Top Ten Breakthrough Moments of 2011

December 30, 2011 | Breakthrough Staff,

The last year was an exciting one for all of us at Breakthrough Institute. Despite rising anti-government sentiment, 2011 saw everyone from President Obama to Fareed Zakaria to George Will, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney championing government investments in innovation as critical to America's future.

We launched Breakthrough Journal and our first e-book, Love Your Monsters, to critical acclaim. And we issued ground-breaking reports on everything from efficiency rebound to the end of the war on terror to the role of government in creating the shale gas boom.

This was the year our work expanded from modernizing environmentalism to modernizing liberalism. Founded in 2003 and first funded in 2007, Breakthrough today has 11 full-time staff, 25 Senior Fellows, 41 Breakthrough Generation Fellows, and seven foundation funders.

This message describes the 10 big breakthrough moments of 2011 and, at the end, asks for your ideas.

10. Breakthrough Journal launches in June, and wins a Sidney Award in December. The New Republic called our first issue "among the most complete efforts to provide a fresh answer" to the future of liberalism, and in December, David Brooks of the New York Times gave Steve Hayward's "Modernizing Conservatism" a Sidney Award for one of the best magazine essays of the year.

9. Breakthrough's first e-book -- Love Your Monsters -- is published in November to strong reviews. Salon called it "the best thinking about the implications of the Anthropocene idea." Scientific American's John Horgan reviewed the book and just published a Q&A with the two of us. And Time noted, "With the right amount of 'planetary gardening' -- a term that recurs a few times in Love Your Monsters -- we can keep nature thriving well into the Anthropocene." You can ">purchase and read the new e-book here.

8. Breakthrough pioneers the centrist case for manufacturing policy. In October, Breakthrough and Third Way published "Manufacturing Growth," which argues for a manufacturing policy that rejects the extremes that have characterized the debate. Instead of fearing mechanization and labor-saving technologies, progressives must embrace them. What matters is not the jobs on the factory floor but rather jobs and growth to be gained from accelerating productivity improvements. In December, the Council on Foreign Relations called a related ITIF-Breakthrough report, "Three Deficits," a "must-read."

7. Breakthrough investigation reveals that 30 years of federal subsidies led to the shale gas revolution. One of the most pernicious myths of the shale gas boom is that it was the result of a single tenacious Texas oil man. Why should solar and nuclear energy innovators receive federal funding, many asked, when shale gas pioneers did it all by themselves? Breakthrough discovered that shale gas pioneer George Mitchell's breakthrough happened thanks to decades of taxpayer subsidies for the key technologies. Breakthrough published its findings in the Washington Post, and posted to our web site a comprehensive history along with a timeline and key interviews.

6. Nobelist and other leading earth scientists become Breakthrough Senior Fellows -- and Breakthrough graduates its fourth year of Breakthrough Generation Fellows. Since 2007 Breakthrough has been fortunate to have a community of leading scientists and policy experts to advise us on our work. In 2011 Breakthrough gained its first Nobel Prize winner, Burt Richter (physics, 1976), along with the esteemed climatologist Tom Wigley, leading environmental philosopher Mark Sagoff, and scientists Barry Brook, Erle Ellis, and Jane Long. And 2011 marked the fourth summer we have hosted exceptional graduate and undergraduate students as Breakthrough Generation Fellows, whose work has resulted in major studies, including the oft-cited report, "Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation."

5. Breakthrough joins independent greens in rethinking nuclear energy. In the midst of public fears about radiation from the Fukushima meltdowns, Breakthrough launched "Radiation Watch" to independently assess exposure levels in Japan. Our energy team conducted the first analyses of the climate consequences of Germany's move from nuclear back to fossil fuels. And Breakthrough joined other independent greens including George Monbiot of the Guardian and Mark Lynas, author of the 2011 God Species, in debunking myths about nuclear energy in the Atlantic and in the Financial Times.

4. A two-year study by Breakthrough Institute reveals the extent to which government agencies rejected "war on terror" tactics -- and why. While Breakthrough is best known for its work on environmental issues, for the last two years we have been conducting research on the development of the modern security state, what makes for effective counterterrorism, and the nature of the terrorist threat. Last year we published our first major report, "Counterterrorism Since 9/11," which documented how security agencies in the last few years moved away from ineffectual and blunt "war on terror" tactics -- adopted hastily in reaction to 9/11 -- to more sophisticated surgical ones. The Atlantic published our essay, "Who Killed the War on Terror?," and next month we will release a comprehensive terrorist threat assessment, "Planes Trains and Car Bombs: The Method Behind the Madness of Terrorism."

3. The European Commission follows Breakthrough in recognizing the expert consensus that energy efficiency can lead to a rebound in energy consumption. For 18 months Breakthrough scoured the peer-reviewed literature and discovered a strong consensus that efficiency can trigger a "rebound effect" that erodes the initial reductions in energy use. The finding helps explain why economies continue to use increasing amounts of energy even as they become more efficient. Breakthrough published its study, "Energy Emergence," in January 2011. A few months later the European Commission, the governing body of the EU, cited "Energy Emergence" and confirmed its conclusions in "Addressing the Rebound Effect," a comprehensive analysis which explicitly rejects the denial of rebound by efficiency advocates. The acknowledgement of rebound is now official EU policy, which should have major implications for climate policy priorities.

2. Breakthrough hosts its first Dialogue in June 2011 on "Modernizing Liberalism," and announces "Overcoming Wicked Problems" as the theme for 2012. Scholars flew in from around the world to join us for a three-day retreat to discuss economic stagnation, social inequality, and environmental challenges -- and explore how progressive politics must evolve to be relevant in the 21st Century. The conference landed on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and inspired a short video documentary. For 2012, Breakthrough's Senior Fellows, Fellows, and friends will once again discuss ways to modernize liberalism, this time focused on the theme of overcoming "wicked" -- difficult, complex, inter-dependent -- problems.

1. Bipartisan support grows for making clean energy cheap. Back in 2007, Breakthrough was almost alone among greens in arguing that the focus of climate policy should be on making clean energy cheap, not on making fossil fuels expensive. Four years later, innovation has become the watchword for much of the progressive movement. In his 2011 State of the Union, President Obama highlighted the critical role of innovation to economic growth, citing the technologies Breakthrough had highlighted in "Where Good Technologies Come From," and calling for increases to R&D funding. A few months later we co-authored "Climate Pragmatism," whose framework is increasingly treated by policymakers in the United States and around the world as the future of climate policy. "Breakthrough took an idea that was heresy just five years ago," noted Armond Cohen, Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, "and made it mainstream."

The end of the year is a time for reflection, and we are eager to hear your ideas for Breakthrough going forward. We read every email we receive, and take the suggestions from our friends and well-wishers seriously. End-of-year contributions, too, are welcome, are tax-deductible and can be made online.

With best wishes and happy holidays,

Michael and Ted