Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: Panels and Sessions

The Good Anthropocene

Over the last few years, ecomodernist thinkers have articulated a vision of a “good Anthropocene,” one where humans use our extraordinary powers to shrink humankind's negative impacts on nature. But the very discussion of a good Anthropocene triggered a critical response from some who see modernization processes and the age of humans itself as inherently risky and destructive. Critics of the good Anthropocene say, ecomodernism doesn’t adequately consider the potential for civilization-ending catastrophe or for a stronger societal connection to nature. In light of this debate, Breakthrough Dialogue 2015 focused its agenda on the question: “What is our vision of a good Anthropocene?” In late June, around 170 scholars, policy makers, philanthropists, friends, and allies of Breakthrough Institute gathered in Sausalito to pose tough questions of the ecomodernist project and its stated goals. The following articles offer summaries of the panel presentations as well as the resulting conversation. 

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A Good Anthropocene?

Competing Visions of Our Environmental Future

Human ingenuity has allowed the species to transcend every supposed ecological limit in the past, but will it be enough to surmount the challenges of a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene? There are many reasons to believe in the possibility of a “good Anthropocene,” says the opening panel of the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, but concerted political and social action – not techno-utopian thinking – is needed.

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Can Economic Growth Be Green?

How Prosperity Enables Environmental Progress

Against projections of unsustainable growth, industrializing countries are poised to enter an era of “green growth,” explained a panel at Breakthrough Dialogue. To encourage this transition, however, requires better metrics for valuing public goods like clean air and longer lifespans.

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Price Nature or Make Nature Priceless?

Evaluating Conservation in the Anthropocene

A panel of leading scientists at this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue considered how best to protect natural areas, at regional and global levels. The panelists agreed that dominant forms of environmental protection have failed in many regards. 

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What is Modern in Ecomodernism?

Nature, Technology, and Politics in the Anthropocene

“Is ecomodernism a white elephant to kill as soon as possible, or a hopeful monster that requires the care of a whole bunch of Dr. Frankensteins?”

So asked sociologist Bruno Latour at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, the theme of which was “The Good Anthropocene.” Latour offered a rollicking critique of ecomodernists and their manifesto, kicking off a discussion among the other panelists and participants about what it means to be human and the division between nature and society.

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Who Cares About Wild Nature?

The Practical Realities of a Rewilded World

As wildlife populations rebound with reforestation in rich countries, including Europe and the United States, a question is increasingly being raised — do people really care about wild nature? Or do they view it as more of a nuisance than a blessing?

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How to Think About Climate Risk in the Anthropocene

Climate Change Politics Post-Two Degrees

Increasingly few people believe humans are likely to prevent global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. How then should we think about likely impacts — and possible responses? Those were the questions debated at a Breakthrough Dialogue concurrent session on climate risk.

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Anthropocene Opportunities

Humanity as a Global Force for Change

The old biology fable suggests that all life on Earth is like a protozoan in a petri dish, where it multiplies, quickly exceeds its resources, and dies off. Are humans doomed to the same fate? Some environmentalists say yes, in a world of finite resources, the walls of the petri dish are not far off. Ecomodernists, on the other hand, argue that humans are not the same as protozoan, and that they can overcome ecological problems. A concurrent session at the Breakthrough Dialogue explored how recent socio-ecological thinking provides a strong basis for local, regional, and even planetary opportunities to achieve a “good Anthropocene.”

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What Is the Economics of Ecomodernism?

Decoupling and the Role of the State

What is the appropriate role of markets and the state when it comes to solving big environmental problems? A concurrent session at Breakthrough Dialogue debated different economic schools of thought with respect to how ecomodernists think about growth, innovation, and the environment.

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Can Environmental Education Be Saved?

Preparing the Next Generation of Thinkers to Solve “Wicked Problems”

Following a productive concurrent session at last year’s Breakthrough Dialogue on the current state of the undergraduate environmental studies and sciences (ESS) curriculum, six participants went on to author four of six articles, a “mini symposium,” on future directions for ESS education for the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The mini-symposium called for ESS departments to ensure students are exposed to a diversity of environmental perspectives and taught to think independently, a key insight that was also the focus of the session at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue.

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Can Ecomodernism Contribute to the “Rise of the Rest”?

Poor Countries Need Modern Energy for Development

The poor will need to increase their consumption of modern energy if the world’s nations are to ensure more equitable human development, said a panel of energy and development experts at the fifth annual Breakthrough Dialogue. To achieve this, the international community will need to think beyond providing the poor with access to household-scale electricity or placing other restrictions on energy consumption in the name of climate mitigation.

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The Romance of Ecomodernism

Pragmatism, Romance, and Urban Renewal at Breakthrough Dialogue 2014

People will be drawn to an ecomodernism when it combines a romantic love for nature with the pragmatic use of technology and development. That was the advice offered by Emma Marris, Mark Sagoff, and Reihan Salam in the final panel of Breakthrough Dialogue 2014.

