The Romance of Ecomodernism

Pragmatism, Romance, and Urban Renewal at Breakthrough Dialogue 2014

People will be drawn to an ecomodernism when it combines a romantic love for nature with the pragmatic use of technology and development. That was the advice offered by Emma Marris, Mark Sagoff, and Reihan Salam in the final panel of Breakthrough Dialogue 2014.

“Environmentalism has many characteristics of a religion — a religion I’m a member of,” said Marris. “But if we care about outcomes, pursuing personal eco-sainthood is not the most efficient means of getting to those outcomes,” Marris said. “Can we have a movement with excitement and enthusiasm but without the religiosity?”  

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Stop Blaming China for the Epidemic of Elephant Killings

Habitat Loss, Not Rising Ivory Demand, Is Long-Term Driver of Decline

A new epidemic of elephant slaughter is sweeping across Central and East Africa –– one of the worst outbreaks in decades. You may remember seeing similar headlines before, in the mid-1970s and again in the late 1980s. If so, you could be forgiven for dismissing the headlines as rather overwrought. But that would be a mistake. We are indeed in the midst of a crisis, just not the one you have been reading about.

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A Wilder Bay Area

Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect

Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.

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A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet

Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century

Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife. 

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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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Can California Desalinate Its Way Out of a Drought?

New Technologies Promise Lower Costs and Fewer Environmental Impacts

This article was first published at Yale Environment 360 and is reprinted with permission.

A ferry plows along San Francisco Bay, trailing a tail of churned up salt, sand, and sludge and further fouling the already murky liquid that John Webley intends to turn into drinking water. But Webley, CEO of a Bay Area start-up working on a new, energy-skimping desalination system, isn’t perturbed. 
 

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Can We Grow More Food on Less Land?

Sustainable Intensification Needs to Continue For Trend to Last

Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.

When you consider that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70 percent increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).

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Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

International Energy Agency Faulted for Unrealistic Projections

World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.

“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”

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The Green Urbanization Myth

Suburban Sprawl and Self-Driving Cars May Reverse Land Sparing Efforts

Once a fringe idea, the notion of using technology to allow humanity to “decouple” from nature is winning new attention, as a central element of what the Breakthrough Institute calls “ecomodernism.” The origins of the decoupling idea can be found in 20th century science fiction visions of domed or underground, climate-controlled, recycling-based cities separated by forests or deserts. A version of decoupling was promoted in the 1960s and 1970s by the British science writer Nigel Calder in The Environment Game (1967) and the radical ecologist Paul Shepard in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973). More recent champions of decoupling include Martin Lewis, Jesse Ausubel, Stewart Brand, and Linus Blomqvist.  

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Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature

Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.

But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment. 

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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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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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Polarizing Bears

How Environmentalists and Skeptics Misrepresent the Science on Polar Bears

Last month an alphabet soup scientific working group you’ve never heard of — the IUCN/SSC PBSG — added a brief footnote to a forthcoming report you didn’t know they were preparing. Just another day in the annals of the worldwide research community. Except, of course, when that body is the Polar Bear Specialist Group, and the item in question involves just how many polar bears currently exist on Earth.

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2014 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

An outdoors enthusiast who studies innovations systems at the Consortium for Policy, Science & Outcomes; a masters student at the Massachusetts Institute Technology performing nuclear fuel cycle analyses; a young woman who biked across two states to advocate for moving beyond fossil fuels; and a postgrad studying water governance who spent a year in rural China. These are among the 10 outstanding young thinkers will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting new approaches to major environmental challenges.

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A Marriage of Two Agricultures

Pamela Ronald on the Need for GMOs and Organic Farming

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. "Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, 'Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what's in our food,'” Shumlin declared.

