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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