Raiding Progress

How Ralph Nader and the Public Interest Movement Undermined American Liberalism

As contemporary American progressivism has come to be defined by the public interest movements associated with Ralph Nader, both the white working class and the business community have abandoned the Democratic Party. For working-class whites, the regulatory assault upon manufacturing, resource-extractive industries, and agriculture threatened both their employment and the local economies in which they lived and worked. With the postwar New Deal compact between business, labor, and government fractured, business groups and industries mobilized themselves as a countervailing force to the increasing power and organization of the public interest movements on the Left. For these reasons, the decline of New Deal liberalism in the last half-century owes as much to assaults by the public interest Left as it does to attacks by a resurgent Right.

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Earth Makers

The Ancient Practice of Ecosystem Creation

Hawaii.

Thursday, March 26, 987 BC.

On the other side of the planet, smelters are bellowing in Europe. The Zhou Dynasty has begun. 52,403,609 people inhabit the Earth. None of them live in Hawaii.

I fill my lungs with cool, fresh air. A rich, thick taste of vegetation with floral notes. It is 6:26 a.m. Rays of sunshine kiss the tops of hulking, gnarled Ohia trees, lighting up their soft red flowers. I hear and see birds. Lots of them.

I recognize ‘I‘iwi, a cardinal-size bird with screaming red feathers and a gently curved beak, dancing happily through the canopy. Alongside it is a smaller red bird with a black tail and black beak, called Apapane. The equally small Elepaio is a flycatcher with brown and white feathers and a straight, tiny black beak. It sings an effortless jumpy chatter and eagerly raises the feathers on top of its head. 

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A Theology for Ecomodernism

What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?

That in every corner of the Earth, human history and natural history combine — that no place remains as a pristine sanctuary apart from human influence — was reported as early as 1864 by George Perkins Marsh in his classic study, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Yet it was 131 years later that the publication of “The Trouble with Wilderness” by William Cronon set off a most difficult era for modern conservation. Cronon’s central observation, that wilderness was a cultural construct or invention, prompted scientific and conceptual work that has fundamentally challenged traditional views of nature and wilderness. Charles Mann, in his book 1491, published in 2006, marshaled a vast literature documenting how enormous populations of native peoples, before they were exterminated by disease and conquest, occupied and cultivated the pre-Columbian landscapes of the New World.

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Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene

Humanity As a Force for Good

Sometime next year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) may or may not decide that humans have changed the Earth so significantly that we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. The idea that humans have created a qualitatively different planet from the one we inherited was discussed at the beginning of the 20th century, but the informal use of the term dates back to the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2000, Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer formally proposed renaming the current geologic epoch, arguing that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, when the increased use of fossil fuels began the process of anthropogenic global warming –– a view that was echoed by other prominent earth scientists and promoted by environmental journalists.

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Rewilding Pragmatism

Or, What an African Safari Can Teach America

Perhaps it is no coincidence that at the same moment that scientists have concluded that we are now living in the Anthropocene, the age of humans, there has been a resurgence of interest in rewilding, the large-scale restoration of nature and the reintroduction of plants and animals (particularly large carnivores) by people to areas where they once thrived. 

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The Return of Nature

How Technology Liberates the Environment

In September 2014, a bear in the Apshawa Preserve, 45 miles northwest of New York City in New Jersey, killed Darsh Patel, 22, a senior at Rutgers University, while he was hiking with friends. Patel’s death was the first fatal bear attack recorded in New Jersey in 150 years. Five friends were hiking when they came across the bear, which they photographed and filmed before running in different directions. After regrouping, they noticed one was missing. State authorities found and euthanized the bear, which had human remains in its stomach and esophagus, and human blood and tissue below its claws.

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Schumpeter’s Revolution

The Creative Destruction of Economics

"I'm afraid I cannot hold out against the new technology any longer." With these words, the Economist announced in 2010 a new weekly management blog, Schumpeter, to accompany the recently inaugurated print column bearing the same name. The eponymous columnist wrote that, like his namesake, he was ambivalent about technology — "a technophile technophobe." Schumpeter saw technological upheaval as the essential fact about capitalism. It is not necessarily good or bad; it is relentless and irresistible.

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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

Responses:

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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