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Chris Forman & Claire Asher

Brave Green World

This episode is a conversation with physicist Chris Forman and biologist Claire Asher about our futures on Earth and what it might take for that future to be more sustainable.

Brave Green World

The either/or’ of environmental messaging has reached a point of exhaustion. Well, I know I’m exhausted. I think this is in some part because most of us are capable of holding more than one thought (or even opposing opinions) in our heads at one time. We live our lives in the middle ground. It’s how we function in and make it through any given day.

Of course, messaging is easiest to digest when its portrayed as black or white, right or wrong. When it comes to environmentalism, it’s pretty simple…’do good’ or destroy the world’. I’ll speak only for myself when I say I’m trying to avoid being an environmental destructive capitalist pawn, but at the same time, being a moralistic zero tolerant preservationist seems unrealistic. Life exists somewhere in the middle. It’s this messy gray zone in-between that needs further parsing. However, this proves difficult to fit on a bumper sticker. I mean, what would this sticker look like Honk if you want to talk about the messy grayness of the in-between’? #MessyMiddle

My guests today are Chris Forman and Claire Asher and we’re talking about their book Brave Green World, How Science Can Save Our World’. And contrary to the book’s subtitle, the conversation focuses surprising a lot on the compromises needed to move forward. Conversations of how science and technology can be deployed is of course a strong element within the book but it is also an issue of needing to reorient our
assumptions that we bring to the table.
Let’s take the idea of limitless free energy. Whether this is possible with future renewable energy sources or daydreams of Fusion energy, the authors make the argument that not having access to such an abundance of free energy is actually a good thing today, because if we did have access to this energy, we might very well use it only to continue much of our global destruction of the environment, just even more quickly. Deforestation, mining, over fishing in many cases is only slowed today because of the energy costs to do this work. Free energy would just multiply those endeavors.

Rather randomly, I happen to be in the middle of reading Kim Stanley Robinsons new book The Ministry for The Future’ and he mentions Jevons Paradox which says that when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand. So, when coal efficiency was increased with the invention of the Watt Engine, it turns out there just became an increase demand for coal. Efficiency of technology didn’t reduce coal consumption, it increased it. 

I don’t know if there is an existing paradox or equation for cultural expenditures, but an abundance of clean energy might mean less mining of coal and oil, but it might also mean the ability to deliver more exotic woods, animals and stones into the market place. Replacing one form of unsustainability with another one. 

This awkward messy moment we find ourselves in trying to transition from fossil resources to clean renewables is likely to be an extremely important time to work through our cultural lifestyles, our values and how we choose to define them. It might only be in this messy moment, this messy middle, this strange gift of time, that we can address larger questions of values within our lifestyles. A kind of grand reorientation’ so we don’t end up in a place where CO2 emissions are solved only to open our abilities to purge and strip-mine our planet for something else at a lower price point further down the line.

Thanks to Richard Devine for Sample permissions.

Chris Forman

Chris Forman is a physicist with a PhD in protein engineering, conducting research at Northwestern University into the organization of soft matter using experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches.

Claire Asher

Claire Asher is a biologist with a PhD in evolution and genetics, specializing in the behavior of ants. A widely published science writer, she has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Bloomsbury Theatre and appeared on BBC 4 and BBC Radio 4.

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