Remembering Steve Rayner

Announcing the 2020 Paradigm Award Winner

It has long been a rule of thumb at the Breakthrough Institute that if something is worth saying about climate change, Steve Rayner said it 25 years ago. That’s not just because Rayner’s work has proven remarkably prescient but also because Rayner understood something fundamental about the issue: almost everything that one needed to know about climate change was already known by the early 1990’s.

Rayner argued, correctly, that more and better climate science would not reduce the uncertainties and controversies associated with climate mitigation. He predicted that top down international efforts to establish legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions would fail and that international treaties to protect the ozone layer and reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles would not prove to be a useful guide for international efforts to address climate change. He understood that climate mitigation was centrally a technology and innovation challenge. He argued that natural disasters, climate related and not, were not natural and that the impacts of those disasters had more to do with the infrastructure and adaptative capacities of the societies that experienced them than the intensity of the natural phenomena.

Steve Rayner, 2020 Breakthrough Paradigm Award winner

Rayner’s Human Choice and Climate Change, a four volume work co-edited with Elizabeth Malone, remains a definitive reference for anyone interested in exploring the social, political, and technological dimensions of climate change. A student of the great Mary Douglas, Rayner’s insights were informed by his years working as an anthropologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, studying how the production of public science and mission-oriented research and development worked in practice as opposed to theory and the ways in which it was unavoidably entangled with the world views of its practitioners, the politics of the federal government, and the imperatives of the institutions in which it was practiced.

Rayner was one of the first Breakthrough Senior Fellows. He has been both a great champion of Breakthrough’s work and an even greater influence upon it. It is our honor to present Steve with this year’s Breakthrough Paradigm Award.

The Paradigm Award recognizes accomplishment and leadership in the effort to make the future secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling for all the world’s inhabitants on an ecologically vibrant planet. Past recipients of the award include Mark Lynas, Emma Marris, Jesse Ausubel, Ruth DeFries, David MacKay, Calestous Juma, Rachel Laudan, and Stewart Brand. The award is presented each June at our annual Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California. Steve was at the very first Breakthrough Dialogue. We are saddened that he will not be with us in person at the tenth, but grateful that he was able to accept this award before his death earlier this year.

The theme of this year’s Dialogue is “Intended Consequences,” in reference to the specter of unintended consequences utilized promiscuously across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives and libertarians use it to caution against social engineering and economic interventions. Environmentalists offer the same cautions against interventions that would manipulate or engineer nature. It is a topic that Rayner has written extensively about and so all the more fitting that we honor his work this year. At this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue, we will ask what it is that we fear when we fear unintended consequences and what it would mean to recognize that more often, we get things mostly right.

Steve Rayner is the James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford University’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography and Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, where he also co-directs the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities and the Oxford Geoengineering Programme. In addition to his work at Oxford and at the National Laboratories, he has worked and taught at the University of London, Boston University, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and elsewhere. He has authored or edited 11 books and dozens of academic articles and book chapters. To discover more of his work and his legacy visit his website.

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