Breakthrough Dialogue 2017: Democracy in the Anthropocene

June 21-23, 2017

The 2017 Breakthrough Dialogue took place Wednesday, June 21, through Friday, June 23, at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, California. Breakthrough Dialogue is the research organization’s signature annual event, where its international network of Senior Fellows, Generation Fellows, scholars, policy makers, and allies gather to build an optimistic and pragmatic vision of the future. The theme of this year’s event is “Democracy in the Anthropocene.”

Democracy in the Anthropocene

In a world in which humans have become the dominant ecological force on the planet, good outcomes for people and the environment increasingly depend upon the decisions we collectively make. How we grow food, produce energy, utilize natural resources, and organize human settlements and economic enterprises will largely determine what kind of planet we leave to future generations. Depending upon those many decisions, the future earth could be hotter or cooler; host more or less biodiversity; be more or less urbanized, connected, and cosmopolitan; and be characterized by vast tracts of wild lands, where human influences are limited, or virtually none at all.

If the promise of the Anthropocene is, to paraphrase Stewart Brand’s famous coinage, that “we are as gods,” and might get good at it, the risk is that we are not very good at it and might be getting worse. A “Good Anthropocene” will require foresight, planning, and well-managed institutions. But what happens when the planners and institutions lose their social license? When utopian civil society ideals conflict with practical measures needed to assure better outcomes for people and the environment? When the large-scale and long-term social and economic transformations associated with ecological modernization fail to accommodate the losers in those processes in a just and equitable manner?

If the enormous global ecological challenges that human societies face today profoundly challenge small-is-beautiful, soft energy, and romantic agrarian environmentalism, the checkered history of top-down technocratic modernization challenges its ecomodern alternative. It is easy enough to advocate that everybody live in cities, much harder to achieve that transition in fair and non-coercive fashion. Nuclear energy has mostly been successfully deployed by state fiat. It is less clear that it can succeed in a world that has increasingly liberalized economically and decentralized politically. Global conservation efforts have become expert at mapping biodiversity hotspots but still struggle to reconcile global conservation objectives with local priorities, diverse stakeholders, and development imperatives in poor economies. Rich-world prejudices about food and agricultural systems, meanwhile, frequently undermine agricultural modernization in the poor world.

Where contemporary environmentalism was borne of civil society reaction to the unintended consequences of industrialization and modernity, the great environmental accomplishments of modernity—the Green Revolution, the development and deployment of a global nuclear energy fleet, the rewilding and reforestation of vast areas thanks to energy transitions, and rising agricultural productivity—proceeded either out of view or over the objections of civil society environmental discourse. Today, the Green Revolution, nuclear energy, and the transition from biomass to fossil energy are broadly viewed as ecological disasters in many quarters, despite their not insignificant environmental benefits.

At the 2017 Breakthrough Dialogue, we tackled these questions head-on. Attitudes towards urbanization, nuclear energy, GMOs, and agricultural modernization are beginning to shift, as the magnitude of change needed to reconcile ecological concerns with global development imperatives has begun to come fully into view. Can a Good Anthropocene be achieved in bottom-up, decentralized fashion? Can there be a robust and vocal civil society constituency for ecomodernization? What should we do when not everyone wants to be modern, and what is to be done when political identities and ideological commitments trump facts on the ground? If it turns out, in short, that we’re not very good at being gods, is it possible to get better at it?

Breakthrough Paradigm Award 2017: Calestous Juma

Ted Nordhaus presents Calestous Juma with the 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm award.

Plenary Sessions

Democracy and Ecomodernism

Human societies have alternated between scarcity and abundance, disruptive social change and stable institutions, periods of peace and prosperity and episodes of violence and collapse for as long as there have been human societies. Over the last few centuries, and especially since World War II, the world has become become increasingly stable, thanks to rising affluence, democratization, and shared investments in science, technology, and infrastructure. But today, many of the institutions that have made those arrangements possible appear to be under assault, from illiberal populism on the right and postmodern relativism on the left. With faith in social authority, government, and politics waning in many parts of the world, what will be necessary to sustain social, economic, and environmental progress?


