Can We Love Nature and Let It Go?

The Case for Interwoven Decoupling


Summer 2017 | Emma Marris,

n 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.

The key to deploying this little ribbon of agriculture as a tempting residential amenity is twofold: first, the New Home Company, the developer of the Cannery, links the presence of the farm with a general mood of sustainability, supported by extra insulation in the homes and a gratis 1.5-kilowatt solar system on every roof. Second, they do not ask the residents themselves to actually do any of the farming. The houses come with token, miniature gardens. Those in the front are conveniently maintained by professional gardeners. One can live here and breathe in the smell of moist loam without ever getting one’s hands dirty.

The morning after my tour of the Cannery, I wandered through the Davis Farmers’ Market, which is held in its tastefully landscaped central park. Enormous oranges, local greens, purplish lengths of sugar cane, and heaps of appealingly matte Pink Lady apples were heaped on stall tables. People of a rainbow of races, ages, orientations, and abilities drank coffee and ran into old friends. Little kids in tutus and tiny Patagonia fleece jackets chased the falling petals of early-blooming fruit trees. Signs pinned to the stalls reassured buyers that “we grow what we sell.” People chowed down on breakfast banh mis and green juices and bought flowers, happy that their purchases were not from the “industrial” agricultural system and serene in their understanding of themselves as green, right-thinking people.

The Cannery and the Davis Farmers’ Market exemplify a certain kind of Western, upper-middle-class idea of the good life. It is one that weds buying grass-fed steaks and organic oranges straight from small-scale producers with having a 200-square-foot bathroom. The problem is that this way of living doesn’t scale — it consumes monstrous amounts of land, water, and other resources that could otherwise be habitat for the millions of nonhuman animals with which we share the planet. This is the paradox of the “natural upscale” lifestyle — modes of production, distribution, and living that feel “natural” to us are often older, less efficient, and have a much larger environmental footprint.


If we really want to make room for other species here on our shared planet, we must reduce our per-capita and cumulative human footprint. In most cases, this means embracing and improving upon technological advancements that have already allowed humanity to squeeze more out of less, particularly improvements in agricultural yield, food distribution, and food waste elimination. This “decoupling” has already begun in practice. After all, improvements in efficiency and reductions in the cost of inputs mean greater profit. Decoupling also owes much to government-sponsored research and international nonprofits such as the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers. Because of market forces, national competitiveness, and a dollop of goodwill toward humankind, our lives are getting “lighter.” It took around 25 percent less “material input” to produce a unit of GDP in 2002 as compared with 1980.1 Meanwhile, it takes half as much farmland to feed one person as it did 50 years ago.2 The 2015 Breakthrough Institute report Nature Unbound found that “nearly all forms of land use, wildlife extraction, water consumption, and pollution have been declining on a per-capita basis for decades, and in some cases for centuries.” Of course, there is much work still to do.

The United Nations Environment Programme uses the decoupling framework to tout the desirability of delinking economic growth and development from overuse of resources including freshwater, energy, and land.3 The 2015 Ecomodernist Manifesto, penned by many authors affiliated with this journal, pins its hopes for planet Earth on “committing to the real processes, already underway, that have begun to decouple human well-being from environmental destruction.”4

It takes half as much farmland to feed one person as it did 50 years ago.

There’s a lot to like about decoupling. Decoupling does not pit the planet’s poor people against its endangered species, nor does it rely on a sudden and unprecedented improvement in our moral character. No grand sacrifices or mandatory birth control programs will be necessary. It is a solution based on technological improvements, enlightened policy, and the marriage of human rights with environmentalism.

The best guess of United Nations demographers is that the human population on Earth will hit 11.2 billion by 2100.5 The real cost of living the Davis dream is agricultural acreage. If you want all your food grown using organic or traditional methods, including your meat — you are signing up for a reduction in yield of about 20–30 percent for crops and up to 80 percent for beef.6 Switching everything over to organic or traditional even as poorer countries begin to demand a more Western diet would balloon global agricultural acreage.

