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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.

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What Could Go Right? Happy birthday, America

Some thoughts about how to keep sitting in the mess.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

This is our weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right? Sign up here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday at 6am ET. You can read past issues here.

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.

The tiny, soft implant delivers targeted pain relief by wrapping around a nerve. It is only five millimeters wide. | Photo: Northwestern University

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.


 ☝️ Behold, the future of tomorrow, today.

Progress, Please

(Found good news? Tweet at us @progressntwrk or email.)

Other good stuff in the news 🦏

Environment:

Science & Tech:

Politics & Policy:

Covid & Public Health:

Society & Culture:

Economy:

TPN Member originals 🧠

(Who are our Members? Get to know them.)

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. 

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.