2024 San Francisco Dialogue: The Death of Environmentalism
Breakthrough Dialogue 2024: The Death of Environmentalism
2024 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Death of Environmentalism. The essay began a global conversation about the future of environmentalism and how a political movement born of western privilege, reaction to industrialization, and local pollution problems would address planetary scale ecological challenges for a rapidly industrializing global economy. It also anticipated many of the changes in global environmental advocacy over the last twenty years, including the shift away from regulatory and market-based environmental policies and toward technology innovation and industrial policy, the centering of the green economy as a central benefit of an energy transition, and the rise of pro-nuclear environmentalism and the ecomodernist movement.
Yet, twenty years later, the global environmental movement continues to give ever darker renditions of the “I have a Nightmare Speech.” Clean technology has made important strides but has not been a significant driver of job creation or economic renewal. And the institutional environmental movement remains exclusively focused on renewable energy as the primary source of energy for the global economy, despite the fact that four decades of enormous public investment in those technologies has barely moved the needle on the share of global energy produced by fossil fuels.
Insofar as the environmental movement has innovated, much of that innovation has been less than salutary. Indeed, serial failure has arguably been rewarded, as the movement now, by one recent estimate, raises and spends $8 billion annually, a figure that has roughly doubled in less than a decade. The Death of Environmentalism compared the environmental movement to engineering systems that are “stupid,” meaning that they lack any feedback system. But the last twenty years suggest an even more problematic feedback system, in which environmental institutions are in fact rewarded for failure.
At this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue, we will reconsider many of the debates that the essay began. Looking back from the future, what did the Death of Environmentalism get right, what did it get wrong, and what does it still have to tell us about where we are heading? How has the vision that it gave birth to shifted over the course of the last twenty years, with the establishment of the Breakthrough Institute, the publication of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, and the growth of a global ecomodernist movement? And what is to be done about a movement that grows in reach and resources inversely with its actual efficacy?