It’s true that advocates for organic have long claimed that their techniques can match or even outperform industrial agriculture on yields.7 And researchers have shown that if meat demand is sharply reduced, organic agriculture could feed the world on the current agricultural footprint even if it does have lower yields.8 But organic agriculture has a big problem. Because the rules of its game prohibit synthetic nitrogen, it is highly reliant on manure sourced from organic and conventional livestock operations. And meat, especially beef, is the least efficient use of land you can imagine. Taking into account the land they occupy for grazing and the land used to grow the feed they eat, cattle gobble up 28 times as much land per calorie as dairy, chicken, pork, or eggs, and 160 times as much land per calorie as rice, potatoes, or wheat.9 Globally, 36 percent of crops are used to feed livestock, and pasture occupies 3.4 billion hectares, which is 26 percent of global ice-free land.10,11 And don’t blame these terrible statistics on “industrial beef.” From the perspective of its land footprint, grass-fed beef is worse.

Thus, organic agriculture is not only lower-yield itself in most contexts; it also relies on the continued existence of a hyper-inefficient meat production system. If we really want to freeze or shrink our agricultural land footprint as we approach 11 billion, we need to radically reform meat production and embrace synthetic fertilizer. Indeed, I am becoming more and more convinced that most meat animal production should be eliminated in favor of factories that produce cell-culture “lab meat” or vegetable protein products spiked with meaty-tasting heme molecules.

Researchers estimate that global food availability can increase 100–180 percent with rigorous efforts to eliminate waste, close yield gaps in the global South, tighten up efficiencies, eliminate biofuel subsidies, and — crucially — quit feeding such a huge fraction of our crops to animals.12

Encouraging people to adopt vegetarianism or veganism is a possible strategy to reduce the demand for meat. I myself have adopted the slogan of food activist Brian Kateman, who encourages us to be “reducetarians” — to simply consciously cut back on this environmentally expensive food.13 Cultural change can add up to something more than just a gesture made by a few (consider smoking rates and the declining social acceptability of smoking tobacco in many countries), and disapproval and disgust with the sometimes inhumane methods employed by large meat animal operations seem to be increasing. Even given all that, however, I fear that the dietary transition toward richer, meatier diets in many of the currently developing countries will swamp the efforts of the reducetarians, vegetarians, and vegans.

Decoupling does not pit the planet’s poor people against its endangered species, nor does it rely on a sudden and unprecedented improvement in our moral character.

More broadly, sacrifice has proved to be an ineffective environmental tool. We don’t like to sacrifice. Few of us can keep it up very long in the face of easy, cheap, and convenient alternatives. The smarter move is always to make the environmentally superior choice the cheap and easy choice. Lab meat can do that. It still has a way to go in terms of product development and public acceptance, but ultimately a public that will accept a McNugget will accept cultured meat — especially when they do not have to contemplate the animal-rights horrors of industrial agriculture as they take a bite. Lab meat may not ever represent 100 percent of global meat production; cultural factors such as the appeal of animal husbandry and religious butchering practices may mean that a mix of majority lab meat and minority humanely, traditionally raised meat for special occasions may emerge.

If we go lab meat, organic farming runs out of poop and would have to rely on rotating in nitrogen-fixing cover crops, which means a lot of land not growing anything for a lot of the time — a real yield killer. Organic rules are a product of history, and there’s no reason, other than purely ideological, why we have to stick to them. Instead, we should do as Grist food writer Nathanael Johnson recommends and use best practices from organic and conventional and permaculture agriculture to create a soil-building, nonpolluting, possibly genetically modified, precision-guided hybrid masterpiece that will take our yields to stratospheric heights.14 We can even fertilize it with small, micro-measured amounts of synthetic nitrogen produced using clean energy. Such an approach would weave together the respect for land and soil inherent in organic farming with a passion for innovation and technological improvement that is currently seen as suspect in organic circles.

Putting together demand- and supply-side improvements — lab meat, hyperefficient “hybrid” style agriculture, reductions in food waste, and an end to biofuels — could dramatically decouple our dinner plates from huge swaths of planet Earth. And that land could return to diverse autonomous ecosystems. Decoupling from other natural resources, including timber, firewood, wild game, and fresh water, will amplify the effect.


