The Rise of the ‘Modernist Greens’

Slate Features Breakthrough Institute and Allies

A growing movement of “modernist greens,” made up of cutting edge scientists and thinkers, innovative activists and policy experts, has reimagined environmentalism over the past decade and is today actively creating a powerful new ecological politics for the twenty-first century.

These efforts, profiled expertly by former Audubon editor Keith Kloor last week in Slate, are fashioning a “radical departure from the nature-centric framework that has long dominated environmental politics and policy.”

Since 2004, when Breakthrough Institute cofounders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger sparked a national debate with “The Death of Environmentalism,” in which they argued that traditional environmental thinking “must die so that something new can live,” a new movement has begun to take shape led by a diverse coterie of thinkers.

Kloor identifies UK environmental writer Mark Lynas, who has advocated for nuclear energy and genetically modified crops in order to power and feed the planet, as well as Emma Marris, who urges greens in her impressive book Rambunctious Garden to “temper” their “romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness” in favor of the messy and impure natures that exist together with human landscapes.

Lynas received the Breakthrough Paradigm Award at the 2012 Breakthrough Dialogue for his efforts to shift public thinking about major environmental and policy problems, and was interviewed there by Kloor.

Evolving beliefs about what nature is, what relationship people ought to have with it on a planet that is increasingly being shaped by human impacts, and how to balance the needs and value of natural ecosystems with the global imperative to advance human wellbeing, are central to this new movement.

Kloor highlights essays in Breakthrough Journal by Breakthrough Institute senior fellows Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, and Erle Ellis, an environmental scientist at the University of Maryland, that take on these and other questions in calling for new foundations for conservation and ecological thinking in the Anthropocene.

“Modernist greens don't dispute the ecological tumult associated with the Anthropocene,” Kloor writes. “But this is the world as it is, they say, so we might as well reconcile the needs of people with the needs of nature.”

In 2011, reflecting on “The Death of Environmentalism” and the green movement’s recent history, Nordhaus and Shellenberger wrote optimistically: “What comes next is still unwritten.”

Today, there is a bourgeoning network of exciting thinkers who are fast putting words on the page.

“If modernist greens are successful in prodding their peers,” Kloor writes, “environmentalism will be reborn and continue to play a vital role in making the world a more sustainable place for all.”