Breakthrough Dialogue 2021: Ecomodern Justice

Wednesday, August 4 through Friday, August 6, 2021

August 4-6 | Cavallo Point & Virtually | Sausalito, CA & Global

Ecomodern Justice?

What is justice? What does it mean in the context of ecomodernism? Global modernity was both built upon histories of conquest and oppression and gave birth to traditions of liberal universalism, political enfranchisement, and cosmopolitan empathy upon which contemporary demands for justice and equity rest. Modernization has likewise brought long-term improvements in the human condition while not benefiting all equally and leaving many behind.

At the heart of all discussions of modernist politics lies a paradox. The modern era marked a continuation of violence, oppression, inequity, and subjugation that go as far back as we have been human. It marked an intensification of our proclivities toward violence and cruelty, as the social and technological machinery of modernity allowed for the manifestation of those tendencies at previously unimaginable scales. And it marked a gradual and ongoing break from those histories, as the shift from feudal and hierarchical to capitalist and democratic societies produced new economies, new publics, new institutions, and new values that have slowly and incrementally ameliorated or eliminated manifestations of human cruelty.

To recognize this modernist paradox does not absolve modern societies from accounting for the injustice in their own histories and remedying them. Nor should it obscure the great accomplishments of the modern era. But it should inform how we think about our responsibilities to each other, to the past, and to the future.

Critics of modernization, too often, judge it against either romanticized conceptions of the past or utopian visions of the future. Both framings do a disservice to the extraordinary improvements in living standards, human rights, and democratic inclusion that modernization has wrought and to the practical challenges and struggles associated with assuring that modernist promises of universal enfranchisement, equity, and justice are kept.

Any discussion of justice within the framework of ecomodernism must likewise account for both the promise of modernization and its failures. How best might we recognize histories of violence and oppression without mistaking them for the entire history of modernization? How might we express a commitment to justice in a way that emphasizes assets, the ways in which our extraordinary social and technological powers and wealth might be dedicated to addressing inequality and exclusion, rather than fixating on deficits — the notion that ongoing inequity and injustice demonstrate the futility of universalizing commitments to freedom, prosperity, and inclusion? How might notions of sovereignty and self-determination support communities to pursue development and modernization on their own terms, rather than situating those processes as external impositions by a globalizing, corporate, western and eurocentric capitalism?

Too often, discussions of climate and environmental justice have bundled standard environmental framings of risk, technology, modernity, and nature together with commitments to social justice while failing to interrogate the underlying environmental claims inherited from a movement born of affluence and privilege, steeped in neo-malthusian catastrophism, and prone to primitivism and romanticism of agrarian poverty. In this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue, we open up that black box and ask how growth, development, technology, and decoupling can advance the cause of social justice.

The 2021 Breakthrough Dialogue, Ecomodern Justice, will be held August 4 – 6 in person and virtually. For more information on how we plan to safely gather in person, please click here.

Director for Energy and Development
Princeton University
Senior Policy Fellow, Center for Global Development
Partner, Holland & Knight; Breakthrough Institute Board Member
CEO, Namati
Vice President of Policy & Strategy, Data for Progress
Legislative Director, Sustainable Energy and Environment, Friends Committee on National Legislation
Policy Analyst, ClearPath
Lecturer, University of Southern California
Freelance Journalist
Senior Editor for Energy and Climate, MIT Technology Review
Executive Director, Clean Air Task Force
Cofounder and President, Long Now Foundation
Founder and Executive Director
Deputy Director
Professor of Economics, Jadavpur University, ICSSR National Fellow
Vice President of Programs, Berggruen Institute
Facilitator & Consultant: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice
Land Policy Analyst, Western Resource Advocates
Dean, Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin

2021 Paradigm Award Winner: Honoring Joyashree Roy

MUST CREDIT LORIN BRYCE
  • Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough Institute
  • Joyashree Roy, Asian Institute of Technology

Wednesday, August 4, 2021
7:00-7:45p PST

The Breakthrough Institute is pleased to announce Dr. Joyashree Roy as the recipient of the 2021 Paradigm Award. Dr. Roy will accept the award at the annual Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California this August.

Each year, we bestow the Paradigm Award 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, and Steve Rayner.

