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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Stop Blaming China for the Epidemic of Elephant Killings

Habitat Loss, Not Rising Ivory Demand, Is Long-Term Driver of Decline

A new epidemic of elephant slaughter is sweeping across Central and East Africa –– one of the worst outbreaks in decades. You may remember seeing similar headlines before, in the mid-1970s and again in the late 1980s. If so, you could be forgiven for dismissing the headlines as rather overwrought. But that would be a mistake. We are indeed in the midst of a crisis, just not the one you have been reading about.

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A Wilder Bay Area

Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect

Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.

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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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The Education of an Ecomodernist

From Eco-Romanticism 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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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.




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

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


Linus Blomqvist, 



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