2024 San Francisco Dialogue: The Death of Environmentalism

Wednesday, June 19 through Friday, June 21, 2024
Cavallo Point

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?

Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Haas School of Business Former Senior Advisor to U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm
Founder & Editor, Inside Philanthropy
Staff Writer, The Atlantic
Nonresident Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Associate Professor, University of North Carolina, Wilmington
President, Lake Research Partners
Director, High Road Strategy Center
Editor-in-Chief, Sierra Magazine
Journalist and Author
Professor of Ecology and Sustainable Development, Columbia University
Professor, Syracuse University
Director of the Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University
Professor of Human Geography, University of Cambridge
Managing Director of Policy Implementation, Employ America
Independent Writer and webcaster
Head of Data Science, Blue Rose Research
Dean, Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin
Breakthrough Senior Fellows Liaison; Editor in Chief, Case Studies in the Environment; Adjunct faculty, Tarleton State University
Briefings Editor, the Economist
Science Writer and Journalist
Food Historian and Writer
Deputy Director
Professor; Senior Fellow
Researcher, Ghent University
Assistant Professor, UC Berkeley
Advisor, Abundance Network
Founder & Executive Editor, Heatmap
Research Scholar, Princeton University
PhD student, UCSB Bren School

Paradigm Award Winner: Peter Teague

Peter Teague Announcement 1

The Breakthrough Institute is pleased to announce Peter Teague as the recipient of the 2024 Paradigm Award. Teague will accept the award at the annual Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California this June.

For over 20 years, Teague has been a singular voice in environmental philanthropy. As the environmental program officer at the Nathan Cummings Foundation for over a decade, Teague helped launch an entire new field of environmental advocacy. He was not only the original funder of the Apollo Alliance, the first major effort to shift climate advocacy from a regulation-focused to a public investment and technology-centered agenda, but largely organized the effort, bringing together the initial partners to launch the campaign.

Teague authored the preface to the Death of Environmentalism and is a coauthor of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. He was the first philanthropist to fund the green jobs movement and the first to connect energy poverty concerns to climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. In the middle of his tenure at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, he changed the name of the program to Environmental Innovation and invested heavily to bring non-profits and think tanks with broad expertise in public technology policy into climate policy discussions, creating, in the process, the innovation side of long-running innovation/deployment debate.

Today, Teague is a philanthropic advisor working at the intersection of climate change, clean energy, and democracy, a field that has been dramatically transformed thanks to his efforts over the last two decades. Throughout his career in environmental philanthropy, Teague has exemplified the field at its best, investing in a diversity of strategies and approaches, incubating transformative new ideas, and building new institutions for the long term.

The Breakthrough Institute bestows the Paradigm Award each year to recognize 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 are Mark Lynas, Emma Marris, Jesse Ausubel, Ruth DeFries, David MacKay, Calestous Juma, Rachel Laudan, Stewart Brand, Steve Rayner, Joyashree Roy, Charles Kenny, and Pamela Ronald

The theme of this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue is “The Death of Environmentalism.” As we revisit the seminal essay, twenty years later, and consider its impact on the environmental movement and efforts to address climate change, there could be no better recipient of the Paradigm Award than Peter Teague, without whom the essay and all that came after would not have been possible. We are delighted to honor him.

Dream 5 16

"Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an 'I have a nightmare' speech instead.” This sentence was, without question, the most famous and widely repeated line from the Death of Environmentalism. It was also the most controversial, defining a debate that still reverberates through environmental politics today, between those who believe that catastrophic framings of the climate issue are both appropriate and necessary to motivate government action and those who believe those framings to be either exaggerated, unhelpful, or both. In the twenty years since, the case for the dream has increasingly won the day as a matter of policy - US environmentalists have increasingly embraced public investment and abandoned regulatory efforts to limit emissions - while losing ground as a matter of public messaging - the climate movement has become increasingly apocalyptic. Survey data suggests that public support for climate action over the last two decades hasn’t much increased. But it has become increasingly polarized. Has environmentalism’s nightmare speech succeeded in advancing policy action to address climate change or has it been an obstacle? Has increasingly strident activism effectively pushed policymakers to take far reaching action or would a more moderate and less polarizing activist movement have been more effective? Have apocalyptic claims about global warming spurred necessary activism, increased public fatalism and paralyzing anxiety, or both?

What green jobs 5 6 24

In 2003, the Apollo Project released a report claiming that a $300 billion federal investment over 10 years in the clean energy industries of the future - solar, wind, electric vehicles, and batteries, would result in the creation of 3 million new high wage jobs for American workers. Today, after perhaps a trillion dollars in investment, not inclusive of new spending in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, there are perhaps 7 - 800,000 total jobs in these sectors. By most estimations, those jobs tend to be non-union and lower wage than those in the fossil energy sector. Meanwhile, most clean energy manufacturing is located in China, not the United States, and is heavily dependent on low wage or forced labor. Was the Apollo promise of an American economic renaissance driven by the energy transition ever realistic? Is it possible for the energy sector to deliver energy that is cheap, clean, labor intensive, and high wage? If so, can incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act succeed in onshoring clean energy manufacturing that can be both globally competitive and high wage? Do nuclear energy, carbon capture, or geothermal energy offer more promising employment possibilities? And are there trade-offs between creating higher wages and employment in the energy sector and reaping the macroeconomic benefits of cheap, clean energy? In this plenary, we take a hard look at a central claim in Death of Environmentalism, one that was broadly adopted by both the environmental movement and the Democratic Party, and ask whether it ever added up.

