A New, Safe Normal

Breakthrough Dialogue 2021

This August, the Breakthrough Institute is planning its first in-person event since 2019, the Breakthrough Dialogue. This is a very important event in Breakthrough’s work, bringing together the brightest minds on climate, energy, agriculture, food, and conservation. During the pandemic, we learned, as did many others, that virtual engagement is not a replacement for in-person collaboration. As social creatures, humans function best in groups — despite the promise of Zoom and other digital platforms.

The 2021 Breakthrough Dialogue will be modified to include live-streamed access and we will be limiting attendance based on state guidance. We will require every person attending to be vaccinated and we will follow all state and local guidelines regarding masks. These are necessary but acceptable tradeoffs to achieve a new, safe normal.

This is uncharted territory. To our knowledge, no other organizations in the Bay Area or California are planning a large in-person gathering this year. But, we believe that by taking proper precautions, we can demonstrate how to end the pandemic era and look to the future with relentless optimism. Like our climate challenges, this will not be solved by shying away from adversity, but by embracing opportunity and tackling our problems head-on.

Since the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19 has upended our lives, families, and workplaces. Many of us have lost loved ones and colleagues, or known people who have. The routines and traditions, the planned vacations and holidays, and scheduled and impromptu events have been either put on hold or canceled altogether. The past year has been traumatic for so many people and families, and in myriad ways. We will be reckoning with the fallout of the pandemic as a generation-defining moment in ways similar to past historical events like the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Great Recession. We have yet to grapple with all the ways life has changed, and it’s impossible to predict the long-term ramifications for society, families, schools, and work.

Over the past year, as the pandemic raged, we have held out hope for a medical solution that could end our global nightmare — a vaccine. And it’s here, ahead of schedule, with millions of doses already administered in the U.S. and abroad. This is our ticket to a new, safe normal.

At the Breakthrough Institute, as ecomodernists, we believe in the power of technological solutions to our challenges, great and small. The pandemic is no exception and the vaccines now available offer the only scientific and technological solution that can return us to any semblance of normalcy. There is no alternative remedy or preventative measure that can stave off illness and death with the effectiveness of vaccines.

Vaccines are a symbol of promise and of hope. Those from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and others are the result of the closest thing our era has to a Manhattan Project. The best and brightest minds in the medical and pharmaceutical industries developed multiple vaccines, coordinated distribution with governments at all levels, and distributed them at an astonishing rate in a race against time that will save millions of lives. This is a human triumph on scale with the moon landing that was made possible by untethered collaboration, optimism, and ingenuity.

A new, safe normal is within reach, but is only attainable with the vaccine and enough people taking it to achieve herd immunity. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, the future is in our hands. Collectively, we must all decide to seize the opportunity, take the vaccine, and encourage everyone around us to as well.

The Breakthrough Institute recognizes this challenge and is optimistic about how we, as a society, can rise to this challenge. Like everyone around us, we yearn for a return to some sense of normalcy in which we can send our kids back to school, go into the office, organize an in-person happy hour, sing at church, and attend a baseball game with a hot dog and a beer. As the weather warms up and Spring is upon us, it gives us hope and something to look forward to — but only if we take advantage of the vaccine.

Our new, safe normal won’t look exactly as the old normal did. We will probably see people wearing masks on public transportation and in large crowds. Plexiglass barriers may remain for some time at supermarkets and checkout counters. But this is a small price to pay for the ability to emerge from our year-long isolation, rejoin society, and engage with our communities.

Vaccine hesitancy is real. It’s inevitable that the vaccination rate will slow, and we will have to work harder to increase the percentage of people who get vaccinated. We will have to keep pushing, educating, and, in some cases, requiring it. Vaccines only work if herd immunity is reached, allowing those with immune disorders and those who can’t get it to be protected. If people want to participate in all the activities, experiences, and opportunities afforded by society, they will need to take personal responsibility for their role in stopping the pandemic.

As an organization that espouses the transformative power of science and technology, the Breakthrough Institute recognizes our own role in simultaneously ending the pandemic and returning to a new, safe normal. By hosting this event with strict adherence to a 100% vaccine policy, we are offering a model for other organizations to emulate and showing that live, in-person events are once again possible. We are proud to work with our partners Cavallo Point, Encore, and CrowdPass, and applaud their willingness to work with us to safely host our flagship event.

As COVID-19 transitions from a pandemic to an endemic disease, we must learn to manage it. Our vaccines will need boosters like our computers need software updates. We will adapt, grow, and thrive — to do otherwise is tantamount to giving up, and we have much work to do.