In his wonderful new book, from which the opening essay in this issue of the Breakthrough Journal is excerpted, Charles Mann details the ancient feud between “Wizards,” Prometheans dedicated to the notion that human innovation can overcome scarcity and want, and “Prophets,” Malthusian environmentalists committed to the idea that humans must scale back their aspirations lest they exceed the carrying capacity of the planet. Mann’s latest work is typically exhaustive, examining the claims and counterclaims of Wizards and Prophets across a range of global environmental challenges, while narrating the work and lives of two towering 20th-century exemplars of each respective faith: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt.
But in his essay for the Breakthrough Journal, Mann’s rehearsal of that dispute takes an unexpected turn. Both Borlaug and Vogt, despite their profound disagreement, turn out to be deeply committed to human exceptionalism. Vogt believed that humans might consciously decide to limit their consumption in order to avoid running up against nature’s biophysical limits; Borlaug believed that through the wise use of knowledge and technology, humans could transcend those limits. Neither was a biological determinist: both believed that humans were capable of avoiding the fate of all other successful species on the planet — namely, to increase their numbers until their life support systems were exhausted. They simply disagreed on how.
Whether in humility or technology, followers of Vogt and Borlaug both place their faith in human agency, and that view, Mann implies, is in the end marked more by religiosity than rationality. We take the theme of this issue of the Breakthrough Journal from that insight. We are, almost all of us, coreligionists in this sense, committed to the idea that humans have a purpose on the planet and are capable of shaping the future to our own ends. Dark green or bright, ecomodernist or degrowther, we all believe that humans are capable of building a better world. But how we achieve that world, and whether we will, remains an open question.
The eminent Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker also has a new book out this winter, from which he has generously allowed us to excerpt his chapter on the environment. Pinker is a wizardly sort, and his latest, Enlightenment Now, makes the case that the values of the Enlightenment — humanism, rationality, objectivity, and the idea that there are universal truths that can be established empirically — account for the extraordinary progress human societies have experienced over the last several centuries. Surveying a broad array of literature and data, Pinker catalogues the remarkable improvement in the human condition across virtually every metric that can be quantified and tracked.
His chapter on the environment, excerpted here as “Enlightenment Environmentalism,” is particularly poignant in that it addresses the bundle of ideas, concerns, and commitments that trace their genesis back to 19th-century Romanticism, the primary philosophical and cultural reaction to Enlightenment modernism. Environmentalists today may bristle at being labeled Romantic, but it is difficult to avoid tracing many of the movement’s foundational commitments back to their Romantic antecedents — the theological conception of nature as harmonious and in balance; the notion that modern humans have become alienated from that nature; and the corresponding conclusion that returning humans “back” into nature, or at least into harmony with it, holds the solution to most of society’s ills — even as so much of present-day environmental discourse positions itself as a defense of science and rationality.
Pinker, like Mann, credits environmental thought and advocacy with calling our attention to the many insults that modernization and human development have imposed upon the natural world, including the risks that new environmental challenges such as global warming create for sustained human well-being. But he argues persuasively that many of the same ideas about nature that have brought a heightened awareness of the threats that human activity poses to the environment, and that environmental degradation poses to human well-being, have also led environmental advocates down impractical and sometimes deeply regressive pathways, too often focused on reining in human ingenuity rather than directing it in service of practical solutions to environmental problems. “Humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide,” Pinker writes. “Problems are solvable. That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far.”
We are, almost all of us, committed to the idea that humans have a purpose on the planet and are capable of shaping the future to our own ends.
If the scientific project of the Enlightenment was to establish the existence of empirically based laws of nature, its political project was to recognize universal rights and justice before the law. But laws that are universal, Jonathan Symons reminds us in a groundbreaking new essay, “Geoengineering Justice,” are not always just. “The law, in its majestic equality,” Symons quotes French Nobelist Anatole France observing, “forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”
Symons takes aim at the Oxford Principles, the reigning framework for adjudicating geoengineering, which state that any attempt to artificially alter the climate must be prefaced by both unanimous consent and global governance. The Oxford Principles are “written in reasonable, impartial language and speak in abstract terms about the global public good,” Symons acknowledges. But this universalizing bent “conceals a sleight of hand” toward a less unalloyed good: rather than treat all equally, it fortifies the interests of the world’s richest countries, who have already reaped the gains of industrialization, while leaving climate harms — long set in motion by centuries of such unintentional, yet nonetheless culpable, activity — to be doled out unevenly. How is it just, Symons asks, for any “universal” standard to now shackle those countries that have the most to lose from climate change — and, potentially, the most to gain from geoengineering?
Rather, Symons suggests, a just approach to geoengineering would place the impetus for deciding whether or not to intentionally interfere with the atmosphere, and therefore also whether to countenance the various risks that might come with doing so, in the hands of developing nations, representing the vast majority of humans on the planet and the vast majority of those with the most to lose from the failure to mitigate climate change. Doing so, Symons argues counterintuitively, might also finally create the conditions necessary for the level of international cooperation and commitment to both mitigation and adaptation that have heretofore been lacking in the global effort to address climate change.
What happens when a back-to-the-land environmentalist from Boulder, Colorado, gets hired as president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association? Suffice to say that hijinks, at least of the fun and adventurous sort, do not ensue. In “Reclaiming Environmentalism,” Tisha Schuller tells the story of her journey through the looking glass: from idealistic environmentalist to the face of Colorado’s oil and gas industry, bearing the brunt of attacks by those she once considered her own tribe. A longtime environmental consultant, Schuller originally stepped into the role in the belief that natural gas development could be a win for the industry, the environment, and communities in need of an economic boost. But she did not foresee the sharp turn that environmental opinion would take against natural gas, as the fracking revolution brought oil and gas development to communities that historically had not experienced that kind of resource extraction before.