Unfortunately, “decoupling” may have a bit of a branding problem. When many imagine a strongly decoupled future, they see a vision of humanity that has embraced technology and human well-being but cut itself off from nature — a “technofix” that rips out our hearts. One hears the term “decoupling” and one imagines sterile protein factories, massive industrial farms run by robots, and gray, hyperdense cities without gardens or places for kids to play in the dirt.

But this isn’t what most proponents of the decoupling framework actually want. While our best hope for protecting nature may be using it less as a resource base, this need not entail physical, emotional, cultural, or spiritual separation. An ideal future will feature what I call “interwoven decoupling,” in which the nature thriving by virtue of our efforts to consume less of it is easily accessible and part of our daily lives. The 2015 Ecomodernist Manifesto pauses to make this same point: “Even if a fully synthetic world were possible, many of us might still choose to continue to live more coupled with nature than human sustenance and technologies require.”15

Interestingly, it is actually more-traditional conservationists, those whose environmentalism is deeply informed by a sense of loss and grief over humanity’s destructive tendencies, who seem to advocate the most radical separation between humans and the rest of nature. Consider the work of Roderick Frazier Nash, author of the indispensable Wilderness and the American Mind, which traces one of our most complex and enduring nature concepts from prehistory to the 21st century. Nash believes that the best possible future for humans on Earth is a model he calls “Island Civilization,” in which “advanced technology permits humans to reduce their environmental impact” and, while voluntarily capping our population at about 1.5 billion, humanity retreats into 500 “100-mile closed-circle units”: dense conurbations where all food, energy production, and housing are located, leaving the bulk of the planet wild.16 Trade between these islands would be minimal. Each would be completely self-sustaining and contained. “Of course Island Civilization means the end of the idea of integrating our civilization into nature,” Nash admits.17 The sole contact these future humans would have with nature would be “minimum-impact vacations in high-quality wilderness.”18

Instead of building walls between people and nature, we need to envision a future where human well-being has decoupled from the destruction of nature, but not from nature itself.

Nash’s walled-off cities came to mind recently as I read eminent naturalist E. O. Wilson’s latest book, Half-Earth, where I found him waxing sanguine about the opportunity to return large areas of land to nature afforded by advancing technology and the free market shrinking the human footprint.19 I was only mildly surprised to see him advocating decoupling; he is a great believer in the power of science to work for good, after all. Wilson’s hope is that decoupling can be advanced to such an extent that half the planet would consist of “inviolable natural reserves.” The suggestion is that people are not welcome in these reserves as permanent residents. The reserves would be open only to vacationers who visit, very carefully, and then leave — something not unlike the current system of designated wilderness areas in the United States. (Designated wilderness, incidentally, represents just 2 percent of the United States at the moment.)20 Wilson also suggests that we can retain a connection by means of “a thousand or so high resolution cameras . . . that broadcast live and around the clock from inside the reserves.”21 Wilson is vague about the “non-nature” half of the planet, and I imagine he’d be happy to see it include parks and gardens. But there is the sense that humans should largely stay out of the best nature.

These visions of a separation between humans and nature are recipes for misery. Instead of building walls between people and nature, we need to envision a future where human well-being has decoupled from the destruction of nature, but not from nature itself. Nature is as necessary to us as air and water — and not just because thriving nature provides us with clean air and water.


In addition to its other virtues, the decoupling framework offers us an opportunity to address our emotional, cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic connections to nature, as we can now consider them without conflating them or subordinating them to the “ecosystem services” that have been used to justify the preservation of nature on pragmatic grounds.

The “ecosystem services” approach to saving nature argues that we benefit from nature in concrete ways that we can affix a price to. From the water filtration provided by a forested watershed to the hunting opportunities in wetland, nature’s real and measurable value must simply be measured and accounted for in our cost-benefit analyses, and we will begin caring for fens, tropical forests, and mangrove swamps out of our own self-interest.

