Breakthrough Dialogue 2018: Rising Tides will take place Wednesday, June 20, through Friday, June 22, 2018.

For the last eight years, the Breakthrough Institute has hosted a unique conversation with scholars, technologists, business leaders, philanthropists, and policy-makers in the Bay Area about how to build a future that is good for people and the environment. The Dialogue has been described as the anti-Davos, a place where leading thinkers on energy, conservation, farming, and innovation from across the political spectrum ask hard questions of their own assumptions, philosophical commitments, and ideological priors

This 2018 Dialogue theme is Rising Tides. A rising tide can lift all boats or sweep us away. As the planet warms, tides around the world are literally rising while figurative tides of migrants cross borders and flock to cities in search of better lives. Technology, globalization, and markets have lifted most boats, if often unequally, while a growing global population continues to extend its influence across the land.

But tides also recede. Fertility rates are falling and population should peak later this century. Economic growth slows and material consumption saturates as societies become affluent. Rising incomes in developing economies should reduce the inequities between North and South and with that, immigration flows.

Ocean tides rise and fall inexorably. But much of the social and environmental change that we will experience in the 21st century will be profoundly influenced by human choices. Climate, energy, trade, immigration, and agricultural policies won’t necessarily hold those tides back, and in many cases shouldn’t. But they can influence how social and environmental change proceed and shape the biosphere.

In this Dialogue, we consider opportunities to shape human and environmental futures for the better. Which trends can we shape, which are inexorable, and how might we tell one from the other? Can we mitigate, adapt to, and manage the climate to assure it will be hospitable for people and biodiversity? Raise agricultural productivity sufficiently to spare forests and grasslands while assuring that the journey from agrarian life to urban living that accompanies agricultural modernization is humane and just? Bring back nature to parts of the planet that have long been dominated by human activities and if so, which nature and for whom? How should we balance the risks and opportunities that come with rapid environmental change and identify strategies that are robust to the deep uncertainties that are inherent to all hopes and fears about the human future? How, in short, might we ride the tide without being swept away?

Paradigm Award

Opening night ceremony featuring:

Plenary Sessions

Bigger Cities, Bigger Problems?

Increasingly, we live on an urban planet, and the pace of urbanization is only accelerating. Cities are engines of creativity, productivity, opportunity, and economic growth. And, in theory, they can bring substantial environmental benefits, necessitating economies of scale in food and energy systems that significantly shrink the per capita impacts of human societies on the natural world. But is it possible to have too much of good thing? Mega-cities are often poorly planned, traffic-choked poverty traps. The agglomeration effects that make cities beacons of economic hope may not scale very well in the transition from city to mega-city. And the increase in absolute consumption that accompanies the transition from rural to urban living usually outpaces the relative decoupling that comes with the shift to large scale, efficient production systems. Is it, in fact, a good thing that humankind is packing itself into ever-more-crowded megalopolises? Do we need to apply the brakes? Or do we need entirely new ways of thinking about the challenge?


  • Paul Romer, former chief economist, World Bank

  • Teresa Mbatia, urban geographer, University of Nairobi

  • Clara Irazábal-Zurita, professor of urban planning and director of Latina/o studies program, University of Missouri, Kansas City

  • Moderator: Charles Mann, correspondent, The Atlantic

Can Environmentalism Take Feminism Seriously?

As an identity and a lifestyle, modern environmentalism purports to welcome all. But in the developed world, many of its tenets — buying local and organic produce each day and preparing fresh, all-natural meals each night; replacing baby formula with breastfeeding and plastic diapers with cloth; even cycling instead of driving — disproportionately burden women, still the primary load-bearers of domestic labor and childcare, and exclude those who lack the luxury to perform such time-intensive activities. In the developing world, worse, attempts to address women’s and environmental concerns too often conflate the two, ignoring the material realities of agrarian life and the importance of modernization to female economic empowerment. What would it take, this panel asks, for environmentalism to truly incorporate the interests and voices of women in a way that doesn’t essentialize or confine them to gendered roles and tasks? In other words — what would an environmentalism that takes feminism seriously actually look like?


