Family Fun: An EcoModernist Liberal vs. Traditional Liberals

This is a slightly edited post from last Friday. I mostly just hated the old title. Thanks for reading. – Amy

My family has been strange about this blog. I’m not sure the more conservative side has even looked at it (they will not approve since we’re connected to the coal industry) and the liberal side seems agitated. My mother-in-law, who is a very anti-gmo, traditional environmentalist is supportive but stated firmly that I would NOT be changing her mind. She also mentioned something about “those people” but I’m not sure who she meant exactly. My cousins think that my pro-gmo position means I feed my kids Twinkies and Pop Tarts. Others were encouraging , except for being put off by the “Manifesto” thing. Karl Marx may have ruined that word forever.

My sister-in-law had a very strong, but honest, negative reaction to what I’m doing and warned me that I was naive, that I wasn’t saying anything new, and that I was possibly being used. She rattled off some documentaries that I should watch and suggested I may not be qualified to write about environmental issues. [Perhaps not but I’m passionately interested and WordPress is free.]

From the comments everyone has made, I realize they don’t understand what EcoModernism actually is and isn’t. [I’ve done a terrible job explaining, although some family members admitted that they haven’t actually looked at the blog so The Elevator Speech might help them understand.] My family thinks I’ve stumbled into something radical, possibly sinister, and worst of all, potentially right-wing.  My sister-in-law’s suggestion that I watch The Corporation made me realize that they may think I’m being used by nuclear energy corporate interests or the irrationally dreaded Monsanto to promote some weird techno-utopia.

I want to reassure my family that EcoModernism is far from radical. There is nothing radical about a doctrine that promotes a clean energy technology that could dramatically lower CO2 with the least amount of land use. Yes, there are a lot of fears and myths to unpack around nuclear energy, especially in the shadow of Fukushima. I’ve gotten a fair amount of grief over the years for my risk aversion so my family has to know I would never get behind a scenario that I thought would endanger my kids. [Full disclosure: I’m a bad environmentalist because I’d probably let the planet explode before I’d sacrifice my kids.]  I think we have to measure the risks of plodding along with our current system of burning fossil fuels which kills thousands (or more) a year verses the true risks presented by moving to zero-carbon nuclear energy. We also have to look realistically at renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Are they truly clean energy if they involve toxic manufacturing or if they threaten biodiversity by requiring huge chunks of land? They may be fantastic technologies  but can they provide enough energy for 11 billion people?

I want to explore all of this in the months ahead but there is nothing radical about nuclear energy (438 reactors are used for electricity around the world) or with looking at the whole picture when it comes to our energy sources. What clean energy source positively impacts the most people with the least amount environmental damage? We can’t keep dismissing nuclear because of fears that may be unfounded. We at least owe it to ourselves to understand the balance of risk. As far as corporate interests, please ask yourself, who benefits from scaring people away from nuclear energy?

The EcoModernist position on GMOs is also far from radical. What is radical is opposing a safe technology that can be used for humanitarian purposes as in the case of Golden Rice or bananas in Uganda. There is nothing sinister about saving a quarter of a million children who go blind or die from vitamin A deficiency every year. It is also not radical to modify rice to survive flood or possibly drought. In many parts of the world, one major rain event could mean the difference between eating and not eating. Using GMOs to increase crop yield is not radical. My sister-in-law pointed out the issue of populations who are forced to clear cut the rain forest to farm and then are forced to clear cut more when the soil is degraded. She very precisely made my point for me. Using technology to help those populations grow more food on less land is exactly the EcoModernist approach.

And no, this does not mean I’ve been brainwashed by Monsanto. All GMOs are not made by Monsanto and Monsanto is not just a GMO company. [The Monsanto issue is way too much to sort out in this already long post so I’ll save that for another day. Or just read this.]  Supporting a particular technology does not make me a radical or a corporate stooge. It also doesn’t make me anti-vegetable or pro-Pop Tart. Again, ask yourself, who exactly benefits from making people scared of GMOs? Maybe we can at least agree that there are corporate interests involved on both sides of the debate.

My family does not need to worry that I’ve gone off the ideological deep end. As a Humanist, I still share their liberal values. EcoModernism is not right-wing or left-wing but it has the audacity to suggest that environmentalism could be a joint venture between the two. I guess that part is the most radical idea of all.

