Breakthrough Dialogue 2015

The Good Anthropocene

Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: The Good Anthropocene took place on June 21 – 23, 2015

Over the last few years, ecomodernist thinkers have articulated a vision of a “good Anthropocene,” one where humans use our extraordinary powers to shrink our negative impact on nature. They have argued for the embrace of modernization processes to ecological ends. It is a vision of: urbanization, as people in cities have more opportunities and use resources more efficiently; intensified food production to increase yields and leave more room for nature; the expanded use of nuclear energy, which has zero emissions and the smallest land footprint of any energy source; greater development of GMOs to reduce chemical use and increase yields; animal-free meat; “re-wilding” former farm and pasture lands with wolves, buffalo, mountain lions, and even formerly extinct species — all the while supporting universal human dignity.

But the very discussion of a good Anthropocene triggered a critical response from some who see modernization processes and the age of humans itself as inherently risky and destructive. Since it is only under Holocene conditions that we know human civilization can survive, there can be no “good” Anthropocene, only less bad variants, they say. Raise global temperatures two, four, or six degrees and all bets are off. As such, critics of the good Anthropocene say, ecomodernism doesn’t adequately consider the potential for civilization-ending catastrophe or for a stronger societal connection to nature. Technology cannot correct for human greed, hubris, and profit-driven development, they say.

In light of this debate, Breakthrough Dialogue 2015 will focus on the question: “What is our vision of a good Anthropocene?” And it will ask related questions: Given global complexity, inequality, and ideological diversity, should we speak of many Anthropocenes rather than a single Anthropocene? How do these visions draw on and break from traditional environmentalism, on the one hand, and the status quo, where modernization processes seem to be proceeding? Given declining visits to national parks, the popular preference for pastoral landscapes, and the suburban backlash to increased wildlife, is more wild nature what anybody really wants?

Breakthrough Paradigm Award 2015: Ruth DeFries

Ruth DeFries of Columbia University accepting the Paradigm Award.

The Breakthrough Paradigm Award 2015 was bestowed to Ruth DeFries, a visionary ecomodernist scholar and Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University. DeFries is the author of influential works about “planetary opportunities.” Her recent book, The Big Ratchet: How Humans Thrive in Face of Natural Disasters (Basic, 2014), describes how humans repeatedly face, then overcome crises of food production. DeFries’s work focuses on agriculture, the Green Revolution, and nutrition in India, and advances the case that Malthusian crises are real, but so too is humankind’s ability to use ingenuity to surmount them. In this groundbreaking work, DeFries challenges the stock framing of environmental problems as either “optimistic” or “pessimistic” to embrace a wider and more nuanced view. Read Michael Shellenberger's speech to introduce Ruth DeFries here.

  • Ruth accepter her award and was interviewed on stage by journalist Meera Subramanian, who edits the literary journal Killing the Buddha and writes for Nature, Smithsonian, Discover, and the New York Times.


A Good Anthropocene?

Environmental journalist Fred Pearce studies the "Visions of the Good Anthropocene" display.

Can we imagine a good Anthropocene? If so, how can its qualities and strengths overcome its defects and weaknesses? If not, then what is our positive vision for a non-Anthropocene future? What matters most to improving future human and environmental outcomes in terms of agriculture, cities, and energy? What should be our ethical and moral posture to each other, to non-humans, and future generations? Thinking to all that is extraordinary, beautiful, and remarkable about humans, and to our gifts for language and technology and sociality, what is desirable and what is possible? Given that we think about the future in reference to the past, what story should we tell of human development? Three leading thinkers share their positive visions of possible futures — and how to realize them. Read a summary of the panel here.

  • Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, joint venture of Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne
  • Mark Lynas, author and visiting fellow at Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
  • Oliver Morton, briefings editor, the Economist

Can Economic Growth Be Green?

Joyashree Roy of Jadavpur University (left) and Fred Pearce, environmental journalist (right)

Traditional environmentalists and ecomodernists hold different views about the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. For traditionalists, unchecked economic growth irrevocably leads to environmental disaster. Avoiding catastrophe demands that we slow, or even degrow, the economy. Ecomodernists, by contrast, argue that as nations become affluent, economic growth slows and consumption becomes less material. Developed countries devote more of their economic surplus to environmental amenities, like clean air and water, and less to production. Developing economies see dramatic increases in consumption, but also more productive agriculture and more efficient energy use. What generalizations can be made about these processes of modernization and decoupling in developed and developing nations, and what remains highly regional and specific? What positive trends should be built upon and what trade-offs will need to be confronted? How is the situation confronting societies and states both different and similar in China and India, the United States and Europe? Read a summary of the panel here.

