Breakthrough Dialogue East 2017: Democracy in the Anthropocene

Thursday, November 16 through Friday, November 17, 2017

Every June since 2011, we’ve invited our global network of scholars, thought leaders, journalists, and philanthropists to gather with us in the Bay Area to discuss a new environmental politics. That politics embraces one long-held tenet of environmentalism—that we must reduce total human impacts on nature—while rejecting another—that we must harmonize with nature in order to save it.

For years, we’ve wanted to bring that conversation to Washington, and we’re delighted to finally do so this year.

The Dialogue welcomes a global and ideologically diverse collection of experts from many different fields and backgrounds. It’s designed as an open and honest gathering to share perspectives, to debate solutions, and to confront evidence and old assumptions.

We’ll spend the day talking about the core research issues that Breakthrough engages: energy, food, and conservation. Can we achieve deep decarbonization this century while enabling 9 billion people to live high-energy lifestyles? How do we grow more food on less land? How can we apply democracy and technology to create more effective conservation practices? We try to ask important questions at Breakthrough, and we welcome you to help us find the answers.

At the Dialogue we’ll also hear from some leading scholars whose work has deeply influenced Breakthrough’s worldview, on topics such as feminism, energy innovation, progress, conservation, advanced nuclear power, and the “whole earth” discipline.

In considering these subjects, we ask that you be open-minded as well as outspoken in your views. Both qualities are critical to generating a healthy dialogue. The Dialogue is not about finding comfortable consensus but rather “achieving disagreement”—discerning between misunderstandings and genuine disagreements—in service of making new connections and deepening old ones.

Executive officer, International Programme Office of the Global Land Programme
Retired Professor of Philosophy and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, GMU
Founder and Executive Director
Director of the Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University
Associate Professor in Energy Transitions, Chalmers University of Technology; Professor at University of Bergen
Senior director of advocacy and government relations, bgC3
Energy Reporter, Axios
Director, Cornell Alliance for Science
Visiting Fellow, Center for Global Development
Research Scholar, Princeton University
Food and Health Reporter, Bloomberg
Environmental Writer
PhD student, UCSB Bren School
Strategic Partner, RESOLVE
Freelance Journalist

Democracy in the Anthropocene

  • Ariane de Bremond, executive officer, International Programme Office of the Global Land Programme
  • Mark Sagoff, senior fellow, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University
  • Ted Nordhaus, cofounder and executive director, The Breakthrough Institute
  • Moderator: David Biello, science curator, TED

The global environmental challenges of the 21st century are matched only by the growing social, technological, and economic capacities of human societies to combat them. But populism, polarization, post-modernism, and “post-normal” science all undermine our ability to marshal those capabilities toward better outcomes for people and the environment. On this panel, we consider how to balance top-down versus bottom-up approaches to environmental policy, and the ways in which reconsidering the nature of environmental challenges might create new possibilities for a pragmatic and sustainable 21st-century environmental politics.

Where Do Energy Transitions Come From?

  • Jesse Ausubel, director of the program for the human environment, The Rockefeller University
  • Jessica Jewell, research scholar energy, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
  • Mike Boots, director of advocacy and government relations, bgC3
  • Moderator: Amy Harder, energy reporter, Axios

Historically, energy transitions have been driven by new fuels and new energy conversion technologies that have been cheaper, denser, and more productive than those they replace, enabling new end uses and indeed entirely new sectors of the economy. But energy transitions have also required new legal, institutional, and economic arrangements to find purchase. Indeed, it can be difficult to parse cause and effect. To what degree are energy transitions the result of policy design and to what degree are new legal and institutional arrangements driven by the new possibilities and benefits that technically superior energy technologies offer? In this panel, we consider the prospects, requirements, and constraints upon energy transitions in the 21st century. Are energy transitions particularly plausible if they don’t bring tangible economic benefits, whether in the form of cost, end uses, or productivity gains? Are air pollution or climate benefits sufficient to drive such a transition? Are we in the midst of a transition from coal to gas or from fossil energy to renewables? Can low density, intermittent renewable energy sources sustain modern, industrial economies?

Food for 9 Billion

  • Sarah Evanega, director, Cornell Alliance for Science
  • Tim Searchinger, senior fellow, World Resources Institute
  • Kim Elliott, visiting fellow, Center for Global Development
  • Moderator: Deena Shanker, food and health reporter, Bloomberg

Despite the claims of mid-century malthusians, output from global agriculture has succeeded in keeping up with rapidly growing demands from a population that has grown from 3 billion in 1960 to 7 billion today. But with global food demand expected to grow another 50% by 2050, the expanding footprint of agriculture threatens to decimate much of what remains of the earth’s forests and grasslands, even if output is able to keep up with demand. On this panel, we consider how global agriculture will need to evolve in order to provide modern diets for everyone without converting what remains of the planets undeveloped areas into farms. Small may be beautiful, but a beautiful planet may require large-scale, high productivity agriculture, not the small organic farms that have captured the environmental imagination in recent decades.

Nature Unbound

  • Emma Marris, environmental writer
  • Linus Blomqvist, director of conservation, The Breakthrough Institute
  • Carly Vynne Baker, strategic partner, RESOLVE
  • Moderator: Brandon Keim, freelance journalist

Despite the creation of parks and protected areas around the world, the Earth suffered enormous losses of animals and ecosystems in the twentieth century. That is because, more often than not, most land set aside for nature wasn’t actually under threat – too “high and far,” as one prominent study concluded, to be of much use to human societies. Meanwhile, some regions around the world have seen the return of forests and grasslands, as rising agricultural productivity and the transition from biomass to modern forms of energy have reduced or eliminated the need of marginal farmland and forests for food and energy. In this panel, we consider the opportunities to reduce economic pressure on nature through accelerated social and technological innovation. How might agricultural productivity, urbanization, and energy modernization processes be accelerated and what will be necessary to capture the benefits for conservation? And is it possible to decouple our material well-being from natural resources while maintaining an experiential connection to nature that nourishes the soul?