[I worked on this post yesterday and then read Mark Lynas’ remarks this morning that he made at a conference in the UK. He is much more eloquent and explains EcoModernism without bringing sisters into the discussion.]


A Guest Post from FrankenFoodFacts: An Interview with Scientist Dr Nir Oksenberg

Thank you to the fantastic scientist/parent/blogger at FrankenFoodFacts for this hilarious and informative interview with Dr. Nir Oksenberg on his work with transgenic crops and other biotech issues. (Seriously, they managed to make an interview about GMOs funny.) You can follow FrankenFoodFacts on Twitter @BioChicaGMO and Dr. Oksenberg @NirOksenberg

Better Know a Scientist: Rice Research Scientist Dr Nir Oksenberg

In this month’s “Better Know a Scientist”, I’m interviewing Dr Nir Oksenberg. He works in a lab that actually makes transgenic crops!! Nir’s career seems to have taken a very windy road: he completed his PhD at UCSF studying a gene implicated in autism, but is doing his post-doc in Dr Pamela Ronald’s lab at UC Davis (if you aren’t familiar with Dr Pamela Ronald, please view her TED talk or her book “Tomorrow’s Table”. Her book is a fantastic read for anyone interested in learning about genetically modified crops and organic food). We “met” over the internet, when he kindly sent me an encouraging email on one of my articles. I have yet to take him up on his offer of visiting the lab in Davis, mostly because my kid would probably knock over someone’s research project or trample on a GMO that took a few years to make.
Q: Please explain what you’re currently working on (unless you will be assassinated for divulging it) and why it’s important?

A: My research focuses on how rice protects itself from environmental factors, which is particularly important in places in the world where people rely on rice for survival. Rice is a staple food for ½ the world’s population. However, 25% of rice is grown in flood prone areas. When rice is completely submerged in water due to floods, the plant will die after a few days, and the farmer will lose his or her crop. Pam Ronald and others were able to identify a gene that would cause rice to survive much better if completely submerged. Through breeding techniques (not GM technology), they were able to transfer this gene into strains of rice that farmers prefer and now millions of farmers in flood prone countries in mostly in South Asia are producing higher yields with the flood tolerant rice.

 test plots
Test plots of rice that were flooded. Some plots are tolerant to flooding while some are intolerant and die. Credit Dave Mackill

Now, in the lab, we are asking: can we learn how to make rice or other plants resistant to other stresses, such as drought, or diseases like bacterial blight? I am focusing on drought tolerance and have identified a candidate gene that could protect rice from drought. We engineered rice in the laboratory to either silence the candidate gene, or express excess amounts of it. We are currently testing our genetically modified rice for its ability to survive drought conditions and have some promising preliminary data. If we are successful, it could lead to rice that requires less water to grow. The information we gain on how the rice survives drought can also be used to attempt to engineer drought tolerance in other crops.

I think it is important for people to understand that we are not just trying to make a bunch of GMOs and hope one works. We spend years, sometimes decades, studying these plants. We don’t just want to make a plant better and move on, we want to understand the biology of how it works.

[Biochica’s Note to Nir: After providing this detailed answer, you will probably have to move into a bunker for having provided information about your research, which we all know is sponsored by Big Ag, and is therefore considered a trade secret. Syngenta: if you’re reading this, we’ll know it was you if anything ever happens to Nir!]

Q: Like me, you did your PhD in human genetics (I was actually in a lab that studied the genetics of autism, too, although my thesis project wasn’t related to autism). Why did you decide to do a postdoc in plants? Was it a difficult switch?

A: In 2012, California Prop 37 was put on the ballot. Voters were being asked if California should mandate labels on all genetically engineered foods. At the time I was in grad school studying the role and regulation of the AUTS2 gene in autism. As the token scientist in my group of friends, and with contradictory commercials constantly airing on Prop 37, people would ask me all sorts of questions about GMOs. For the first time ever, I actually read the ballot measure. It made a lot of scientific claims such as genetically engineered foods “can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences” without any scientific references to back them up. The measure claimed that “Mandatory identification of foods produced through genetic engineering can provide a critical method for tracking the potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods”, which is not true given the exemptions to certain interests such as alcohol. I found that I was really interested in the topic, and moreover, I enjoyed educating my friends about the science, helping them make informed decisions.