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The Best-Case Scenarios for Palm Oil

Why Rhett Butler is Optimistic About Forest Conservation

Two firsthand experiences with deforestation – one in Ecuador, another in Borneo – inspired Rhett Butler to launch the news site Mongabay, which was named one of the top 15 environmental websites by TIME, and remains one of the most popular sources for conservation and biodiversity news. Trained as an economist, Butler believes he comes to conservation with a broader view of what motivates people to act, and how certain conservation and land use policies are adopted whereas others aren’t. Most recently, he was an advisor to the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, which features a prominent episode on palm oil deforestation in Indonesia. Breakthrough caught up with Butler to discuss the economic benefits and environmental hazards of palm oil production, with an eye toward the policies and trends that give us reason to be more optimistic about deforestation.

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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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Reducing Our Hoofprint

How Agricultural Intensification Can Boost Yields and Biodiversity

Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts. 

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Growth of Biomass Far Outstrips Growth of Solar and Wind

Absolute Growth of Biomass in US 2X Higher than Wind and Solar

If I asked you to think of renewable energy, what comes to mind? I imagine it is skyscraper-sized wind turbines, solar panels on suburban roofs, or massive hydroelectric dams. You probably do not think of burning wood or converting crops to liquid fuel to be used in cars. Yet throughout the world bioenergy remains the biggest source of renewable energy. In fact its growth in the last decade has been greater than or similar to that from wind and solar in most places, and those places include the European Union and the United States of America.

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Marine Biodiversity is the New Frontier of Conservation

‘By-catch’ Reduction Shows Promise of Industry Working With Conservationists

The debate raging within the conservation community over “new conservation” appears to be essentially a religious war, with doctrinal beliefs well defined and the rancor and defamation appearing to grow each month. In essence, the “new conservation” argues that the major gains in biodiversity protection will be made in human-used environments and by working with communities and industries that use these environments rather than by the use of protected areas (Kareiva and Marvier 2012).

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Can Palm Oil Deforestation Be Stopped?

Why Only Sustainable Intensification Can Save Indonesia's Forests

There has been growing interest among environmentalists and the public in recent years about palm oil and its role in tropical deforestation. Most recently, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously features palm oil plantations in Indonesia as one of its main narratives, explaining how carbon emissions from deforestation are a driver of climate change. Celebrity correspondent Harrison Ford gapes from a helicopter, looking down at the swaths of palm oil plantations that have replaced tropical forest.

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Preaching to the Climate Converted

Why Showtime's "Years" Is Unlikely to Reach Non-Believers

In the first episode of the $20 million Showtime series on climate change, Years of Living Dangerously, which aired last Sunday, we meet a 46-year-old evangelical Christian named Nelly Montez. Montez was laid off from a local meatpacking plant that closed due to a drought. Every week she and other women march around the plant, praying for rain. The actor Don Cheadle, one of the show’s celebrity correspondents, asks Montez if she attributes the drought to anything. She says, “I think it’s biblical.”

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Off on the Wrong Foot

Why A Footprint Is A Poor Metaphor for Humanity’s Impact on the Planet

On the cover of Our Ecological Footprint, published in 1996, a giant foot stomps on the Western hemisphere, carrying the weight of cars, overpasses, and skyscrapers. William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia, first thought of the footprint metaphor while boasting to a graduate student about the “small footprint” of his new computer tower in 1992. Linguists trace the use of footprint to mean “space occupied” to 1965 when astronomers described the landing area for a spacecraft. It would be another 14 years before a Senate committee first uttered “environmental footprint.” But is this the best metaphor for humanity’s impact on the natural world?

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Fighting to Breathe

New WHO Report Says Air Pollution from Cooking Caused 4.3 Million Premature Deaths

Nasty airborne particles kill 7 million people a year prematurely, reports the World Health Organization—way more than previous estimates.

That news may not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen images of smog-belching smokestacks in Beijing, Delhi, or Mexico. But those factories—or even the clogged roadways of modern cities—are not the biggest culprit. Each year, some 4.3 million people die earlier than they should because of foul air inside their homes, says the WHO. (Its study accounted for fact that people spend time both indoor and outdoors.)

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Farm to Fable

Eating Local May Feel Good, But Is It Smart for the Planet?

The local food movement has captured the imagination of many foodies, chefs, and gardeners. But is “going locavore” also good conservation — or just an exercise in feeling good?