Natural landscapes and nonhuman species do deliver us humans incredible value; our lives simply would not be possible without “services” provided by nature like soil nutrients, pollination, and oxygen generation. And in specific situations, measuring and highlighting the economic benefits of various natural landscapes can be effective tools. But there are two problems with using ecosystem services as the only or even the primary justification for conservation.

The first is that technology will continue to develop. Services that are currently provided more cheaply by nature may be eclipsed by machines and built infrastructure in the future. A day when water filtration is more cheaply accomplished with a plant than with plants, and pollination is more economical when done by mechanical drones than by honeybee drones, may be just decades away. If we have trained the public to value nature only insofar as it acts as “natural infrastructure,”22 then we risk devaluing nature as soon as it is less efficient than a synthetic alternative.

The second is that many, if not most, advocates for an ecosystem services framework are actually personally motivated by the intrinsic value of nature — not the instrumental value. As philosopher Eugene Hargrove noted back in 1992, most people “believe that only instrumental value arguments work — but nevertheless wish it were not so.”23

Nature is valuable because people value it for what it is, independently of any concrete economic or practical benefit it provides.

When I say “intrinsic value” here, I really mean what Hargrove called “weak anthropocentric intrinsic value.” That is, nature is valuable because people value it for what it is, independently of any concrete economic or practical benefit it provides. Thus, we feel that people ought not cut down old-growth redwood trees, even if we ourselves are unlikely to benefit from their continued existence or even see a redwood tree in our lifetimes. It is enough that we value redwoods for what they are to argue for protecting redwoods.24

I maintain that this kind of valuation of nature, which we variously characterize as love, respect, connection, awe, sense of place, and so on, is by far the most powerful motivator for those who work to protect nature. We see this at the Cannery, where the mini-farm and bluebirds are amenities not because they will meaningfully feed the residents or save species but simply because people love them. We humans arguably love nature more now than ever before, as more and more of us lead lives that are affluent and sheltered enough that nature has ceased to pose material threats to our well-being and has become something we can admire from a range of distances, from safely snuggled on the couch in front of Planet Earth to elbow-deep in the viscera of a mule deer to riding a high of adrenaline and oxygen deprivation on the top of a mountain.

If this love and respect are central to environmentalism, they are also routinely downplayed in favor of “better” reasons to save nature. Hard-headed pragmatists talk about ecosystem services even when there is really love in their hearts. Ecologists and conservation biologists insist that biodiversity boosts “ecosystem function” and “resilience” when they might equally well insist that biodiversity is simply splendid. Restoration ecologists and conservationists are in the habit of framing their desired ecosystem states as objectively the “correct” state. They act as if culture and human preferences have nothing to do with it.25 Appeals to “historical range of variability” or “reference systems” or “ecosystem heath” or “integrity” mask the fact that the species they want and the arrangement they want them in are, generally speaking, dictated by human culture. Problematically, the desired state is usually set by what the ecosystem happened to look like on the day the first white man showed up and started naming things after himself.

If love and respect are central to environmentalism, they are also routinely downplayed in favor of “better” reasons to save nature.

Acknowledging the fact that we value nature for what it is has two important implications. First, our deep love for nature suggests that human flourishing requires some level of interaction with nature. Second, it implies that some level of interaction with and care for nature might be a prerequisite for saving it in the future. If we wall ourselves off from nature to save it, we risk creating a generation that doesn’t really like it. If that happens, we will see all too well the importance of human valuation of nature for its own sake as the backbone of conservation.

There is a third implication as well, which is that once we dispense with the idea that there is some essential or correct arrangement of species and habitats that can be determined by science, economics, or rights, we actually have to negotiate the desired arrangements that we want with each other. It is perhaps to avoid this negotiation that conservation scientists tend to prefer to appeal to ecosystem services or “integrity” or something else that sounds objective. By and large trained as scientists, these men and women would rather keep values out of it — and keep the authority that flows from their expertise. However, just because restoration targets or land management practices are up for debate doesn’t mean that some outcomes are not better than others. We who love nature must simply now make the case that the mountaintop is better than the mine, the decadent orchard burbling with birdsong better than the superfluous retail park, the jungle better than yet another soy field.