  • Steven Pinker, author, The Better Angels of Our Nature
  • Ruth DeFries, professor, The Earth Institute at Columbia University

  • Nils Gilman, vice president of programs, Berggruen Institute

  • Moderator: Oliver Morton, senior editor, The Economist

When Is Big Beautiful?

The failure of systems and institutions that are too big to fail has become a cautionary tale for our age: of systems too complex and large-scale to manage, authority too remote to account for local conditions or incorporate local knowledge, and technocrats too swept up in their own overweening ambitions. Stoked by Hayekian fears of collectivization on the right and Schumacherian dreams of localized economies on the left, we have talked small across the political spectrum for the last half-century even as the breadth and scope of human enterprises, the complexity of our technological systems, and the scale of political institutions necessary to manage both has only grown. Few voices have been willing to defend bigness. But on a planet of seven-going-on-nine billion people, is big inevitable? The long-term shift toward greater centralization—mega-cities, centralized electrical grids, industrial agriculture—has brought not insignificant benefits alongside the high-profile risks and failures that so much contemporary debate seems obsessed about. How should we balance our desires for greater control and “small-d” democracy with the increasing scale of social organization in the Anthropocene?


  • Robert Atkinson, president, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
  • Luis Bettencourt, director, Mansueto Institute for Urvan Innovation at the University of Chicago

  • Susanna Hecht, professor, UCLA and Geneva Institute for Advanced Study of International Development

  • Moderator: Alex Trembath, director of communications, The Breakthrough Institute

The Ecomodern Economy

Ecomodernism envisions a dematerializing economy that makes fewer demands upon natural resources and ecosystems. Promising trends suggest such a future might be possible. Population growth is slowing and is flat or even falling in many parts of the world. Material consumption for many goods and services is saturating in developed economies. Rising resource productivity has enabled us to produce greater material output with less material input. But what are the consequences of these developments for the economy? Slowing population growth and saturating demand for goods and services has brought slower economic growth. Rising resource productivity has been closely coupled with rising labor productivity. The dark side of slowing economic growth, demand saturation, and rising resource and labor productivity could be secular stagnation, the jobless recovery, and rising inequality. What will be necessary to assure that a resource-efficient, decoupled global economy will be a prosperous or equitable one? Could nature-liberating technological change be as great a threat to shared economic prosperity as efforts to restrict economic activity in the name of the environment?


  • Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author, The Second Machine Age

  • Andrew McAfee, co-author, The Second Machine Age

  • Dario Gil, vice president of science and solutions, IBM

  • Moderator: Eduardo Porter, columnist, The New York Times

Eating Ecologically

The last decade has seen growing attention to the sustainability of food systems, with much of the discussion led by prominent chefs, food critics, and journalists. The basic argument has been that food that is organic, local, grass-fed, and wild is more sustainable than that produced through the large-scale, industrial systems that dominate food production today. However, in recent years a number of careful studies have begun to suggest that the sustainable choice might not be so obvious. Humans use roughly 40% of the ice-free land on the planet to grow food and raise livestock, comprising the vast majority of our direct land footprint, and the expansion of cropland and pasture is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss. In this panel, we take a hard look at what kind of farming systems might practically bring the best outcomes for both people and the environment. Do the largely arbitrary definitions of “organic” and “conventional” serve us? How might we apply the best attributes of industrial and organic production systems in order to produce more and healthier food with lower attendant impacts on the environment?


  • Jayson Lusk, Regents Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair, Oklahoma State University

  • Danielle Nierenberg, president, Food Tank

  • Pedro Sanchez, professor, Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Florida

  • Moderator: Tamar Haspel, journalist, The Washington Post

Democracy and Conservation

The historic legacy of conservation has often been characterized by the displacement of people, truncation of rights, and blaming of victims. The litany of confusions and tragedies that have arisen from well-intentioned conservation efforts is long and ongoing. What would a progressive pro-people conservation look like? How might win-win conservation strategies facilitate the movement of people out of conservation zones while assuring them better land, water, and living conditions, and accelerate land-sparing modernization and access to markets and infrastructure?