  • Sarah Rich, writer and editor
  • Jennifer Bernstein, lecturer, Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California

  • Bina Agarwal, professor of development economics and environment, University of Manchester

  • Moderator: Maria Streshinsky, executive editor, WIRED Magazine

Ecomodernism and Geoengineering

Opinions about geoengineering within the ecomodernist community vary widely. On the one hand, geoengineering is not so terribly different than the countless other ways that humans have modified the earth at planetary scales for thousands of years, albeit mostly unintentionally. Modifying the atmosphere and changing the weather to assure a hospitable climate seems entirely consistent with an ethic that embraces human agency to manage the global commons for the common good. But geoengineering also raises a range of concerns that many, both inside and outside the community hold about the ecomodernist project – about technocratic hubris and fundamental questions about for whom “we” are managing the global commons in the Anthropocene. In this plenary, we will try something different, a convening within our convening to work through the difficult questions that the possibilities of geoengineering raise. We will consider a scenario in which a group of developing nations secretly begins geoengineering, in order to protect vulnerable populations from increasingly severe climate impacts. Participants will be asked to put themselves in the shoes of different geopolitical players and consider the course of action they might take in response to such a provocation at the moment that it has come to light..


  • Liz Thompson, sustainability consultant and former assistant secretary general of the United Nations
  • Jonathan Symons, senior lecturer, Macquarie University-Sydney

  • Jane Flegal, social scientist, University of California-Berkeley

  • Moderator: Oliver Morton, senior editor, The Economist

Are We in a 6th Mass Extinction?

One of the most dire threats in conservation is the so-called Sixth Mass Extinction, the idea that human activity is so destructive and pervasive that it is causing an en masse extinction of species on par with geologic disasters of the distant past. But this concept is not without caveat. Some ecologists have noted that extinctions are an inevitable feature of evolution; thus, prescribing all extinction to human activity exaggerates our impact. Others note that if extinction is bad, then speciation must be good, and the unprecedented transportation of species and genetic diversity by humans could cause a concomitant rise in the number of new species around the world. Meanwhile, the shadow of the Sixth Mass Extinction might obscure the more serious environmental threat: the fall of animal populations, which suffer even if portions of their kin still survive. At the end of the day, the real question is: what do we value? And how do the ongoing processes of extinction, speciation, and population change affect the things we care about?


  • Chris Thomas, author, Inheritors of the Earth

  • Jacquelyn Gill, professor, University of Maine

  • Gerardo Ceballos, senior researcher, Institute of Ecology at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

  • Moderator: Annalee Newitz, author, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Concurrent Sessions

Sustainable Gastronomy

There are compelling new ideas emerging about a different way to think about sustainable eating, and Breakthrough wants to feature those ideas on your plate. This session will offer a small gathering of Dialogue guests an amuse-bouche to Sustainable Gastronomy, our new dinner series featuring high-tech ingredients like tank-farmed seafood, precision-grown vegetables, GMO produce, and feedlot beef.

Can We Count on Carbon Capture?

If the ecomodern imperative is to “make clean energy cheap,” then can carbon capture and storage (CCS) ever play a significant role in decarbonization? CCS technologies necessarily impose added economic and technical costs. Yet energy and climate experts insist that many energy services simply cannot function without fossil fuels. Therefore, the total costs of decarbonization rise if CCS technologies do not become scalable and affordable. Many CCS enthusiasts have also pointed to the viability of carbon utilization or markets where carbon emissions are sold for commercial or industrial purposes, thus valuing the added cost of CCS. Can CCS really scale and if so, how?

Climate Politics After the Rapture

The current administration has frozen climate action at the federal level. How can climate and energy politics get through this impasse and toward the acceleration of decarbonization? Two broad camps have emerged, particularly among young advocates: activists and pragmatists. Climate activism focuses on movements like divestment, #ExxonKnew, and the People’s Climate Marches. Climate pragmatism focuses on decarbonization outside of federal mandates, such as state and local efforts, innovation, and clean energy deployment. This panel asks: is the failure to act on climate change a political or economic problem? “Both” isn’t an answer. If climate activists got the political support they wanted, could they achieve deep decarbonization with the current technologies? On the other hand, if the pace of clean energy innovation accelerated with sustained federal opposition to climate action, could the pragmatic plan achieve deep decarbonization?

Rise of the Rest: Nuclear Power

As the nuclear industry wanes in the West and new countries come to dominate the global market, what are the implications for international safety and security regimes? Our panelists will debate the consequences of a reduced role for the US in leveraging nuclear exports to strengthen standards, and what we might do to keep the US involved while also enhancing collaboration with emerging nuclear countries. Could such partnerships both accelerate innovation and maintain strong international agreements?

How Can Policy Drive Long-Term Decoupling In U.S. Agriculture?