I also very much enjoy researching human genetics. The switch was hard, but I made it because I wanted to learn how genetically engineered foods are actually made and studied in the lab. I joined Dr. Ronald’s lab because of the research she does and her active role in biotechnology education.

[Biochica’s note to self: Phew! Sounds like my plan to move into plant research is feasible. POM: if you’re reading this, you’d better have a job opening for me in about 10 years time so that I can start working on a peelable pomegranate.]

Q: Why are you working on a technology that will make half of children autistic in just a few years, particularly after you spent so many years trying to understand autism?

A: If you were to believe the internet, you’d think that academic scientists are out to: 1) kill all the butterflies, 2) make everyone sick, 3) stuff our pockets with Monsanto cash. Finding information about genetic engineering online is ridiculously difficult. I would rather do my taxes while at the dentist than try to learn about genetic engineering by googling the term “GMO”. But, for the sake of science education, let’s dissect the article about autism which you’ve provided above.

The article is peppered with scientific red flags. The first thing you notice (not including the terrifying title) is a man in a mask and protective clothing pouring chemicals into something that is presumably used for agriculture. This picture (with no credit or reference) has one goal: to scare people. This red flag is known as “the scary science scenario” and is your first clue that you are about to dive into some less than reputable reporting. If you decide to keep reading, it starts with “A senior scientist at MIT”. BAM! Another red flag: stressing status and appealing to authority. If you move on, it talks about how the use of the herbicide known as glyphosate has doubled from 2001 and 2007 due to the introduction of engineered plants that can resist the herbicide. It is true that glyphosate use has increased, but the article cherry picked (red flag) this information. It left out that with the increase of glyphosate use, there was a dramatic decrease in the use of other, more toxic and persistent herbicides. It is a bad sign when an article spits out some hard facts with no sources to back them up. Keep an eye out for that!
The article goes on to accuse science writers that have “taken up the Monsanto banner”, a science red flag known as “charges of conspiracy”. But there is a glimmer of hope. The article mentions the biggest concern many people have with the conclusion that autism is connected with genetically modified crops: confusing correlation with causation. The claim that “half of all children may be autistic by 2025 due to Monsanto” is based on a graph that shows the increase use of glyphosate overlaps very well with the increase in autism diagnoses over the years. I have seen the exact same graph showing how the increase in organic sales correlates with increased cases of autism. Correlation does not mean causation.
I did end up making it to the end of the article. This is the last sentence: “Seneff’s predictions can only be ignored at grave risk to the human race.” The deafening irony! The real risk is if people reject a beneficial technology due to shoddy science. This is exactly what happened with autism and vaccines. Don’t let it happen with genetic engineering.

[Biochica’s Note to Nir: You, my friend, are an evil genius and I bow before you. This incredible answer goes to show that you have taken the Secret Oath of Scientists very seriously. By the way, I just sent you an email: could I borrow your apartment in Monaco during Thanksgiving weekend? If that doesn’t work, how about your yacht in Turks & Caicos?]

Q: What traits and crops would you like to work on in the future?

A: Good question! I would be interested in studying coffee. I love coffee. I love roasting it, brewing it, drinking it, talking about it, reading about it, and obviously, taking a break from work to get it. Figuratively, I rely on coffee to survive. Literally, millions do. Coffee is responsible for the livelihood of 25-125 million people and 90% of coffee production is in developing nations.

Coffee is potentially in some trouble. Coffee leaf rust (CLR) is a fungus that has become epidemic, and resulted in severe loss of yield (for more information, see here). I am not saying that using genetic engineering is the solution to this problem. There are currently other strategies being implemented with success. For example, there are CLR resistant varieties of coffee trees, and breeders are crossing these varieties with coffee varieties that farmers like due to their taste and high yield. However, I believe we should use multiple approaches to study this very serious problem. Traditional breeding techniques may not keep up with the devastating fungus. Genetic engineering can more accurately, and sometimes more quickly, insert resistance genes into favorable varieties without introducing undesired genes (like conventional breeding does). Moreover, we can use genetically engineered crops as a tool to study the fungus and better understand how to stop it.

Would I drink GMO CLR-resistant coffee? Hell ya! And I would do so knowing that it may be responsible for the livelihood of millions of individuals.

Or maybe I should make a football sized hippo that hangs out on your desk, and laughs when you tickle it. It would munch on cabbage, maybe relax in a little pool.

