Science and Politics

Ecomodern Dispatches

Starting this week, Cornell University is offering a Massive Open Online Course that attempts to address the complex intersection of science and politics as it pertains to the touchy subject of GMOs. According to the MOOC, the course is intended “not to influence how people feel about GMOs, but to give them the critical thinking and scientific literacy tools necessary to make informed decisions — and to understand the broader impacts of those decisions.”

Ecomodernism is, of course, built on a similar premise — that a wise embrace of technology is essential for social and environmental progress.

With this orientation in mind, here’s what we’ve been reading these past few weeks:

Hello, Anthropocene

David Biello, the science curator for TED, explores the implications of the Anthropocene, noting that its christening reminds us that we “can choose to do better” … Alexa Erickson and Shreya Dasgupta highlight the recent finding, by a research group led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, that environmental impact has decoupled from economic growth … Johan Norberg reminds us of the progress the world continues to undergo — that “as we become richer, we have become cleaner and greener” … Brad Plumer interviews John Fleck on his new book Water Is for Fighting Over, which emphasizes adaptation in the face of scarcity, and optimism over fearmongering …

Wilderness and Wildlife

Lorraine Boissoneault, writing for The Atlantic, discusses new research on the surprising level of species diversity found at high elevations, and what such a finding might mean for the scientific “puzzle of biodiversity” and related conservation efforts … Chelsea Harvey of The Washington Post, Christina Beck of The Christian Science Monitor, and Brad Plumer of Vox each discuss a new study indicating that 10 percent of global wilderness has been lost since the early 1990s; Plumer, for one, points to substitution and land-sparing as detailed in Breakthrough’s “Nature Unbound” for potential solutions … John Vidal underscores the failures of protected areas, which are “not working for people or for wildlife,” displacing indigenous groups and missing conservation targets …


Cornell professors David Just and Harry Kaiser outline the environmental and societal benefits offered by GMOs, and warn that opposition to GM foods will hinder essential agricultural research and development … Miriam Horn draws from her recent book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland to illuminate the many benefits of industrial farming and precision agriculture, pointing out that “high-yield farms, like cities, concentrate” human impact … Pallava Bagla reports for Science on the slow advance of India’s first potential transgenic food crop, GM mustard, which has passed the environment ministry’s initial safety review … Julian Adams, professor of biology at the University of Michigan, tells CNBC that such GM crops will serve to combat both hunger and global warming … Jon Cohen describes a potential first: a meal featuring a CRISPR-modified plant … Will Chu, of Food Navigator, covers the research behind the greater salt tolerance, and thus higher yields, of genetically engineered barley …

Nuclear Discussions

Writing for The Guardian, Debbie Carlson relates the conversations surrounding nuclear’s zero-emission capacity and New York’s new subsidy program, while Fiona Harvey quotes economist Jeffrey Sachs on the need for nuclear … Lauri Virkkunen speaks to the successes of the “Nordic way with nuclear,” including those of reliable operation and waste management, and concludes that “pragmatism is the key” … Stephen Tindale and Suzanna Hinson respond to a recent study correlating pro-nuclear tendencies with emissions reduction failures in the EU; the study’s authors, they find, gloss over essential differences among countries and conflate the promotion of renewables with emissions reductions … Stephen Castle reports for the New York Times on Britain’s Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, which has received governmental go-ahead … Nuclear Energy Institute releases a piece centered on the benefits of nuclear, and particularly advanced nuclear … Reuters reports on a recent nuclear development deal between South Korea and Kenya, which hopes to ramp up to 4,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2033 … Arthur Motta of Penn State argues for a U.S. energy policy that would credit nuclear plants for the clean, reliable, and stable power they provide …

Postscript: Post-Truth Politics?

The Economist poses the problem of “post-truth politics” and gestures toward the democratic institutions designed to protect against it … James Fallows reviews Mark Thompson’s recent book on rhetoric and politics, an adequate contribution, he finds, to “the continuing debates about ‘bias’ and ‘objectivity,’ the separation of the public into distinct fact universes,” and “the imperiled concept of ‘truth’” … The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore outlines the historical decline of political debate … A statement signed by 177 European civil society organizations and led by the WWF articulates the need for “genuine, democratic and inclusive dialogue on the future of Europe” … Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson of the Harvard Kennedy School propose that the next U.S. presidential administration employ a council of historians, uniquely equipped to handle questions such as “perhaps the biggest one of all: Is the U.S. in decline?” … and Roger Pielke, Jr. counters, observing the need for integrated political decision-making but discounting the efficacy of “philosopher kings and queens.”