Ecomodern Dispatches

“Historically, our fascination with the End has flourished at moments of political insecurity and rapid technological change,” writes Evan Osnos in a recent feature on “elite survivalism” for The New Yorker. We are, it is safe to say, certainly in the midst of all of the above. Not only has the US been downgraded from a full to a “flawed” democracy, but the Doomsday Clock has struck once again, moving us 30 seconds closer to midnight as a result of “humanity’s most pressing threats: nuclear weapons and climate change.”

Perhaps worse is the way in which technological change seems to be intertwined with political instability, leading us down what might look like a spiralling path toward destruction. Our technologies have aggravated our tribal impulses, Osnos tells us, manifesting in both polarization and dystopianism. The rise of statistics, as William Davies points out in The Guardian, seems to have stoked political dysfunction rather than quelled it. And according to Jason Tanz of Wired, the ethos of personal liberation that has accompanied Silicon Valley-esque technological change since the 1960s has recently been co-opted by authoritarian forces, leading us to the political predicament we face today.

The notion of doomsday itself, however, magnifies these challenges far more than it resolves them. The looming fear that the world is ending may make sense in the face of an actual nuclear winter, but it tells us very little about how to deal with our problems, as Will Boisvert has argued—and it does far worse by scaring us away from technologies that might serve as solutions, not to mention further into our ideological silos.

Technology and political institutions, Osnos and Davies remind us separately, are both in the end tools—tools that may be employed toward destructive or constructive ends. Reinvesting in both, as well as in a positive vision to guide them, will take us a long way farther than the short road to apocalypse possibly could.

As science faces its own existential crisis, a number of smart commentaries have emerged to trace the lack of faith in the institution, as well as possible ways forward. Alan Levinovitz details some contributing factors to Trump’s ascension—namely, “epistemic uncertainty, existential panic, and anti-elitism”—to emphasize that reason alone will fail to convince those whose worldview depends on the rejection of scientific consensus. Peter Broks drives the point home further, arguing that “science communication has failed.” We are in need not of better messaging tools, he thinks, but rather of “a vision of society—free, open, equal and inclusive—that science can help us create.” Matthew Nisbet hashes out a fuller version of this argument in American Scientist:

What is needed is broader strategic thinking about the handful of policy goals and investments that scientists can join with others in pursuing that would have an enduring impact on problems such as income inequality and political polarization, and on the threat they pose to the scientific enterprise.

Part of this requires that scientists recognize their own role in exacerbating inequality; especially revealing is the finding that those individuals considered “scientific optimists” tend to have benefitted from the changes that accompany innovation. If scientists do seek to mobilize, Nisbet says, it should be in the service of broader goals and institutions—those that might serve to dispel the inequality and polarization currently undermining science and society alike.

Breakthrough’s Ted Nordhaus, Alex Trembath and Jessica Lovering make the case that the Trump era, if nothing else, challenges “climate advocates to grapple seriously with why their politics and policies have failed so consistently for the last several decades” and to consider new options—including the advanced nuclear option. Paul McDivitt, writing for Ensia, similarly urges environmentalists to more accurately portray the success of renewables, a tactic that adds up not to “renewables denial,” as Bill McKibben would have it, but rather to a responsible assessment of our clean energy needs in the face of climate change.

Indeed, a new study led by Glen Peters demonstrates that any clean energy gains made to date by renewables have been offset by reductions in nuclear, leading Christopher Green to believe that we're in need of some serious technological breakthroughs. David Biello, writing for Yale’s E360, concurs; our “lack of progress underscores the urgent need for technological innovations”—along with the political will and capital to do so.

Nate Johnson attempts to tackle the dual problem of poverty and environmental degradation in a recent series for Grist; modernization and urbanization, it turns out, tend to precede not only rising incomes but also reforestation and conservation in turn. “The faster poverty diminishes, the more natural systems will rebound to nurture future generations,” he concludes. “This suggests that ending poverty must be a central focus, if not the central focus, of environmental efforts.” Such a shift would require a seismic shift in the environmental narrative, one away from “stopping change” and toward constructive and equitable action, Johnson says.

Jeremy Cherfas supplies a bevy of arguments “in praise of meat, milk, and eggs” for his latest “Eat This Podcast,” delving into questions of equity, nutrition, health, and environmental impact. Noting the projected rise in demand for animal-sourced foods over the next few decades—50 to 70 percent, he learns—he emphasizes the importance, for both humans and the environment, of making meat production in developing countries more efficient.

Olga Khazan highlights a new study led by Dan Kahan, which suggests that “science curiosity” may serve to combat political polarization. Further work might be devoted to establishing curiosity “as a disposition essential to good civic character,” Kahan’s group thinks. Hiroko Tabuchi, writing for The New York Times, presents additional strategies for reducing polarization in the face of climate change: focusing on common ground, practical matters, and modes of adaptation, rather than on the politically fraught issue itself.

2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award-winner Calestous Juma outlines some of Africa’s agricultural “wins” from the past year, including the increased uptake of precision agriculture technologies like sensors, satellite imagery, and drones, as well as the growth in the sector that has resulted from long-term policy commitments, infrastructural development, and funding.

Mother Jones’s Maddie Oatman spotlights “the bizarre and inspiring story” of an aquaculture operation on an Iowan farm. Fish farms, she proposes, have the potential to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks, while driving food security and even economic growth.

Renegade environmentalist (and “techno guru”) Stewart Brand tells Ben Austen for Men’s Journal, finally, that the long view gives us “a sense of—a belief in—a better future.” Words to go by in 2017.