Why Environmentalism Has a Gender Problem: A Breakthrough Debate

“At a moment in our history when increasing numbers of women have liberated themselves from many of the demands of unpaid domestic labor,” Jennifer Bernstein writes in “On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers,” published in Issue 7 of the Breakthrough Journal, “prominent environmental thinkers are advocating a return to the very domestic labor that stubbornly remains the domain of women.”

Tracing the troubled gender dynamics of modern environmentalism, Bernstein takes prominent voices like Michael Pollan and Vandana Shiva to task for their advocacy of a return to the kitchen and the farm. In the developed world, she argues, these demands only add to women's work, while in developing countries, such calls romanticize what is in fact onerous and inequitable labor. 

If environmentalism is ever to take feminism seriously, Bernstein concludes, it will need to come to terms with modernization. Three new responses to Bernstein’s provocative essay weigh the force of this claim against some of progress’s less remarked-upon features.

Read more

Democracy in the Anthropocene

“Democracy, tolerance, and pluralism,” my coauthors and I wrote in early 2015 when we published An Ecomodernist Manifesto, hold the “keys to achieving a great Anthropocene.” At the time, it was the notion of a great Anthropocene that seemed preposterous to some. In the face of looming ecological catastrophe, the only choice, according to many critics, was between a future that would be bad and one that would be worse. But today, it is our faith in democracy, tolerance, and pluralism that perhaps seems more audacious.

Read more

On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers

Why Environmentalism Has a Gender Problem

Not so long ago, technologies like microwaves and frozen foods were understood to be liberatory. Along with washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and a host of other inventions, these household innovations allowed women to unshackle themselves from many of the demands of domestic labor. It didn’t all work out as hoped. With labor-saving technology at hand, cleanliness and other domestic standards rose. Today, women still perform the lion’s share of domestic work, even among affluent couples, and even within a rising share of dual-income households.

Read more

Leapfrogging Progress

The Misplaced Promise of Africa’s Mobile Revolution

Within two years of its launch in 2007, money transfers through M-Pesa, a cell-phone-based mobile banking application, already equaled the equivalent of 10 percent of Kenya’s GDP. What started as a local system to serve populations too poor for traditional banking has since grown into a global industry, one that threatens to disrupt traditional banking systems around the world. Today, M-Pesa’s network includes 30 million users across 10 countries, and its services have expanded to include international transfers, loans, and even health care.

The wide adoption of mobile phones in Africa, along with applications like M-Pesa that it has enabled, has created remarkable technological enthusiasm on the continent. But while cases such as M-Pesa offer inspiration, the promise of leapfrogging remains largely unfulfilled.

Read more

Can We Love Nature and Let It Go?

The Case for Interwoven Decoupling

In Davis, California, a young couple are opening the cupboards of a model home in a new development — the Cannery — built on the site of a shuttered tomato packing plant. The Cannery has everything from townhouses for downscaling retirees in the mid-$400,000s to sprawling homes well above the million-dollar mark. The various tracts have appealing names — Sage, Heirloom, Persimmon. There’s something very culinary about these brands, and that’s no accident. The Cannery is billed as a farm-to-fork lifestyle destination. All along one side of the development runs a skinny parcel of land that is actively under cultivation by the Center for Land-Based Learning, crowned by an elegant 5,200-square-foot barn that I assumed was restored, but turns out to be brand new and artfully distressed. Residents can buy the farm’s produce at a mini farmers’ market on-site or subscribe to a weekly box. The farm is not terribly active when I visit in February, but it is studded by bee boxes and bat houses and I see jackrabbits, bluebirds, ground squirrels, and other wildlife frolicking under the late winter sun.

Read more

Nature for the People

Toward a Democratic Vision for the Biosphere

Imagine a planet without wild places. A planet so covered with aquaculture, plantations, rangelands, farms, villages, and cities that wild creatures and wild places, if they still exist at all, linger only at the margins of working landscapes, cityscapes, and seascapes.

Read more

Untapped Potential

Hydroelectricity Reconsidered

A biodiversity hotspot blessed with tropical rainforests and nearly 5 percent of all terrestrial species living on Earth, Costa Rica is held up today as a paragon of environmental virtue. With more than 50 percent of its land covered in some kind of forest, and as much as 30 percent officially cordoned off in the form of parks, reserves, and other protected areas, the “Green Republic” features abundant forest conservation in tandem with “sustainable development,” its high score on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index matched only by its spot at the top of Yale’s Environmental Performance Index. Greener still, renewable sources provide more than 80 percent of the country’s electricity.

