses the frontier of nuclear, and the mislaid fears that have held it back …

Not So Nuclear

Leslie Hook and Ed Crooks review the Diablo Canyon debate for Financial Times, observing that California’s “nuclear-free vision may be one that that other states and countries”—not to mention California itself—“find hard to follow” … Rachel Morison correlates an increase in electricity prices and fossil fuel use in France with a drop in nuclear generation … Mark Chediak worries over the potential closure of four nuclear plants in 2017, which would eliminate “enough capacity to provide carbon-free electricity to power more than 4 million homes” … Naureen Malik and Jonathan Crawford cover the Carlyle Group’s claim that the future of nuclear in the U.S. depends on subsidies and other governmental support; without these reactors, the group’s leader says, “emissions reductions will be eviscerated and volatility of prices will increase” …

Final Words on Farming

Joseph Byrum highlights the technological innovation that has benefited both farmers and grocery shoppers—techniques that are making our food “tastier, healthier, and safer than ever—at a bargain price” … Franco Vaccarino points to precision agriculture and the need “to farm smarter” in the 21st century … A new study on small-scale farmers in Indonesia, conducted at Lund University in Sweden, contradicts “the traditional view that small-scale agriculture is environmentally friendly.”