The term “local” food has various and sometimes conflicting definitions. It often means food grown “near” the consumer (eg, within 50 miles, the county, or the same state). It can also mean food sold in an alternative food market. And it could refer to food that has some characteristic reminding people of what they think of as home.

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The Human Toll of Anti-GMO Hysteria

Study Estimates Opposition Has Cost 1.4 Million “Life Years” Since 2002

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A-producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a nonprofit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two German economists have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

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Four Surprising Facts About Population

Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster

One often hears that we are in the midst of exponential population growth, and that the Earth cannot support many more people. Unless we take immediate measures to control population growth, the story goes, we are on a crash course for ecological and humanitarian disaster.

But what is really going on with global population trends? In this essay, we present four surprising facts that will change the way you think about population, the environment, and human progress.

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Ivanpah’s Land Footprint

World's Largest Thermal Project Requires 92 Times the Acreage of Babcock & Wilcox "Twin Pack"

The opening of the world's largest solar power station provides an opportunity to take stock of our energy options. Comparison of large solar and small nuclear holds some important lessons for constructing a future that is both energy-rich and decarbonized for around 10 billion people.

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Bitter Harvest

How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Norm Borlaug had no illusions that the Green Revolution was anything other than a means to buy the world time. Time, to get our house in order, to stabilize our populations, to generate the knowledge that would allow us to support ourselves without destroying the environment; and to enable most people to lead their lives in dignity. The expectation, he told me in several conversations in the early 2000s, was that we as societies would take up the new knowledge and use it wisely. 

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Pleistocene Dreams

George Monbiot on Rewilding the Planet

One day, the British environmental writer George Monbiot was digging in his garden when he had a revelation—that his life had become too tidy and constrained. While exploring what it would take to re-ignite his own sense of wonder, he waded into a sea of ideas about restoration and rewilding that so captured his imagination that it became the focus of his next book. Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding was published in the United Kingdom in 2013, to much acclaim, and is forthcoming in the U.S. in 2014. Orion editor Jennifer Sahn caught up with Monbiot to talk about rewilding—what it means for people, for nature, and for an environmental movement that is in great need of having far wider appeal.

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When Renewables Destroy Nature

How Integrating Society Into Nature Can Be Bad For Both

The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.

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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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Concrete Jungles? They, Too, Can Support Wildlife

Two-Thirds of Native Plant & Bird Species Continue to Exist in Cities

Mention the word biodiversity to a city dweller and images of remote natural beauty will probably come to mind – not an empty car park around the corner. Wildlife, we think, should be found in wild places, or confined to sanctuaries and national parks. But research shows that cities can in fact support biodiversity and this can have major implications for conservation efforts.

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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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Don’t Believe the Fever Pitch

Climate Change Plays Limited Role in Spread of Dengue Virus

In the summer of 2012, I spent a week in a Cambodian hospital recovering from dengue fever, which I had contracted in Laos. When my bout with dengue comes up in conversation, a standard response is a knowing look accompanied by the obvious explanation: climate change – as in,  “any fool knows that dengue is spreading around the world because of climate change.”

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Saving Lives Does Not Lead to Overpopulation

The Age of Peak Child

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus, who published his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. As recently as the Cold War, American foreign policy experts theorized that famine would make poor countries susceptible to Communism. Controlling the population of the poor countries labeled the Third World became an official policy in the so-called First World. In the worst cases, this meant trying to force women not to get pregnant. Gradually, the global family planning community moved away from this single-minded focus on limiting reproduction and started thinking about how to help women seize control of their own lives. This was a welcome change. We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering.

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A Mammoth Comeback

The Case for Resurrecting Extinct Species

Sequenceable DNA can be recovered from museum specimens and some fossils of extinct species. That discovery in the 1980s set in motion the idea that it might be possible to bring some extinct animals back to life. The advent of ever-cheaper shotgun-sequencing of living genomes meant that the highly fragmented condition of "ancient DNA" was no barrier to reconstructing the whole genome of creatures long gone. Meanwhile, the rise of "synthetic biology" since 2000 is providing highly precise genome-editing tools. 

