Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
What Could Go Right? Happy birthday, America
Some thoughts about how to keep sitting in the mess.
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Happy birthday, America, to all your mess
When I sat down to write the newsletter this week, I was half-consciously hoping to talk about anything other than the United States. We all deserve a break from it, I thought, especially coming off yet another shooting, one that happened to occur in the town of one of our staff members. But there was so much published over the last few days to mark the Fourth that made me feel like it was possible and important to keep sitting in the mess.
As we know, there are plenty of reasons to think that the US is skating on thin ice. Long-time American optimist and The Progress Network (TPN) Member James Fallows lists the reasons why he is wondering whether that ice is about to crack for good here. Another, less tangible, reason we might add is the public mood itself, a profoundly negative one that we worry is its own powerful and dynamic contributor toward downfall. If we all repeat that America is about to collapse, we just might hasten that fate forward. The essays that follow are a corrective to that mood. They don’t ask us to close our eyes to the facts but refill our cup in a way that propels us to face them.
It can be tough to see all the good of living in the US unless you’ve already lived out of it, writes Substacker Sarah Haider. Here’s something from her piece that has struck me most after a couple years residing in Europe: “Why are Americans routinely demonized as backwards and xenophobic, when a visit outside the West will make clear that they are one of the most tolerant people in the world?” Amid all the politicization of our immigration policies, many miss that support for the naturalization of undocumented immigrants in the US has increased over time.
Richard Danzing, now at Johns Hopkins and previously secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration, picks up on this point in his wonderful essay in The Washington Post. The mess, he says, is part of what makes the US special. He writes:
[The US is] a country in which a majority of citizens devote considerable energy to moral discourse: debating the proper balance of embryonic and maternal life, focusing on injustices and inequalities, quarreling in courts and legislatures about how to govern, including when and whether to admit immigrants (now entering this nation at a rate of 1 million per year) as potential citizens. No one before World War II ever experienced a democracy of citizens this numerous, this diverse and this engaged.
Why should we be surprised that, having achieved this, the results are untidy, rowdy, even tumultuous? Americans take it as their birthright to develop and express their political views—and, for that matter, their views about vaccines, international trade, the right to execute convicted criminals, the nature of changes in Earth’s atmosphere, and so on and so forth. By and large, Americans do this within the bounds of the law; and commonly, though not universally, they do so within the bounds of civility. Do you want it otherwise?
Brookings Institute fellow and research professor of Islamic studies Shadi Hamid puts it another way: “America feels vaguely intolerable in a number of ways, but it’s also a country that feels utterly alive with possibility.” It might be better to understand it, he continues, as “the world’s most successful developing country.”
Among all those tumultuous discussions, there are some that have sincerely moved forward. There has been a real, bipartisan shift away from the death penalty in the US that not many have covered with the energy it deserves. Some stats from that link: support for capital punishment is the lowest it has been since the 1970s. Three hundred and fifteen people were executed in 1996; just 18 were in 2021. And only 14 states have carried out executions in the last five years. As the writer, Maurice Chammah, says, capital punishment is “on its way out.”
We share the positive not to paint over our dark spots but to prevent people from becoming too tired to engage. We believe in the American people—the last presidential election, after all, had the highest voter turnout in US history. To keep boosting those numbers, we can borrow an idea from Colorado, which is trying an automatic voter registration system with one critical tweak: you can choose to opt out of being registered rather than the onus being on you to opt in. The results so far are good.
Maybe next week we can take a breather from the US together. If you are indeed at your limit, there’s some cool science stuff below. And you can always let me know what you want more and less out of this newsletter by replying to this email.
And happy birthday, CRISPR
We shared CRISPR’s ten-year anniversary in the links section last edition, but wanted to return and discuss the gene-editing technology a bit more. If you’re not familiar with CRISPR, it allows scientists to edit DNA, even in humans. This Times article highlights some of the things it has made possible—reversing hereditary diseases like sickle cell anemia; producing climate change-resistant crops—as well as the complex moral questions it raises. While the technology certainly needs some ethical safeguards, what it can do is awesome, in the older sense of the word. We have even genetically modified trees to capture more carbon.
Pain relief doesn’t have to end with opioid addiction. Northwestern University researchers are experimenting with an implant that “relieves pain on demand” by blocking pain signals to the brain from affected nerves. Think of it like targeted numbing. When the device’s work is done, it gets absorbed into the body. “We are confident in the engineering aspects of the devices, i.e. the soft mechanics, non-invasive interface to the nerve, the cooling power, the localization of the cooling and the processes of resorption without adverse effect,” Professor John Rogers, who led the study, told TPN.. They’re currently testing “the detailed time and temperature relationships” that will produce a reversible block without nerve damage in small animals. Larger animals and humans will be next.
We get a lot of readers emailing us about 3D-printed houses (which are cool!). But how about 3D-printed breast implants that could grow new breast tissue for cancer survivors? The article warns that these implants could go the way of vaginal mesh, but they could also “spell the end . . . [of] the high complication rates and long surgeries associated with conventional breast reconstruction.” Human trials start next week in Georgia, US.