Symptoms of coffee leaf rust Image from Wikimedia Commons

[Biochica’s note to Nir: It sounds like you’re forgetting your priorities. Do you know how much money you could make by selling football sized hippos as pets, particularly around Christmas time? Forget this whole “let’s help people” thing that you’ve got going. You have a golden opportunity before you! Never forget the Oath: dough before bros]

Q: You are also interested in science communication. Why do you think that genetically modified crops are feared by the broader population? Is there anything that can “fix” that perception?

A: I think this is an issue of where we live. In parts of the world where your life depends on being able to produce food, or getting the right nutrients from the food you produce as in the case of Golden Rice, for many people there isn’t a fear of GMOs, there is a fear of death. However, in the United States and many other places, we have the luxury of caring about every single aspect of food production. This is not a bad thing, but we need to keep things in perspective: we need to understand true risks and true benefits. We want our phones and other technology to improve greatly every year, but we want our food to stay exactly the same despite a growing population and a warming climate. There are a handful of reasons why people oppose genetic engineering. But I think the main reason the technology is feared by the broader population is because we like thinking of our food as “natural” and “whole”, rather than “engineered”. People will say “the banana is perfect the way it is, why would you want to change it?!” And yes, the banana is perfect the way it is if you want to feed a population a fraction of the size that it is today. Humans bred our crops to sustain a much smaller number of people. Traditional breeding techniques do not always keep up with our demands.

Can we “fix” the perception that GMOs are something to be feared? More and more scientists are getting involved in the conversation, and I think it is helping. From my experience, public opinion is actually shifting a bit. I have no evidence of this, just a feeling. More people I talk to, and more articles I read are less critical of genetic engineering and more focused on the science and facts. Instead of trying to change people’s mind (which is very hard), we should focus on educating those who want to learn. I have links to many good resources for the public (and no, they are not Monsanto leaflets). Don’t hesitate to contact me on Twitter with any questions: @NirOksenberg

[Biochica’s note to Nir: Yes. Science and facts… *wink, wink* .]

How to make a GMO

Q: After a quick search on the internet, I learned that to make a GMO you take a syringe filled with fluorescent liquid and inject it into a plant (look at all the pictures of GMO tomatoes that I found! Strangely enough, there’s no GMO tomato currently on the market…). How many syringes do you use when you make GM rice?

A: This may be the best question anyone has ever asked me. I took a selfie to show you. Turns out I only use 1. With blue.

Nir’s satirical image of blue food coloring and rice is worthy of

Jokes aside, understanding how a crop can become genetically engineered can get a bit confusing. The best video I have found describing the process is this one. There are multiple ways to genetically engineer a crop. The method described in the video mechanically introduces the gene into the genome. In rice, we often use Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer. Scientists found a neat bacteria that has a way of transferring its genomic material into its host’s. Scientists now use this bacteria to their advantage. We delete all the genes in the bacteria that could cause any harm to the host. Then, into the bacterial genome, we insert the new gene we want introduced into the plant. Now the bacteria does all the work and transfers just the gene we want  into the plant we want. This technique has been tested and retested for safety and efficacy countless times. This description of Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer is oversimplified. I am happy to go into more detail with anybody who wants to know!

Bonus selfie: Nir and his rice. #GMOselfie
Post your own #GMOselfie on twitter!

Q: We all know that research into GMOs is funded by big Ag, who probably have a patent on what you’re working on, and will release these GMOs into the wild without any testing. What do you say in your defense?

A: Next question.

Just kidding I’ll answer. A lot of people hate big anything. Big Ag, big oil, big retail, big donut and so on. I talk to some people who tell me that they don’t have a problem with genetic engineering in theory, but they have a problem with corporations. It is fine to have problems with Big Ag, whether it is economic, environmental, humanitarian or for other reasons, and to try to reduce their footprint. What people do not realize is that demonizing genetic engineering as a whole is counterproductive to this end for multiple reasons. First of all, companies like Monsanto are also making mad profits off of conventional and organic seeds. If you want to protest Monsanto, avoiding genetically engineered corn but munching down on their non-engineered carrot doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Secondly, public disapproval of genetic engineering has tightened regulations on the technology so drastically that only mega corporations can afford to go through with them. That means if a small company tried to produce a genetically engineered crop, they would rarely be able to afford to move it forward, and would have to sell the company or patent rights to one of the big guys. The rich get richer. My point is that if you have a problem with big corporations, don’t necessarily focus your attacks on genetic engineering technology.

