Breakthrough Dialogue 2019: Whole Earth Discipline

Wednesday, June 19 through Friday, June 21, 2019

Discipline (noun):

  • control gained by enforcing obedience or order; self control
  • training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character
  • a field of study

What is discipline? Is it a practice? A way of controlling oneself or others? A school of thought?

As a verb, the word can suggest power and mastery, coercion or restraint. As a noun, a discipline entails an approach to knowing and shaping the world. It can be a way of being, seeing, or doing. Or all of the above.

A whole earth discipline implies a discipline that accounts for humans and non-humans, trade-offs and synergies. It also, unavoidably, entails an anthropocentric worldview. A discipline must have a subject and an object. It would seem clear that a whole earth discipline implies some sentient “we,” capable of acting with intent, as its subject and the Earth as its object. A Whole Earth discipline might take account of the interests and needs of other beings, but it is “we,” however defined, who decide.

In this, the ninth Breakthrough Dialogue, we celebrate Stewart Brand, the original ecomodernist, on the 10th anniversary of the publication of Whole Earth Discipline. But our practice demands that we interrogate as well as celebrate. So we will ask hard questions of the ecomodernist enterprise. Is decoupling human prosperity from environmental impacts truly possible? Will land sparing really bring conservation benefits? Can nuclear and other low carbon non-renewable energy technologies get cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels? Can the ecomodernist tent accommodate both its socialist and libertarian proponents? Are humans, terrible at predicting the future, even capable of planning for a “long now” in which humans and nature thrive?

A poorly defined discipline is no discipline at all. In order do the work that we need it to do in the world, ecomodernism will need to continually ask hard questions of its principles and practices. And its disciples will need to continually learn and hone their craft. Whole Earth Discipline was, at bottom, an articulation of all that Stewart Brand had learned about society and ecology in the forty years after the publication of the Whole Earth Catalogue. In this Breakthrough Dialogue, we too endeavor to learn.

The 9th annual Breakthrough Dialogue: Whole Earth Discipline will be held at Cavallo Point Resort in Sausalito, California. The Dialogue will begin with a welcome reception at 5pm on Wednesday, June 19 and conclude at 1pm on Friday, June 21.

Paradigm Award

This year, The Breakthrough Institute will proudly honor Stewart Brand as the recipient of the 2019 Breakthrough Paradigm Award. He will accept the award and be interviewed on stage at the Dialogue.

Documentary screening: an early look at Juice

We are excited to announce that the acclaimed documentary, Juice: How Electricity Explains the World, will screen at this year's Breakthrough Dialogue. We hope you can join us for an early look at the film, which features several Dialogue regulars including Breakthrough's Jessica Lovering, Javadpur University's Joyashree Roy, CU Boulder's Roger Pielke, Jr., and more.

This 80-minute documentary underscores the defining inequality in the world today: the disparity between the electricity rich and the electricity poor. About 3 billion people today are living in places where per-capita electricity use is less than what’s used by an average American refrigerator. Over a three-year period, the Juice team traveled 60,000 miles to interview more than 50 people from seven countries on five continents to tell the human story of electricity and why power equals power. More here.

A Glimpse of the Breakthrough Dialogue:

