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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American Pastoral

How Romantic Elites Became the Eco-Puritan Left

For years, political divisions over the environment have had the seemingly odd feature that Americans farthest from the open country have tended to be most supportive of protecting the environment, while those nearest to it — farmers and other rural residents — have been most resistant. This split has been muddled in recent years as nature lovers have retired to the countryside, country folk have realized the business advantages of environmental tourism, and political polarization has increasingly subsumed specific issues. Still, when contentious topics such as the Keystone Pipeline or expanding national parks come up, the nature purists tend to be upscale urbanites. The General Social Survey asked how willing respondents would be to “accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment;” highly educated, white liberals in metropolitan areas were the most willing.

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Gray Matter

New Research Suggests the Left & Right Are Guided By Shared Morals

Debates between liberals and conservatives often degenerate into the two sides talking past one another, as though they are speaking different languages. Jonathan Haidt’s and Jesse Graham’s Moral Foundation Theory (MFT) and Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind suggest that this impression is reasonably accurate: liberals’ and conservatives’ moral beliefs are based on different moral foundations. Liberals’ and conservatives’ moral beliefs both rely on fairness and harm. But conservatives are more likely than liberals to make moral judgments based on the foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity (the “binding” foundations, so called because they emphasize group cohesiveness and order). Claims like these imply that conservatives and liberals are fundamentally different kinds of people; conservatives may be figuratively from Mars, whereas liberals are from Venus.

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The Passion of Alvin Weinberg

The Humanitarian Behind China's Great Thorium Push

The 59-year-old physicist was in a something of a panic. The earth was getting hotter, and nobody in Washington seemed to care. Nuclear power — the only realistic way to produce a lot of electricity with few carbon emissions — was the solution. But rising costs for nuclear power and the power of the coal lobby appeared to be trumping environmental concerns, and rationality itself.

He started writing articles. The first he published in Science. It was called “Global Effects of Man’s Production of Energy.” Next, he co-authored an article evaluating what would happen if the U.S. moved away from nuclear. “Continued energy demands during the first few decades of the next century will push atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to levels which warrant serious concern, even for the low energy growth case.”

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Love Your Frankenfoods

Anti-GMO Mob Scarier Than Biotechnology

The Frankenstein metaphor that opponents of genetically modified food use to promote their fears is more apt than they realize. Yes, the monster is an unnatural life-form created by scientific hubris that wreaks death and destruction, the way they describe biotechnology. But remember that frightened angry mob in the Frankenstein movie, the terrified townspeople that take up torches and pitchforks and follow their baying hunting dogs to kill what they fear? It’s a more-than-apt metaphor for how the most virulent segments of the anti-GM mob are behaving. And for society as a whole, between the perceived risk of GMOs and the real risks of making policy about safety under the torches of an emotion-driven mob that distorts and ignores the evidence, the latter is the FAR scarier of the two.

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2014 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Distinguished Scholars Join Breakthrough Community

A economist studying electricity access for India’s poor. A Stanford University scholar who published a groundbreaking ecomodernist critique of environmentalism over two decades ago. One of France’s leading novelists and social critics. The co-inventor of a breakthrough nuclear technology. And the engineering professor who revitalized MIT’s nuclear energy department. Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce these individuals — Joyashree Roy, Martin Lewis, Pascal Bruckner, Per Peterson, and Richard Lester — as Breakthrough Senior Fellows 2014.

This is the sixth year of Breakthrough Senior Fellows. These five new Senior Fellows will join 30 Senior Fellows. Breakthrough Senior Fellows advise Breakthrough Institute staff, collaborate on scholarly and popular papers and reports, and attend Breakthrough Institute’s annual conference, the Breakthrough Dialogue.

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Bridging the Polarization Gap

How Science Communication Paves the Way

Those of us involved in journalism, education, and science like to believe that facts and science illuminate the way through contentious debates. We believe that given ample evidence, thoroughly weighed, we will arrive at some consensus. At the very least, our viewpoints will converge. This devotion to objective facts, the scientific method and the primacy of evidence is the basis for a liberal democracy.

Oh, how very 18th century.

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Philosophy

What is the future of nature protection in a world where the concept of nature as a world separate from humans no longer makes sense? Why do we think of technologies as unnatural and profane when they are made from nature and helped make us human? What is the goal of liberalism in a country where nearly everyone is materially rich?

From their seminal essay "The Death of Environmentalism" to Break Through and to "Evolve," the founders of Breakthrough Institute have longed to ask the big philosophical questions. In Breakthrough Journal and at The Breakthrough, we publish essays by leading thinkers from Bruno Latour to Ulrich Beck to Michael Lind.