  • Fred Block, research professor of sociology, University of California, Davis
  • Zhongmin Wang, research fellow, Resources for the Future
  • Joyashree Roy, professor of economics, Jadavpur University, India

Price Nature? Or Make Nature Priceless?

Pritzker Innovation Fund President Rachel Pritzker at the opening night dinner.

One of the big ideas of the last 20 years is that in order to save more nature, we will need to price it. But what if this thinking is exactly backwards? What if the best way to save nature is not by giving it a price but rather by making it price-less — that is, use-less, in economic terms? Already this is happening in the United States and Europe, where marginal farmlands are becoming grasslands and forests, allowing for the return of wildlife. And for several hundred years, humans have spared forests and wildlife by moving away from wood for fuel and bushmeat for food, to modern energy and modern livestock. As agriculture expands in the tropics and consumption of sea life rises, could "decoupling" through substitution and agricultural intensification be the key to returning more of planet Earth to nature? Read a summary of the panel here.

  • Barry Brook, professor of environmental sustainability, University of Tasmania
  • Elena Bennett, associate professor, Department of Natural Resource Sciences and McGill School of Environment, McGill University
  • Kwaw Andam, research rellow, International Food Policy Research Institute

Left to right: Sarah Davidson Evanega of Cornell Alliance for Science; Margaret Karembu of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications; and Eric Karembu

Dessert Talk: "Visions of the Good Anthropocene" – Andrew Revkin, journalist at the New York Times and senior fellow for environmental understanding, Pace University, in conversation with Margaret Karembu of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

What is Modern in Ecomodernism?

Left to right: Mark Sagoff of George Mason University; Ray Mann of the University of Massachusetts; and Charles Mann, author

Ecomodernism posits that technology and human development can leave more of the Earth to nature. But what if ecomodernism’s two central categories — nature and modernity — are themselves outmoded? In 1991, the French anthropologist Bruno Latour famously argued that “we have never been modern,” taking aim at the commonplace notion that modern science frees us from ideology and mythology. Since then, Latour has argued for embracing old mythologies, including Western religions, in a new ecological context. Steve Fuller has called on “up-wingers” on the Left and Right to unite against reactionary greens and conservatives for a future-oriented transhumanism. How do these different views challenge — and aid — the ecomodernist project? Read a summary of the panel here.

  • Bruno Latour, professor and vice president of research, Sciences Po Paris
  • Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte professor of social epistemology, University of Warwick
  • Jenny Price, writer and environmental Historian

Who Cares about Wild Nature?

Left to right: Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Charles Mann, author; Stewart Brand; Martin Lewis of Stanford University; and Trevor Stevenson

Ecomodernism promises an Anthropocene comprised of more wild nature thanks to concentrated human activities — big cities, vertical farms, nuclear power — but on-the-ground evidence suggests "re-wilding" will be anything but tame. Where many re-wilding visions are overly utopian, Stanford geographer Martin Lewis will propose a more pragmatic and incremental vision for California. But who really wants wild nature? Veteran journalist Jim Sterba finds American suburbs struggling to manage an influx of bears, deer, and raccoons. And what kind of generalizations about managing wild nature can be made across developed and developing nations? Shumeet Banerji of Project Tigris will discuss efforts by the Indian government and conservationists to both protect tigers and improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world. Read a summary of the panel here.

  • Martin Lewis, senior lecturer in international history, Stanford University
  • Jim Sterba, journalist and author, Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds
  • Shumeet Banerji, founder, Project Tigris


Oliver Geden of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs presents on climate risk.

How to Think About Climate Risk in the Anthropocene

The idea that we can have a good Anthropocene depends on the avoidance of catastrophic climate change. But how much change short of catastrophe would still qualify the age of humans as “good”? Ever since European diplomats in the early 1990s arbitrarily chose two degrees above preindustrial temperatures as the target for a global climate treaty, the criteria for climate risk have never been strictly objective. For hundreds of years, humans have become more resilient to the climate. Today, billions more seek greater resilience in the face of catastrophes, natural or unnatural, through development. How hot can the planet get for it to still be a good Anthropocene? How should we think about climate risk in the context of environmental change and human development?

  • Tom Wigley, climate scientist, University of Adelaide
  • David Lea, professor of earth science, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Richard Tol, professor of economics, University of Sussex
  • Oliver Geden, head of the EU Research Division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs
  • Moderator: Ariane de Bremond, research assistant professor, Joint Global Change Institute, University of Maryland

Is It Time to Give Up on GMOs?

Public hesitancy and activist campaigns have slowed innovation in GMOs, and the fight devours millions of dollars and working hours every year. Is this technology too politically fraught to make progress? Should we focus instead on other technologies, like irrigation, tractors, and roads, to improve the lives of poor farmers? What are the cultural reasons for GMO fears? Is there anything that this technology can do that truly that cannot be replicated by others?