[Biochica’s note to Nir: what you don’t know is that you DO get paid by Big Ag: US currency bills have cotton. Cotton is a GMO. You get paid with bills. Therefore you get paid by Big Ag.]

Q: If there’s one thing you’d want everyone to know about transgenic crops, what would it be?

A: Each genetically engineered crop needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. Remember that we are talking about a technology, and not an ingredient. The technology is inherently neutral. If I use the technology to improve nutrient consumption in regions with nutrient deficiency, that is good. If I use the technology to make artichokes have even less eatable flesh, that would be bad. Really bad. Every new genetically engineered food is tested rigorously for safety. People will say that we don’t know the long term effects, or that we can not prove they are safe. But we have safely been eating genetically modified foods for decades. Maybe that is not long enough for you. Maybe you are hesitant to try new products. Fine. But if you ask a scientist who studies these plants, she or he will tell you that the benefits of the technology greatly outweigh the risk.

Q: Recently, several public sector scientists who do research on GMOs or advocate for these crops have had their emails read under a Freedom of Information Act. Personally, it has made me reconsider my plans for a post-doc on peelable pomegranates. Why deal with the hassle when I could be lounging on a beach somewhere instead? Has it impacted you in any way? What are your thoughts?

A: FOIA can be an important tool to discover scientific fraud, but it is obvious that is not what is happening here. The actual scientific methods and results are not being investigated. The goal of this inquiry is to link public sector scientists to Monsanto or other private companies. Proponents of the inquiry claim that the public has a right to know how publicly funded scientists conduct themselves. This “right to know” argument is one we saw a lot with GMO labeling too, and is very powerful. Why would I fight against somebody’s right to know? Especially if I claim to be a science communicator! What I have discovered is that a fact that is out of context can be more dangerous than no fact at all. Not to say that people should hide information from people, but facts without details can be misleading. Here is a fact: GMO plants are bad for the environment. That’s something you can quote and put on twitter. Here is the rest of the story: All agriculture is bad for the environment. We have known that for centuries. GMOs are not necessarily better or worse for Earth than conventional methods.

Yelling that an academic scientist has accepted $25,000 from Monsanto is a tactic anti-GMO groups are using. They are tricking people, using an out of context fact, to make them believe that all pro-GMO people are in Monsanto’s pocket. In truth, the money used in this real example was not used for research to support Monsanto’s products. The money was used for science communication, where Monsanto had no say over the material presented.

Sometimes, industry does sponsor academic research. In these cases, it is important that the researcher disclose potential conflicts of interests, whether the science is funded by a biotechnology company, or a company that sells organic deodorant. [Biochica’s note: I’ve written on industry/public sector relationship topic here].

I think I forgot to answer your question. No, the FOIA has not personally impacted me or the way I conduct myself. Except now I write all my letters to Monsanto on hundred dollar bills instead of email.  Jokes aside, the FOIA has deeply affected scientists I admire and look up to, and I sympathize with them. You can read about their stories here and here.

Nir and I wanted to close on a more serious note: we’d like to draw attention to the fact that the number of groups and organizations exploiting the unknowns surrounding Autism are vast, and we consider this to be misinformation of the worst sort. Other than Dr. Seneff’s paper where she outlines a murky hypothesis between ASD and glyphosate, there is no data that we know of that associates autism with GMOs, much less a causal relationship. If parents have any concerns about their children’s diet, we recommend that you consult with their pediatrician.

The Heartlessness of Alternative Medicine

If my mother were alive today, I’m sure that she and I would be arguing about my Ecomodernist position. She would be anti-GMO, anti-nuclear energy, would probably have a homeopathic doctor and a pantry full of expensive supplements. She was a smart, successful early feminist who also loved her pseudoscience. (She consulted Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs for parenting and dating advice.) Unfortunately, she’s not alive because colon cancer killed her when she was in her 40s and her anti-science world view sped the process along for her.

In 1996, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer with full liver involvement. Her prognosis was terminal but because she was only 47, her oncologist thought that chemotherapy was worth trying in order to buy us some time. She did 3 months of a conventional chemotherapy drug called 5-FU and then made the decision to move to alternative therapies when the tumors weren’t responding instead of going with her oncologist’s recommendation of a new drug called irinotecan.

