The Education of an Ecomodernist

From Ecoradicalism to Radical Pragmatism

Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.

But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress

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Can California Desalinate Its Way Out of a Drought?

New Technologies Promise Lower Costs and Fewer Environmental Impacts

This article was first published at Yale Environment 360 and is reprinted with permission.

A ferry plows along San Francisco Bay, trailing a tail of churned up salt, sand, and sludge and further fouling the already murky liquid that John Webley intends to turn into drinking water. But Webley, CEO of a Bay Area start-up working on a new, energy-skimping desalination system, isn’t perturbed. 
 

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Can We Grow More Food on Less Land?

Sustainable Intensification Needs to Continue For Trend to Last

Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.

When you consider that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70 percent increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).

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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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The Green Urbanization Myth

Suburban Sprawl and Self-Driving Cars May Reverse Land Sparing Efforts

Once a fringe idea, the notion of using technology to allow humanity to “decouple” from nature is winning new attention, as a central element of what the Breakthrough Institute calls “ecomodernism.” The origins of the decoupling idea can be found in 20th century science fiction visions of domed or underground, climate-controlled, recycling-based cities separated by forests or deserts. A version of decoupling was promoted in the 1960s and 1970s by the British science writer Nigel Calder in The Environment Game (1967) and the radical ecologist Paul Shepard in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973). More recent champions of decoupling include Martin Lewis, Jesse Ausubel, Stewart Brand, and Linus Blomqvist.  

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Polarizing Bears

How Environmentalists and Skeptics Misrepresent the Science on Polar Bears

Last month an alphabet soup scientific working group you’ve never heard of — the IUCN/SSC PBSG — added a brief footnote to a forthcoming report you didn’t know they were preparing. Just another day in the annals of the worldwide research community. Except, of course, when that body is the Polar Bear Specialist Group, and the item in question involves just how many polar bears currently exist on Earth.

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2014 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

An outdoors enthusiast who studies innovations systems at the Consortium for Policy, Science & Outcomes; a masters student at the Massachusetts Institute Technology performing nuclear fuel cycle analyses; a young woman who biked across two states to advocate for moving beyond fossil fuels; and a postgrad studying water governance who spent a year in rural China. These are among the 10 outstanding young thinkers will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting new approaches to major environmental challenges.

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Conservation and Development

We live on a human planet, in an era of our own making: the Anthropocene. Pristine nature is largely a thing of the distant past. As it approaches ten billion, the global population is becoming increasingly wealthy, urban, and well-connected. At the same time, economic modernization and technological evolution is continuing apace. The "Age of Humans" is an age of opportunities but also hard choices.

The Conservation and Development Program – through in-house research and in collaboration with its network of innovative thinkers – seeks to offer pragmatic new frameworks and tools for navigating these challenges.

PUBLICATIONS
 


 

BREAKTHROUGH IN THE NEWS



Mark Tercek and Peter Kareiva, "Green Is Good: Science-Based Conservation in the 21st Century," May 5, 2014


Walter Russell Mead, "Kicking Malthus While He's Down," March 23, 2014


Amy Mathews Amos, "What's Wild? The Battle for Nature in the 21st Century," February 11, 2014


David Ropeik, "The Double-Edged Metaphor of Frankenstein," January 7, 2014


Robert Krulwich, "How Important is a Bee?" December 6, 2013


Fred Pearce, "Admit it: we can't measure our ecological footprint," November 20, 2013


Paul Voosen, "Who Is Conservation For?" November 10, 2013


David Biello, "Forget What You've Heard: Humans Are Not Using More Than One Planet," November 7, 2013


Ross Pomeroy, "Are Global Footprint Estimates Accurate?" November 6, 2013


UN Development Policy and Analysis Division, "World Economic and Social Survey 2013: Sustainable Development Challenges"


Bryan Walsh, "The Trouble With Beekeeping in the Anthropocene," August 9, 2013


Keith Kloor, "The Future of Conservation," July 26, 2013


Hillary Rosner, "Is Conservation Extinct?" July 22, 2013


Mark Halper, "Agribusiness is Greener Than Urban Farming," July 17, 2013


Fred Pearce, "New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet's Last Best Hope," July 15, 2013


Oliver Geden, "Climate Change: What Next After the 2 Degree Celsius Boundary," June 11, 2013


Brad Plumer, "Why Are Birthrates Falling Around the World? Blame Television," May 13, 2013.

Robert Lalasz, "Debate: What Good Are Planetary Boundaries?" March 25, 2013
 

 
Erle Ellis, "Time to Forget Global Tipping Points," March 11, 2013
 

Tom Zeller Jr., "Tipping Points: Can Humanity Break the Planet?" March 2, 2013



B
ryan Walsh, "Anthropocene: Do We Need a New Environmentalism for a New Age?" December 18, 2012
 


 


 

"Boundary Conditions," June 16, 2012
 


 




Matt Ridley, "The Global Doomsayers' Ever-Changing Story," June 15, 2012
 

 



David Biello, "Walking the Line: How to Identify Safe Limits for Human Impacts on the Planet," June 13, 2012


People

Linus Blomqvist, 
Director

 




 

Marian Swain, Policy Analyst

 

 


 

 

Erle Ellis

 Erle Ellis, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Kareiva, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

Barry Brook

 

Barry Brook, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Sagoff, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle Marvier, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David "Toby" McGrath, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Robbins, Senior Fellow