For most of the prior two decades, natural gas had been considered a “bridge fuel,” one that would lead from a high-carbon past to a zero-carbon future. Colorado, indeed, was well on its way to demonstrating that renewable energy combined with cheap and flexible natural gas could significantly reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. But by 2011, shortly after Schuller took the job, NIMBY resistance to fracking, combined with a leftward turn by much of the environmental movement after the failure to pass cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, became an irresistible force that even mainstream and moderate environmental groups proved unable to resist.
As a result, Schuller became the subject of vitriolic and personal attacks from activist groups, losing friends and colleagues and facing down death threats to herself and her family. Somehow, she managed to weather these challenges with equanimity. “I could imagine a parallel universe in which I myself received the knock on the door from a neighbor urging, ‘Come to the community meeting!’” she writes. “I probably would have gone. I might have carried the sign myself.”
Schuller’s experience during the fracking wars did leave her estranged, for a while, from her environmental identity. But with time, she has determined not to leave environmentalism solely in the hands of ideologues and activists. Environmentalism resides at “the core of who I am and what I care about,” she writes. “No one can take that away from me, nor from you.”
Many of the same ideas about nature that have heightened awareness of environmental threats have also led activists down impractical and sometimes deeply regressive pathways.
The turn against natural gas in Colorado and elsewhere coincided with a wave of solar triumphalism. The rapid declines in the cost of solar power promised a 100 percent renewable future just around the corner, meaning there would be no need to grapple with the messy trade-offs that come with natural gas extraction and combustion. This at a time when solar energy accounted for a mere 0.3 percent of US electricity.
The irrational exuberance that characterized so many claims about the future of solar energy reminds Varun Sivaram, a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, of another boom gone bust. In “A Tale of Two Technologies,” adapted from his forthcoming book Taming the Sun, Sivaram observes that the forecasts once ran in the opposite direction — that by today, it would be nuclear reactors providing all of our energy.
Where nuclear advocates once promised power “too cheap to meter,” it is solar that draws similarly fantastical expectations today. And while it is true that solar’s costs have tumbled as its installed capacity has soared (from its microscopic installed base in the first decade of the 21st century), Sivaram suggests it is also likely that solar’s growth will cap out well before meeting the renewable world’s credulous projections.
The history of nuclear energy, Sivaram argues, offers a cautionary tale, of the path a technology takes when dominated by one design — the light-water reactor — that detracts from all other options. The solar market faces similar challenges today, dominated as it is by silicon photovoltaics, the ascendant, yet Sivaram thinks ultimately flawed, technological path proffered by historical and geopolitical circumstance.
Sivaram, however, is no pessimist; he is confident that with the appropriate incentives and policies in place, the world will unlock its innovative potential on both solar and nuclear fronts. For that to happen, however, solar and nuclear proponents will need to decamp from their respective strongholds and work together to chart an innovative path to a low-carbon economy.
In this issue of the Breakthrough Journal, 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 in human agency.
In the meantime, environmental debates will continue to present us with difficult choices and trade-offs. Navigating those trade-offs becomes all the more challenging when our ways of life come into conflict with our moral and ideological commitments.
There may be no better example of this dissonance, and the ways it turns us into excellent motivated reasoners, than meat consumption, Jenny Splitter argues in “Better Living Through Technology.” A generation of environmentally minded foodies may have convinced itself that grass-fed beef might resolve the moral and environmental dilemmas that come with eating meat, but life in a pasture isn’t the idyll that many imagine. Grazing systems can subject the animals they host to substantial neglect and abuse, Splitter writes, particularly when they are small-scale, under-resourced operations. Cattle on pasture may have plenty of room to move about, but they can also be subjected to extreme heat and cold, predation, disease, dehydration, and malnutrition.
The midsize Kansas feedlot that Splitter visits, meanwhile, demonstrates the flip side of this coin: diets optimized for health and growth, attentive and abundant provision of veterinary care, even cowboys whose job it is to make sure the feedyard remains clean and dry. Indeed, it should not be so counterintuitive to imagine that modern, centralized, technological systems might be able to provide for the nutrition and protection of their animal occupants in ways that traditional grazing systems can’t. Feedlots don’t always meet that standard, but Splitter argues persuasively that they are uniquely equipped to supply precisely those elements of care that are highlighted in institutional welfare frameworks — comfort, health, freedom from want, and relief from distress.
None of that can obviate the basic realities of raising and killing animals. But neither can pastoral nostalgia or selective anthropomorphism make those realities go away. Splitter reminds us that when we imagine that pastured, grass-finished cattle equal happy cows and ethical meat, we obfuscate the realities of beef consumption without contributing meaningfully to the welfare of the animals or the sustainability of the agricultural systems that raise them.
This year, we are expanding the Breakthrough Journal in several important ways. You’ll find cartoons, poetry (in the print edition), book reviews, even an essay about wine and capitalism. And for the first time since its inception, we’ll publish two issues in 2018, to better serve the growing community of ecomodernists, progressive environmentalists, open-minded skeptics, and unclassifiable intellects who appreciate our commitment to open discourse, incisive analysis, creative thought, and ideological disruption.
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 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.
Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 8
Featuring pieces by Charles Mann, Steven Pinker,
Varun Sivaram, Jonathan Symons, Tisha Schuller,
Jenny Splitter, and Ted Nordhaus.