Breakthrough Dialogue 2022: Progress Problems

Wednesday, June 22 through Friday, June 24, 2022

June 22-24 | Cavallo Point & Virtually | Sausalito, CA & Global

Progress Problems

The 2022 Breakthrough Dialogue, Progress Problems, will be held June 22 – 24 in person and virtually. We plan on gathering with COVID-19 safety measures in place which are subject to change based on state and federal requirements. For information on how we've safely gathered in the past, please click here. We look forward to hosting you.

It might feel strange today to study, let alone celebrate, progress. Covid has upended every aspect of modern society while proving more difficult to confront than techno-optimists initially hoped and exacerbating pre-existing cultural divisions. If many experts feel confident that humanity will avoid worst-case climate change scenarios, plenty others in the expert class and the general public remain terrified of future warming. Whatever our modern energy, agricultural, and industrial systems have gotten us, they have done so at some significant ecological cost. And this wealth and abundance remain inequitably distributed in rich countries and are stubbornly out of reach to billions of people around the world.

The dance between peril and progress is not new. But something about the last few years of cascading democratic crises, polarizing culture wars, intensifying ecological anxiety—lately all backgrounded by the global pandemic—have also witnessed, perhaps counterintuitively, a surge in interest in progress. How best to investigate and interrogate the nature of historic and contemporary progress are the goals of this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue, which we will host this June under the theme “Progress Problems.”

Some claim that progress is entirely an illusion, arguing that technology has disenchanted the world and present-day abundance has been borrowed from the future and can't be sustained. Others see acknowledgement of historical progress as a distraction, undermining our determination to tackle present-day problems. And it is true that human progress is not utopia. Solving the old problems has created new problems.

But the new problems are better than the old problems. Living on a warming planet is better than living without electricity, heating, or transportation fuels. A pandemic that has overwhelmingly taken its toll among the elderly is the result of large populations living much longer lives and is, by almost all accounts, a better problem to have than living in a world in which very significant percentages of children did not survive to adulthood and women routinely died in childbirth.

The benefit of acknowledging how much progress human societies have made, and all the ways that most of us are blessed to have been born into this world, and not at almost any other time in the past, is that doing so allows us to study and learn from progress, not just to celebrate all that those who came before accomplished but think about how those achievements might point the way to better addressing the challenges of our present and future.

How best to understand and, hopefully, compound this progress? Are the institutions that drove progress in the past still with us and, if they are, have they adapted to be able to sustain progress today? Should scholars of progress pay more attention to historic trends or present-day arrangements and distributions? How should long-term forecasts, even unlikely worst-case scenarios, inform present-day initiatives and policy? Do truly existential risks present novel impediments to human flourishing, or were such threats always lurking in the background?

Paradigm Award
This year the Breakthrough Institute will proudly honor Dr. Charles Kenny as the recipient of the 2022 Breakthrough Award.

Brand Communications Team, Stripe Press
Columnist, New York Times
Senior Associate Editor, POWER Magazine
Co-CEO, Institute for Progress
Founder and Executive Director
Briefings Editor, the Economist
Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Johns Hopkins University
Author; Visiting Fellow, Smith University
Director of Poverty and Welfare Policy, Niskanen Center
Deputy Editor, New York Magazine
Founding Editor, Jacobin ; President, The Nation
Faculty Director, Belfer Lecturer in International Security, Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Swiss National Science Foundation
Professor of Public Policy, Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California
Food and Science Columnist, The Washington Post
Professor of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis
Founder, Progress Network at New America
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences ; Tuskegee University
Founder, The Roots of Progress
Senior Fellow, Climate Change, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation
Staff Writer, Vox
Professor, Harvard School of Engineering
Director for Energy and Development
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Waste Disposition, Office of Nuclear Energy, Department of Energy
Founder, Pritzker Innovation Fund
Climate Policy & Solutions Reporter, Grist

Supply-Side Progressivism

Supply Side Progressivism
  • Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin Magazine
  • Samuel Hammond, Niskanen Center
  • Virginia Postrel, Author ; Smith University
  • Ezra Klein, New York Times Opinion (Moderator)

"Look closely and you can see something new and overdue emerging in American politics: supply-side progressivism." So wrote this panel's moderator, Ezra Klein, last year, giving voice to an increasingly popular intellectual movement on the left and center-left in the United States and beyond. From housing shortages to an apparent inability to build large infrastructure projects to a slowdown in the pace of scientific innovation, a number of "supply-side" constraints can be traced back to bureaucratic and regulatory arrangements created and upheld largely by the parties of Big Government. Supply-side progressivism is the putative antidote. But what are the root causes of our technological and bureaucratic malaise? Is the political left really capable of serious self-reflection and reform? And is the solution a more proactive state or, instead, simply getting the government out of the way?

