After the Great Transformation

At some point over the last decade, the human population crossed a remarkable threshold. Today, over half of the human population lives in cities and towns, up from one-third in 1960 and only 3 percent in 1800. By 2050, the United Nations estimates, two-thirds of the global population will live in urban settings.

The shift from rural to urban represents far more than a change in settlement patterns. It brings with it profound changes in social, political, and economic organization: the urbanization of the planet has been largely inseparable from industrialization and the rise of market economies.

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Love and Vinyl Chloride

A Deep Ecologist Reconciles With His Father and the Modern World

My father’s child-rearing methods were nineteenth century. Discipline came from the back of a belt, and compliments were few and far between. He rarely showed his feelings and spoke of them even less.

When I finally had enough fuzz on my face, I asked my father to show me how to shave. As a chemical engineer, he approached the issue methodically. It was strictly a technical matter, one that could be mastered with practice, not a rite of passage.

A conservative Republican, he worked in the chemical and plastics industry for B.F. Goodrich. For me, and for my mother, my father’s emotional distance was inseparable from his politics and profession.

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Modern Pope

Laudato Si and the Effort to Reform the Feudal Church

If you want to make sense of the often coded and conflicting language of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment, the place to start is not to compare it with the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report or the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, but rather to understand it in the context of the tradition known as Catholic Social Teaching.

For Laudato Si, the critically important preceding texts are Pacem in Terris (1963), Gaudium et spes (1965), and Populorum Progressio (1967). Pacem in Terris, written by Pope John XXIII, is an encyclical, like Laudato Si. Peace on Earth, its English name, is the first papal text that was addressed to “all people of good will” in addition to the Catholic community.

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Does Capitalism Require Endless Growth?

Marx and Malthus Reconsidered

The modern notion that capitalism harbors the seeds of its own ecological destruction owes its provenance to a most unlikely duo of canonical economic thinkers. The Reverend Thomas Malthus claimed in the eighteenth century that a collision between the growing number of mouths to feed and the capacity to add productive agricultural land was inevitable. Karl Marx argued in the nineteenth century that technological change would bring with it falling wages, declining profits, and hence, ultimately, the collapse of capital formation.

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After the Baby Bust

The Politics and Ecology of Zero Population Growth

“Lazy workers.”

This, the owners of coffee and rubber estates in Karnataka, India, told us, was why they would tear out dense canopies of trees harboring wild hornbills and critically endangered frogs and replace them with more intensive and less wildlife-friendly crops. Compared to the days when their fathers ran these estates, and the workers required for the back-breaking tasks of weeding, coppicing, and harvesting were more pliable, today’s workers had become defiant and demanding. Laborers now insisted on smoke breaks, higher wages, and even electricity. Worse, farmers told us, they had little choice but to either give up labor-demanding crops or to comply with worker demands, lest their laborers vanish.

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Taking Modernization Seriously

How to Think About Global Industrialization

Can everyone on Earth live a modern life? Can most or all countries succeed in economic development? Is it possible over time for the entire human race to enjoy the living standards of most inhabitants of today’s advanced industrial economies?

These are urgent questions. The global population is expected to grow from a little over 7 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, according to the United Nations. Roughly half of the growth will take place in Africa. Ensuring that a much larger global population enjoys a decent standard of living will be an enormous challenge. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 the human race will require 60 percent more food—100 percent more in the developing world. By 2040, the US Energy Information Administration predicts that global energy consumption will increase by 56 percent; more than half of this energy will be consumed by industry.

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High-Tech Desert

The Great Decoupling of the West's Water

When Bart Fisher returned home from college in 1972, his family’s alfalfa fields outside Blythe in California’s southeastern desert produced seven tons of alfalfa per acre. Today, the Fishers get ten tons per acre from the same land. They do it with the same amount of water as a much younger Fisher and his family used four decades ago.

Growing water-use efficiency on farms like Fisher’s is one of the salient features of the evolution of agriculture in the developed world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Palo Verde and the desert agricultural valleys of southwestern North America. These regions challenge two common narratives about water. The first is that we are blind to a looming disaster, sucking down water and ignoring a reality that will, in the words of Charles Bowden, “slap us in the face and we will have to snap alert. And this slap may come from our kitchen faucet….” It is the narrative most famously captured by the journalist Marc Reisner in his polemic Cadillac Desert, often read as a prediction that we are on a path toward “an apocalyptic collapse of western US society.”

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Fear and Time

Risk Culture and the Broken Doomsday Clock

Things are getting bad — really bad — according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This past January, the journal reset the Doomsday Clock, its symbol of the imminence of global catastrophe, to a heart-stopping three minutes to midnight — closer than the seven minutes-to-midnight setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The specter this time isn’t World War III, the Clock’s longtime focus — disarmament treaties have slashed the numbers of nuclear warheads to a fraction of their Cold War peak — but a raft of terrifying new threats that, in the Bulletin’s estimation, more than make up for the receding menace of nuclear holocaust.

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Raiding Progress

How Ralph Nader and the Public Interest Movement Undermined American Liberalism

As contemporary American progressivism has come to be defined by the public interest movements associated with Ralph Nader, both the white working class and the business community have abandoned the Democratic Party. For working-class whites, the regulatory assault upon manufacturing, resource-extractive industries, and agriculture threatened both their employment and the local economies in which they lived and worked. With the postwar New Deal compact between business, labor, and government fractured, business groups and industries mobilized themselves as a countervailing force to the increasing power and organization of the public interest movements on the Left. For these reasons, the decline of New Deal liberalism in the last half-century owes as much to assaults by the public interest Left as it does to attacks by a resurgent Right.

