Who We Are
Breakthrough Institute is an "organization that advocates putting progressive values to work to solve problems."
— New York Times
Brief History of Breakthrough
The Breakthrough Institute was founded in 2007 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Breakthrough's early work built on Nordhaus and Shellenberger's argument, first articulated in their 2004 essay "The Death of Environmentalism," that 20th-century environmentalism cannot address complex, global, 21st-century environmental challenges like climate change.
Breakthrough offered a new framework for thinking about climate change. The key to dramatically cutting emissions would be to "make clean energy cheap." In contrast to conventional approaches, focused on regulation and emissions targets and timetables, making clean energy cheap could reconcile the conflict between global economic development and climate mitigation. It also made for better politics, offering a positive and proactive way to address climate change that could also meet the energy needs of billions of people still striving to live modern lives. In service of that vision, Breakthrough conducts research focused on clean energy innovation, energy efficiency, and energy for human development.
Breakthrough's work comprises three primary activities: research, communications, and network building. Over the last decade, we have built a growing research team, founded junior and senior fellowship programs, launched the Breakthrough Journal, and hosted the annual Breakthrough Dialogue to gather colleagues, friends, journalists, and critics to discuss the world's most pressing environmental challenges.
Since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear accident, Breakthrough's energy work has focused heavily on the future of nuclear energy. Along with a growing cohort of scientists, journalists, philanthropists, and environmentalists, we have made the case that addressing climate change will require abundant, cheap, safe, and reliable nuclear energy. Toward that end, Breakthrough has been a leading advocate for innovation in advanced nuclear designs and business models.
In 2011, Breakthrough launched a conservation program to study biodiversity loss, land use change, and conservation policy. In 2015, we published "Nature Unbound," Breakthrough's comprehensive framework for decoupling human well-being from natural resource use. As global population grows from 7 billion today to 10 or 11 billion by the end of the century, decoupling, we argue, is the precondition for successful global conservation.
Because of the outsized impact that global food systems have on both conservation and climate challenges, in 2016 Breakthrough launched a food and farming program to offer new ways of thinking about agricultural innovation and policy. In particular, we have made the case for industrial food systems. Large-scale industrial food systems are more land-, water-, and GHG-efficient than small scale low-intensity farming, and are better able to harness technology to increase land productivity, which holds the key to both climate mitigation and preserving biodiversity.
Breakthrough remains a work in progress. We continue to engage friends, partner organizations, critics, and supporters to help us better understand and articulate a new environmentalism for the 21st century. We've defined this new school of thought as ecomodernism, a movement built on decoupling environmental impact from human well being. In 2015, 19 coauthors, including several Breakthrough representatives, published An Ecomodernist Manifesto, which laid out this new environmental vision and sparked a debate about the future of environmentalism that continues today.
We now host multiple events each year, including the original Breakthrough Dialogue and an annual Ecomodernism event near Washington, DC. We publish two issues of the Breakthrough Journal each year. We have brought on an experienced senior staff to run our research, communications, events, development, and operational work.
Breakthrough matters in the world when we get in front of environmental debates and take them to new places. In the coming years, we plan to continue to do just that.