Read more

After the Great Transformation

At some point over the last decade, the human population crossed a remarkable threshold. Today, over half of the human population lives in cities and towns, up from one-third in 1960 and only 3 percent in 1800. By 2050, the United Nations estimates, two-thirds of the global population will live in urban settings.

The shift from rural to urban represents far more than a change in settlement patterns. It brings with it profound changes in social, political, and economic organization: the urbanization of the planet has been largely inseparable from industrialization and the rise of market economies.

Read more

Love and Vinyl Chloride

A Deep Ecologist Reconciles With His Father and the Modern World

My father’s child-rearing methods were nineteenth century. Discipline came from the back of a belt, and compliments were few and far between. He rarely showed his feelings and spoke of them even less.

When I finally had enough fuzz on my face, I asked my father to show me how to shave. As a chemical engineer, he approached the issue methodically. It was strictly a technical matter, one that could be mastered with practice, not a rite of passage.

A conservative Republican, he worked in the chemical and plastics industry for B.F. Goodrich. For me, and for my mother, my father’s emotional distance was inseparable from his politics and profession.

Read more

Modern Pope

Laudato Si and the Effort to Reform the Feudal Church

If you want to make sense of the often coded and conflicting language of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment, the place to start is not to compare it with the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report or the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, but rather to understand it in the context of the tradition known as Catholic Social Teaching.

For Laudato Si, the critically important preceding texts are Pacem in Terris (1963), Gaudium et spes (1965), and Populorum Progressio (1967). Pacem in Terris, written by Pope John XXIII, is an encyclical, like Laudato Si. Peace on Earth, its English name, is the first papal text that was addressed to “all people of good will” in addition to the Catholic community.

Read more

Does Capitalism Require Endless Growth?

Marx and Malthus Reconsidered

The modern notion that capitalism harbors the seeds of its own ecological destruction owes its provenance to a most unlikely duo of canonical economic thinkers. The Reverend Thomas Malthus claimed in the eighteenth century that a collision between the growing number of mouths to feed and the capacity to add productive agricultural land was inevitable. Karl Marx argued in the nineteenth century that technological change would bring with it falling wages, declining profits, and hence, ultimately, the collapse of capital formation.

Read more

After the Baby Bust

The Politics and Ecology of Zero Population Growth

“Lazy workers.”

This, the owners of coffee and rubber estates in Karnataka, India, told us, was why they would tear out dense canopies of trees harboring wild hornbills and critically endangered frogs and replace them with more intensive and less wildlife-friendly crops. Compared to the days when their fathers ran these estates, and the workers required for the back-breaking tasks of weeding, coppicing, and harvesting were more pliable, today’s workers had become defiant and demanding. Laborers now insisted on smoke breaks, higher wages, and even electricity. Worse, farmers told us, they had little choice but to either give up labor-demanding crops or to comply with worker demands, lest their laborers vanish.

Read more

Taking Modernization Seriously

How to Think About Global Industrialization

Can everyone on Earth live a modern life? Can most or all countries succeed in economic development? Is it possible over time for the entire human race to enjoy the living standards of most inhabitants of today’s advanced industrial economies?

These are urgent questions. The global population is expected to grow from a little over 7 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, according to the United Nations. Roughly half of the growth will take place in Africa. Ensuring that a much larger global population enjoys a decent standard of living will be an enormous challenge. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 the human race will require 60 percent more food—100 percent more in the developing world. By 2040, the US Energy Information Administration predicts that global energy consumption will increase by 56 percent; more than half of this energy will be consumed by industry.

Read more

High-Tech Desert

The Great Decoupling of the West's Water

When Bart Fisher returned home from college in 1972, his family’s alfalfa fields outside Blythe in California’s southeastern desert produced seven tons of alfalfa per acre. Today, the Fishers get ten tons per acre from the same land. They do it with the same amount of water as a much younger Fisher and his family used four decades ago.