Dr. Roy is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand and is one of the world’s leading scholars on the role of energy in driving socioeconomic development. She is also a Professor of Economics at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. Her work on efficiency rebound in emerging economies has influenced Breakthrough’s thinking and research not only into energy efficiency but also the nature of economic growth and energy transitions as emergent phenomena. Likewise, her research has persistently centered social and economic implications of low-carbon technology deployment. In all of her work, a commitment to equity, while contextualizing discussions about technology and climate change with essential concerns about how they relate to critical global development considerations, has lit the way forward, literally and figuratively, for us and so many others.

Dr. Roy’s work has already been recognized with a Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellowship, the Prince Sultan Bin Aziz award, a Ford Foundation fellowship, a National Fellowship from the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research. She has published more than 138 peer-reviewed papers and authored and edited a number of books. She is also a member of the IPCC panel awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

The theme of this summer's Breakthrough Dialogue is "Ecomodern Justice?" As a co-author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, Dr. Roy’s work sits at the intersection of ecomodernism, justice, and equity. In recent years, as attention to climate change has grown alongside concerns about inequality, violence, enduring poverty, and racial and ethnic disparities, questions of how best to redress injustice while addressing global environmental challenges have become less, not more, clear. These difficulties have been thrown into sharp relief over the past year and a half as the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the unacceptable divides remaining in global access to essential technologies and services.

Dr. Roy has been and will surely continue to be an essential voice as the global community navigates these and other challenges in the 21st century. We have long been honored by her sustained efforts to collaborate and advise our research and we are delighted to recognize her with this year’s Paradigm Award.

*above photo credited to Lorin Bryce


Ecomodern Justice For A Multi-Polar World

EJ For A Post Colonial World
  • Vijaya Ramachandran, Breakthrough Institute
  • Vivek Maru, Namati
  • W. Gyude Moore, Center for Global Development
  • Nils Gilman, Berggruen Institute (Moderator)

Thursday, August 5, 2021
8:30a-9:45a PST

Are deep cuts in global emissions compatible with long established pathways to modernization and development? Since the 1980's, the notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities," in which rich countries would cut emissions rapidly while subsidizing poor countries to develop along a fundamentally different pathway, has shaped global efforts to address climate change.

Over thirty years later, there is little basis to believe such a future is likely. Rich countries have been slow to cut emissions and industrialization of emerging economies continues to depend heavily on fossil fuels. Poverty rates are falling and the global poor are much more resilient to climate impacts. But the world is still far removed from deeply cutting emissions or stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Where the old framework imagined that rich countries would transfer and subsidize clean technology to poor nations, the direction of travel increasingly moves in the opposite direction, with China in particular producing and subsidizing much of the world’s clean energy technology in service of its broader mercantile ambitions.

From the perspective of self-determination and justice, the world is far better positioned to tackle the problem than it was thirty years ago. Developing and emerging economies are increasingly able to author their own technoeconomic destinies and far less dependent upon the largesse of advanced economies of the West to pursue their development priorities. The future of the global climate, it is clear, will be determined in Beijing, New Dehli, and Jakarta, not Washington or Bonn. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, what does climate justice mean in this post-colonial and multi-polar world?

Decoupling Social Justice from Green Dogma

Decoupling S Jfrom G Dogma
  • Omar Wasow, Princeton University
  • Jennifer Hernandez, Holland and Knight
  • Julian Brave Noisecat, Data for Progress
  • Jennifer Bernstein, University of Southern California

Thursday, August 5, 2021
11:00a-12:15p PST

Once focused almost exclusively around siting and clean up of toxic waste sites, demands for environmental justice are today sprawling, extending from demands for urban gardens, farmers markets, and community-owned solar power to a federal jobs guarantee and Medicare for All. Contemporary environmental justice discussions often embrace a kind of everythingism - the notion that one can not solve problems like climate change without addressing racism, health care, wealth disparities, and the criminal justice system - while also uncritically adopting mainstream environmental biases around technology and infrastructure - elevating small scale, local, and organic food production over large scale, intensive, and efficient food systems, for instance, and centering legacy contamination and exposures associated with nuclear weapons production decades ago while largely ignoring present day human rights and toxic waste issues associated with the production and disposal of solar panels.