Maybe we can edit long-dead genomes back to life. Maybe extinct species could walk the Earth again. Maybe they could once again thrive in the wild. 

 

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Animal Planet’s Bogus Account of Chernobyl Wildlife

Fission for Scare Tactics

As someone who has spent the past four years making and distributing a documentary film about nuclear energy, Pandora’s Promise, it’s nice once in a while to spend a relaxing weekend at home with my kids thinking of more pedestrian things, like doing the laundry. But the battle over nuclear energy refuses to leave me alone despite my best efforts.

Recently, my 10-year old son, Luc, has become enamored with a highly popular fishing show on Animal Planet called River Monsters. To those of you unfamiliar with it, River Monsters is a British reality show that follows a dashing expert fisherman named Jeremy Wade around the world in search of dangerous freshwater predators. Last weekend, my son and his best friend were hanging out on a rainy day watching their favorite show when suddenly I hear shrieks from the TV room, “Dad, you gotta come and see this!”

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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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2013: A Year of Hope and Change for the Environment

How the Green Ideological Nucleus Split

For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.

But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.

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GMO Fears Overblown

World Without GM Crops Poses Greater Risks

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the topic of genetically modified (GM) foods and, more specifically, labeling food that contains GM ingredients. Recently, the state of Washington voted on an initiative that would force manufacturers to disclose their use of genetically altered crops. If it was approved, Washington would have become the first state to pass GM labeling requirements, although dozens more are considering similar legislation.

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America, Land of Carnivores

An Interview with Maureen Ogle, Author of "In Meat We Trust"

In Meat We Trust,” Ogle’s newest book, hit shelves Tuesday, November 12. In it, she traces the history of meat in America, from the livestock raised by the original settlers to the birth of the modern industrial system. Along the way, she seeks to understand what she sees as a fundamental disconnect between consumers’ demand for an abundance of cheap chicken, beef and pork, and the producers whose motives bear little resemblance to what the critics would have us believe.

Ogle spoke with Salon about Americans’ long-standing and complicated relationship with their favorite proteins, from price scandals to pink slime. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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New Paper Challenges Metrics of Ecological Overshoot

Ecological Footprint Found to Be "Misleading"

Is humanity really using 1.5 Earths? That is the central finding of the Ecological Footprint (EF), a widely cited global sustainability indicator used by the United Nations and major NGOs around the world to estimate the impact of human activity on the biosphere. But a paper published today in PLoS Biology finds the method behind the Ecological Footprint "so misleading as to preclude its use in any serious scientific or policy context."

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Limiting Population Growth Is Not the Answer to Global Warming

‘Elephant in the Room’ Has Weak Relationship to Greater Carbon Emissions

Getting people to produce fewer babies – they already are – is a far less important challenge than getting them to consume and produce energy more rationally. It is time we worried more about rich people driving luxury cars than poor people having more babies.

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Is Pot Growing Green?

Assessing the Carbon Footprint of Cannabis

Over the past several years, the campaign for marijuana legalization has surged ahead in the United States. Colorado and Washington have voted for full legalization, and a number of other states now allow the consumption of medical cannabis. Yet the US federal government still regards the substance as a “Schedule 1” drug, more dangerous and less useful than cocaine or methamphetamine. The position of cannabis in American society is a deeply charged issue undergoing a sea change in the court of public opinion.

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It’s Time to Label GMOs

Why We Need to Move Biotech Out of the Shadows

In just about three weeks from now, on November 5, Washington State will likely pass a ballot initiative to label GMOs. Polling I’ve seen suggests two-thirds of voters currently approve of I-522. Those numbers may come down a bit, but my hunch is this particular battle is lost.

I’m told that it’s entirely possible that the ballot initiative could then be struck down as unconstitutional, so it being passed is not the end point. But as Churchill once said, it is certainly the end of the beginning. The strategy of fighting labeling state by state will have failed, and something new will have to take its place. Today I want to outline to you some ideas about what this something new might look like.

