Wicked Fat

Harvard Historian of Science Steven Shapin on the Nutrition Wars

Last month the US government issued a 571-page report suggesting it would be making significant changes to its dietary guidelines. Eggs are no longer a no-no. Caffeine consumption is encouraged to prevent Parkinson’s disease. The report comes at a time when new studies, and journalists including Gary Taubes, Nina Teicholz, and Aaron Carroll, have called into question the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet promoted by the nutrition establishment for more than half a century.

Breakthrough is interested in the battle over dietary advice as an example of “wicked problem” — a problem characterized by high levels of uncertainty and expert disagreement — and asked Harvard historian of science, Steven Shapin, to provide some historical and sociological context. Shapin is the author of numerous articles and books about the history diet and nutrition.

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Climate of Incivility

Climate McCarthyism is Wrong Whether Democratic or Republican

On April 23, 2010, the Attorney General of the state of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, initiated an investigation into the research of climate scientist Michael Mann. Mann is the creator of the so-called “hockey stick” graph, which used tree-ring measurements and other proxies to show that average global temperatures have spiked dramatically since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Mann’s research was cited by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but was controversial among climate skeptics.

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Did the US Kill OPEC?

Why We Should Pay the Shale Revolution Forward

"Did the US kill OPEC?"

This is the question that New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter asks today, referencing Breakthrough Institute’s research, which found that 35 years of public-private investments led to the technologies that allow for the cheap extraction of natural gas and oil from shale.

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To Protect the Gorillas, Protect Humans Too

An Interview with Primatologist Annette Lanjouw

How did you get involved in this field?

I started doing work in Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo], in the early 1980s working at the Lomako Forest Bonobo Research Station of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Later, between 1987 and 1990, I ran a project to conserve chimpanzees, using tourism as a way to generate support for conservation. What was unique about the project was that we habituated the chimps for research and tourism without providing them with food. That worked well, but then war broke out with rebellion against [then-president] Mobutu, and all tourism was put on hold. Eventually I became Director of Programs for the International Gorilla Conservation Program, IGCP, a collaboration of three conservation NGOs, in partnership with the park authorities of the three countries.

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High-Energy Innovation: The Case of Shale Gas

The Global Quest for Natural Gas

The recent boom in natural gas production in the United States, brought about through technical innovations in the recovery of natural gas from previously inaccessible shale rock formations and land-use policies that favor private development, has helped lower electricity costs and benefitted the petrochemical and manufacturing industries. Even more significantly, it has contributed to a drop in US carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest levels in two decades, as inexpensive natural gas accelerates the closure of aging coal plants around the country.

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Natural Gas Overwhelmingly Replaces Coal

New Analysis of US Regional Power Generation Between 2007 and 2013

The growth of natural gas generation in the US power sector has overwhelmingly displaced coal generation, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis of regional power generation data finds. There is little evidence in the aggregate regional power generation data that cheap gas has displaced other low-carbon sources of electricity, such as renewables, nuclear, or hydro. Nor is there evidence that increased gas generation has induced new demand. 

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High-Energy Innovation

A Climate Pragmatism Project

Clean energy innovation and decarbonization efforts will be overwhelmingly concentrated in rapidly industrializing countries, where demand for energy is high and deployment opportunities are broad, says a new report from a group of 12 energy scholars.

High-Energy Innovation evaluates four clean energy technologies – shale gas, carbon capture and storage, nuclear, and solar – and finds that, in all cases, industrializing countries are making significant investments and leveraging international collaborations in order to make energy cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable. 

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Extreme Conservation of Gorillas

An Interview with Primatologist Martha Robbins

What attracted you to mountain gorillas?

When I was at university I became interested in the evolution of sociality. Primates are one of the key groups to study. It’s been almost 25 years now.

Are the mountain gorillas saved?

In general, the mountain gorilla numbers are going up, but they haven’t been saved since their numbers are under 1,000. Since gorillas mature so slowly, even killing a few individuals in a population can lead to a negative growth rate. We cannot be complacent about mountain gorilla conservation even if their populations appear to be increasing in size.

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War and Peace and Gorillas

An Interview with Central Africa Scholar Laura Seay

How did you get interested in the Congo?

I started studying the region when I was 18, during my first year in college, when I had to write a paper. I was supposed to be writing about refugees, but when rebels in DRC (who we now know were partly comprised of Rwandan troops and partly Congolese rebels) Kabila, were moving across the country, I started asking about the causes of such a complex crisis. I didn’t understand this then, but I came to understand the DRC crises as partly being the continuation of Rwanda’s civil war on Congolese soil.

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Violence, the Virungas, and Gorillas

An Interview with Conservationist Helga Rainer

How did you decide to focus on conflicts around Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Some of my early work with refugees and the environment focused on the energy issue and the linkages with violence, especially for women who had to move increasingly farther and farther away from the refugee camps to get fuel. I was also concerned with the health effects of wood burning, especially on children under five years old due to the smoke particulates. This was when I first interacted with energy-saving stoves.

Based on what I saw on the ground, I felt that the role of the environment in conflict was an aspect not being talked about. The conversations about the role of environment in conflict were about resources like coltan or oil, but there were other dynamics happening that were necessary to explore.

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Postcolonial Gorilla Conservation

An Interview with Ecologist Sarah Sawyer

What do we know about what it takes to save gorillas?

Habituating gorillas so they can tolerate tourists can help keep them safe. There’s some data from the tourist groups in Rwanda, which suggests gorillas near tourism have higher birth and lower death rates. During the Rwandan genocide, researchers were evacuated but the guards stayed without pay. They felt an ownership and pride in taking care of the gorillas, which helped them stay protected. On the other hand, in areas where gorillas are hunted, habituation can actually put them more at risk by decreasing their avoidance of people. 

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Virunga, the Congo, and Oil

An Interview with "Virunga" Journalist Melanie Gouby

What initially motivated you to go to the Congo?

I always wanted to cover issues of justice since I grew up with a sense of social justice. The reason I went to Congo was because my first job out of university was covering the International Criminal Court in The Hague. I worked for an organization called the Institute for War and Peace Reporting that does a lot of media capacity development in Congo, Afghanistan, Kosovo, etc. They hired me to cover the International Criminal Court, and produce a radio program broadcast in DRC. All of the trials dealth with Congolese warlords. After a few years they got funding to go to DRC, where I trained Congolese women journalists in print and radio reporting. I fell in love with the place, as many people do.

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Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger to Debut ‘Nature Unbound’ at RFF First Wednesday Seminar

Evidence abounds of humanity’s creative ability to produce more goods and services using fewer resources. In many cases, our use of natural resources is declining, particularly when measured in terms of GDP consumption per capita or per dollar. In fact, consumption of some natural resources (certain croplands, fuels, metals, and water) has plummeted, even as we produce more and more from these resources. 

Breakthrough Institute Chairmain Ted Nordhaus and President Michael Shellenberger will discuss this evidence and highlight the ingenuity enabling reduced natural resource use on a panel at the RFF First Wednesday Seminar. The Seminar, entitled "Making Nature Useless? Global Resource Trends, Innovations, and Implications for Conservation" will discuss Breakthrough Institute's upcoming report, Nature Unbound, and probe the question, "can we credibly envision a peak environmental footprint?"

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