Editor's Note: Perspective
Look up. Try turning an old idea upside down and even inside out. To solve a wicked problem like decarbonization of the world’s economies, it behooves us to search out new vantage points—and to stretch a little, intellectually.
In this second issue of Anthropocene, that’s precisely what we’ve tried to do. Veteran writer and Economist editor Oliver Morton takes the lead on page 66. Solar geoengineering, he says, demands a new and often troubling way of looking at our home planet. In the 1970s, Apollo missions gave us a God’s-eye view of the Earth and helped launch the environmental movement. Now we’re faced with the daunting task of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. It is in this context that Morton deftly coaxes us to confront the godlike powers of geoengineering. It is problematic. It has potential. And it represents an irrevocable change in the human relationship to the planet that can’t be ignored.
Then, on page 76, Robinson Meyer, a staff writer for The Atlantic, flips our usual way of looking at the decarbonization problem on its head. In debates over how best to treat our fossil fuel addiction, there seems to be an almost magnetic pull to the demand side of the classic economic equation. Often we try to curtail consumption by making things we want less of—in this case, carbon-spewing fuels—more expensive. But policies such as taxing carbon are politically precarious right now. So Meyer asks, what if we also exerted pressure from the supply side of the equation? Drawing on the work of Matt Frost and Bård Harstad, Meyer wonders whether we might make some headway toward decarbonization through a remarkably simple plan. Small groups of nations, or even super-wealthy individuals, could buy coal and other fossil fuel reserves—and not mine them. True, it is no panacea. But when you find yourself in a hole, it is time to stop digging.
And while we’re challenging assumptions, don’t miss Wayt Gibbs’s article on energy equity on page 46. The short answer to the question posed in the title of the article, “How much energy will the world need?” is: a lot more than you think. Take your best guess and triple it. As the world gets ever closer to eliminating extreme poverty, the global appetite for energy will skyrocket. Gibbs walks through some complex numbers on energy demand to arrive at a simple conclusion. The challenge before us is not to do more with less, but rather to do more with more.
Technology will be pivotal. And one technology that is crashing headlong into almost every aspect of modern life is artificial intelligence. Technology writer Mark Harris provides a fascinating glimpse into how AI could make electrical grids vastly more efficient by making millions of tiny “turn it on or off ” decisions that human beings would never bother to make.
If there is a theme for this issue, I’d say it is all about the lens through which we peer at our predicament. Change its curvature, and a whole new set of possibilities comes into focus.
1. Idea Watch
Imagine a culinary future with in vitro meat . . .The real thing may not be as far away as you think
New, mass-timber engineering could transform the twenty-first-century city from a carbon source into a carbon sink
Print. Erase. Repeat.
The Human Age will be shaped by the species we create and foster as well as the ones we kill off
Researchers will track migratory animals from the International Space Station to predict the next pandemic
Soundscape ecology plunges us into a wilder world beyond the mundane and merely visual
A solar border would alleviate a range of binational problems. For one, it would have a civilizing effect.
In more and more pockets of the industrial landscape, the byproducts of one process are becoming the raw materials for another, trash is getting a useful second life, and waste is becoming a thing of the past.
2. Deep Dives
The story of energy use, economic growth, and carbon emissions in four charts.
Here’s a coal retirement plan that doesn’t rely on uninvented technology or science-challenged leaders.
Geoengineering demands a new way of looking at the world—one that can be troubling.
New experiments are pushing artificial intelligence and sensor networks into the grid—and into factories, data centers, and transit systems—in order to pull fossil fuels out.
Any climate plan that doesn’t consider this question is bound to fail.
3. Science Shorts
Soil bacteria in New York City parks produce molecules similar to antibiotics, anticancer agents, and other drugs in current use, suggesting that urban areas could be a good place to look for new drug prospects.
Does killing wild dogs to prevent conflict with humans actually make problems more likely? A study of dingo control programs suggests it does.
A new study shows that a projected phase-out of polluting cookstoves in 101 countries could have a substantial impact on the global effects of climate change.
We need to double food production by 2050: it's a shocking and oft-repeated statistic that may no longer be accurate. And that could be good news for the environment.
Researchers don’t hide findings that fail to support the prevailing scientific view of global climate change. Even so, they may spin results in subtle ways.
Early and orderly rollout of policies to control carbon emissions and limit global climate change will help the financial system transition to a green economy, according to a ‘climate stress-test’ of financial institutions.
A new analysis finds that trucks are more environmentally beneficial for longer delivery routes with many stops, but drones emit less when delivering light packages over small distances.
Energy subsidies and the G20: Do as I say, not as I do.
Reusable or Disposable: Which coffee cup has a smaller footprint?
Small changes to flight routes could deliver big climate savings
Drug legalization could both help and hurt the environment