“Environmentalism has many characteristics of a religion — a religion I’m a member of,” said Marris. “But if we care about outcomes, pursuing personal eco-sainthood is not the most efficient means of getting to those outcomes,” Marris said. “Can we have a movement with excitement and enthusiasm but without the religiosity?”  

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A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet

Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century

Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife. 

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High-Energy Africa

Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.

Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels. 

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High-Efficiency Planet

Efficiency Gains Have Driven Cost Declines and Increases in Energy Consumption – Will the Trend Continue or Peak?

When most people think of energy efficiency, they think of modern amenities, like their squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs. But according to one of the world’s experts on the history of energy, lighting has become more efficient for 700 years — and much cheaper as a result. 

“Over the last 700 years, there has been a 10,000-fold decline in the cost of lighting,” explained London School of Economics professor Roger Fouquet at Breakthrough Dialogue. “Between 1800 and 2000, there was a 1,000-fold increase in lighting.”

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Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

International Energy Agency Faulted for Unrealistic Projections

World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.

“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”

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A Green Vision of Technology

How Ecomodernists Foresee Room for Nature

There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace’s warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world’s last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?

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The Ethics of Ecological Modernization

Embracing Creative Destruction

The concluding panel at the Breakthrough Dialogue raised questions about the doomsday narratives embedded in current conversations of mankind’s ecological impacts, and pointed to an alternative set of ecologically modern ethics that might succeed the “small-is-beautiful,” anti-consumerist, and technologically skeptical values of traditional environmentalism.

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How Natural Gas Can Help the Climate

Beyond the Fracking Wars

Environmentalists are facing a conundrum. Reducing greenhouse gas levels is urgent, although the greenies are remiss to accept natural gas as a viable vehicle, releasing 45 percent fewer carbon emissions than coal. Despite the possibilities, its imperfections remain a sore point among ecologists. 



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On Geoengineering

Oliver Morton Reflects on the Breakthrough Dialogue, Geoengineering, and Climate Change

I recently had the great pleasure of attending this year's Breakthrough Dialogue at Cavallo Point, an event at which the Breakthrough Institute brought together kindred spirits of disparate views to hash out some of the many issues that that Institute takes an interest in. On the basis of this Economist special report I was invited to talk about nuclear power, but in the many fruitful interstices of the meeting found myself talking about geoengineering quite a lot, because this is the sort of crowd where that sort of discussion makes sense, and because I am working on a book on the subject.

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Wicked Problems

Might Our Biggest Challenges Be Just Too Tough To Solve?

There’s wicked, like the Wicked Witch. Wicked, as in evil.

There’s wicked, like “It’s WICKED hot!” Wicked, urban slang for ‘very’.

And then there are Wicked Problems; like the European financial crisis, or like the epidemic of obesity, or like climate change. Wicked, as in so huge, so complex, so tangled in conflicts over values and so profoundly the result of inherent human nature, that these problems might not be solvable at all, and the best we can hope to do is cope with them and minimize the harm they do.

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Wicked Questions

How Do We Create an Urgent Politics That is Not Apocalyptic?

Can we advocate greater effort to break cycles of poverty, alienation, and despair even as we acknowledge that our lives, including the lives of the very poor, have vastly improved with increased wealth, modern medicine, and better infrastructure? Can we acknowledge that the new environmental risks that our prosperity has created are serious and must be dealt with, while acknowledging that they are unlikely to result in the end of human civilization? In short, can we imagine a non-apocalyptic politics that is neither Cornucopian nor Panglossian?

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WELCOME TO THE ANTI-DAVOS

Two days of focused conversation in service of a mission larger than anyone in the room: new thought for a new politics for a new century.

Every year Breakthrough's extended tribe of fellows, families, and friends descend on Northern California to have a single, extended conversation about a big topic, from modernizing liberalism to overcoming wicked problems.

I’ve found the interactions at Breakthrough Dialogue tremendously stimulating. No matter how convinced of my opinions I’ve been when I arrived, the Dialogue has made me feel that I should think things through again.

– Kathleen Higgins

With so much on the line for our environmental future, it is disturbing how rare it is to actually hear any new ideas. Agree or disagree with whatever you hear at Breakthrough Dialogue, no matter: you're unlikely to hear it anywhere else! Best discussion in town.

Paul Robbins

Only at Breakthrough Dialogue are you guaranteed to get into fascinating conversations with any random person you tap on the shoulder!

- Josh Trutt
 

DIALOGUE 2014: HIGH-ENERGY PLANET

DIALOGUE 2013: CREATIVE DESTRUCTION




DIALOGUE 2012: WICKED PROBLEMS


DIALOGUE 2011: MODERNIZING LIBERALISM