  • Krithi Karanth, conservation scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society

  • Stephanie Romañach, research ecologist, Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

  • Jamie Lorimer, professor, University of Oxford

  • Moderator: Paul Robbins, director, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Concurrent Session Topics:

Biotech and Conservation

To date, biotechnology has mostly been deployed in the agriculture sector, but now the same genetic tools are being harnessed for conservation outcomes. Scientists are working on novel applications of gene editing to improve the natural world’s resilience to human threats—for example, by altering genes to improve genetic diversity in endangered species. New techniques like gene drive also open the door to radical ecosystem interventions like killing off rodents that threaten native bird species, or eliminating the mosquitoes that spread Zika virus. “Genetic rescue” even offers the possibility of bringing back extinct species like the passenger pigeon or woolly mammoth. The pace of new genetic developments is occurring faster than the conservation community can debate them. Should humans intervene at the DNA level to preserve biodiversity, or leave nature alone? What is the state of the art with these cutting-edge technologies, and how should we understand the ethical and environmental debates that rage around them?

Climate Policy Beyond Two Degrees

Sometime later this century, global carbon emissions will push atmospheric temperatures above the international target of 2°C above preindustrial levels. Ignoring this basic reality has allowed experts to craft goals and policies that do not consider a post-2°C world. That is the work of this panel. What sorts of social and economic impacts can be expected with warming above this target? How can climate policy shift to embrace a more pragmatic approach to resilience and adaptation on a hotter planet? Should we adopt a new target—2.5°C? 3°C?—or abandon targets and timetables altogether?

What’s the Next Wave of the Energy Access Push in Africa?

Energy is central to modern life, yet Africans consume just a tiny fraction of the energy used by citizens of wealthier regions. Demand for affordable and reliable access to energy is growing rapidly across the continent, driven by both economics and politics. In both Nigeria and Ghana, for instance, electricity has become a visible and powerful signal of the government’s ability (or not) to deliver jobs and a better life. In both countries, the current government won recent elections in part on the back of frustration at blackouts and slow progress on electrification. Our panel will consider different future energy paths for African countries and the linkages to job creation, public expectations, and democratic accountability.

Is Centrism Dead?

The problem of America’s widening political polarization remains stubbornly unsolved. It is universally acknowledged that the Left and Right no longer share any basis for policymaking or even understanding of reality, but how to mitigate this—to return to a previous era of bipartisan cooperation, or to forge a new framework to break through hyper-partisanship—is an open question. Some organizations have proposed explicitly centrist, bipartisan, moderate, and/or unlabeled political coalitions that take the “best of both sides” to defuse partisan tensions. Others reject this approach, insisting that the only way forward on policy priorities (for the Left or the Right) is to soundly defeat the opposition. The election of Donald Trump threw America’s polarization into the sharpest relief yet, raising the question: is centrism dead? It is an essential question for a 21st-century American politics, in which social policy, health care, a shifting labor force, and environmental challenges all require innovative and unprecedented government action. Can we move forward as a nation with our politics as broken as they are?

Science of Communication

Disagreements around scientific issues seem to be growing as a source of contention in political discourse. A lack of science literacy is blamed for a lack of action on a range of environmental and public health issues. Many advocates are calling for more science education and better science communication, and are demanding respect for the field of science and their expertise. But how we communicate is also a science, with a dynamic and growing understanding of the best ways to engage the public on complex technical issues. In this session, we’ll explore what the latest science says about how best to communicate around these issues.

Values in Science and Policy: Whose Nature?