And we won’t always win. But we have not managed to stop the destruction of nature with our current approach either. Admitting that our preferred outcome is based at least in part on our values is intellectually honest and potentially more effective. A pair of 2010 and 2011 Nature Conservancy surveys showed that among adults, 45 percent said that the best reason to conserve nature is “to preserve the benefits people can derive from it,” while 42 percent said that the best reason is “for its own sake.” But among youth, 56 percent chose “for its own sake” as compared to 44 percent who chose “to preserve benefits people can derive from it.”26 The implication I draw is either that US society is increasingly valuing nature intrinsically, or that we all start out valuing nature intrinsically and are trained as adults to move to a more instrumental rhetorical strategy. Either way, it seems that speaking about valuing nature for what it is comes closer to matching the true motivation of the generation coming up.


Interwoven decoupling includes the ideal of equitable and easy access to nature — both bucolic and wild — not only in terms of physically including them in the cities where most humans will reside, but also including roles for humans in all that nature out there beyond the city, from conservation interventions to cultural or recreational sustainable use.

So — how to have our nature and love it too? While most of our food is grown on super-high-yield farms by highly trained farmers or in cultured meat factories, we will keep our urban P-Patches and demonstration farms and backyard vegetable gardens and chickens — up to and including beautiful midsize farms with some yurts out back for tourists. We will keep them not because they are making a materially meaningful contribution to our food supply, but because we like them. Mary Kimball, the executive director at the Center for Land-Based Learning, which runs the farm at the Cannery, has been farming since she was a child. She says that urban agriculture will always supply a tiny percentage of calories, but that it is valuable because people are “longing for that connection” to the soil, to food production, and to our species’ grand history of agriculture. But these urban ag areas need not be vast. As the Cannery demonstrates, many people prefer to gaze upon pole beans or henhouses as they jog or walk by rather than do any sowing, reaping, or mucking themselves. And that’s okay. But many of us do want this stuff around.

Recognizing that the role of low-yield traditional agriculture (or neotraditional, in the case of such agricultural systems as organic, biodynamic, or permaculture) is essentially cultural doesn’t make it less important or urgent. But it does clarify its role in a helpful way. If we are promoting traditional and neotraditional farming because we think it is the best way to feed the world, then it doesn’t matter so much where the farms are or who is farming or whether the farms are open to the public at all. But once we see these farms as important cultural amenities, it becomes obvious that equitable access to these farms is more important than their total acreage. Rich and poor children alike should have the opportunity to grow snap peas and pet piglets if these things interest them. Men and women of all ages and social classes should have access to a bit of land to grow food on if they so desire. Community gardens should not be allowed to spring up haphazardly in neighborhoods where hipster gardener types tend to live, but deployed throughout cities as a matter of urban planning.

While we nourish our sprits with this small-scale food production, we should not disdain the farms outside the city that grow the bulk of our food. Today, food activists sneer at “factory farms” and “industrial agriculture” in part because of real concerns about pollution and animal welfare, but in part because they simply aren’t considered pretty or charming. As these farms become even more efficient and less polluting, and get out of the business of raising sentient creatures, I hope that even those browsing the Davis Farmers’ Market with their basket in hand will learn to see the contemporary beauty in their careful control, closed-system design, and outstanding yields.

After all, the hyperdomesticated tomatoes and broccoli we will be growing in our rooftop community gardens are technological human inventions barely resembling their wild forebears. The high-yield hybrid agriculture that we will need to feed 11 billion people without devastating global habitat loss is no more “unnatural” — it is an extension of the deep and interwoven relationship we have had with the species we eat for thousands of years. And it is that same relationship that we desire to enact and celebrate in micro-farms and gardens dotted throughout the urban matrix. The farms that actually feed us and the farms we can walk to from our dense urban housing are not opposites but cousins. Approaches, innovations, and deliciousness from each can cross over from one into the other.

