Seeds of a Good Anthropocene

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

The UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change's twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris is less than a month away. I'm not a huge fan of forums for hundreds of negotiators to figure out how to make business-as-usual sound like ambitious target-setting, but okay. 

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India — Re-Energized

Samir Saran Argues that India Must Hold Fast Against Western Climate Change Demands

What motivated you to write your recent essay about the double standard the West is trying to hold India to on climate change?

Earlier this year I was speaking at a premier Washington DC think tank around the time India announced it wouldn’t commit to overall emissions reductions at the climate negotiations. Someone in the audience said to me, “Why can’t India play by the same rules everyone else is agreeing to?” My response was “Why can’t India develop like everyone else did?”

Where are Indians when it comes to energy for development?

Today Indians with grid connectivity spend at least 20 – 25 percent of their income on energy. This only allows them a fraction of energy that the developed world consumes. Indians on an average consume one-fifth of the average coal consumption of an American and one-third of a European. The Chinese, Americans and Japanese all spend less on procuring renewable energy relative to their incomes than do Indians.

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Songs of Ecomodernism

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

This week we published the German translation of An Ecomodernist Manifesto. I always like learning how 'ecomodernism' translates into different languages. In German, it's 'Ökomodernisten.' 

By my rough calculations, the Manifesto can now be read by about a third of the planet in their native language, and about half the planet in a primary or secondary language. 


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Fear and Time

Risk Culture and the Broken Doomsday Clock

Things are getting bad — really bad — according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This past January, the journal reset the Doomsday Clock, its symbol of the imminence of global catastrophe, to a heart-stopping three minutes to midnight — closer than the seven minutes-to-midnight setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The specter this time isn’t World War III, the Clock’s longtime focus — disarmament treaties have slashed the numbers of nuclear warheads to a fraction of their Cold War peak — but a raft of terrifying new threats that, in the Bulletin’s estimation, more than make up for the receding menace of nuclear holocaust.

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November 10: Jessica Lovering to Speak at American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting & Expo

Jessica Lovering will speak at the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting's General Chair’s Special Session entitled "Nuclear Energy: The Federal and State Approach to Compliance with the Clean Power Plan (CPP)" on November 10 from 4:30pm-7:00pm. Jessica will join panelists Donald R Hoffman - President/CEO, Excel Services Corporation, Edward Kee - CEO and Principal Consultant, Melissa Savage - Senior Director, National Associations of State Energy Officials, and Donald R. van der Vaart - Secretary, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to disucss issues surrounding compliance with the CPP. 

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Worse Than Fossil Fuels? Why Bioenergy Is Not Green

An Interview with Princeton Research Scholar Tim Searchinger

The fundamental idea behind bioenergy is that it’s carbon-neutral because it releases the carbon that plants absorb when they grow, and thus does not add carbon to the air. Why is this wrong?

It’s a common misunderstanding. Burning biomass of course emits carbon, just like burning fossil fuels. The assumption is that the plant growth to produce that biomass offsets the emissions. But the first requirement for a valid offset, whether for carbon or anything else, is that it is additional. If your employer wants to offset your overtime with vacation, they have to give you additional vacation, not just count the vacation you’ve already earned. Similarly, you can’t count plant growth as an offset if it was occurring anyway. Plant growth can only offset energy emissions if it is additional. Counting plants that would grow anyway is a form of double-counting.

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Nope—There’s No Thyroid Cancer Epidemic in Fukushima

A New Study on Child Thyroid Cancer Gets Widespread Attention From the Media—While Another Study Proving It’s Wrong Gets None

A new study comes out with claims of a giant epidemic of thyroid cancer among kids exposed to radioactive iodine from the Fukushima nuclear accident. It’s disproven by another recent study showing that thyroid cancer rates are no higher in Fukushima than in distant regions uncontaminated by the accident. Which study gets lots of attention? And which one gets none?

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Keeping Nuclear Plants Open

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

Last week could have been better for the world's fleet of nuclear power plants. Entergy announced they were closing the 680-megawatt Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts, despite the plant having been relicensed in 2012 for an additional 20 years of operation. German utility Eon has also decided to shutter two units at Sweden's Oskarshamn plant. As we've seen everywhere from Germany to California to Japan, natural gas and coal fill in where nuclear falls off, which is the opposite direction from where we should be heading. For more on the situation in the States, check out the latest Energy Gang podcast, where MIT's Jesse Jenkins explains why it will be difficult to meet US carbon goals with so many threatened nuclear plants.

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October 19: Jessica Lovering to Speak at UC Berkeley on Real Costs of Nuclear Power

While most studies of nuclear costs focus narrowly on the US and France, Breakthrough Senior Analyst Jessica Lovering’s newly curated dataset includes complete cost histories of nuclear reactors for seven countries. By comparing the historical trends in countries like the US, France, Germany, and Canada with newcomers like Japan, India, and South Korea, many lessons can be learned about what types of policies can bring the cost of nuclear power down.

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Ecomodernism: A Third Way

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

"During a presidential election year, the eco-modernists have a prime opportunity to advance their agenda on a national level. Is it possible for candidates to actually move beyond the question of who’s to blame for climate change and make this about sound environmental and economic progress instead?"

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Ecomodernists Without Permission

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

A delegation of Finland's ecomodernists flew to London to see Breakthrough speak last month, where they were apparently quite thrilled to be welcomed as "Ecomodernists without permission." As vice-chair of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland Rauli Partanen (@Kaikenhuippu) wrote in a reflection, "we should not feel the need to ask permission when we do something we we believe (and what evidence suggests) to be a good thing." We agree! Hopefully lots more ecomodernists without permission emerge in the future.

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How to Strand Assets

Nature-saving Through Disruptive Technological Change

In 1849, the wife of an American entrepreneur named Samuel Kier was prescribed “American Medicinal Oil” — petroleum — by her doctor to treat an illness. The Iroquois Indians had used petroleum as an insect repellent, salve, and tonic for hundreds of years. The so-called “rock oil” that naturally seeped out of the ground was viewed as a blessing, and for hundreds of years they skimmed it off the surface of rivers and streams.

With his wife feeling better, Kier saw a business opportunity. He started his own brand, “Kier’s Petroleum or Rock Oil,” and sold bottles for 50 cents through a sales force traveling through the region by wagon.

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Ecomodernists in Finland and Oysters in California

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

“Ecomodernism is an environmental movement that seeks to defend and enhance the environment’s well-being while simultaneously increasing possibilities for human prosperity. For ecomodernists, both the vitality and diversity of natural world and the existence and progress of humanity are fundamental values.” 

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Breakthrough Dialogue 2016 Announced: Great Transformations

June 22-24, 2016

Breakthrough Institute is excited to announce that the 2016 Breakthrough Dialogue will take place Wednesday, June 22, through Friday, June 24, at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, California. Breakthrough Dialogue is the research organization’s signature annual event, where its international network of Senior Fellows, Generation Fellows, scholars, policy makers, and allies gather to build an optimistic and pragmatic vision of the future. The theme of this year’s event is “Great Transformations.” Inspired by the profound challenges and opportunities afforded by modernization, this year’s Dialogue aims to address the hard questions of urbanization, industrialization, and the incipient “rise of the rest.”

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David MacKay Announced as 2016 Paradigm Award Winner

Scholar Has Opened Pragmatic Discourse for Meeting Future Energy Needs

The Breakthrough Institute will honor David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, with the 2016 Breakthrough Paradigm Award in recognition of his excellence in energy and climate change analyses. 

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September 24: UK2020 – Ecomodernism (London)

UK 2020 is hosting Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute for an event that will consider the future of environmentalism, and how policy at a UN, EU, and state level needs to be guided by science and not ideology. Joining the panel are Mark Lynas of the Alliance for Science at Cornell University, journalist Matt Ridley, and Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, former UK Environment Secretary.

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September 24: Is It Time for Ecomodernism? (London)

Sense about Science, Energy For Humanity, and Breakthrough Institute will cosponsor an evening event at the Free Word Centre in London. Tracey Brown of Sense about Science will make opening remarks. American ecomodernist and president of Breakthrough Institute, Michael Shellenberger will kick off the program by arguing that ecomodernism — and only ecomodernism — can make the planet habitable for future generations. A discussion will follow, and wide audience participation will be welcome. He will be joined for a discussion by University College London professor of biodiversity and ecosystems Georgina Mace and Shadow Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change Baroness Byrony Worthington.

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Nature Unbound

Decoupling for Conservation

Over the last two centuries, the growing human population and rising consumption have caused widespread loss of wildlife and natural habitats. Existing conservation approaches based on protected areas and ecosystem services have been unable to stem this loss at the global scale.

There are also many trends that suggest hope for the future, however. Technological progress is increasingly decoupling environmental harm from economic growth. A new Breakthrough Institute report, titled Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation, offers a new framework for global conservation that focuses on accelerating the technological and economic processes that drive decoupling.

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Natural Gas Methane Problem Overstated

Research Shows CH4 Leakage A Minor Factor, Within Acceptable Ranges

Public positions on natural gas are strongly influenced by interpretations of the science on fugitive methane emissions. These vary significantly. The self-identified anti-natural gas wing includes professors like Robert Howarth and popular media figures like filmmaker Josh Fox. Other scholars, such as Cornell’s Lawrence Cathles and Council on Foreign Relations’s Michael Levi, have essentially concluded that fugitive methane is mostly a red herring in the coal-versus-gas conversation, and that natural gas can be a suitable “bridge fuel” in power-sector decarbonization. Other institutions like the Environmental Defense Fund concede that natural gas can be an “exit ramp” toward a clean energy future, but insist that fugitive methane must be tightly regulated to ensure that a coal-to-gas transition provides a warming benefit.

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September 30: Battle of Ideas (Amsterdam)

We are living longer and more fulfilling lives than ever before. We’ve become healthier and richer in a world that’s more democratic and peaceful than ever before. This is not a rich-man’s fantasy; all these trends have even spread to billions of people in poorer countries. Yet, critics warn that the costs of all this progress begin to outweigh the benefits. Concerns about environmental degradation are gaining traction. Greens worry that the Earth cannot sustain the desire for more, more, more. What do greens want? Do they consider a cleaner, greener planet with a nice habitat for animals and plants more desirable than a world with thriving mega-cities with plenty of interesting things for billions of people to do? Is it really possible to have both? Lately, a new brand of greens is emerging. These so-called “ecomodernists” claim to get away with sentimental notions of traditional environmentalists. They believe the planet can be ecologically vibrant with many billions more people living a good life—if only we would rely on evidence-based policies to improve nature. 

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September 23: Linus Blomqvist at UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources (London)

Global conservation efforts focus on protected areas and in recent decades on payments for ecosystem services. While important at the local level, these approaches have proven unable to halt the loss of wildlife and natural habitats on a large scale. Following the release of a new report Nature Unbound, Linus Blomqvist will argue that what spares nature is technological change, along with urbanization and modernization.

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Raiding Progress

How Ralph Nader and the Public Interest Movement Undermined American Liberalism

As contemporary American progressivism has come to be defined by the public interest movements associated with Ralph Nader, both the white working class and the business community have abandoned the Democratic Party. For working-class whites, the regulatory assault upon manufacturing, resource-extractive industries, and agriculture threatened both their employment and the local economies in which they lived and worked. With the postwar New Deal compact between business, labor, and government fractured, business groups and industries mobilized themselves as a countervailing force to the increasing power and organization of the public interest movements on the Left. For these reasons, the decline of New Deal liberalism in the last half-century owes as much to assaults by the public interest Left as it does to attacks by a resurgent Right.

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September 9: Linus Blomqvist to Present New Report at Resources for the Future (DC)

Environmental policies typically reflect an assumption that today’s scarcities will be tomorrow’s scarcities. Yet in the past, many social and technological innovations have radically altered the nature of scarcity, often reducing environmental impacts in the process. Several current trends (in agriculture, materials use, energy, and water) suggest that, with the right policies and investments, the human footprint could peak and decline in coming decades. Breakthrough's Director of Conservation Linus Blomqvist will present his findings from a pathbreaking new report, Nature Unbound.

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Breakthroughs for an Ecomodernist Future

Energy Access, Radical Innovation, and the Land Impacts of Energy

Another summer, another wealth of research from the Breakthrough Institute thanks to our annual Breakthrough Generation research fellowship. This summer, the Breakthrough Generation Fellows examined the role of development banks in funding energy projects in poor countries, the land footprint of energy, and the role of the state in innovating around complex technologies.

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It’s Time to Scrap the Ecological Footprint

Earth Overshoot Day Is Fundamentally Meaningless

Today is Earth Overshoot Day, the day when, according to the Global Footprint Network, “humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year.” By the end of the year, we are told, humanity will have consumed 1.6 Earths’ worth of renewable biological resources

Considering all the defaunation, pollution, freshwater depletion, and climate change caused by humans, the idea of global ecological overshoot seems commonsense. Farms, production forests, and cities together take up nearly half the Earth’s ice-free land, displacing and fragmenting natural habitats. 

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Lessons from the Shale Revolution

A Report on the Conference Proceedings

Since 2011, Breakthrough Institute has sought to understand the origins of the shale revolution, primarily for environmental reasons. Cheap shale gas has allowed the US power sector to move away from coal, which has in turn reduced US carbon emissions by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2013. What lessons could the shale revolution have for future energy transitions, whether to solar, nuclear power, electric cars, or fuel cells? How can public and private energy innovation efforts achieve future technological breakthroughs that are similarly disruptive?

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Earth Makers

The Ancient Practice of Ecosystem Creation


Thursday, March 26, 987 BC.

On the other side of the planet, smelters are bellowing in Europe. The Zhou Dynasty has begun. 52,403,609 people inhabit the Earth. None of them live in Hawaii.

I fill my lungs with cool, fresh air. A rich, thick taste of vegetation with floral notes. It is 6:26 a.m. Rays of sunshine kiss the tops of hulking, gnarled Ohia trees, lighting up their soft red flowers. I hear and see birds. Lots of them.

I recognize ‘I‘iwi, a cardinal-size bird with screaming red feathers and a gently curved beak, dancing happily through the canopy. Alongside it is a smaller red bird with a black tail and black beak, called Apapane. The equally small Elepaio is a flycatcher with brown and white feathers and a straight, tiny black beak. It sings an effortless jumpy chatter and eagerly raises the feathers on top of its head. 

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Clearing the Air

EPA Climate Rule Not Designed to Keep Nuclear Plants Open

This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Michael Shellenberger

The recently released final rule of the EPA Clean Power Plan projects to reduce US power sector carbon emissions by 32 percent under 2005 levels by 2030. That's awesome. But by allowing existing nuclear capacity to close and be replaced by fossil fuels, the CPP jeopardizes almost one-half of EPA's emissions reduction goals from 2013 to 2030.

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The Diablo We Know

The Case for Keeping California’s Last Nuclear Plant

Diablo Canyon is California’s last nuclear power plant. It has been the state’s most famous and most controversial plant ever since it divided Sierra Club members in the late 1960s. Perched amidst spectacular natural beauty on the California coast, Diablo faces threats on many fronts. State regulators are demanding that it build expensive cooling towers to ease its impact on marine life. Harsh claims are being made about its vulnerability to earthquakes. And there are lawsuits filed by environmental groups aimed at shutting it down.

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Technology Leads, Regulation Follows

EPA Clean Power Plan Locks in Existing Energy Trends

This week marks the release of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, an EPA Clean Air Act regulatory platform designed to reduce carbon emissions from American power plants. The #CleanPowerPlan has been called “the biggest action ever taken by the US to combat global warming.” It has also been called “really kind of eh.”

So at the very least, we’ve added another Rorschach test to the climate policy debate.

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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 War on Ivory

Grace Ge Gabriel on China’s Fight Against Elephant Poaching

Although the trade of ivory from elephant tusks has been banned by international convention since 1989, demand for the “white gold” continues in countries like China, where ivory carvings and jewelry are coveted status symbols. As the leading consumer of elephant ivory, Chinese demand is driving the poaching of over 30,000 elephants a year in Africa. 

Since a third of the elephant’s tusk is embedded in its head, poachers kill the animals in order to harvest the ivory. Unfortunately, many Chinese consumers do not realize this. A 2007 survey led by Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that 70 percent of Chinese consumers did not know elephants have to die for people to have ivory. Grace has been fighting to increase awareness and eliminate the ivory trade in China for decades. In the following interview, she shares her insights on grey markets, substitution, government collaboration, and why she feels hopeful about the future of wildlife trade in China.

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A Theology for Ecomodernism

What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?

That in every corner of the Earth, human history and natural history combine — that no place remains as a pristine sanctuary apart from human influence — was reported as early as 1864 by George Perkins Marsh in his classic study, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Yet it was 131 years later that the publication of “The Trouble with Wilderness” by William Cronon set off a most difficult era for modern conservation. Cronon’s central observation, that wilderness was a cultural construct or invention, prompted scientific and conceptual work that has fundamentally challenged traditional views of nature and wilderness. Charles Mann, in his book 1491, published in 2006, marshaled a vast literature documenting how enormous populations of native peoples, before they were exterminated by disease and conquest, occupied and cultivated the pre-Columbian landscapes of the New World.

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Breakthrough Dialogue 2015

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 our negative impact 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. In light of this debate, Breakthrough Dialogue 2015 will focus on the question: “What is our vision of a good Anthropocene?” And it will ask related questions: Given global complexity, inequality, and ideological diversity, should we speak of many Anthropocenes rather than a single Anthropocene? How do these visions draw on and break from traditional environmentalism, on the one hand, and the status quo, where modernization processes seem to be proceeding?

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Approaching Backfire

Efficiency Rebound Highest in Places Where It's Least Understood

Energy consumption is going to explode in poor countries this century –– over 90 percent of the growth in energy consumption through 2050 will occur in non-OECD countries. These countries are also where the International Energy Agency (IEA) hopes to reduce future demand growth the most in the name of mitigating climate change –– 77 percent of the modeled demand reductions in the IEA’s 450pmm scenario come from non-OECD countries.

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Jessica Lovering and Loren King to Present at Disruptive Energy Technologies Kickoff Meeting

Senior Energy Analyst Jessica Lovering and Senior Innovation Analyst Loren King will present at the Disruptive Technologies Kickoff Meeting at Idaho National Labs, a one-day meeting to discuss future disruptive energy technologies, policies, and investments that have the potential to dramatically change the way the US and world energy is produced, distributed, and consumed in this century.

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September 25: Global Conference on Stranded Assets and Environment (London)

The University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment is hosting researchers and interested practitioners to a major academic conference on stranded assets and the environment. Despite its growing prominence as a topic, there remains a great deal of confusion about: what stranded assets are; what assets might be affected; what drives stranding; how financial institutions and companies can manage the risk of stranded assets; what it means for policy makers and regulators; and how it links to climate change policy. Breakthrough cofounders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus will present a keynote speech on decoupling as a strategy for stranded assets based upon the forthcoming report Nature Unbound.

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Ruth DeFries Bestowed 2015 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Mapping a Blueprint for the Good Anthropocene

Between 1845 and 1849 one million people starved to death in Ireland and another million fled the island. The immediate cause was a virulent fungus that destroyed potatoes. But the underlying reason, held good opinion in Britain, was that there were just too many Irish people. “The cheapness of this nourishing root [potatoes],” wrote Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus two decades earlier, “joined to the ignorance and barbarism of the people, have encouraged marriage to such a degree that the population has pushed much beyond the industry and present resources of the country.”

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Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene

Humanity As a Force for Good

Sometime next year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) may or may not decide that humans have changed the Earth so significantly that we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. The idea that humans have created a qualitatively different planet from the one we inherited was discussed at the beginning of the 20th century, but the informal use of the term dates back to the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2000, Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer formally proposed renaming the current geologic epoch, arguing that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, when the increased use of fossil fuels began the process of anthropogenic global warming –– a view that was echoed by other prominent earth scientists and promoted by environmental journalists.

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The Environmental Case for Industrial Agriculture

Small-scale Food System Enlarges Human Footprint

The following keynote address was delivered by Ted Nordhaus at the first annual Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy Symposium on June 3, 2015. The speech has been lightly edited.

Thank you for having me today. It has come to my attention during the course of this conference that the fast food chain Chipotle has announced that it will no longer serve food grown with genetically modified organisms. Apparently, this occurred last month, but somehow I missed it on Twitter. Between the debut of Caitlyn Jenner, the latest royal baby, and the FIFA corruption scandal, I guess it just slipped through my stream.

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2015 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Research on Global Challenges

A rollercoaster enthusiast who traveled to India to study tribal women’s empowerment; an energy analyst interested in the impacts of innovation on geopolitics; an engineer who has worked on alternative transportation and urban development; and a former scholar of the Victorian era who now writes on energy technologies and risk perception. These are among the seven outstanding thinkers who will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting pragmatic, new solutions to major environmental challenges.

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Breakthrough President Michael Shellenberger to Speak at International Student Energy Summit

The International Student Energy Summit 2015, themed “Connecting the Unconnected,” will combine the visions of “striving forward” and “leaving no one behind.” In today’s interconnected energy world, there is a desperate need for energy rich nations to understand energy access issues that dominate a large portion of the globe. Here in Bali, ISES 2015 will give students a new frame for evaluating the energy challenges the world faces.

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On Pragmatic Conservation

How Decoupling and Pragmatic Rewilding Are Key to Conservation in the 21st Century

The last few years have seen a big debate among leading conservationists over the future of parks and protected areas. On one side are groups like The Nature Conservancy that work with foreign countries to site hydroelectric dams so they are less destructive of river systems and with big corporations to protect wetlands and reduce pollution. These groups have tended to argue that all of nature is a kind of “rambunctious garden,” a mix of human and nonhuman influences.

On the other side are groups like the Center for Biological Diversity that sue US government agencies to protect more endangered species and try to stop dams in poor countries. These groups criticize the view of nature as a garden and defend older views of wilderness as devoid of human activity. The fighting has been so intense that a group of scientists last year urged both groups to calm down and seek common ground.

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Rewilding Pragmatism

Or, What an African Safari Can Teach America

Perhaps it is no coincidence that at the same moment that scientists have concluded that we are now living in the Anthropocene, the age of humans, there has been a resurgence of interest in rewilding, the large-scale restoration of nature and the reintroduction of plants and animals (particularly large carnivores) by people to areas where they once thrived. 

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Is Feedlot Beef Better for the Environment?

Smaller Land Footprint and Lower Pollution Pointed to by Scientist Judith Capper

This past February, the nation's top nutrition panel released new dietary guidelines, urging Americans to start thinking about the environmental impacts of the food they eat. Meat, especially beef, was highlighted as having the most environmental impact. Not all beef is created equal, however, so what kind should conscientious consumers choose? If you thought “grass-fed,” you might be in for a shock. Dr. Judith Capper, an animal scientist, shares her surprising research into how grass-fed beef actually has higher environmental impacts than conventional beef.

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A Look at Wind and Solar

Part 2: Is There An Upper Limit To Intermittent Renewables?

This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins.

This is a two-part series on the future prospects of renewables. Read Part 1 here.

In our last post, we offered a survey of the progress made so far in wind and solar deployment at the grid-wide scale throughout the world. An accurate and honest accounting of variable renewable energy (VRE) is essential to our goal of building zero-carbon power systems on a high-energy planet. In this follow-up post, we’ll consider what we can glean from VRE performance and modeling about scaling wind and solar further this century.

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Looking for Leapfrogs

Where's the Evidence That Poor Countries Are Leapfrogging Fossil Fuels?

Today, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report on energy demand in emerging markets titled Power Shift: Emerging Clean Energy Markets. The report offers some very encouraging and useful data on energy supplies and investments. Unfortunately, by cherry-picking their case studies and making strange analytical conclusions, Pew paints a selective and flawed picture of electrification in poor countries. 

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The Grid Will Not Be Disrupted

Why Tesla’s Powerwall Won’t Catalyze a Solar Revolution

The announcement two weeks ago of Tesla Motor’s cheap new lithium-ion storage batteries set the renewable energy world on its ear. Breathless commentators pronounced them a revolutionary advance heralding cheap, ubiquitous electricity storage that would make solar power a 24/7-power source for the masses. Elon Musk, Tesla’s wunderkind CEO, fed these hopes at the glitzy product launch for the 10 kilowatt-hour (KWh) Powerwall home storage battery.

“You could actually go, if you want, completely off the grid,” he told them. “You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs, and that’s all you use.”

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The Return of Nature

How Technology Liberates the Environment

In September 2014, a bear in the Apshawa Preserve, 45 miles northwest of New York City in New Jersey, killed Darsh Patel, 22, a senior at Rutgers University, while he was hiking with friends. Patel’s death was the first fatal bear attack recorded in New Jersey in 150 years. Five friends were hiking when they came across the bear, which they photographed and filmed before running in different directions. After regrouping, they noticed one was missing. State authorities found and euthanized the bear, which had human remains in its stomach and esophagus, and human blood and tissue below its claws.

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The Fossil Fuel Subsidy Red Herring

Subsidies to Fossil Energy Aren't the Low-Hanging Fruit We Might Wish They Were

Every few months — or constantly, depending on your attention span — we hear another round of passionate recommendations that fossil fuel subsidies be phased out to level the playing field for clean energy. Most recently, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim emphasized that “we need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now” in his agenda for promoting clean energy.

Sounds like a sensible goal, but there’s reason to think that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies wouldn’t be nearly as transformative as is often suggested. In this post, I’ll briefly explain why that’s the case.

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Waste Not, Want Not

The Rhetoric and Reality of Food Waste

Food waste has become a high profile topic in the world of food politics and the environment. In the wake of a recent report, the New York Times wrote an editorial urging food waste reduction, calling it a “serious threat to the global environment and economy.” The United Nations estimates that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, and according to one expert, the amount of food wasted in the United States alone would be sufficient to feed 1 billion hungry people in the world. Jonathan Foley explained that smaller portions and eating more leftovers are some of the most effective solutions to increase food availability.

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Alex Trembath to Speak at Annual AAG Meeting

Senior Analyst Alex Trembath will speak on a panel at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, which brings together the nation's geographers, GIS specialists, environmental scientists, and other leaders for the latest in research and applications in geography, sustainability, and GIScience. 

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An Ecomodernist Manifesto

From the Death of Environmentalism to the Birth of Ecomodernism

Ten years ago the two of us wrote a controversial essay arguing that inaction on climate change required rethinking everything we thought we knew. Our assumptions had us defining the problem and solutions too narrowly. Too much negativism was turning people off. We needed the death of environmentalism so that a new and more expansive ecological politics could be born. 

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Five Surprising Public Health Facts About Fukushima

Journalist Will Boisvert Investigates and Finds Fewer-than-Average Thyroid Cancers and Seafood Safe to Eat

Four years ago a large earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan. More than 15,000 people were killed. A subsequent nuclear meltdown added fear to grief. 

As terrible as the meltdown was, the radiation did not have significant public health consequences, much less the catastrophic ones that many feared and some continue to claim.

On the fourth anniversary of the tsunami, earthquake, and meltdown, journalist Will Boisvert investigates and unearths five public health findings from Fukushima that you've probably never heard.

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China’s High-Energy Innovation

An Interview with Dr. Ming Sung, Clean Air Task Force

What’s the state of energy innovation in China? Breakthrough spoke with Ming Sung, Chief Representative for the Asia-Pacific region at Clean Air Task Force, about the work underway in China to rapidly develop and commercialize carbon capture and storage, advanced nuclear, and renewable technologies to curb pollution and meet energy demand. 

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The Increasing Complexity of Technology

An Interview with Innovation Scholar Don Kash

Following our Lessons From the Shale Revolution conference in late January, the Breakthrough Institute had a chance to catch up with Don Kash, professor emeritus of George Mason University’s School of Policy and Government. Kash spent his entire career working at the intersection of technology, policy, and society, and has been a major influence on contemporary energy and innovation scholars. Long before the Breakthrough Institute made the case for ‘making clean energy cheap,’ he highlighted the crucial role of public energy R&D to improve environmental outcomes.

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Wicked Fat

Harvard Historian of Science Steven Shapin on the Nutrition Wars

Last month the US government issued a 571-page report suggesting it would be making significant changes to its dietary guidelines. Eggs are no longer a no-no. Caffeine consumption is encouraged to prevent Parkinson’s disease. The report comes at a time when new studies, and journalists including Gary Taubes, Nina Teicholz, and Aaron Carroll, have called into question the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet promoted by the nutrition establishment for more than half a century.

Breakthrough is interested in the battle over dietary advice as an example of “wicked problem” — a problem characterized by high levels of uncertainty and expert disagreement — and asked Harvard historian of science, Steven Shapin, to provide some historical and sociological context. Shapin is the author of numerous articles and books about the history diet and nutrition.

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