I’m sure the outcome would have been the same whether she had gone the conventional or the alternative route. She was going to die no matter what we did. What I do know is that the next 3 months of our lives were pure hell and they didn’t have to be.

For the first few weeks after she gave up on conventional medicine, she went the quack route with a doctor in Houston named Stanislaw Burzynski. That story deserves its own blog post but in a nut shell, this clinic took her money, put her on an unproven drug (not even indicated for colon cancer) that was pumped continuously through a port in her chest, then told me I was killing her when I talked her into leaving after 3 weeks. She was dark yellow (in liver failure) and retaining so much water from the drug that another doctor had to cut into her skin and drain the fluid. She was clearly dying and I needed to get her back home while she could still ride in a car. I was young at the time so having a doctor tell me I was killing my mother was devastating.

The next few weeks were a new kind of hell but this time filled with visits to a holistic nutritionist, Whole Foods (of course), and GNC (supplement, vitamin store). She was taking piles of supplements while she could still swallow. She became convinced that shark cartilage would save her because of a ridiculous book by a biochemist named William Lane. I don’t think the shark cartilage hurt her but it’s criminal to me that sharks are being slaughtered so that someone can make money selling nonsense to desperate, dying people.

The holistic nutritionist was a very nice guy named Doug Kauffman who has evidently built up quite a business on the idea that fungus causes everything. He prescribed vitamin injections and a diet of fruits, vegetables, and tofu in a blender since swallowing was becoming difficult. The only ill will I really harbor toward this guy is that he shook his head sadly and pulled that whole, “If only you’d come to me sooner…” routine which basically lets him off the hook but allows him to keep selling stuff that doesn’t work. (I also happen to believe that a person who is dying should be encouraged to eat what appeals to them. I’d rather die eating a chocolate eclair than a spinach shake.)

The last 3 months of her life and every penny she had were wasted on the false hope of unproven, holistic, and natural treatments. She didn’t want to take real medication because she was afraid it was toxic to her failing liver, so she suffered a great deal and became irrational and angry toward the end. One of the books or doctors gave her the idea that she should only drink distilled water and if she suspected I’d made her smoothie with regular ice cubes, she’d scream at me. She also would scream at me if I slept or if she smelled food cooking. The pain she was in was intolerable so I’m sure she had no idea what she was doing.

All of that was because she wasn’t being cared for by a real doctor with years of medical school and experience. She was thrashing around in desperation, clinging to any shred of hope, and in the process found plenty of people to give her false hope for the right price. What I found is that the alternative medicine industry has used fake science to brand itself as a kinder, gentler, natural way of treating the human body while painting traditional medicine as heartless and money-grubbing. The reality is though, it’s the other way around.

Two weeks before she died I called her original oncologist who put me in touch with a local hospice. Her hospice team swept in and within hours had her pain, sleep, anger, and anxiety under control with the right medication. She spent the last 2 weeks of her life lucid and relatively peaceful. We were able to talk and enjoy her 48th birthday right before she died because she was being treated by experienced people with effective medicine.

So, which is the heartless one? Traditional or Alternative?

Warmly, Amy

Thank you for reading a personal story. My mom is still my hero. I forgive her getting suckered but I have not forgiven her for my outfit or the bangs. And no, I can’t sing just because I’m a Taurus.


An Ecomodernist Elevator Speech

I’ve had some interesting reactions from friends when I’ve brought up the term Ecomodernism and I’ve had some very funny responses when I say the words, “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” to people. Everyone seems to glaze over or become slightly alarmed that I’ve become another Unabomber.

I can’t seem to get anyone to take the time to read the manifesto and I’m not surrounded by anti-intellectuals by any stretch. I am, however, surrounded by very busy, working parents whose brains are occupied with the logistics of getting multiple kids to multiple activities while juggling hours of homework, dinner, and hopefully sleeping at some point. I think that even hearing the word, “manifesto”, makes people tired. This is not a criticism of the work. Obviously, I find the piece beautifully written and inspiring but I think the message needs to be accessible to everyone.

I’m still working on my “elevator speech” about Ecomodernism but I try to describe it to people as a new way of looking at environmentalism that takes a more actionable, humanitarian approach. The current environmentalist movement seems to treat humans as an invasive species that needs to be beaten back in order to save the planet. Ecomodernism celebrates humankind’s achievements and what we’ve brought to our planet and wants to harness those achievements to make us less dependent on nature so that we can restore the balance and health of our planet.