In the “interwoven decoupling” scenario, the human footprint is much reduced in size, but the cities where most people live aren’t islands, separated from nature. And the nature in cities isn’t limited to the mini-farms where people can encounter agricultural nature. We need wilder nature too. So in this vision, tendrils of nature extend from the very large natural landscapes made possible by compact, efficient agricultural systems into the very heart of every city. Advances in energy technology will, one can hope, reduce the need for roads, pipelines, well pads, seismic lines, and other energy infrastructure that have cut ecosystems like the southern boreal forest and Gulf Coast wetlands into fine lace. All energy sources have some footprint, and so some trade-offs are inevitable, but the footprint for clean energy sources should shrink over time as technology improves. 

So — how to have our nature and love it too?

Just as the urban farms exist not primarily to produce calories but to produce experience, so will the ribbons of undeveloped land that wind throughout the city provide experience first and biodiversity second. These inclusions will increase the size of the city to some degree, but they need not be huge, and by planning linear natural parks and farms, they can be within walking distance of every resident without covering too much area. Those people who desire vaster spaces or fewer other people to enjoy their natural recreation can simply follow these corridors out into the large core areas of nature outside the city. The city’s natural places will include our current style of manicured city parks, which have been included in urban planning since the 1850s design of New York’s Central Park — 843 acres of greenery right in the middle of one of the densest cities in the nation — and earlier. They’ll also include far wilder and freer spaces, places to run and play and forage and maybe even camp.

The majority of the earth will be given over to nature (though not devoid of humans — there will always be groups and individuals who choose to live outside the city, from indigenous groups with deep ties to the land to those for whom being-in-nature is a deeply felt avocation). Nature will also be invited into the urban matrix in the form of wilderness parks and mini-farms. The tricky urban planning piece will be making sure that those who want to interact with each type have equitable access.

The most obvious way to do this is simply to make sure that natural areas are within walking distance of every resident. Flooding the market with green space will also help avoid “environmental gentrification,” in which well-meaning projects designed to improve neighborhoods by welcoming in nature end up making those areas so desirable that poor people are priced out.27 One way to scale up green space quickly is to embrace the “novel ecosystems” that are already a feature of every urban, suburban, and peri-urban landscape. These are the feral, untended lots, the overlooked highway medians, the bit of woods out back of the big-box store. These places are wild and diverse but have been considered trashy because they tend to feature a robust population of nonnative species. As our aesthetics and ideologies of ecological purity change in a changing world, I hope that these fascinating spontaneous natures will be embraced as the small wildernesses that they are. They can be brought into the fold by a few minimal interventions to make sure that they are safe and accessible — paths and benches, removal of trash and poisonous plants, and so on. But I hope that we’ll learn to appreciate and preserve their fascinating and beautiful spontaneous ecologies.

Natural areas should have a variety of rules; not all should be of the “look but don’t touch” variety — a style of interaction with nature peculiar to the Western elite. People who want to hunt, fish, swim, build forts, collect mushrooms, and otherwise interact in a more interventionist style should have areas where those activities are allowed within the city, and outside it, for those activities, like hunting big game, that require larger landscapes. Those who want to participate in ancient or modern cultural relationships with nature should be able to do so, whether it be indigenous food gathering, tending hedgerows, or rock climbing.

This vision does not require a radical rewiring of the landscape, at least not in the United States. Twenty-eight percent of the country is already federally owned public land,28 city parks make up an average of 8.2 percent of our cities,29 our population is 80.7 percent urban and rising, and agricultural yields continue to improve. Other countries are different stories, but urbanization is on the rise everywhere, and there is at least a global desire to increase agricultural yields, improve distribution, and reduce waste, even if the means are in some places wanting. What remains is to improve the agricultural system further and bring that highly efficient mode of agriculture to all countries, to add and expand protected areas for nature, to support small farms and parks in the cities and ensure that all residents have access to them, and to connect everything up in a vast web of green.

