Rationalia: We Don’t Simply Disagree About Facts and Evidence
By Alex Trembath and Emma Brush.
This week, everyone's favorite smart person, Neil deGrasse Tyson, tweeted the following:
Rationalia is, on its face, a silly concept, and has already been aptly taken apart by Vox, National Review, Popular Science, and Uproxx, among others.
But it's worth briefly reflecting on why it's silly, because there are implications for ecomodernism.
The "modern" in "ecomodernism" comes from our framework's embrace of Enlightenment values of democracy and pluralism, yes, but also science, technology, and rationality. When it comes to issues like climate change, nuclear power, and biotech, proponents (myself included) have a tendency to lean heavily on the authority that Science and Rationality imbue into, say, supporting nuclear power. And it's true, yes, that the overwhelming weight of the evidence tells us that climate change is real, nuclear power is one of the very safest forms of energy production, and GMOs are harmless and beneficial in all sorts of ways.
Tyson would seemingly love to end the discussion there. But the discussion doesn't end there. Technologies occupy interesting spaces in our mind reserved for, variously, the sublime, the magical, the alien, the sacred, the repulsive, etc etc. Most people do not approach a technology or a policy based initially on "the weight of evidence." Nor should they! People are busy. One of the other nice things about modernity is that it gives people time to do other stuff, like work, read, volunteer, climb rocks, or sit around and do nothing. Most of the time, those exploits are almost certainly more worth people's efforts than carefully parsing the evidence over CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats).
All this is by way of saying that part of the mission of ecomodernism is to create space in society where we can embrace, not merely accept, the role that certain technologies can play in saving nature. It's a difficult task, given the pre-baked notion among so many people that nature and technology are at odds. Rationality is essential, but it alone will not accomplish this mission. We’ll also need open deliberation that allows for a recognition of our values and collective goals, for humanity and the planet.
Here are a few things that rationality alone can't solve:
107 Nobel Laureates wrote an open-letter to Greenpeace in an attempt to persuade the international green group to change their position on GMOs. Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post has the original story, and here's "An Ecomodernist Manifesto" coauthor Mark Lynas with his own plea. Brad Plumer's coverage is not to be missed either.
The debate over how to "feed 10 billion" continues, and it's a lot more than just a thumbs-up/thumbs-down over GMOs. Feeding a still-growing population, and preferably doing so using as little land as possible, will require an abundance of technologies and polices, some old, and some new. The Economist is the latest out with an in-depth look at the debate, and they take an ultimately optimistic angle towards this massive challenge.
Also check out this blog post by Charlie Arnot, who--like Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak before him--aims to "bring everyone to the table" to discuss GMOs and conventional agriculture "with engagement rather than aggression."
Saving nature will in many cases require simply leaving it alone. But with many social and environmental pressures acting at once, saving certain ecosystems will sometimes require active intervention and management. Such is the case with coral reefs, which have an acute sensititivity to carbonic acid concentrations in the ocean and are thus declining around the world as oceans absorb anthropogenic carbon emissions. Samantha Lee at Grist reviews a recent study in Nature locating 15 thriving coral ecosystems and reflects on how we might learn from their success.
Finally I would be remiss if I didn't mention the dumb decision last week to close California's last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon. I visited Diablo Canyon two summers ago and, for me, it is the epitome of the technological sublime and a symbol of the ecomodernist project.
Other nuclear plants around the country have closed under pressure from lower-than-expected natural gas prices, but not Diablo Canyon. As Third Way's Amber Robson and Breakthrough's Jessica Lovering explain here, this closure is much more the result of pressure from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) among other groups that have for years been actively trying to shut down California's largest source of zero-carbon power.