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Earth Makers

The Ancient Practice of Ecosystem Creation


Thursday, March 26, 987 BC.

On the other side of the planet, smelters are bellowing in Europe. The Zhou Dynasty has begun. 52,403,609 people inhabit the Earth. None of them live in Hawaii.

I fill my lungs with cool, fresh air. A rich, thick taste of vegetation with floral notes. It is 6:26 a.m. Rays of sunshine kiss the tops of hulking, gnarled Ohia trees, lighting up their soft red flowers. I hear and see birds. Lots of them.

I recognize ‘I‘iwi, a cardinal-size bird with screaming red feathers and a gently curved beak, dancing happily through the canopy. Alongside it is a smaller red bird with a black tail and black beak, called Apapane. The equally small Elepaio is a flycatcher with brown and white feathers and a straight, tiny black beak. It sings an effortless jumpy chatter and eagerly raises the feathers on top of its head. 

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A Theology for Ecomodernism

What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?

That in every corner of the Earth, human history and natural history combine — that no place remains as a pristine sanctuary apart from human influence — was reported as early as 1864 by George Perkins Marsh in his classic study, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Yet it was 131 years later that the publication of “The Trouble with Wilderness” by William Cronon set off a most difficult era for modern conservation. Cronon’s central observation, that wilderness was a cultural construct or invention, prompted scientific and conceptual work that has fundamentally challenged traditional views of nature and wilderness. Charles Mann, in his book 1491, published in 2006, marshaled a vast literature documenting how enormous populations of native peoples, before they were exterminated by disease and conquest, occupied and cultivated the pre-Columbian landscapes of the New World.

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Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene

Humanity As a Force for Good

Sometime next year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) may or may not decide that humans have changed the Earth so significantly that we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. The idea that humans have created a qualitatively different planet from the one we inherited was discussed at the beginning of the 20th century, but the informal use of the term dates back to the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2000, Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer formally proposed renaming the current geologic epoch, arguing that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, when the increased use of fossil fuels began the process of anthropogenic global warming –– a view that was echoed by other prominent earth scientists and promoted by environmental journalists.

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Rewilding Pragmatism

Or, What an African Safari Can Teach America

Perhaps it is no coincidence that at the same moment that scientists have concluded that we are now living in the Anthropocene, the age of humans, there has been a resurgence of interest in rewilding, the large-scale restoration of nature and the reintroduction of plants and animals (particularly large carnivores) by people to areas where they once thrived. 

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The Return of Nature

How Technology Liberates the Environment

In September 2014, a bear in the Apshawa Preserve, 45 miles northwest of New York City in New Jersey, killed Darsh Patel, 22, a senior at Rutgers University, while he was hiking with friends. Patel’s death was the first fatal bear attack recorded in New Jersey in 150 years. Five friends were hiking when they came across the bear, which they photographed and filmed before running in different directions. After regrouping, they noticed one was missing. State authorities found and euthanized the bear, which had human remains in its stomach and esophagus, and human blood and tissue below its claws.

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Schumpeter’s Revolution

The Creative Destruction of Economics

"I'm afraid I cannot hold out against the new technology any longer." With these words, the Economist announced in 2010 a new weekly management blog, Schumpeter, to accompany the recently inaugurated print column bearing the same name. The eponymous columnist wrote that, like his namesake, he was ambivalent about technology — "a technophile technophobe." Schumpeter saw technological upheaval as the essential fact about capitalism. It is not necessarily good or bad; it is relentless and irresistible.

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The Education of an Ecomodernist

From Eco-Romanticism to Radical Pragmatism

Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.

But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress

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The Cooperative Advantage

How Innovation Rewrote the Rules of Foreign Policy

If you wish to conduct some latter-day colonial expansion on behalf of the US government, look no further than US Code 48, Chapter 8: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano” — dried bat or bird droppings — “on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”1

In short: find an unoccupied rock in international waters on which a seagull has relieved herself and you can claim it for America.

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Embracing Creative Destruction

Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World

Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.

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Beyond Food and Evil

Nature and Haute Cuisine After the Chez Panisse Revolution

“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.” So begins the recipe for “Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen,” a typical selection in San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s new cookbook. Fresh lichen powder, needless to say, is not available at the grocery store. Nor can you order it online. You have to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees. Then you have to turn technology loose on it: clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it. 

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After the Culture Wars

The Decline of Social Conservatism and the Rise of a New Political Order

April was a tough month for supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Hailed by Conservatives for refusing to pay the government to graze his cattle on federal land, Bundy went from right-wing folk hero to widely-denounced villain when he suggested that black people were better off under slavery. Right-wing pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly were forced to condemn the sentiment, walking back their previously enthusiastic support for Bundy and his cause. “Those comments are downright racist”, emphasized Hannitty. “They are repugnant. They are bigoted.”

In the wake of Obama’s decisive 2008 and 2012 victories, Republicans have been grappling with the fact that they increasingly appear to be a party of people like Cliven Bundy and his erstwhile supporters. The GOP has managed to hang onto political relevance thanks to gerrymandered congressional districts and lower turnout among youth and minority voters, but with Hispanics and multiracial Americans among the fastest growing demographic groups, the endgame looks clear: a predominantly white, socially conservative Republican Party is unlikely to be competitive in national elections.

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