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Deliberate Nature

Ascension Island’s Novel Ecosystems

I was standing on the summit of an extinct volcano in the center of one of the most remote islands on the planet: Ascension Island in the tropical South Atlantic. Midway between Brazil and Africa, Ascension is a thousand miles from the nearest speck of land. Below me was a harsh treeless moonscape of volcanic clinker, baking in the sun. But in the cool mountain air, 800 meters up, I was surrounded by lush greenery and a light mist from a cloud settled over the mountaintop.

They call it Green Mountain. But the greenery is new. My guide, the island’s conservation development officer, Stedson Stroud, peered around us and smiled. “Nothing you see here is native,” he said. “Except for a few ferns, everything has been introduced in the past 200 years.”

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Fukushima Fallout Does Not Endanger US Seafood

Radiation Levels in Fish No Higher Than Average Banana

This article was originally published by the Center for American Progress.

In recent weeks, there has been a significant uptick in news from Fukushima, Japan. Officials from the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, admitted that radioactive water is still leaking from the nuclear plant crippled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The new revelations about the amount of water leaking from the plant have caused a stir in the international community and led to additional scrutiny of Pacific Ocean seafood. Last week, South Korea announced it had banned all imports of Japanese seafood from a large area around Fukushima. And Al Jazeera reported that the cost to the region’s fishing industry over the past two years exceeds $3.5 billion.

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Challenging the ‘White Hat Bias’

What’s At Stake With the Subpoena of EPA Data

Last month Republicans in the US House of Representatives launched a new offensive in the long-running battle over the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. For the first time in 21 years the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology issued a subpoena requiring the EPA to hand over the data from two scientific studies, which provide the basis for most of the regulations.

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Bury, Burn, or Recycle?

Zero-Waste Greens Oppose Incineration on Grounds of Consumption

For communities short on landfill space, “waste-to-energy” incineration sounds like a bulletproof solution: Recycle all you can, and turn the rest into heat or electricity. That's how it's been regarded in much of Europe, where nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste is burned in 450 incinerators, and increasingly in the United States, where dozens of cities and towns are considering new, cutting-edge plants.

But leaders of the international zero-waste movement, which seeks to reuse all products and send nothing to landfills or incinerators, say incineration falls short on the energy front and actually encourages waste. Many “zero wasters” — including groups such as Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA — have become ardent opponents of the technology, contending that proponents have co-opted the carefully crafted zero-waste label by suggesting that burning to produce energy isn't actually wasting. 

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Poverty, Not Global Warming, Remains Biggest Challenge

Deprivation Is Most Important Problem No Matter Climate Impacts

It’s particularly trendy among politicians and members of the media to be worried about climate change. When President Obama recently spoke before a crowd in Berlin, he said that climate change “is the global threat of our time.”

But that’s not true. Just a cursory glance around the world reveals that, given the enormous problems facing our planet, it would be surprising if climate change cracked a list of the top 10 immediate concerns.

 

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Mapping the Anthropocene

Visualizing How Humans Are Embedded in Nature

Any ecology student could tell you what biomes are: vegetation types, such as grasslands and tropical rainforests, that ecologists use to map the planet. But there’s a problem. Biomes exist only at the discretion of nearly 7 billion people trying to live their lives on a crowded planet.

Invert that ancient image of invasive humans chopping away at the edges of a pristine nature. The era has long since moved from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Nature is now embedded within a matrix of human-altered croplands, pastures, towns and cities. These anthropogenic biomes — “anthromes” for short — offer a fresh way of seeing our planetary pastiche.

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Behind the Golden Rice Attack

Don't Blame Filipino Farmers for Anti-GMO Attack

Did you hear that a group of 400 angry farmers attacked and destroyed a field trial of genetically modified rice in the Philippines this month? That, it turns out, was a lie. The crop was actually destroyed by a small number of activists while farmers who had been bussed in to attend the event looked on in dismay.

The nature of the attack was widely misreported, from the New York Times to New Scientist to BBC News, based on false claims by the activists. But then anti-GMO activists often lie. In support of the vandals, Greenpeace has claimed that there are health concerns about the genetically modified rice. In fact there is no evidence of risk, and the destruction of this field trial could lead to needless deaths.