In addition to treating humans as invasive, traditional environmentalism seems to romanticize a return to nature that may be appealing to those of us in the West who have never depended on nature for survival, but probably isn’t so romantic to a subsistence farmer who has just lost his crop to floods. We can’t expect people in the developing world who fight with nature every single day to be on board with a world vision that doesn’t let them escape that fight. Ecomodernism acknowledges that humans are drawn to the beauty and spirituality of nature and therefore aims to preserve and protect nature by lessening human impact and dependency on it.

Even though humans have caused the problems on our planet, treating humankind as the enemy accomplishes nothing other than causing those on the right to dig in further and and the rest of us to throw up our hands and think, “Well, I voted for a Democrat and separated the recycling, what else do you want from me?” Or maybe, “Yes, I admit the planet is completely hosed but I’m too busy paying bills and caring for these little humans right in front of me to worry about people who won’t be born for another century.” In other words, being treated as the enemy inspires apathy at best and at worst, doesn’t even attempt to bridge the divide with those who are emotionally or economically invested in the idea of climate-change as fiction.

Today’s environmentalism is well-meaning but unworkable if the majority isn’t on board with it. I’m not sure we can mobilize billions of people on the message of sacrifice and a return to a romantic natural world that never really existed. With Ecomodernism, I see immediately actionable solutions in science and technology and I think human nature is more motivated by action with results rather than by conservation and sacrifice.

As I read this, I realize that this is just more of what I said in the opening post and I’m not sure I’ve completely answered the question of what Ecomodernism means and why it should matter to a busy parent.

I guess I would say to parents to stop and look at what’s already happening in the world.  A massive refugee crisis, weather extremes, wildfires – whether we like it or not, or whether we believe humans are to blame or not- these things are happening now and there’s a good chance they will get worse. Is this what you want for your child? Or any child? We are not powerless but we are at a critical point where we have to start moving forward and support a new, pragmatic vision because the current, polarizing efforts have us running in place.

An Ecomodernist Mom

When I read An Ecomodernist Manifesto, authored by some of the the world’s leading environmentalists, scientists, and scholars, it was the first time that I felt any sense of hope that we, as humans, might either overcome or adapt to the seemingly insurmountable problems we’re facing with climate-change. The message is exciting to me because it’s a rational, pragmatic approach that might actually work.

With a warming planet and an extra 2 billion people to feed in the coming decades, my efforts to recycle, turn off lights, or even sponsor one hungry child have seemed futile. Most of us are either in denial or feel so impotent that we’ve resigned ourselves to whatever is coming. The current environmentalist movement seems to be full of ineffective screamers who are demanding we go back to the Dark Ages.

The most affluent people in this world are trying to tell the less well-off and the downright starving that they are not entitled to the same food choices and energy privilege they themselves have enjoyed.  The lectures about carbon footprints from celebrities with private jets, the self-righteousness of East Coast elites who have never seen a working farm, and the runaway adoption of pseudoscience from upper middle class mothers in the West has created an atmosphere of boiling resentment and opened the door to acceptance of conspiracy theories and the rejection of sound science.

An Ecomodernist approach acknowledges the situation with a rational eye and looks toward science and technology for solutions such as genetic engineering and nuclear energy. The possibility that we may be able to feed 9 billion and bring energy to 9 billion while still protecting and healing our planet, isn’t necessarily a fantastic notion.

I’m not sure there is much I can do about celebrities or obnoxious Manhattan philosophers but I do hope to break through the cesspool of misinformation targeted at loving mothers wanting to do the best for their families. Mothers are a driving force behind medical, nutrition, and health trends. The current atmosphere of dangerous pseudoscience and magical thinking is directly impacting the implementation of humanitarian solutions in the developing world.

If mothers in the West can turn back toward sound science and away from Internet charlatans with their snake oil and fear-mongering, we can be part of a paradigm shift toward realistic action for our planet and our children.

“We see a world where climate change, biodiversity loss and other ecological threats are mitigated, managed and reversed pragmatically, using the best social, political and technological tools available.”  -Mark Lynas , A Good Anthropocene? speech to Breakthrough Dialogue 2015