Productivity growth has historically played a large role in enabling agricultural producers to shrink their environmental footprint. Yet farming continues to have large impacts on wildlife habitat and health, is largely responsible for the creation of dead zones, and struggles with overdrafting scarce water supplies. Indeed, there is much room to further decouple agriculture from natural resources and reduce its impacts. What are the key roles that government policy should play in achieving these goals? For instance, what are the potential environmental benefits of focusing on R&D, subsidy reform, regulation, or conservation set-asides?

Sea Level Rise: How Worried Should We Be?

Two components of sea level rise should concern us: the total amount and the rate. If median projections are reliable, global average sea level rise (1-5 feet by the end of the century and several meters by 2200 or 2300) appears dangerous but manageable through seawalls, artificial wetlands, levies, and yes, migration. But if sea level rise of multiple meters occurs over the pace of several decades, instead of several centuries, then the ability of human societies to adapt would be much more tenuous. What is the state of the science on sea level rise, and how can we think about adaptation over the 50-, 100-, and 500-year time horizons?

Is Small Beautiful? Farming and Scale in Developing Countries

Huge numbers of people in the developing world still farm plots that are less than two hectares. While some places have seen consolidation and increasing farm sizes, in many countries, farm sizes have actually gone down in recent decades, as land is being subdivided with every generational shift. Some researchers now argue that farm sizes are smaller than optimum and that consolidation could raise productivity and lower food prices. What are the pros and cons of increasing scale, and what are the social consequences? How can governments and NGOs support smallholder farmers in this transition? And what role do past land reform policies play in the process of changing farm size?

Exit Strategy: Social and Institutional Challenges in Rewilding of Agricultural Land

Agricultural intensification, trade, and flat demand for certain products have created the potential for large-scale retirement and rewilding of agricultural land in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. To some degree, this has already happened; forests have grown back in New England throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and in other parts of the US and Europe more recently. Yet land abandonment and rewilding are contested, and significant barriers to these processes still exist. What are the social, cultural, and environmental implications of land abandonment? And to the degree that it is desirable, what institutional arrangements are needed to facilitate it?

Food Self-Sufficiency: Does It Matter for Developing Countries?

Food demand is set to grow rapidly in most parts of the developing world in the next few decades, and many governments are grappling with the question of where all this food is going to come from. Is self-sufficiency, especially in staple foods, a political and economic imperative, or is this need obviated by free trade and globalization? How are developing countries' decisions around self-sufficiency going to shape global agriculture?

Who Speaks for Indigenous Communities?

Historically, conservationists have often clashed with indigenous groups. This has led to tragic violations of human rights and evictions, as protecting wild spaces was seen to be incompatible with human habitation. This is now changing, and conservation is increasingly putting the rights of indigenous communities at the heart of conservation policy. This shift is essential for effective governance, but it raises a new set of questions. Who speaks for these communities, and who gains access to protections and rights? How are different groups defined, and what happens when conflicts occur between indigenous and non-indigenous groups that use the same land? What happens when communities decide to take actions that harm the environment? And might the recognition of rights paradoxically restrict the ability for self-determination if certain development activities are prohibited?

Elite Food Consumers: A Force for Environmental Good?

Consumers, especially the well-off, are increasingly discerning in their food consumption, making choices not only based on taste and price but also health and the environment. This has driven demand for things like non-GMO foods, organic produce, and antibiotic-free meat. But how much influence on farming and the broader food system do these elite consumers actually wield, given that most agricultural products (like feed for livestock) are not for direct human consumption? To the degree that these consumers have an impact, is that impact positive or negative for the environment? And are there ways of channeling these consumers’ demands to more productive outcomes?

Decoupling vs. Degrowth

If economic growth follows historical trends, then nations will increase their consumption and environmental impact over time, but gradually deindustrialize and dematerialize, consuming fewer natural resources and causing less environmental damage per unit of accumulated wealth. But does this relative decoupling ever inflect towards absolute decoupling, driving a total decrease in environmental impact? Does capitalism imply endless growth, endless consumption, and endless destruction? Maybe not.

Big is Still Beautiful: Paths to Overcoming Energy Constraints in Africa

Large-scale energy infrastructure has historically been a driver of industrialization and economic growth. Early investments tended to focus on cities and large commercial zones, while electrification of poor rural homes and communities were only subsequent targets. Today, African economies are hungry for power, while hundreds of millions of Africans live without access to electricity. But the strategy today is largely flipping past trends, with a heavy emphasis on reaching low-income households—achieving “universal access­”— even as cities and factories face regular shortages and high costs. This panel will consider: how much is electricity really holding back African progress? Do new technologies and distributed models make the previous paths irrelevant? What are the implications for international actors and investors?