Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: The Good Anthropocene June 21 – 23, 2015

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. They have argued for the embrace of modernization processes to ecological ends. It is a vision of: urbanization, as people in cities have more opportunities and use resources more efficiently; intensified food production to increase yields and leave more room for nature; the expanded use of nuclear energy, which has zero emissions and the smallest land footprint of any energy source; greater development of GMOs to reduce chemical use and increase yields; animal-free meat; “re-wilding” former farm and pasture lands with wolves, buffalo, mountain lions, and even formerly extinct species — all the while supporting universal human dignity.

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. Since it is only under Holocene conditions that we know human civilization can survive, there can be no “good” Anthropocene, only less bad variants, they say. Raise global temperatures two, four, or six degrees and all bets are off. As such, 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. Technology cannot correct for human greed, hubris, and profit-driven development, they say.

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? Given declining visits to national parks, the popular preference for pastoral landscapes, and the suburban backlash to increased wildlife, is more wild nature what anybody really wants?

Breakthrough Paradigm Award

We are proud to announce the Breakthrough Paradigm Award 2015 will go to Ruth DeFries, a visionary ecomodernist scholar and Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University. DeFries is the author of influential works about “planetary opportunities.” Her recent book, The Big Ratchet: How Humans Thrive in Face of Natural Disasters (Basic, 2014), describes how humans repeatedly face, then overcome crises of food production. DeFries’s work focuses on agriculture, the Green Revolution, and nutrition in India, and advances the case that Malthusian crises are real, but so too is humankind’s ability to use ingenuity to surmount them. In this groundbreaking work, DeFries challenges the stock framing of environmental problems as either “optimistic” or “pessimistic” to embrace a wider and more nuanced view.

  • Ruth will accept her award and be interviewed on stage by journalist Meera Subramanian, who edits the literary journal Killing the Buddha and writes for Nature, Smithsonian, Discover, and the New York Times.


A Good Anthropocene?

Can we imagine a good Anthropocene? If so, how can its qualities and strengths overcome its defects and weaknesses? If not, then what is our positive vision for a non-Anthropocene future? What matters most to improving future human and environmental outcomes in terms of agriculture, cities, and energy? What should be our ethical and moral posture to each other, to non-humans, and future generations? Thinking to all that is extraordinary, beautiful, and remarkable about humans, and to our gifts for language and technology and sociality, what is desirable and what is possible? Given that we think about the future in reference to the past, what story should we tell of human development? Four leading thinkers share their positive visions of possible futures — and how to realize them.

  • Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, joint venture of Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne
  • Mark Lynas, Author and Visiting Fellow at Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
  • Oliver Morton, Briefings Editor, the Economist

Economic Stagnation as Ecological Salvation?

Slowing growth rates are an understandable source of anxiety in wealthy nations — but could economic stagnation also be the key to saving nature in the Anthropocene? For 40 years, green thinkers have proposed a utopian “steady-state” economy. But there are more prosaic reasons for slowing growth in developed nations. Once modern infrastructure (cities, housing, roads, pipes, wires) is built and incomes reach high levels, birth rates and economic growth slow around the world. Europe and the United States are returning marginal farmlands to nature and wildlife, as agriculture shrinks to just one percent of the economy. Wealthy nations take their economic surpluses in the form of nonmaterial goods, such as more leisure time and higher environmental quality. Will “decoupling” allow humankind to return more of the planet to wild nature and prevent a sixth great extinction? Or will environmental impacts shift to economically poorer but ecologically richer nations, hastening inevitable doom? Will slower growth result in slower technological innovation? Or can innovation continue apace even as growth rates slow?

  • Fred Block, Research Professor of Sociology, University of California, Davis
  • Zhongmin Wang, Research Fellow, Resources for the Future

Price Nature? Or Make Nature Priceless?

One of the big ideas of the last 20 years is that in order to save more nature, we will need to price it. But what if this thinking is exactly backwards? What if the best way to save nature is not by giving it a price but rather by making it price-less — that is, use-less, in economic terms? Already this is happening in the United States and Europe, where marginal farmlands are becoming grasslands and forests, allowing for the return of wildlife. And for several hundred years, humans have spared forests and wildlife by moving away from wood for fuel and bushmeat for food, to modern energy and modern livestock. As agriculture expands in the tropics and consumption of sea life rises, could "decoupling" through substitution and agricultural intensification be the key to returning more of planet Earth to nature?

  • Barry Brook, Professor of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania
  • Elena Bennett, Associate Professor, Department of Natural Resource Sciences and McGill School of Environment, McGill University
  • Kwaw Andam, Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute 

Dessert Talk: Andrew Revkin, Journalist at the New York Times and Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding, Pace University, "Journalism and Pluralism in the Anthropocene"

What is Modern in Ecomodernism?

Ecomodernism posits that technology and human development can leave more of the Earth to nature. But what if ecomodernism’s two central categories — nature and modernity — are themselves outmoded? In 1991, the French anthropologist Bruno Latour famously argued that “we have never been modern,” taking aim at the commonplace notion that modern science frees us from ideology and mythology. Since then, Latour has argued for embracing old mythologies, including Western religions, in a new ecological context. Steve Fuller has called on “up-wingers” on the Left and Right to unite against reactionary greens and conservatives for a future-oriented transhumanism. How do these different views challenge — and aid — the ecomodernist project?

  • Bruno Latour, Professor and Vice President of Research, Sciences Po Paris
  • Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology, University of Warwick
  • Jenny Price, Writer and Environmental Historian

Who Cares about Wild Nature?

Ecomodernism promises an Anthropocene comprised of more wild nature thanks to concentrated human activities — big cities, vertical farms, nuclear power — but on-the-ground evidence suggests "re-wilding" will be anything but tame. Where many re-wilding visions are overly utopian, Stanford geographer Martin Lewis will propose a more pragmatic and incremental vision for California. But who really wants wild nature? Veteran journalist Jim Sterba finds American suburbs struggling to manage an influx of bears, deer, and raccoons. And what kind of generalizations about managing wild nature can be made across developed and developing nations? Shumeet Banerji of Project Tigris will discuss efforts by the Indian government and conservationists to both protect tigers and improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.

  • Martin Lewis, Senior Lecturer in International History, Stanford University
  • Jim Sterba, Journalist and Author, Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds
  • Shumeet Banerji, Founder, Project Tigris



Ruth DeFries

Meera Subramanian

Clive Hamilton

Oliver Morton

Mark Lynas

Fred Block

Zhongmin Wang

Elena Bennett

Bruno Latour

Steve Fuller

Jenny Price

Jim Sterba

Barry Brook

Kwaw Andam

Martin Lewis

Andrew Revkin

Shumeet Banerji