Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Ecomodern Dispatches

Whatever the upheavals of 2017, environmentalism doesn’t look to be engaging its many existential crises any time soon.

As Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Olivier De Schutter, and Ricardo Salvador insist in Civil Eats, the collective issues of “the good food movement” have simply become all the more high-stakes, and the need for coalition-building among progressives all the greater. “It is not so much confrontational as pragmatic to say that it really is us against the plutocracy and its apologists,” they conclude.

But is it really a fair—or useful—representation of the world, one with two delineated sides in eternal struggle? And does it actually advance any progressive causes? Nate Johnson broaches this subject in his exit interview with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “There’s a growing divide in the U.S. between farmers and eaters,” Johnson says. “It’s a tough conversation to mediate, because it’s made up of a lot of shouting and very little listening.” As Vilsack tells Johnson, progress will depend on productive, as well as inclusive, dialogues, those that include not just questions of ideals but also “what’s physically and economically possible.”

There’s no real exiting the world we’ve entered in 2017. If we’re truly looking for pragmatic options, we’re going to need to make our voice not a steady shout, but something more like a constructive conversation.

David Rothkopf reiterates the case for optimism as articulated by Steven Pinker and Thomas Friedman (as well as “the technolophiliacs of Silicon Valley”): that history, and data, demonstrate that human progress is sure, swift, and accelerating. “Realism equals optimism,” he argues, a point that might be reiterated by Douglas Carswell, who assures us “that the world is looking up, that the human condition—however imperfect—is getting better.” For Carswell, it is the divide between “up and down,” rather than left and right, that matters for the future of liberal society. Brad Plumer and David Roberts of Vox, on the other hand, both hedge their bets when it comes to optimism. “Progress is never unstoppable,” as Roberts concludes in response to Obama’s recent piece in Science on clean-energy momentum, and “progress on climate change is still only just beginning.” Holding both views in mind—a belief in long-term, macro-level progress with an insistence on institutional intervention—may prove one of the more difficult balancing acts of our time.

Eduardo Porter challenges the notion that states will be leading the decarbonization charge in coming years; drawing on recent reports by the Brookings Institution and PricewaterhouseCoopers, he emphasizes that only two states in the US are currently decarbonizing at a rate rapid enough to meet agreed-upon timetables. More importantly, gains thus far have largely been driven by the transition from coal to gas, much of which has “played itself out.” As such, keeping nuclear online remains crucial—“climate change will be hard to stop without it”—and yet, continued nuclear plant closures in states like California and New York make for a dreary picture, Porter says.

Even as older plants face political and economic obstacles, however, advanced nuclear reaches a “significant milestone,” according to John Fialka: NuScale Power, a company based in Portland, Oregon, has recently submitted designs for its small modular reactor to the NRC. “Expect the first SMR to be built in America and become operational in the early 2020s,” writes James Conca for Forbes in response. This technology has much to offer if licensed, he says, including economic viability, integration with intermittent renewables, and enhanced safety features. And perhaps most important to keep in mind, NuScale owes much of its success so far to public-private partnerships, and particularly to support from the Department of Energy. “Without the leadership, vision, and support of the U.S. DOE,” as CTO Jose Reyes has said, “our technology, design, development, testing, and license application could not have proceeded to this point.”

“Yes, science is political,” Elizabeth Lopatto informs her readers, outlining some reasons why: scientists are people, science is funded—as well as regulated—by the government, and scientific findings do and should inform political decisions. The wrench in the works here is Trump, however, and his seeming disregard for scientific consensus, which promises to disrupt the already complex relationship between science and politics “in potentially destructive ways.”

Filmmaker Oscar Boyson explores “The Future of Cities” in an 18-minute video essay with The Nantucket Project. Proceeding from the premise “that when density is done right, it’s the best—if not the only—solution to our growing climate crisis,” Boyson highlights innovations cropping up in cities around the world to confront both the challenges and the opportunities of increasing urbanization. “If you care about people,” he thinks, “this is the defining question of our time.”

Ben Potter features “the ultimate in precision agriculture”: a robot designed to apply herbicide directly to weeds. Currently in development, the technology demonstrates the vast potential power of precision farming to drive up yields while also reducing the use of herbicide, in this case, by up to 94 percent.