Issue 8: Table of Contents

Charles Mann, Steven Pinker, Varun Sivaram, Jonathan Symons, Tisha Schuller, Jenny Splitter, Ted Nordhaus, and Jacob Samuel in the Breakthrough Journal.

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Introducing Issue 8 of the Breakthrough Journal

In this issue of the Breakthrough Journal, as ever, we affirm our capacity to expand our sights beyond tribe and dogma, to rethink what we once took as given, and to place our faith — our conditional optimism, as contributor Steven Pinker would have it — in our collective religion, our belief that humans are indeed special, capable of finding a common purpose and bending the future to make it so. 

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The Edge of the Petri Dish

Can Humankind Avoid Its Biological Destiny?

Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself would be unprecedented, biologically speaking. It would be a reverse Copernican Revolution, showing that humankind is exempt from natural processes that govern all other species. But might we be able to do exactly that? Is it so unlikely that our species, a congeries of changelings, would be able to transform our lives to meet new challenges — before we round that fateful curve of the second inflection point and nature does it for us?

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Enlightenment Environmentalism

The Case for Ecomodernism

Today, many voices in the traditional environmental movement refuse to acknowledge progress, or even that human progress is a worthy aspiration. While it is true that not all the trends are positive, nor that the problems facing us are minor, it is crucial to understand that environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge. In contrast to the lugubrious conventional wisdom offered by the mainstream environmental movement, and the radicalism and fatalism it encourages, there is a newer conception of environmentalism which shares the goal of protecting the air and water, species, and ecosystems but is grounded in Enlightenment optimism rather than Romantic declinism. That approach is called ecomodernism. 

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A Tale of Two Technologies

What Nuclear’s Past Might Tell Us About Solar’s Future

After a period of scientific ferment in the postwar era, nuclear technology has stagnated. Solar power could very well experience a similar technological stagnation: In the short term, solar’s rise will continue unimpeded. But in the long run, as electricity grids attempt to integrate large amounts of intermittent solar power, the cost of today’s technology is unlikely to fall fast enough to justify solar’s eroding value. The world would thus be wise to keep the nuclear industry’s experience in mind as it tries to bridge the gap between solar’s promise tomorrow and its limits today. Nuclear’s travails represent a major setback in the global quest to curb carbon emissions; if solar’s rise similarly stalls, then the world won’t get a third try at decarbonization before the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change set in.

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Geoengineering Justice

Who Gets to Decide Whether to Hack the Climate

Conventional wisdom has it that global democratic consensus is a precondition for any plausibly just and responsible geoengineering. But what if that formula has it exactly backwards? What if, in fact, developing-world-led geoengineering might be the precondition for a just, responsible, and democratic response to climate change — a way out of the seemingly irresolvable collective action problems that have stymied effective climate action for a generation? In the end, self-determination by the world’s most affected nations might be the key not only to just geoengineering, but also to forcing the kind of coordinated global response necessary for an effective, democratic, and just effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

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Reclaiming Environmentalism

How I Changed My Mind Without Changing My Values

Ultimately, most of us want the same things — a reasonable quality of life, the opportunity to improve our circumstances, and access to beautiful, healthy, natural environments. But we have wildly different ways of pursuing those dreams. A discerning environmentalism requires that we let go of some traditional positions that don’t stand up to scrutiny, honestly assess trade-offs and seek the best energy solutions, and make environmental values available to people of every political, socioeconomic, and cultural persuasion.

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Better Living Through Technology

Why Feedlot Cows Might Be Happier Cows

Feedlots are often mentioned in the same derisive breath as “factory farms” — part of a massive industrial food system that, for most people, is the furthest thing imaginable from a “happy cow.” The fact remains, however, that most beef comes from a feedlot and likely always will: grass-finished beef production is simply no match for the feedlot system’s productivity. And feedlots, upon closer inspection, offer a lot more than the average urban, coastal, organic-loving customer might realize. Perhaps most important, they possess the capacity to provide the animals they house with nutrition, security, and top-of-the-line veterinary care — features of a decent life that not all farms, it turns out, are equipped to supply.

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On the Nature of Wine

And the Cultural Contradictions of Artisanal Capitalism

The gestalt of the natural wine movement is raffish, with more than a bit of Occupy-style radicalism thrown in for good measure. And yet, notwithstanding the rhetoric, and the rejection of particular technological interventions, it would be a mistake to conclude that natural wines are any less a product of modern science, technological innovation, and global commerce than are conventional wines.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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