If we use up nature, we will be miserable. If we wall ourselves off from nature, we will be miserable. The path to joy is to allow nonhuman nature to thrive by reducing our demands upon it, while loving ourselves enough to allow ourselves to remain within it. The future won’t be quite like the Cannery. Those houses are too big and the prices too high. But there are glimmers of a future city here: dense, walkable, crisscrossed by green, buzzing with bees. As the developer of the Cannery showed me around its back end, we observed several healthy-looking jackrabbits loping up the slope of a water retention feature. I asked about coyotes, and he got nervous. He feared his customers wanted nature but not something quite that wild. But we do, in our hearts. Upon every child’s head, a buttercup crown, behind every neighborhood, a den of coyotes, and in every pot, a vat-cultured chicken.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 7
Democracy in the Anthropocene
Featuring pieces by Erle Ellis, Calestous Juma,
Jennifer Bernstein, and Siddhartha Shome

1. UNEP. 2011. Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. Fischer-Kowalski, M., Swilling, M., von Weizsäcker, E. U., Ren, Y., Moriguchi, Y., Crane, W., Krausmann, F., Eisenmenger, N., Giljum, S., Hennicke, P., Romero Lankao, P., Siriban Manalang, A., and Sewerin, S. United Nations Environment Programme.

2. Blomqvist, L., T. Nordhaus, and M. Shellenberger. 2015. Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation. Oakland, CA: Breakthrough Institute.

3. UNEP, Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth.

4. Asafu-Adjaye, J., et al. 2015. An Ecomodernist Manifesto

5. United Nations. 2015. World Population Projected to Reach 9.7 Billion by 20150 with Most Growth in Developing Regions, Especially Africa — says UN.

6. Capper, J. L. 2012. “Is the grass always greener? Comparing the environmental impact of conventional, natural and grass-fed beef production systems.” Animals 2: 127–143.

7. Badgley, C., et al. 2007. “Organic agriculture and the global food supply.” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22.2: 86–108.

8. Erb, K. H., et al. 2016. “Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation.” Nature Communications 7.

9. Eshel, G., et al. 2014. “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.33: 11996–12001.

10. Cassidy, E. S., et al. 2013. “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare.” Environmental Research Letters 8.3: 034015; FAO. 2015. Inputs — Land. FAOSTAT. Available at

11. Cited in Blomqvist et al. Nature Unbound.

12. Foley, J. A., et al. 2011. “Solutions for a cultivated planet.” Nature 478.7369: 337–342.

13. Kateman, B. 2017. “The Reducetarian Solution: How the Surprisingly Simple Act of Reducing the Amount of Meat in Your Diet Can Transform Your Health and the Planet.” TarcherPerigee.

14. Johnson, N. 2015. “Do industrial agricultural methods actually yield more food per acre than organic ones?” Grist.

15. Asafu-Adjaye et al. An Ecomodernist Manifesto.

16. Nash, R. F. 2010. “Island Civilization: A Vision for Human Occupancy of Earth in the Fourth Millennium.” Environmental History 15.3: 377.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., 379.

19. Wilson, E. O. 2016. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. W. W. Norton & Company.

20. The Wilderness Society. “Wilderness Designation FAQs.”

21. Wilson, Half-Earth, 192.

22. Gartner, T., et al. 2013. Natural Infrasturcture: Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection in the United States.

23. Hargrove, E. C. 1992. “Weak anthropocentric intrinsic value.” The Monist 75.2: 183–207.

24. For the purposes of this paper, I focus on weak anthropocentric value, but it is possible and, I believe, plausible, that nature could be valuable completely independent of our valuation of it.

25. Rohwer, Y., and E. Marris. 2016. “Renaming restoration: Conceptualizing and justifying the activity as a restoration of lost moral value rather than a return to a previous state.” Restoration Ecology 24.5: 674–679. 

26. The Nature Conservancy. 2011. “Connecting America’s Yourth to Nature.”

27. Mock, B. 2015. “Can we green the hood without gentrifying it?” Grist.

28. Vincent, C. H., L. A. Hanson, and C. N. Argueta. 2017. “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data.” Congressional Research Service.

29. The Trust for Public Land. 2015. “2015 City Park Facts.”



Emma Marris is an environmental writer and reporter and author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.








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