Improving on Nature

Dispatches from the Front Lines of Ecomodernism

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

January 28, 2016 | Alex Trembath

"So sometime in the distant past, at least 20,000 years ago and probably much more, members of our species decided they could improve on nature."

So writes Rachel Laudan in a great new article at Aeon. Lauden's overarching point is that basically all human food is "artificial," despite the negative connotation that word has earned over the last few decades.

Why does this matter? Core to ecomodernism is human improvement on natural systems -- food, energy, and other technologies. This is not a rejection of nature, but a strategy to save it: when we improve on nature's baseline bounties, we need less nature for to produce more human well-being. As last year's Nature Unbound states, "Nature use-less is nature saved." 

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More advanced, denser applications of technology to save nature are not limited advances made in antiquity. Longtime venture capital investor Ray Rothrock has a fascinating essay in Issues in Science and Technology on how VC is being applied to nuclear fusion:

Ultimately, [our company] Tri Alpha could drive a multi-hundred-billion-dollar energy market with commercially competitive, emission-free, fusion-powered electricity. That is the prize for Tri Alpha's visionary inventors and scientists, engineers, and investors, but most imporant, it is a prize for every citizen of the world, made possible by the innovaiton called venture capital.

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Can genetically modified mosquitos combat the Zika virus outbreak in South America? Mark Lynas investigates.

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The impression among those who pay attention is that the anti-GMO movement is stalling progress on creating safer, more resilient, and/or more nutritious crops using biotechnology. That may be true, but new research suggests that in the grand scheme...nobody really cares about GMOs. Yale's Dan Kahan:

Ordinary Americans--the ones who don't spend all day reading and debating politics (99% of them)-- just don't give GM food any thought.  They don't know what GM technology is, that it has been a staple of US agricultural production for decades, and that it is in 80% of the foodstuffs they buy at the market.  

What do they care about? Tamar Haspel considers the evidence at WaPo:

For consumers, on the other hand, environmental, farmworker and animal welfare concerns take a back seat to their overwhelming first priority: their family’s health. Ketchum partner Linda Eatherton says the firm’s research indicates that “it all boils down to one thing. They care deeply about the health and safety of themselves and their family.” She notes that they also care about what’s going on in their communities and are beginning to register concerns about climate and environment, but, she says, “conversations about feeding the world fall very, very flat.”

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I spent perhaps too much of last week complaining about the #DoomsdayClock on Twitter because it's dumb (dammit I did it again). That said, the organization that has set the Doomsday Clock since 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, has a tendency to publish a wide range of interesting commentary, including on nuclear energy. This month they featured Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, who offered a nuanced and compelling take on the global expansion of nuclear power:

With global electricity output expected to grow by 50 percent by 2040, no single energy technology will be sufficient to meet the Paris objectives, and nuclear power will be an important component. But its center of gravity is shifting from west to east, raising new questions and challenges.

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Finally, I have to feature this amazing tweet by Marc Andreessen, commenting on the gestalt at Davos last week:

We hear a lot (like, a lot) about how technology is killing us, disfiguring us, alienating us from each other and from nature...things we hear while sitting in comfortable homes with refigeration, air conditioning, internet, electricity, piped water, and, you know, modernity. Amidst all this comfort that we ignore, we might just also be missing the incredible human benefits that AI and automation will bring as well. 


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