Senior Reporter, Industry Dive
Science Correspondent, Reason magazine
Director, A Living Economy, Sierra Club
Adjunct Senior Research Scholar, Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy
Staff Writer, The New Food Economy
PhD student, UCSB Bren School
Cofounder and President, Long Now Foundation
Bridgeforth Farms
Robert Bryce, Manhattan Institute, producer of Juice: How Electricity Explains the World
Ph.D candidate, George Washington University
Editor, The New Food Economy
Director, Juice the Movie LLC
Executive officer, International Programme Office of the Global Land Programme
Executive Director, Carbon180
Head Of Partnerships, The Daily Overview
Executive Founder, Wellville
President and Chairman, Mission Blue/The Sylvia Earle Alliance
Executive Director, Organization for Rehabilitation and Development in Amhara
Associate Professor, Texas Tech University
Market Development & Policy Lead, Stripe & Frontier
Senior Writer, National Review
Deputy Director, Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University)
Co-founder and President, Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy
President, Farmworker Justice
Co-owner/operator, Grass Nomads LLC
Senior Scientist, Planetary Science Institute
Reporter, E&E News
Creative Director, University of Michigan
Co-Founder and CEO, Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy
Executive, ExxonMobil (Retired)
Director of Energy Policy, R Street Institute
Freelance Journalist
Co-Director, Carnegie Mellon University, Institute for Regulatory Law & Economics
Professor, University of British Columbia
Professor, James Madison University; Writer
Staff Writer, The Atlantic
Contributing Editor, The Atlantic Monthly
Editor-in-Chief, Sierra Magazine
Senior Correspondent, Vox
Principal Research Scientist, MIT
Assistant Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, Yale University
Founder & Executive Editor, Heatmap
Briefings Editor, the Economist
Senior Fellow, Project Drawdown
Professor, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Research Director, Lux Research
Strategic Advisor and Climate Change Communicator, People, Food & Land Foundation
Co-founder and Executive Director, Revive & Restore
Science Writer and Journalist
Associate Professor of Feedlot Systems, AgNext @ Colorado State University
Professor, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior
President and CEO, Aquarium of the Pacific
Research Scholar, Princeton University
Nature Center Director, Author, Poet, Overpopulation Activist
Policy Analyst, ClearPath
Senior Editor for Energy and Climate, MIT Technology Review
Professor, University of Pennsylvania
CEO/President, Tiffany Cattle Co., Inc.
Freelance Journalist
Lecturer, Santa Clara University
Postdoctoral Scholar, University of California Santa Barbara
Business Development Analyst, Planet

Decoupling in Action

Decoupling In Action
  • Andrew McAfee, MIT

The ecomodernist project is centrally predicated on decoupling. The only way that 9 or 10 billion people can achieve modern living standards while reducing total environmental impact is if economic growth decouples from environmental impacts. But is decoupling possible and if so, can it happen fast enough to avoid environmental catastrophe? Many think not. In his upcoming book, More From Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources, and What Happened Next, MIT’s Andrew McAfee argues that not only is decoupling possible, but it’s already happening in the United States, demonstrating that total consumption of a range of important resources has peaked in the United States in recent decades, even as the economy and population continue to grow. In this panel, we’ll learn about and interrogate McAfee’s work.

Can Humans Plan for the Long-Term?

Can Humans Plan For The Longterm
  • Philip Tetlock, University of Pennsylvania
  • Esther Dyson, Wellville
  • Alan Sanfey, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior
  • Oliver Morton, The Economist (Moderator)

That we must think long-term, in order to plan and account for climate change and myriad other great global challenges, is a trope that is now as long-standing as most of the the time horizons that many believe we must account for. And yet, there is lots of reason to believe that humans, individually and collectively, are very poorly suited to do so. We turn out to be terrible at predicting the future. Our predictions, more often than not, end up being projections of present day debates or anxieties that turn out to be far less relevant than we generally imagine, even when they are correct. Perhaps most of us recognize implicitly that we are all very poor prognosticators. Whatever we say about our plans, most of us discount the future heavily, choosing to expend our resources in the present rather than save them for rainy days that aren’t able to forecast.

Is it possible then, to live in the Long Now? Or is short-termism inevitable and indeed wise? What sorts of steps can we take to be better seers? How can we take steps in the present that are robust to the unavoidable uncertainties that all futures hold? Can we learn to stop using the future as proxy for present day disputes and instead use it to chasten our verities rather than projecting our social and political neuroses onto it?

Deep Blue Sea

Deep Blue Sea
  • Jerry Schubel, Aquarium of the Pacific
  • Ryan Phelan, Revive & Restore
  • Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue
  • Brandon Keim, Journalist (Moderator)

Arguably, we have a better idea of how we will use the world’s oceans over the course of this century than what is actually in them. This presents a challenge for conservation. Oceans cover over two-thirds of the surface of the Earth and are home to most of its species. But only about five percent of the oceans have been explored.

