Democracy in the Anthropocene

Ecomodern Dispatches


September 23, 2016 | Emma Brush

This week, Breakthrough announced that its seventh annual Breakthrough Dialogue will be themed “Democracy in the Anthropocene,” a topic that serves as a challenge in many ways to its participants of varying ecomodernist stripes. “If it turns out,” as the Dialogue’s description concludes, “that we’re not very good at being gods, is it possible to get better at it?”

Much in recent news corresponds with the questions the Dialogue seeks to confront. What happens, Breakthrough asks, when modernization results in inequity? Or when urbanization, which generally enables socioeconomic advancement, fails to provide opportunity? On the other hand, when the tools of ecological modernization are exactly what we need, both for the environment and for human development—nuclear plants that supply clean, abundant power, for instance, and agricultural advancement that provides crucial increases in yields—how can we engage with various stakeholders in a civic-minded way?

Finally, as these technologies come to the fore of policy discussion, can we ensure that they are applied in a just and democratic manner? How should we assess and implement those advanced technologies that will disrupt our modes of living and understanding?

We look forward to grappling with these questions next June, with our interlocutors, fellow pragmatists, and futurists in attendance. In the meantime, here’s what we’ve been reading to prepare for the conversations to come:

Climate Policy ...

Nate Johnson and Heather Smith discuss the likelihood of California meeting the goals of its “triple-dog-dare legislation” recently passed into law, which will require the state to reduce its emissions to sub-1990 levels by 2030; despite “California’s tradition of feeling smug about how green it is compared to other states,” they write, many, many changes will need to come to pass in order for the state to break from its current trajectory—one that has been derailed, notably, by its rebuff of nuclear … Varun Sivaram of the Council on Foreign Relations cites the failures of Germany’s Energiewende, California’s cap-and-trade system, and global lock-in of clean-energy technologies in outlining the three pitfalls that hamstring “well-intentioned climate policy” … Chris Mooney reviews a report released by the International Energy Agency, which highlights the need for greater investment in nuclear and CCS technologies … David Roberts interviews Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who highlights Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition on the topic of “cleantech 2.0” …

… and the Political Climate

Amanda Hoover reports on a new poll conducted by the University of Chicago’s Center for Public Affairs Research, which reveals surprising consensus among Americans that the country should play a leadership role on climate change, courting “progress even if other countries do not,” according to center director Trevor Tompson … Carl Cannon discusses the politicization of conservation and energy, directing blame toward not only Republicans and Democrats but also the Sierra Club, all of which seem intent, he says, on coloring the discussion of energy and the environment as a zero-sum game …

Around the World in Eighty Seconds

Fracking, says Bjørn Lomborg in The Telegraph, holds the potential for key emissions reductions in Britain, a conclusion drawn from the U.S.’s coal-to-gas transition … Mayumi Negishi relates the woes of Japan’s renewables sector and quotes Nobuo Tanaka on the importance of revamping the country’s nuclear industry … unfortunately, as Nancy Slater-Thompson reports, nuclear restoration faces arduous regulatory and political obstacles in the wake of Fukushima … Carbon Brief’s new interactive map and timeline place Germany a long way from its emissions reduction goals, due to the nation’s persistent reliance on coal … Tom Morton, meanwhile, writes on “Germany’s dirty little coal secret” … China’s recent release of a plan to double its current nuclear fleet brings to the fore the relative slog of the regulatory process in the U.S., according to Andrew Follett and ClearPath’s Jay Faison … and Stuart Smyth tracks the environmental costs of Australia’s ban on GM canola …

Much Ado About Genetic Engineering

Speaking of, Tyler Cowen asks everyone to simmer down over the proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger, which “is a classic example of how vociferous public debate can disguise or even reverse the true issues at stake”—namely, antitrust law on the one hand and anti-GMO sentiment on the other … less politely, Kavin Senapathy excoriates Vandana Shiva and other anti-GMO parties for their resistance to the efforts of #Nobels4GMOs led by Sir Richard Roberts … Kevin Folta faults the New York State PTA for its misinformed take on genetically engineered food products … on a happier note, Peter Singer’s most recent book contains an essay entitled “A Clear Case for Golden Rice”—a reversal of his former stance on GM crops, according to The Economist’s review … Sarah Zhang takes up the thread on CRISPR food, “an entirely new category of GMOs” without, perhaps, the stigma … Elizabeth Pennisi also features cutting-edge, gene-cutting technologies in a piece in Science on plant engineering pioneer Dan Folta …

Finally, Nuclear!

“Finally—finally!—a leading Democrat has acknowledged that we need nuclear energy,” celebrates Robert Bryce in the National Review, on Hillary Clinton’s recent endorsement of nuclear; our own Jessica Lovering attributes this development to the changing narrative on nuclear since COP21 … National Geographic spotlights Leslie Dewan of Transatomic Power (a company developing an advanced molten salt reactor) in a feature of individuals who “possess the courage and conviction to take on major challenges to improve lives” … James Taylor of the Spark of Freedom Foundation contributes to Forbes on the bipartisan potential for nuclear power (although the singer-songwriter has yet to comment on such “common-ground climate policy”) …

Postscript: Storing nuclear waste, posthaste

This week’s second-to-last word goes to Ernest Moniz, who would like to see the private sector take on nuclear waste storage in order to expedite the interim process prior to geologic disposal, as well as to advance new nuclear projects … Indeed, according to the University of Tennessee’s Stephen Skutnik, the “future of nuclear energy depends on if it’s viewed as trash or a treasure.”