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Building the Case for a High-Energy Planet

Generation Fellows Assess Future of Energy, Innovation, and Agriculture

How much land would be required to power the world on renewable energy alone? When does greater energy efficiency actually increase energy consumption? How are China and the United States working together on innovative technologies like solar and wind? What is the future of travel? These are some of the big questions Breakthrough Generation 2013 Fellows confronted this year, leading to surprising and path-breaking answers.

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The Founding Father of Foodie

Wendell Berry and Green Pastoralism

No other contemporary writer has captured the hearts of food-conscious Americans than Michael Pollan, who argues across his seven books, most recently Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, that our food and our eating habits have a complex narrative we must heed. Today’s narrative, according to Pollan, is one in which Americans tacitly accept the industrial food industry and cheap energy system, both of which are cause not only for obesity and disease, but also global warming, pollution, and humanity’s numerous wicked problems. 

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Against ‘Anti-science’ Tribalism

Science Is No Substitute for Politics

One of the more useful concepts to emerge from online discussions is Godwin’s Law, which holds that the longer that an online debate takes place the probability that someone invokes Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1.0. When discussions reach such a point of fantastic overstatement, the existence of Godwin’s Law enables its invocation, and often a conversation can be reset to good effect.

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A Green Vision of Technology

How Ecomodernists Foresee Room for Nature

There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace’s warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world’s last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?

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The Ethics of Ecological Modernization

Embracing Creative Destruction

The concluding panel at the Breakthrough Dialogue raised questions about the doomsday narratives embedded in current conversations of mankind’s ecological impacts, and pointed to an alternative set of ecologically modern ethics that might succeed the “small-is-beautiful,” anti-consumerist, and technologically skeptical values of traditional environmentalism.

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A Locavore’s Dilemma

On the Fantasy of Urban Farming

I have no idea where my food comes from, but I hope it’s shipped by rail from a California factory farm.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive. But I’m an environmentalist who can do math, and the numbers on locavorism, like much else in green-urbanist food ideology, don’t add up.

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The Desecration Paradigm

Environmentalism's Antihuman Strain

Among the paradigms that structure discussion of environmental policy are what Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, among others, have called the pollution, depletion, and conservation paradigms. To these, I think, another must be added: the desecration paradigm.

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Questions Loom Over Africa’s Rush for Hydropower

Will Dams Spur Sub-Saharan Electrification?

Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than three-quarters of the population is without electricity, will soon be lit up — or that’s the promise of governments building a host of new hydroelectric schemes across the continent. These projects are an attempt to keep up with the rising power demand from Africa’s economic boom. But the trouble is that, like the boom, the power seems destined to benefit only small industrial and urban elites. For the rest of Africa’s billion inhabitants, this investment looks unlikely to further UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s goal of “sustainable energy for all.”

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How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part Two

Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.

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Humans Have Shaped Earth for Millennia

Rethinking Invasive Species, Human Impacts, and Nature's Resilience

Are there any pristine ecosystems out there? The evidence is growing that our ideas about virgin nature are often faulty. In fact, the lush rainforest or wind-blown moorland we think is natural may be a human creation, with alien creatures from distant lands living beside native species. Realizing this will change our ideas about how ecosystems work and how we should do conservation.

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Don’t Fight GMO Labels

Realigning Consumers' 'Right to Know'

I support GMOs. And we should label them. We should label them because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.

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How Electricity and TV Defused the ‘Population Bomb’

The Unexpected Promise of Soap Operas

In the late sixties, India was the poster child of Third World poverty. In 1965, the monsoon rains failed to arrive, food production crashed, and much of the country was on the brink of starving. Asked for help, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have told an aide, "I'm not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems." Johnson came around, but by the end of the decade India was viewed in the West as, at best, a basket case and, at worst, a "population bomb" that threatened the entire planet.

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The Truth About Genetically Modified Food

Debunking the GMO Conspiracy Theory

I think the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.