Enviro as special Interest 5 21

The identity of the climate movement, drawing on the modern environmental movement’s origins in the 60’s and 70’s, is one of scrappy underdogs, fighting for the public’s interest against powerful, entrenched corporate interests. But the facts suggest otherwise. A recent study by the University of Indiana’s Lily Family School of Philanthropy finds that US environmental philanthropy bestows somewhere between six and nine billion dollars in annual funding on climate advocacy efforts, a figure that simply dwarfs advocacy spending by fossil fuel interests and makes the climate movement, arguably, the wealthiest social movement in human history. Many national green groups now boast annual revenues well into the hundreds of millions. The Environmental Defense Fund even has its own fleet of satellites, courtesy of Jeff Bezos, to track global emissions. Many in the climate movement position themselves as part of a broader resistance to neoliberalism, even as the movement is largely underwritten by billionaires dodging taxes. And much of the movement’s “public interest” agenda, from bans on ICE vehicles and gas stoves to carbon taxes, is deeply unpopular with the public. In 2004, the Death of Environmentalism branded environmentalism a “special interest,” centering an unscientific notion of “the environment” that it claimed to represent politically. Today, it is a special interest on steroids, claiming to represent “physics and chemistry that cannot be negotiated with” when, in reality, its real constituents, the educated classes of western democracies, are the wealthiest people on earth. Can modern environmentalism be reformed? Must it be defeated? What will it take to create a genuine, representative, ecological politics for the 21st century?

Ecomodernism Around the World

Twenty years ago, the Death of Environmentalism argued that environmentalism must die so that something new can live. A decade later, the Ecomodernist Manifesto staked a claim to what that new ecological politics might be. Today, a growing movement around the world argues for economic development, technological innovation, nuclear energy, and biotechnology as the pathways to both human and ecological well being. Not all involved in those efforts identify explicitly as ecomodernists. But all, in one way or another, argue for policies, technologies, and pathways to addressing human needs and environmental protection that have historically been anathema to traditional environmental ideology. In this panel, we’ll meet leaders from around the world working toward ecomodernist solutions. We’ll hear how they think about their work and how they situate it in relation to traditional environmentalism and ecomodernism. And we’ll ask to what degree ecomodernism simply represents a new flavor of environmentalism that is more open to things like nuclear energy and genetically modified crops versus being something conceptually or ideologically distinct from environmentalism.


From Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet through Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, elite ecological eating has consistently taken the form of a reaction against modern, technological food production. But over the past decade or so, a number of green eating myths have fallen, including the dangers of genetically modified crops, the significance of “food miles” in calculating a calorie’s carbon footprint, the ecological benefits of grass-finished beef, and the ecological harm of high-yield mechanized farming. Together, these debunked foodie commitments have begged the question: what if the phrase “industrial agriculture” were an aspiration, not a pejorative?

On Climatism

It should be possible to care about, and work on addressing, climate change without catastrophizing or reducing all environmental and social strife in the world down to the problem of carbon emissions. To do the opposite is to fall prey to “climatism,” as Cambridge’s Mike Hulme has called the alarmist myopia so often saddled to climate discussions. This session will surface surface an alternative, but thoroughly mainstream, conception of climate risk, as well as the ways climatism can cause real harms and, indeed, obstruct progress on climate change.


For over a decade, it was increasingly expected that the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) would christen a new geologic epoch to succeed the Holocene. Dissenting voices within the AWG, including this panel’s Erle Ellis, argued that the “Age of Humans could not be so sharply defined in the geologic record, least of all in 1954, the final proposed start date for the Anthropocene. And surprisingly, this spring, the International Union of Geological Sciences rejected the proposal, affirming the view that the Anthropocene is something other than an epoch, and that humanity’s significance on Planet Earth cannot be reduced to a sprinkling of radio-nucleotides or petroleum plastics in the Earth’s crust. The path to a new shared understanding of the Anthropocene—even, as Dialogue regulars will recall, a Good Anthropocene—lies before us.

The Birth of Abundance

Abundance 5 24

Scarcity is so 2004. In the two decades since the publication of “The Death of Environmentalism,” tracking the birth and evolution of ecomodernism, another social-intellectual movement has emerged, dedicated broadly to the virtues of material abundance. Long removed from the nation’s last productivity boom in the 1990s, the abundance movement recognizes the significant costs associated with supply bottlenecks and constraints on the availability of energy, infrastructure, housing, economic opportunity, food commodities, and more. The movement is populated by policy wonks, but also by activists, intellectuals, philanthropists, founders, and creatives. In this session, leaders of the abundance movement will offer their perspectives on where it came from and where it’s going.

Greatest Hits

For this, the last Breakthrough Dialogue, we reflected back on some of the most influential ideas that have defined this event over the years. We’re pleased to welcome some Dialogue favorites back to the stage to share updated versions of their original perspectives.