  • Margaret Karembu, director, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
  • Alex Berezow, founding editor, RealClearScience
  • Pamela Ronald, professor, Department of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis
  • Raoul Adamchak, market garden and CSA coordinator, University of California, Davis
  • Moderator: Nathanael Johnson, journalist, Grist

Stewart Brand (left) and Nathanael Johnson (right)

How Should We Think About "Nature" in the 21st Century?

As the pre-1970 conservation movement gave way to environmentalism, the conception of nature went from local places in need of conserving to that of a single global environment. Since then, ecologists have increasingly come to see all ecosystems as “novel” assemblages of species that come and go, with or without human interference, making establishing a baseline for what is “natural” and “normal” totally subjective. What are the implications of these changing conceptions of nature? Should ecomodernists return to the earlier, place-based view of multiple natures? Or is there some third way of understanding nature that is both global and local?

  • Mark Sagoff, professor of philosophy, George Mason University
  • Fred Pearce, journalist and author of The New Wild
  • Joseph Mascaro, program manager for impact initiatives, Planet Labs
  • Moderator: Jenny Price, writer and environmental historian

Left to right: Torrey Beek of the Breakthrough Institute; Stephen Prothero of Boston University; Meera Subramanian, journalist

Anthropocene Opportunities

From urbanization to agriculture to energy use, the emergence of humanity as a global force for planetary change poses unprecedented challenges — and opportunities. But can these opportunities be realized as long as conceptual frameworks treat humans as animals like any other? Debates about the existence and start date of the Anthropocene are occurring alongside a revolution in thinking about humans as uniquely social and technological beings. How can socioecological thinking help efforts to reveal and assess local, regional, and even planetary opportunities?

  • Erle Ellis, environmental scientist, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  • Elena Bennett, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University
  • Stewart Brand, cofounder, Long Now Foundation
  • Moderator: Charles Mann, author of 1491

What is the Economics of Ecomodernism?

All ideologies about the environment are essentially ideologies about the economy. Neoliberal greens draw on Smith, Ricardo, and Pigou to argue for market solutions and pricing externalities. Dark greens draw on Malthus to argue for degrowth or steady-state economics. Green Socialists draw on Marx and Kropotkin to argue in favor of local collectivity against capitalist hegemony. Which economic traditions should ecomodernists draw on to make their case for high-energy decoupling — increasing levels of energy use in such a way as to meet human development goals and restore nature? How should ecomodernists think about markets, prices, modernization processes, governance, and the role of the state?

  • Harry Saunders, managing director, Decision Processes Incorporated
  • Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • Michael Lind, fellow, New America Foundation
  • Moderator: Marc Gunther, editor-at-large, Guardian Sustainable Business

Left to right: Jim Proctor of Lewis & Clark College; Sarah A. Moore; and Paul Robbins, both of the University of Wisconsin, Madison

Can Environmental Education Be Saved?

The past 10 years has seen the fragmentation and proliferation of new discourses about the environment, from those of deep greens to “smart-growth reformers” to ecomodernists. And yet a recent review of college-level environmental studies courses found little diversity in the ideas students are being exposed to. Why do environmental studies remain mired in the past? How can universities and even high schools offer a richer spectrum of ideas?

  • Jim Proctor, professor of environmental studies, Lewis and Clark College
  • Jennifer Bernstein, lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Matthew Nisbet, associate professor of communication studies, Northeastern University
  • Eric Kennedy, graduate student, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes
  • Jacqueline Ho, research assistant, Resources for the Future

What can ecomodernism contribute to the “rise of the rest”?

Ecomodernists have been critical of developed-world plans to power the developing world with wind and solar energy, arguing that such a singular commitment to renewables would keep poor people poor. India and China, on the other hand, plan to finance massive amounts of new coal-fired capacity, as well as make an unprecedented commitment to large-scale zero-carbon energy technologies, both in their own countries and abroad. Does the ecomodernist alternative offer the world’s poor something better? Won’t the vision of a high-energy planet inevitably lead to cheap and dirty fossil fuel–powered development? In this interactive session, we will examine the latest efforts to reconcile competing agendas for economic growth, human development, and climate stability.

  • Joyashree Roy, professor of economics, Jadavpur University
  • John Asafu-Adjaye, associate professor of economics, University of Queensland
  • Moderator: Peter Teague, senior advisor, Breakthrough Institute

Seigi Karasaki of the Breakthrough Institute (center); Barry Brook of the University of Tasmania (right)

All event photos credit Reny Preussker, Reny Photography