Social values are inextricably entangled in environmental science and policy alike. Whether in shaping how wilderness is managed, what role science should play in policy, or which people and priorities ought to be privileged in land-use decisions, environmental questions are inevitably values questions. But acknowledging that these values exist is one thing; grappling with how they should be accommodated in our environmental decisions is another. Practically speaking, how should diverse and competing values be identified and brought into conversation? What institutions offer promising practices for integrating the values of various stakeholders with scientific expertise in a productive, actionable fashion? And how can we do so at a moment when the “commons,” expert credibility, and democratic institutions appear to have lost favor?

Decarbonization Beyond the Power Sector

While much of the conversation on global decarbonization focuses on electricity, the power sector is only responsible for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. In comparison with other sectors, reducing emissions in the power sector seems easy. In this session, we’ll explore the options and challenges for decarbonizing heavy industry, transportation, and agriculture.

YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard)

The world’s population is continuing to grow and urbanize, and the need for strong cities has never been greater. The way we build cities has profound economic, environmental, and social implications. As ecomodernists, we recognize the centrality of cities to conservation, innovation, and human prosperity.

The cost of renting and home buying continues to escalate, leading to an affordability crisis in many cities around the world, especially in hot markets like San Francisco and New York City. The YIMBY movement believes the problem is that cities have too little housing and that the solution is to build more housing. But is it really that simple? Our panel of experts will discuss the political and economic challenges surrounding the housing market. They will address whether we can build enough housing to meet demand without unacceptably impinging on the needs and desires of established residents.

Bottom-Up Meets Top-Down in Africa

There are large, seemingly intractable tensions between African aspirations for bottom-up democracy and the centralizing tendencies of strong development states. How can aspiring African development states move fast to deliver (often highly centralized) modernization projects while retaining the legitimacy of their populations, many of whom have well-justified skepticism toward centralized power following long legacies of its abuse? How can governments balance the need for public buy-in with the imperative to move quickly and decisively—in particular, where it concerns large infrastructure projects that necessarily involve trade-offs between the collective good and groups of people who will lose out from modernization, at least in the short term (for example, those displaced by the construction of dams or the conversion of informal urban slums into new housing developments)?

Nature Needs Half: The Ethics and Practicalities of Protecting Half the Earth

Building on provisions set out in the Convention on Biological Diversity to increase global protected areas, a growing number of scientists argue that only by setting aside half of the Earth’s surface, land, and water for biodiversity conservation can we ensure the survival of the world’s species, habitats, and the ecological services they provide. However, increasing the amount of land protected globally from today’s 15% to 50% by mid-century could have consequences for people, which in turn could jeopardize conservation objectives, unless due consideration is given to human development and the rights of local communities. This session will explore the challenges, opportunities, and risks of realizing the Nature Needs Half vision. What does it mean for communities living at the frontline of conservation? What are the implications for how we develop and manage human-dominated landscapes like farmland and cities? And how should it be done to ensure that both people and nature benefit?

Emerging Nuclear Economies

There are over forty countries interested in starting commercial nuclear power programs around the world. These countries come from a broad range of geographies, economies, and governing structures. As the United Arab Emirates sets to open its first commercial reactor this year, which countries will be next, and what challenges will they face? On this panel, we’ll explore why new countries are interested in developing nuclear power and what are the biggest challenges they face.

What Green Can Learn from Pink: Five Lessons from the Success of the Gay Rights Movement for the Environmental Movement

Over the last 25 years, during which the politics of climate change have become ever more polarized, there has been a sea change in attitudes toward gay and queer Americans. How did LGBT rights win, while environmentalists have lost ground? There are important overlaps: how voters identify in terms of LGBT rights and climate change have become core questions of political and personal identity, and there are extremely well-funded social movements to advance change on both issues. But there may be limitations to the comparison—the economic and technical obstacles to climate action have no parallel in the LGBT debate. On this panel, two veterans of LGBT rights campaigns and two veteran observers of the climate wars will discuss what Green can learn from Pink and what lessons might not apply.