Progress Problems

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  • Caleb Watney, Institute for Progress
  • Yascha Mounk, John Hopkins University
  • Elizabeth Currit-Halkett, University of Southern California
  • Tamara Winter, Stripe

Within the wake of a world-historic pandemic, during an ongoing land war in Eastern Europe, and amidst the effects of climate change might strike some as an odd time to dwell on, let alone celebrate, progress. Yet the chorus of the card-carrying "progress community" has only grown in recent years. As regular followers of the Breakthrough Institute's work will recognize, there is good reason for this. The centuries since the Industrial Revolution have witnessed unprecedented material and social progress. But with that progress came devastating ecological impacts, climatically and otherwise, as well as escalating institutional sclerosis and cultural tension that have threatened the very processes and institutions that drive progress in the first place. Meanwhile, many have come to question the virtue of our modern, atomized, consumptive society, materially and scientifically abundant though it may be. Can we agree on the causes and goals of a progress movement, what obstacles it faces, and what institutions might best sustain it?

Uncertain Catastrophe

Iceberg A 68a Social TM
  • Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough Institute
  • David Wallace Wells, New York Magazine
  • Juliette Kayyem, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Oliver Morton, The Economist (Moderator)

What function does uncertainty play in our climate politics? For a long time, the uncertainty of future damages from anthropogenic climate change has served as robust justification for ambitious climate action today. But for some, the uncertainty of our climate future has morphed into the certainty of impending climate catastrophe. The notion of such a catastrophe, which some observers who once insisted loomed past four or five degrees of atmospheric warming now insist waits just past two or even 1.5 degrees, is used to trump the multiple layers of uncertainty embedded in the future.

What level of warming will we actually see this century? What will the local and regional effects of that warming be? How quickly and equitably will human societies develop economically? What kinds of technology and infrastructure will be deployed, either explicitly or obliquely, to confront future climate risk? These are the uncertainties that climate risk unavoidably subdivides into. And while they appear inconvenient to the ideological agenda of some climate catastrophists, they will need to be grappled for any kind of ambitious climate action to take shape.

Diet for an Industrial Planet

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  • C.K. Prakash, Tuskegee University
  • Pam Ronald, University of California, Davis
  • Jan Dutkiewicz, Swiss National Science Foundation
  • Tamar Haspel, Washington Post

Most crops around the world are grown on large farms. Most food consumed today is produced with synthetic, not organic, fertilizers. International trade in agricultural products grows every year. Meat consumption is on the rise. In other words, our global diet is already highly industrialized. The question is not whether the food system of the future will be industrial, but what it will look like. Will global food supply become ever more global, or will the supply chain brittleness exposed by COVID-19 and the War in Ukraine push nations to pursue greater food sovereignty? Is the future of protein production more animal, more vegetable, or more mineral? What role is there on a modern, industrialized, highly urban planet for small-scale, organic, and artisanal food? Answering these questions will hinge as much on cultural and political values as technological and agronomic ones.

Advanced Nuclear: What's Stopping Us?

Advanced Nuclear 1
  • Rani Francovich, Breakthrough Institute
  • Samuel Brinton, Deep Isolation
  • Jackie Toth, Good Energy Collective
  • Sonal Patel, POWER Magazine

Coming soon...

Progress Studies and the Planet

Progress Studies and the Planet 2
  • Zach Karabell, The Progress Network
  • Emma Varvaloucous, The Progress Network
  • Jason Crawford, Roots of Progress
  • John Wood Jr, Braver Angels

Coming soon...

Heat Mortality

Heat Mortality
  • David Keith, Harvard University
  • Vijaya Ramachandran, The Breakthrough Institute
  • David Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine

Coming soon...