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The Long Anthropocene

Three Millennia of Humans Reshaping the Earth

Humans have been changing Earth’s landscapes at globally significant levels for at least 3000 years, and doing so by increasingly productive and efficient means, according to our new research challenging the claim that use of land by industrial civilization is destroying planetary ecology at an accelerating pace.

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Planetary Boundaries as Millenarian Prophesies

Malthusian Echoes

The idea that we are collectively on the brink of overstepping “planetary boundaries” that will render civilization unsustainable has been prominently propounded by a group of scholars around Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. In common with other scientific catastrophists, Rockström et al make much of the claim by Nobel prizewinning chemist, Paul Crutzen (2002) that the earth has entered a new geological period, the Anthropocene “in which human actions have become the main driver of global change” that “could see human activities push the Earth system outside the stable environment state of the Holocene with consequences that are detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world” (Rockström et al 2009:472). A few sentences further on they assert that:

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Beyond Virtuous Nature

Rachel Carson in History

That women are the caretakers of a society’s virtue and morals might be one of the few ideas historically that can rival, in power and persistence, the idea of nature as the authentic source of virtue. It’s as if Rachel Carson stands between the meanings of women and the meanings of nature, and both radiate virtue towards and around her in a kind of closed system.

And this powerful vision of nature, as the central environmentalist trope has gotten us far. But it is long past time to move it away, to dislodge it, from the center of environmentalism. We owe so much to Rachel Carson. But I don’t think that her vision of nature can ultimately sustain a culture of environmentalism that will effectively arm us to create the clean, healthy world, full of healthy wild things and places, as well as healthy people.

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We Have Never Been Natural

As Environmentalism Fragments, Competing Stories About the Anthropocene Emerge

Environmentalism is no longer about saving nature alone: increasingly, it's about saving people given their dependencies on nature (witness the sustainability movement) and since environmental problems are often symptoms of deeper social problems (witness dumping in Dixie). Yet concepts of nature still suffuse the movement—perhaps no longer just wilderness, national parks, and Gaia, but also a spirit of wildness, community gardens, and an optimal 350-ppm-CO2 atmosphere. It is not surprising that manifold notions of nature are found throughout contemporary environmentalism, since that is what environment means to most people.

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Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab

Giving Political Decisions a Scientific Sheen

Writing at the Huffington Post UK, Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre at Sussex University, asks a provocative question:

When the cover of the Economist famously announced 'Welcome to the anthropocene' a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?

The occasion for raising this question was Leach's participation last month in a United Nations meeting of experts on the development of new sustainable development goals. Leach describes a meeting in which scientific authority was invoked as the basis for closing down debates over policy and asserting the preeminent roles of experts in charting a course for future global development.

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The Limits of Limits

Scientists Debate Planetary Boundaries at New York Academy of Sciences

Almost every environmentalist would answer “yes” — and have pugnaciously strong opinions about what we should do (or stop doing) to avoid crossing such lines. But what does science tell us about Earth’s limits? Which are really science-based? Can innovation stretch any of them? Are they even useful for motivating policymaking and behavior change?

A world-class panel of scientists grappled with these questions last Thursday’s during “The Limits of the Planet: A Debate” — the final forum in this year’s “Nature and Our Future” discussion series, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and held at The New York Academy of Sciences headquarters in lower Manhattan.

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Bruno Latour Wins Prestigious Holberg Prize

Breakthrough Senior Fellow ‘Completely Re-imagined Science Studies’

Breakthrough Senior Fellow Bruno Latour, the French anthropologist and sociologist, has been announced as the winner of the 2013 Holberg International Memorial Prize, one of the most distinguished awards in the arts and humanities. The prize committee recognized Latour as a “creative” and “unpredictable” scholar who has “undertaken an ambitious analysis and reinterpretation of modernity, challenging the most fundamental categories such as the distinction between modern and pre-modern, nature and society, human and non-human.”