How might an ecomodernist perspective both advance practical solutions at the intersection of the environment, equity, and justice and focus advocacy efforts more upon equitable benefits from a broader set of technologies and infrastructure and less upon the potential for inequitable risks? Is there room in discussions of equity and environmental risk for perspectives that are less redistributive and more growth oriented, recognizing that vulnerability to environmental hazards is strongly mediated by wealth, income, and economic mobility? What about the costs that environmental policies often, unintentionally, impose disproportionately upon low income communities of color? Can advocacy for environmental justice and equity be decoupled from long-standing environmental demands to regulate environmental pollutants and advocate small scale and decentralized food and energy systems?

Stuff White People Like?

White people
  • Rue Mapp, Outdoor Afro
  • Amanda Machado, Facilitator & Consultant: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice
  • Jason Swann, Western Resource Advocates
  • Brandon Keim, Freelance Journalist (Moderator)

Friday, August 6, 2021
8:30a-9:45a PST


Environmental ethics, preferences, and aesthetics have been, from the birth of the conservation movement in the late 19th century, inextricably entwined with markers of status and cultural capital. Early conservation champions sought to preserve wild places for sport hunting and leisure. National parks were created through dispossession of native people and, in their early incarnations, catered almost exclusively to wealthy visitors. Wilderness designations excluded not only machines but people who would need them to experience those places.

There is nothing essentially White about backpacking, birdwatching, farmer’s markets, or farm to table restaurants. But all reflect environmental aesthetics and values that originated in the exclusionary social, cultural, and political preferences, prejudices, and privileges of white elites living in a highly stratified and segregated society. In response to which, efforts to diversify and expand the constituencies for environmental and conservation policies have attempted to diversify many of these same activities. The Sierra Club offers backpacking programs for inner city youth. The Audubon Society attempts to recruit Black birdwatchers. Critics of the industrial food system promote farmer’s markets, community gardens, and edible schoolyards in low income communities of color.

But insofar as these practices are far less prevalent among the communities to which they are being promoted, what and who, exactly, do efforts to diversify in these ways serve? A more diverse environmental movement might have quite different priorities for parks, wilderness, and other similar landscapes rather than attempting to bring more diverse people into a predefined set of priorities. How, then, do justice and equity considerations relate to the not insubstantial portion of the green agenda that is, at bottom, an aesthetic project? Do efforts to diversify these activities simply reproduce an exclusionary aesthetics and politics of distinction that may be somewhat more diverse but still exclusionary? What place would there still be for all this “stuff white people like” within an environmental and conservation politics that took equity and justice more seriously?

Special Programming: We Are As Gods Screening & Conversation

Screen Shot 2021 07 13 at 11 55 21 AM

Screening: Thursday, August 5
Conversation: Friday, August 6 10:15-11a PST

We're excited to announce that this year, all registered virtual guests will have pre-release access to the new Stewart Brand documentary, We are as Gods, with the opportunity to watch a panel discussion and participate in a Q&A with Stewart himself — one of Breakthrough's own board members.

The film offers a deep dive into the many sides of Stewart Brand — creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, an influential member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and founder of the modern environmental movement.


Can You Build Fast and Just?

Offshore Wind Mills Construction
  • Jena Lococo, ClearPath
  • Clarence Edwards, Friends Committee on National Legislation
  • Armond Cohen, Clean Air Task Force

Friday, August 6, 2021
11:30a-12:35p PST

Decarbonizing the entire US energy economy by midcentury is, by all accounts, a gargantuan task. It entails nothing less than the wholesale replacement of nearly all the nation’s electric, industrial, and agricultural infrastructure, not to mention trillions of consumer machines and devices, from cars and furnaces to stoves and lawnmowers. And while the buildout of the nation’s existing infrastructure occurred over the course of more than a century, its replacement must wrap up by 2050 in order to meet net-zero commitments.

At the same time, climate advocates have urged greater attention to justice and equity in the deployment of low-carbon technologies and infrastructure. Historic siting and construction of roads, transmission lines, and industrial facilities have often come without requisite engagement with affected communities and often resulted in disparate impacts among marginalized groups. And with so much infrastructure to be built, justice advocates are simultaneously fighting to ensure that sufficient investments are made to benefit historically underserved populations.

Can all of these priorities be reconciled? If climate-friendly energy, transit, and agricultural systems are dependent on geography and other legacy considerations, will that always or even often enable direct investment in underrepresented communities? Could community consent, review, and engagement slow, not hasten, the timelines along which deployment and decarbonization proceed? What are the unacknowledged tradeoffs between benefits, engagement, and speed, and which of these should be more negotiable than others?