Breakthrough Dialogue East will take place on November 16-17,  2017.

We’re bringing the Breakthrough Dialogue to Washington, DC!

For the last seven years, the Breakthrough Institute has hosted a unique conversation with scholars, technologists, business leaders, philanthropists, and policy-makers in the Bay Area about how to build a future that is good for people and the environment. The Dialogue has been described as the anti-Davos, a place where leading thinkers on energy, conservation, farming, and innovation from across the political spectrum ask hard questions of their own assumptions, philosophical commitments, and ideological priors.

This November, we’re bringing that conversation to the East Coast. In the face of new global environmental challenges, and at a moment of intense political polarization in the United States, we hope you’ll join us for a day designed to help us all step away from the policy debates and political controversies of the moment, to consider together what we really know about the relationship between human well-being, environmental change, technological progress, and economic and political modernization.

Past Dialogues have helped launch cross-cutting new initiatives to develop advanced nuclear energy technologies, promote technological innovation and infrastructure planning to advance biodiversity and conservation, and develop an environmental politics that explicitly rejects both neo-Malthusianism and pastoral romanticism.

Topics will include energy transitions, agriculture for nine billion people, conservation on a used planet, and top-down versus bottom-up environmentalism.



Insight 1: The Wizard and the Prophet: Can we innovate so everyone wins or must we cut back, lest everybody lose?

Presented by: Charles Mann, journalist and author,  1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Panel 1: Democracy in the Anthropocene

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.

  • 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

  • Moderator: David Bellow, science curator, TED


Insight 2: On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers: What would an environmentalism that took feminism seriously look like?

Presented by: Jennifer Bernstein, faculty, Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California



Panel 2: Food for 9 Billion

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 TK 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.

  • Sarah Evanega, director, Cornell Alliance for Science

  • Tim Searchinger, senior fellow, World Resources Institute

  • Moderator: Deena Shanker, food and health reporter, Bloomberg


Insight 3:  Is There a Future for Nuclear?

Presented by: Jessica Lovering, director of energy, The Breakthrough Institute


Panel 3: Where do energy transitions come from?

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?

  • 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


Insight 4: Conservation on a Used Planet

Presented by: Erle Ellis, professor, University of Maryland Baltimore County


Panel 4: Nature Unbound

Officially, about 13% of the planet’s terrestrial land is formally protected for conservation. But much of that land has never been under threat – too “high and far” as one prominent study concluded to be of much use to human societies. Where protected areas have subsequently proven economically valuable, formal protections are often ignored, or even removed, suggesting that the most robust conservation strategy may be neglect - those areas that have little to offer economically will be the easiest to protect, whether they are subject to formal protections or not. In this panel, we consider whether neglect might be a strategy. In the face of rising pressure globally on land and natural resources, is the key to conservation social and technological change that reduces those pressures in the aggregate? Should conservationists focus more attention on reducing the human and economic pressure on nature rather than extending formal protections that too often prove fleeting? And is it possible to decouple our material well being from nature and natural resources while maintaining an experiential connection to nature that nourishes the soul?

  • Emma Marris, environmental writer

  • Linus Blomqvist, director of conservation, The Breakthrough Institute

  • Carly Vynne Baker, strategic partner, RESOLVE

  • Moderator: Brandon Keim, freelance journalist


Insight 5: The Climate Fix: How Innovation Can Drive Climate Policy

Presented by: Roger Pielke, Jr, professor, Center for Science and Technology at the University of Colorado


Please note the agenda is subject to change.


A Glimpse of the Breakthrough Dialogue: