Breakthrough Dialogue 2017: Democracy in the Anthropocene will take place on June 21 – 23, 2017

In a world in which humans have become the dominant ecological force on the planet, good outcomes for people and the environment increasingly depend upon the decisions we collectively make. How we grow food, produce energy, utilize natural resources, and organize human settlements and economic enterprises will largely determine what kind of planet we leave to future generations. Depending upon those many decisions, the future earth could be hotter or cooler; host more or less biodiversity; be more or less urbanized, connected, and cosmopolitan; and be characterized by vast tracts of wild lands, where human influences are limited, or virtually none at all.

If the promise of the Anthropocene is, to paraphrase Stewart Brand’s famous coinage, that “we are as gods,” and might get good at it, the risk is that we are not very good at it and might be getting worse. A “Good Anthropocene” will require foresight, planning, and well-managed institutions. But what happens when the planners and institutions lose their social license? When utopian civil society ideals conflict with practical measures needed to assure better outcomes for people and the environment? When the large-scale and long-term social and economic transformations associated with ecological modernization fail to accommodate the losers in those processes in a just and equitable manner?

If the enormous global ecological challenges that human societies face today profoundly challenge small-is-beautiful, soft energy, and romantic agrarian environmentalism, the checkered history of top-down technocratic modernization challenges its ecomodern alternative. It is easy enough to advocate that everybody live in cities, much harder to achieve that transition in fair and non-coercive fashion. Nuclear energy has mostly been successfully deployed by state fiat. It is less clear that it can succeed in a world that has increasingly liberalized economically and decentralized politically. Global conservation efforts have become expert at mapping biodiversity hotspots but still struggle to reconcile global conservation objectives with local priorities, diverse stakeholders, and development imperatives in poor economies. Rich-world prejudices about food and agricultural systems, meanwhile, frequently undermine agricultural modernization in the poor world.

Where contemporary environmentalism was borne of civil society reaction to the unintended consequences of industrialization and modernity, the great environmental accomplishments of modernity—the Green Revolution, the development and deployment of a global nuclear energy fleet, the rewilding and reforestation of vast areas thanks to energy transitions, and rising agricultural productivity—proceeded either out of view or over the objections of civil society environmental discourse. Today, the Green Revolution, nuclear energy, and the transition from biomass to fossil energy are broadly viewed as ecological disasters in many quarters, despite their not insignificant environmental benefits.

This year at the Breakthrough Dialogue, we tackle those questions head-on. Attitudes towards urbanization, nuclear energy, GMOs, and agricultural modernization are beginning to shift, as the magnitude of change needed to reconcile ecological concerns with global development imperatives has begun to come fully into view. Can a Good Anthropocene be achieved in bottom-up, decentralized fashion? Can there be a robust and vocal civil society constituency for ecomodernization? What should we do when not everyone wants to be modern, and what is to be done when political identities and ideological commitments trump facts on the ground? If it turns out, in short, that we’re not very good at being gods, is it possible to get better at it? 


Plenary Sessions

Democracy and Ecomodernism

Civil society environmental discourse has been characterized simultaneously by protest against the industrial arrangements of the present and appeals to utopian alternatives for the future. Debates about nuclear power, industrial agriculture, and GMOs have mostly been waged between civil society environmental groups on one side and industry and government on the other. But recently some civil society voices have begun to advocate for those technologies on environmental grounds. Can there be civil society movements for practical environmental solutions? For centralized, high tech, large scale technologies? Can ecomodernist solutions be pursued bottom up instead of top down? Or is the real contribution of civil society activism to define the agenda for policy-makers to address and provide democratic accountability to solutions that will, inevitably, require technocratic solutions?

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Ted Nordhaus, cofounder and executive director, Breakthrough Institute
  • Steven Pinker, author, The Better Angels of Our Nature


When Is Big Beautiful?

