Editor's Note: No Turning Back Now
Nostalgia tugs hard at our narratives about nature. If we could just hold nature still, even for a human lifetime, then we could save it.
But we cannot. Long before humans emerged as a planetary force, we have had to negotiate and renegotiate our relationship with nature. At various times, it has been an evil presence to be beaten back, a resource to be mined, a treasure to be restored, a place of spiritual renewal, and a source for technological inspiration.
And now, here we are in the Anthropocene, face to face with an existential riddle. Oliver Morton captured it eloquently in The Planet Remade: “Humans have become so powerful that they have become a force of nature—and forces of nature are by definition those things beyond the power of humans to control.”
This is strange and difficult territory, just the sort of stuff that we created this magazine to cover. And in that spirit, we’ve assembled a cadre of premier writers to explore how our understanding of nature, and our connection to it, is shifting yet again—and how conservation might look very different in the twenty-first century than it did in the twentieth.
David Quammen starts us out with an epochal idea. What if evolution isn’t linear, as Charles Darwin proposed when he first sketched the tree of life? What if, instead of species’ passing their DNA to their offspring from one generation to the next, they are exchanging genes throughout their lifetimes? Quammen deftly explains the concept of horizontal gene transfer—and then muses on how it could upend current thinking about everything from antibiotic resistance to cancerous tumors.
Next, Wayt Gibbs explores how satellite surveillance technology is reframing our connection with nature in some of the same exhilarating and profoundly disturbing ways that social media reframed our connections with each other. Seeing the world’s 3 trillion trees in real time allows environmental watchdogs to catch criminals. But it also means that the data riches of big tech’s unblinking eyes will go to whoever can pay top dollar.
When scouting the future, the technology trail is always the easiest to follow. But it’s far from the only one. The economics of nature conservation are also changing in surprising ways. Forty years ago, a group of conservationists embarked on a bold experiment. They sought to integrate conservation and development by fostering new industries—from finding new miracle drugs in nature to ecotourism—that could generate revenue for the people living near protected areas. Economist David Simpson asks, “So how did that go?” His observations are both jarring and instructive. What if the key to saving wild biodiversity isn’t to show that it’s useful—rather, it’s to make it “useless.”
As you peruse the issue, you may also notice the absence of some familiar nature themes. For example, habitat loss imperils more and more species, and we humans must rein in our voracious appetites for more resources. The urgency hasn’t gone away—but those sorts of warnings and admonitions alone seem increasingly insufficient in this new Human Age. The Anthropocene demands that all of us, conservationists included, loosen our grip on how we think the future will unfold—and get creative. Nostalgia serves a variety of purposes in our lives. But negotiating change and moving forward generally
aren’t among them.
1. Idea Watch
Thinking about apocalypse, like thinking about one’s own death, is not something that most of us have much enthusiasm for
There could be more than 60 billion of them on the planet
An interview with Kim Stanley Robinson: Climate change, science fiction, and our collective failure of imagination
Improved technology could give fish farms a sustainable foothold far from the ocean
Norway ushers in an era of energy-positive architecture
Turning sunlight into liquid fuels or hydrogen gas could address solar power’s biggest limitations
by allowing people to buy and sell energy in small increments from, and to, their neighbors
Bookmarks for a Human Age
2. Deep Dives
Tech companies are rapidly networking the environment in ways that will transform our perception of nature—just as social media reshaped our relationships with each other. What could possibly go wrong?
Welcome to the brave new world of artificial intelligence for conservation
For decades, humans have modeled technology on observations of the natural world. But new discoveries about nature—and tools for manipulating it—have opened up novel approaches potentially more powerful than mere imitation to solving Human Age problems.
Darwinian theory is based on the idea that heredity flows vertically, parent to offspring, and that life’s history has branched like a tree. Now we know otherwise: that the ‘tree' of life isn’t that simple.
Trying to make nature valuable has had a disappointing track record.
3. Science Shorts
When people look to nature for solutions to wildfires made bigger, hotter, and more dangerous by climate change, they tend to focus on vegetation—not animals. Yet evidence suggests that big plant-eaters may help prevent fire.
New research makes the case that it's not enough to consider the planetary impact of a growing population, alone.
Fast fashion is a bane on the environment. Now researchers have come up with a way to turn discarded clothes into fire- and water-proof building materials.
Conventional wisdom holds that as coral reefs die, they become underwater barrens dominated by algae. In some places that’s true — but elsewhere, they’re following a different trajectory.
New catalysts made from abundant and inexpensive materials could lead to a commercially viable way to convert carbon dioxide into plastics and other useful products.
In 2016 alone, humans consumed almost 70 billion chickens globally. These huge numbers are part of the reason why the biomass of humans and domesticated animals, combined, now outweighs that of all wild vertebrates on earth.
Certain salt-loving microorganisms could eat seaweed and produce biodegradable plastics in a sustainable fashion.
A genetic tweak that makes photosynthesis more efficient in plants could increase crop yields by 40%, and help feed millions more people around the globe.
Eating protein-rich algae, insects and lab-cultured meats is more than a dietary fad: it could bring benefits for our health and the environment.
Manufacturing bricks is carbon-intensive and creates toxic air pollution. Recycling treated solid waste to make bricks would keep some of this waste from landfills and reduce brick-making's emissions.
Rapidly shifting "climatic baselines" could hamper the public's ability to recognize human-caused climate change—and tamp down the sense of urgency about addressing it.
Do Plastic Bag Bans Make A Difference? Like so many life-cycle assessments, it’s never that simple. The environmental impact of plastic-bag bans is a good news–bad news story. By Pierre-Olivier Roy First, the Good News. Cities that have banned consumer plastic bags...
The question “What makes us human?” is typically answered in terms of differences. The traits proposed to define us—tool use, language, empathy, and so on—assume that humanity’s essence resides in what sets us apart from other beings.