Growing water-use efficiency on farms like Fisher’s is one of the salient features of the evolution of agriculture in the developed world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Palo Verde and the desert agricultural valleys of southwestern North America. These regions challenge two common narratives about water. The first is that we are blind to a looming disaster, sucking down water and ignoring a reality that will, in the words of Charles Bowden, “slap us in the face and we will have to snap alert. And this slap may come from our kitchen faucet….” It is the narrative most famously captured by the journalist Marc Reisner in his polemic Cadillac Desert, often read as a prediction that we are on a path toward “an apocalyptic collapse of western US society.”

Read more

Fear and Time

Risk Culture and the Broken Doomsday Clock

Things are getting bad — really bad — according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This past January, the journal reset the Doomsday Clock, its symbol of the imminence of global catastrophe, to a heart-stopping three minutes to midnight — closer than the seven minutes-to-midnight setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The specter this time isn’t World War III, the Clock’s longtime focus — disarmament treaties have slashed the numbers of nuclear warheads to a fraction of their Cold War peak — but a raft of terrifying new threats that, in the Bulletin’s estimation, more than make up for the receding menace of nuclear holocaust.

Read more

Raiding Progress

How Ralph Nader and the Public Interest Movement Undermined American Liberalism

As contemporary American progressivism has come to be defined by the public interest movements associated with Ralph Nader, both the white working class and the business community have abandoned the Democratic Party. For working-class whites, the regulatory assault upon manufacturing, resource-extractive industries, and agriculture threatened both their employment and the local economies in which they lived and worked. With the postwar New Deal compact between business, labor, and government fractured, business groups and industries mobilized themselves as a countervailing force to the increasing power and organization of the public interest movements on the Left. For these reasons, the decline of New Deal liberalism in the last half-century owes as much to assaults by the public interest Left as it does to attacks by a resurgent Right.

Read more

Earth Makers

The Ancient Practice of Ecosystem Creation

Hawaii.

Thursday, March 26, 987 BC.

On the other side of the planet, smelters are bellowing in Europe. The Zhou Dynasty has begun. 52,403,609 people inhabit the Earth. None of them live in Hawaii.

I fill my lungs with cool, fresh air. A rich, thick taste of vegetation with floral notes. It is 6:26 a.m. Rays of sunshine kiss the tops of hulking, gnarled Ohia trees, lighting up their soft red flowers. I hear and see birds. Lots of them.

I recognize ‘I‘iwi, a cardinal-size bird with screaming red feathers and a gently curved beak, dancing happily through the canopy. Alongside it is a smaller red bird with a black tail and black beak, called Apapane. The equally small Elepaio is a flycatcher with brown and white feathers and a straight, tiny black beak. It sings an effortless jumpy chatter and eagerly raises the feathers on top of its head. 

Read more

A Theology for Ecomodernism

What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?

That in every corner of the Earth, human history and natural history combine — that no place remains as a pristine sanctuary apart from human influence — was reported as early as 1864 by George Perkins Marsh in his classic study, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Yet it was 131 years later that the publication of “The Trouble with Wilderness” by William Cronon set off a most difficult era for modern conservation. Cronon’s central observation, that wilderness was a cultural construct or invention, prompted scientific and conceptual work that has fundamentally challenged traditional views of nature and wilderness. Charles Mann, in his book 1491, published in 2006, marshaled a vast literature documenting how enormous populations of native peoples, before they were exterminated by disease and conquest, occupied and cultivated the pre-Columbian landscapes of the New World.

Read more

Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene

Humanity As a Force for Good

Sometime next year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) may or may not decide that humans have changed the Earth so significantly that we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. The idea that humans have created a qualitatively different planet from the one we inherited was discussed at the beginning of the 20th century, but the informal use of the term dates back to the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2000, Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer formally proposed renaming the current geologic epoch, arguing that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, when the increased use of fossil fuels began the process of anthropogenic global warming –– a view that was echoed by other prominent earth scientists and promoted by environmental journalists.

Read more

Rewilding Pragmatism

Or, What an African Safari Can Teach America

Perhaps it is no coincidence that at the same moment that scientists have concluded that we are now living in the Anthropocene, the age of humans, there has been a resurgence of interest in rewilding, the large-scale restoration of nature and the reintroduction of plants and animals (particularly large carnivores) by people to areas where they once thrived. 

Read more