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How Genetically-Modified Crops Can Save Hundreds of Thousands from Malnutrition

After Controversy, GM Rice and Yams Will Finally Reach Rural Poor

Biofortification is particularly useful for reaching the rural poor who grow the food they consume, and are therefore largely outside the reach of food fortification programmes, which work best in urban areas where most food is purchased in markets. Unlike supplements, biofortified vitamin A-enriched food and crops will continue to protect children from deficiencies in a sustainable way at little extra cost as they are harvested each year.

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Shellenberger on Colbert Report

Breakthrough Cofounder Talks Climate, Nuclear, and Frankenstein with Stephen Colbert

Michael Shellenberger, president and cofounder of the Breakthrough Institute, made the case for a new environmentalism on the Colbert Report last week.

The new environmentalism is defined by its embrace of technology as essential to human progress and overcoming environmental challenges such as climate change.

“That’s why we wrote this book — it’s called Love Your Monsters. It comes from this idea that we should treat our technologies like our children, like our creations,” Shellenberger explained. “When they fail us — when they disappoint us — you don’t abandon them, you improve them. You make them better.”

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Why I Was Wrong About GMOs

And How They Can Help Sustainably Feed the World

A Lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference on January 3, 2013.

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

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Top 2012 Breakthroughs

New Senior Fellows Announced

The last year has been an exciting one for the Breakthrough Institute. We grew to 30 Senior Fellows and 50 Breakthrough Generation Fellows, hired new staff and hosted our second annual Breakthrough Dialogue. We launched our revamped digital home at The Breakthrough. And we continued to make the case for the critical importance of innovation to environmental quality and economic growth, shaping public debates over the future of clean energy, the planetary boundaries paradigm, shale gas, carbon taxes, nuclear energy, and much more.

 

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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 Rise of the ‘Modernist Greens’

Slate Features Breakthrough Institute and Allies

A growing movement of “modernist greens,” made up of cutting edge scientists and thinkers, innovative activists and policy experts, has reimagined environmentalism over the past decade and is today actively creating a powerful new ecological politics for the twenty-first century.

These efforts, profiled expertly by former Audubon editor Keith Kloor last week in Slate, are fashioning a “radical departure from the nature-centric framework that has long dominated environmental politics and policy.”

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The Progressive Case for Modernization

Against the 'Infantile Left'

It is virtually impossible to discuss manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and related subjects from what I consider a center-left perspective without being challenged by anti-industrial or post-industrial Luddites who claim that the genuine progressive position is an amalgam of Mathusian anti-consumerism and energy austerity, often combined with support for old-fashioned, premodern methods of making artifacts and growing food.  I had thought that this debate was limited to the liberal left, and was surprised to learn, from an interview with Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, that a similar debate occurs within the less familiar (to me) circles of the radical left.

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We’re Not Running Out of Fertilizer

Against ‘Peak Everything’

Jeremy Grantham, a well-known presence in the financial world, recently published a World View column in the journal Nature in which he concludes that, “simply, we are running out’’ of almost all commodities whose consumption sustains modern civilization. There is nothing new about such claims, and since the emergence of a vocal global peak oil movement during the late 1990s, many other minerals have been added to the endangered list. Indeed, there is now a book called Peak Everything. What makes Grantham’s column – published under the alarmist headline “Be Persuasive. Be Brave. Be Arrested (If Necessary)” – worth noticing, and deconstructing, is that he puts his claims in terms more suitable for tabloids than for one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific weekly magazines.

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The Future of Food

Ending Agriculture to Feed and Re-Wild the Planet

I have criticized him before for investing in projects like sovereign libertarian island-states, but I am glad to see that Paypal founder Peter Thiel is investing in the worthy cause of in vitro food production. The sooner we manufacture most of our food from stem cells or chemicals, rather than grow it, the sooner vast amounts of land on the earth’s surface can be partly or wholly “re-wilded.”

 

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Love Your Pythons

Managing a Changing Everglades

By Emma Marris

Biologists with the United States Geological Survey recently captured a 17-foot Burmese Python in the Everglades and put it down because it was an invasive species. But should we “learn to love” these pythons, instead of try to root them out in the name of a “pure” Everglades? After all, the Burmese Python, first introduced to Florida through the exotic animal trade, is unlikely to go away entirely any time soon.

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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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