Forging an Ecomodernist Vision of the Future

From Water Consumption to Whales, Generation Fellows Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

Have the construction costs and duration of new nuclear builds always increased over time? How did humans move away from hunting whales for oil and lubricants? What will innovation look like in the 21st century given that it is increasingly complex? These are a few of the big questions Breakthrough Generation Fellows 2014 tackled this summer, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research in the areas of energy, environment, and innovation.

Generation Fellow Jacqueline Ho analyzed the historical shift from whale hunting to whale conservation and found that the adoption of whale product substitutes – not simply the scarcity of whales or the introduction of hunting regulations – had a lot to do with how we stopped killing the whales. Her case study raised important questions about the role of technological innovation and the use of substitution for achieving conservation goals.

With almost 1.4 billion people currently lacking access to electricity, concerted efforts are underway to determine which strategies can most effectively deliver modern energy and its associated benefits to these people. Generation Fellow Torrey Beek used case studies of countries that have achieved universal or near universal energy access to identify a full suite of strategies and lessons that can be applied to energy access programs in countries currently lacking electricity.

Over time, innovations seem to have become more and more complex. Breakthrough Generation Fellows Eric Kennedy and Jonathan Crowder sought to understand the ways in which technological pathways in both the agriculture and energy sectors have affected how innovation is conducted. By understanding this, they sought to provide a policy framework more suited to the particular nature and challenges of technological innovation today.

Economic growth has traditionally been associated with increased natural resource consumption, and freshwater is no exception. Breakthrough Generation Fellow Seigi Karasaki’s exploratory study reviewed past research on historical trends and future forecasts of global, national, and sectoral-level water demand. This high-level analysis revealed that better technologies and best practice are improving the efficiency of water use, allowing us to produce more “crops per drop” and providing an optimistic outlook for future water demand.

Recent studies have claimed to find an "intrinsic negative learning" and inevitable cost escalation in the construction of nuclear power plants. Breakthrough Generation Fellow Arthur Yip created an expanded database to investigate the trends in construction costs and durations globally and comprehensively, and uncovered a more complicated story than has been told, including lesser-known trends in nuclear power.

Across dozens of long-term global energy scenarios, there exists a significant range in projected energy use through 2050. To understand the environmental impact of energy systems, and to create policies promoting clean energy and expand energy access, a deeper understanding of energy consumption trends is essential. Breakthrough Generation Fellow Kinnari Shah created a groundbreaking analytical program that takes global trade and energy production data and uses it to calculate energy consumption trends on a per country, per sector basis.

The Generation fellowship concluded Wednesday, August 13, with presentations to a group of 33 Breakthrough Institute funders, friends, and former fellows –– the biggest audience in the history of the program. Since then, Breakthrough hired Seigi Karasaki as a conservation analyst and Arthur Yip as an energy analyst in Breakthrough’s Research Program. The other fellows have secured work in such places as Resources for the Future and Exxon Mobil, while others will continue their postgraduate studies. We expect many of our fellows will lead the way for pragmatic thinking on today’s toughest challenges. We wish them the best of luck on their next chapter and thank them for their hard work this past summer.

Photo Credit: Alex Trembath