The failure of systems and institutions that are too big to fail has become a cautionary tale for our age: of systems too complex and large scale to manage, authority too remote to account for local conditions or incorporate local knowledge, and technocrats too swept up in their own overweening ambitions. Stoked by Hayekian fears of collectivization on the Right and Schumacherian dreams of localized economies on the Left, we have talked small across the political spectrum for the last half century even as the breadth and scope of human enterprises, the complexity of our technological systems, and the scale of political institutions necessary to manage both has only grown. Few voices have been willing to defend bigness. But on a planet of seven going on nine billion people, is big inevitable? The long term shift toward greater centralization – mega-cities, centralized electrical grids, industrial agriculture – has brought not insignificant benefits alongside the high profile risks and failures that so much contemporary debate seems obsessed about. How should we balance our desires for greater control and “small d” democracy with the increasing scale of social organization in the Anthropocene?

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Rob Atkinson, president, ITIF
  • Luis Bettencourt, professor, Santa Fe Institute

  • Susanna Hecht, professor of urban planning, UCLA


The Ecomodern Economy

Ecomodernism envisions a dematerializing economy that makes fewer demands upon natural resources and ecosystems. Promising trends suggest such a future might be possible. Population growth is slowing and is flat or even falling in many parts of the world. Material consumption for many goods and services is saturating in developed economies. Rising resource productivity has enabled us to produce greater material output with less material input. But what are the consequences of these developments for the economy? Slowing population growth and saturating demand for goods and services has brought slower economic growth. Rising resource productivity has been closely coupled with rising labor productivity. The dark side of slowing economic growth, demand saturation, and rising resource and labor productivity could be secular stagnation, the jobless recovery, and rising inequality. What will be necessary to assure that a resource efficient, decoupled global economy will be a prosperous or equitable one? Could nature liberating technological change be as great a threat to shared economic prosperity as efforts to restrict economic activity in the name of the environment?

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author, The Second Machine Age 

  • Andrew McAfee, co-author, The Second Machine Age

Eating Ecologically

The last decade has seen growing attention to the sustainability of food systems, with much of the discussion led by prominent chefs, food critics, and journalists. Based on romantic ideas about farming, the basic argument has been that food that is organic, local, grass-fed, and wild is more sustainable than that produced through the large-scale, industrial systems that dominate food production today. However, in recent years a number of careful studies have begun to suggest that the sustainable choice might not be so obvious. Humans use roughly 40% of the ice-free land on the planet to grow food and raise livestock, comprising the vast majority of our direct land footprint, and the expansion of cropland and pasture is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss. In this panel, we take a hard look at what kind of farming systems might practically bring the best outcomes for both people and the environment. Do the largely arbitrary definitions of ‘organic” and “conventional serve us? How might we apply the best attributes of industrial and organic production systems in order to produce more and healthier food with lower attendant impacts on the environment?

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Jayson Lusk, professor of agricultural economics, Oklahoma State University

  • Danielle Nierenberg, president, Food Tank: The Food Think Tank

  • Pedro Sanchez, professor, Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at University of Florida


Democracy and Conservation

The historic legacy of conservation has often been characterized by the displacement of people, truncation of rights, and blaming of victims. The litany of confusions and tragedies that have arisen from well intentioned conservation efforts is long and ongoing. What would a progressive pro-people conservation look like?  How might win-win conservation strategies facilitate the movement of people out of conservation zones while assuring them better land, water, living conditions, and accelerate land sparing modernization and access to markets and infrastructure.

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Krithi Karanth, conservation scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society

  • Paul Robbins, professor of environmental studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • Stephanie Romañach, research ecologist, USGS


Prospective Concurrent Session Topics:

  1. Food Sovereignty vs. Food Security
  2. Lessons for Climate Change from Marriage Equality
  3. Ecomodernism and Feminism
  4. Integrating Decoupling with Ecogregion Planning
  5. Decarbonization Beyond the Power Sector
  6. Science of Communication
  7. Life After Two Degrees
  8. Emerging Nuclear Economies
  9. Biotech and Conservation
  10. YIMBY (Yes, In My Backyard)