For the first time in this plenary, the Breakthrough Dialogue takes on ocean conservation. What are the key threats to sea life? Climate change and ocean acidification get most of the attention. But overfishing and habitat destruction are still probably the largest driver of ocean biodiversity loss. How can we plan for a future in which human uses of the world’s oceans will likely intensify and in which the impacts of those uses are highly variable and uncertain? In this plenary, three of the world’s leading experts on oceans and aquatic life will help us navigate this new terrain and think about how ecomodernism might help us preserve ocean life for future generations.

Population: Growth, Stabilization, or Bust?

  • Linus Blomqvist, Breakthrough Institute
  • Paul Robbins, University of Wisconsin
  • Sarah Myhre, Project Drawdown
  • Karen Shragg, Author, Poet & Overpopulation Activist

Population growth and control is a controversial subject for environmentalists, the legacy of neo-malthusian fears of famines and scarcity in the 1960's and forced sterilization programs in the 1970's. The worst fears of many environmentalists have not come to pass. Population growth rates have slowed significantly in recent decades and fertility rates are now below replacement in many parts of the world. Still, human population has grown from 2.5 billion at the end of World War II to over 7 billion today, with most demographers projecting a population of 9 billion by mid-century and perhaps as many as 11 or 12 billion by the end of the 21st century. Given this history, how and why should we care about population growth?

For some, 7 billion people is already far too many. Others see a growing population that is increasingly educated and affluent as an asset, not a liability for the human environmental future. Still others fear we will soon be faced with a population bust, with collapsing and aging populations in many regions inverting the population pyramid and bringing new social, economic, and environmental challenges. Each additional human can be a problem or a solution depending on one's perspective. So how should ecomodernist orient toward the population question at a moment when population is still growing robustly even as fertility is falling rapidly?

Concurrent Sessions

Farming Better
Kyle Bridgeforth, Bridgeforth Farms
Shane Tiffany, Tiffany Cattle
Mark Heller, E&E News (moderator)

Where’s the Beef?
Sara Place, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
Tim Searchinger, World Resources Institute
Ariel Greenwood, Grass Nomads LLC
Sam Bloch, The New Food Economy

Lessons from Solar PV
Gregory Nemet, University of Wisconsin
Rachel Slaybaugh, University of California
James Temple, MIT Tech Review

Whose Ecomodernism?
Bishop Garrison, Rainey Center
Jimmie James, Exxon
Faith Martinez Smith, ClearPath
Jane Flegal, The Bernard & Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust

The Ecomodern Sacred
Alan Levinovitz, James Madison University
Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, Organization for Rehabilitation and Development in Amhara
David French, National Review
Roberta Ahmanson, Fieldstead and Company
Sally Vance Trembath, Santa Clara University

See Different Think Different
Suzy Hobbs Baker, Third Way
Brittany Zajic, Planet
Tim Dougherty, Daily Overview
Jennifer Bernstein, USC (moderator)

The Future of Farm Labor
Bruce Goldstein, Farmworker Justice
Sara Olson, Lux Research
Jason Mark, Sierra Magazine
Kate Cox (moderator)

How Big Is the Ecomodernist Tent?
Ronald Bailey, Reason
Leigh Phillips, Science writer and journalist
Sarah Hunt, Rainey Center
Jonathan Symons, Macquarie University
Alex Trembath (moderator)

Power Markets and Deep Decarbonization
Lynne Kiesling, Purdue University
Philippe Benoit, Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University
Gavin Bade, Utility Dive
Travis Kavulla, R Street

The Environmental Impacts of Trade
Ben Beachy, Sierra Club
George David Banks, American Council on Capital Formation
Rob Meyer, The Atlantic
Maria Fernandez Perez, Atlantic Council

Multiplanetary Ecomodernism
Oliver Morton, The Economist
David Grinspoon, Planetary Science Institute
Lisa Messeri, Yale
Dana Burton, George Washington University

Carbon Ranching
Tim Searchinger, World Resources Institute
Noah Deich, Carbon 180
Calla Rose Ostrander, Marin Carbon Project
Moises Velasquez-Manoff (moderator)

Land Sparing
Claire Kremen, UC Berkeley
David Williams, University of California Santa Barbara
John Cannon, Mongabay

Juice: A Sneak Preview
The Breakthrough Dialogue will host a sneak preview of “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World,” to be introduced by filmmakers Robert Bryce and Tyson Culver.