Before we go
The effects of the US going backward continue to ripple outward, but not in the way some expected. It looks like Sierra Leone will decriminalize abortion soon.
What do you wear to your first legal same-sex marriage? Matching rainbow suspenders, of course. Enjoy this happy video of Swiss same-sex couples marrying on the first day that their unions became legal, and see if you can spot the suspenders.
We’re not really sure if this counts as progress, but we’re certainly not in 1620 anymore. A crewless, robotic “Mayflower boat,” powered by solar, is retracing the Pilgrims’ original route, collecting data on microplastics pollution and other marine research along the way.
Below in the links section, cement made from algae, $26K solar cars, drone-delivered chemotherapy drugs, and more.
(Found good news? Tweet at us @progressntwrk or email.)
Other good stuff in the news 🦏
- White rhinos return to Mozambique park after 40 years | Africanews
- 1,000 acres of forest to be returned to Onondaga Nation | Syracuse.com
- Nearly a quarter of Earth’s seafloor now mapped | BBC
- Historic Yellowstone flooding brings renewal despite destruction | National Geographic
- Colombia is first in Western Hemisphere to protect 30% of ocean | Axios
- In a world-first, scientists create eco-friendly cement from algae | Interesting Engineering
- The green revolution sweeping Sweden | The Washington Post
- Climeworks is building a bigger carbon removal plant—and getting some new competition | Grist
- This artificial island will power 3 million European households | Freethink
Science & Tech:
- CERN’s Large Hadron Collider fires up for third time to unlock more secrets of the universe | CNN
- $26K solar car now has a factory—and will roll out this year | Freethink
- AI could improve the welfare of farmed chickens by listening to their squawks | The Guardian
- Intelligent infrastructure makes autonomous driving safer and less expensive | IEEE Spectrum
Politics & Policy:
- Pete Buttigieg launches $1B pilot to build racial equity in America’s roads | NPR
- What will the first federal gun reform law in three decades actually do? | The Trace
- Israel loosens abortion regulations in response to Roe | AP
- FDA planning to allow clinical trials of pig-organ transplants | The Wall Street Journal
- NATO formally invites Finland and Sweden to join alliance | CNN
- India starts on single-use plastic ban | AP
- California requires plastics makers to foot the bill for recycling | The New York Times
- London is experimenting with traffic lights that put pedestrians first | MIT Technology Review
Covid & Public Health:
- Rwanda breaks ground on first mRNA vaccine plant in Africa | The East African
- How child mortality fell from 40% to 3.7% in 200 years | Big Think
- Equatorial Guinea has eliminated sleeping sickness | World Health Organization
- India reports an 86% drop in malaria cases and a 79% reduction in deaths from the disease since 2015 | The Economic Times
- A French drugmaker will make 30 of its treatments available on a not-for-profit basis in 40 lower-income countries | Reuters
- New self-test makes it easier than ever to screen for cervical cancer | The Guardian
- After a decade, CRISPR gene editing races toward a cure | The Boston Globe
- NHS to test using drones to fly chemotherapy drugs to Isle of Wight | The Guardian
- The secrets of Covid ‘brain fog’ are starting to lift | Wired
Society & Culture:
- How digital wages empower Bangladeshi women | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Diaspora communities reframe history, one Instagram post at a time | Rest of World
- The New York Public Library is giving away 500,000 books for free | Time Out New York
- 24 charts that show we’re (mostly) living better than our parents | Full Stack Economics
- Green energy jobs are on the rise as fossil fuel companies lose workers | Grist
TPN Member originals 🧠
(Who are our Members? Get to know them.)
- Why I’m not giving up on the embattled dream of America | Peniel E. Joseph
- Abortion bans are going to make stalkerware even more dangerous | Danielle Keats Citron
- Turning grief and rage into power and progress after SCOTUS ruling | Lauren Leader
- Where have all the leaders gone? | Theodore R. Johnson
- Graeme Wood on January 6th, Saudi Arabia, and interviewing extremists | Yascha Mounk
- America needs supply-side reform | Matthew Yglesias
- We need to kick our success addiction | Arthur C. Brooks
- The crypto meltdown, with David Yermack | Scott Galloway
- Krista Tippett wants you to see all the hope that’s being hidden | Krista Tippett
- Move fast and fix things: How we can and why we must build a better Internet | Jonathan Haidt
- Barkha Dutt on the nuances of Indian life | Tyler Cowen
- 40 years later, Blade Runner’s dystopian economics still make zero sense | James Pethokoukis
- How to flaunt your modesty online, in three easy steps | David Brooks
Department of Ideas 💡
(A staff recommendation guaranteed to give your brain some food for thought.)
Facebook’s antiabortion censorship is a reminder of the perils of “content moderation” | Jacobin
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Facebook has started censoring posts about mailing abortion pills. It’s a reminder that even if you support the idea of tech censorship now, sooner or later your views will be targeted.
Why we picked it: Tech censorship + time = injustice for all. —Brian Leli
Until Next Time
Remember that there are some Japanese zoo animals even more annoyed about inflation than you are.