Welcome to the Narcisscene

Returning Humans to the Center of the Cosmos

Geology has long struggled to study the Earth as a scientific object separate from the religious, ideological, and political persuasions of the day. With the Anthropocene, that struggle, such as it was, is over. By enshrining the Anthropocene, geologists are asked to name an epoch ad hoc and ex ante, in prospect rather than in retrospect, in view of the future not of the past. The point of the naming act originates in the Manichean conflict between “the armies of insight” and “the forces of avarice.” In the Anthropocene, the agenda and the science are, once more, the same thing.

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Book Review: Synthetic

By Sophia Roosth

Synthetic intends to capture a holistic, human picture of the discipline in its emergent form. This lens is radical and deliberate. As Roosth argues, it is crucial to examine synthetic biology in this way before it becomes an established discipline, one that will be harder to question and reshape. 

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Poem: A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

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If We Could Talk to the Animals

Do Our Politics Have Room for Nonhumans Too?

Political inclusion of animals would reflect the cherished fundaments of democracy. It would count everyone who has interests, not just a select few. And the more inclusive and open-minded our politics toward animals, perhaps, the more inclusive and open-minded we will be toward one another.

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Strawberry Fields Forever?

When Soil Muddies Sustainability

The California strawberry industry raises challenging questions about the difficulty of adjudicating among the many principles of sustainability in any farming system when these principles come to be at odds. Feeding the soil, reducing food miles, attending to local conditions of production, eliminating toxic inputs, and reducing the use of nonrecyclable material and nonrenewable energy are easier said than done when attempted all at once. With social justice concerns thrown into the mix, such as improving pay and working conditions for farm workers and keeping prices affordable for low-income consumers, meeting multiple goals of sustainability becomes all but impossible. Indeed, these different ideals and emphases have long been fracturing points for the organic movement.

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Seeing the State

In Search of a New History of Economic Modernity

The reality is that neither political partisans nor policy-oriented intellectuals have a persuasive strategy for solving the interlocking problems of the US economy. When so many intelligent people are unable to see a way to fix something that is clearly broken, the obvious explanation is that their intellectual tools are deeply flawed. The fundamental problem is that scholars, regardless of political orientation, have been working with a false history of how economic modernity emerged and developed in Europe and the United States. This mistaken history of capitalism has in turn hamstrung their ability to see viable paths forward.

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The Trouble with Ecosystem Services

When Pricing Everything Means Valuing Nothing

Bioprospecting was an early example of an appeal to an “ecosystem service” in an effort to motivate conservation. In its wake, the conservation community has turned its energies to other ecosystem services that place more emphasis on the benefits that preserving relatively undeveloped habitats would bring to the communities living in or adjacent to them. These include services such as water purification, pollination, pest control, and flood and storm protection. But the economic case for this tack is often weak also. When development pressures are high, it tends to be more cost-effective to rely on artificial substitutes for ecosystem services than to forgo converting land to agricultural or residential uses. Even when the argument can be made to retain some remnant areas of natural habitat to provide ecosystem services, it’s not clear that much meaningful conservation results. Trying to make nature valuable, it turns out, has had a disappointing track record.

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On Naturalness

Nature as Metaphor, Not Fact

The reality and importance of an existential connection to nature seems to be one of the only things most environmentalists agree on. We should nurture that motivation, not question the existence of its object. Doing so can help to heal deep divisions in the conservation movement, establishing a united front that will attract potential allies instead of confusing them. Rather than reject the idea that nature exists and has irreducible value (the easier philosophical move by far), we should get down to the more difficult business of defending it, articulating in theory what we know to be necessary in practice.

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With the Grain

Against the New Paleo Politics

Presumably, when James C. Scott and others argue that life in grain-based states was a step backward, they do so not to advocate a return to non-agrarian ways but to indicate that states, modern as much as ancient, can be less than benign and wise. The reminder is salutary. Yet even if life in early states were as grim as they claim, it is irrelevant to the role of grains now and in the future. The advantages grains always offered have been enhanced and the costs brought way down. Progress has been made in feeding people, not in one giant step, but in countless small ones that in aggregate have moved us in the right direction. 

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Nature Wars

Introducing Issue 9 of Breakthrough Journal

This issue of Breakthrough Journal, our ninth, turns on “nature wars”: how we talk about nature, represent it, value it, and conserve it. How we grant nature ethical, and even political voice, and how we navigate the various competing ideas, interests, and values encompassed by it.

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Issue 9: Contents

Featuring Rachel Laudan, Alan Levinovitz, R. David Simpson, Mark Sagoff, Fred Block, Julie Guthman, Brandon Keim, Leslie Ullman, and Jacob Samuel.

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Issue 8: Table of Contents

Charles Mann, Steven Pinker, Varun Sivaram, Jonathan Symons, Tisha Schuller, Jenny Splitter, Ted Nordhaus, and Jacob Samuel in the Breakthrough Journal.

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Introducing Issue 8 of the Breakthrough Journal

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 contributor 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. 

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The Edge of the Petri Dish

Can Humankind Avoid Its Biological Destiny?

Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself would be unprecedented, biologically speaking. It would be a reverse Copernican Revolution, showing that humankind is exempt from natural processes that govern all other species. But might we be able to do exactly that? Is it so unlikely that our species, a congeries of changelings, would be able to transform our lives to meet new challenges — before we round that fateful curve of the second inflection point and nature does it for us?

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Enlightenment Environmentalism

The Case for Ecomodernism

Today, many voices in the traditional environmental movement refuse to acknowledge progress, or even that human progress is a worthy aspiration. While it is true that not all the trends are positive, nor that the problems facing us are minor, it is crucial to understand that environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge. In contrast to the lugubrious conventional wisdom offered by the mainstream environmental movement, and the radicalism and fatalism it encourages, there is a newer conception of environmentalism which shares the goal of protecting the air and water, species, and ecosystems but is grounded in Enlightenment optimism rather than Romantic declinism. That approach is called ecomodernism. 

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A Tale of Two Technologies

What Nuclear’s Past Might Tell Us About Solar’s Future

After a period of scientific ferment in the postwar era, nuclear technology has stagnated. Solar power could very well experience a similar technological stagnation: In the short term, solar’s rise will continue unimpeded. But in the long run, as electricity grids attempt to integrate large amounts of intermittent solar power, the cost of today’s technology is unlikely to fall fast enough to justify solar’s eroding value. The world would thus be wise to keep the nuclear industry’s experience in mind as it tries to bridge the gap between solar’s promise tomorrow and its limits today. Nuclear’s travails represent a major setback in the global quest to curb carbon emissions; if solar’s rise similarly stalls, then the world won’t get a third try at decarbonization before the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change set in.

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