Ecomodernism 2018: Achieving Disagreement will take place on Sunday, September 30 through Tuesday, October 2, 2018.

Ecomodernism 2018 is the second iteration of our recently launched east coast Dialogue and takes place just outside of Washington, DC. The year’s theme is "Achieving Disagreement" through which we hope to model the civil and constructive political debate that is increasingly elusive in DC and elsewhere.

At a moment of deep social, cultural, and political discord, is it possible that we might relearn the art of the possible? Can we stay true to our values, acknowledge our differences, and still find ways to create better futures for people and the environment?

Public opinion is more divided today than it has been for decades. But years of research also suggest that public opinion follows elite opinion. The public is divided because elites are divided. A better future for people and the environment will require more thoughtful leaders, social scientists, policymakers, journalists, innovators and philanthropists.

So rather than talk about what to do about polarization, Ecomodernism 2018 has been designed to model what constructive debate looks like. We will host debates that are familiar to us at Breakthrough - about climate change, conservation, the American food system, and urbanization - giving full-throated partisans the chance to make their arguments and rebut their opponents. But we’ll also challenge them to accurately articulate the positions they disagree with and note the weaknesses in their own arguments. And we’ll invite other respondents to complicate those debates and challenge the premises upon which they are prosecuted.

Reconstructing a civil polity requires more than moderation. It demands that we create new norms for a more diverse society, in a more fractious time, faced with new and wicked problems. We hope you’ll help us figure out how to do that.

TOP Award

Breakthrough’s vision is a future that is good for people and for nature. Such a future is only possible if our leaders have the talent, optimism, and pragmatism to create positive and lasting change in the world. In that spirit, the TOP Award recognizes public servants, entrepreneurs, activists, and thought leaders who exemplify these qualities. Recipients of the TOP Award are chosen in recognition of their commitment to work across the aisle, push back against tribal ideology and litmus tests, and find ways to do good for everyone.

The winner of the inaugural TOP Award in 2017 was Senator Lisa Murkowski



Climate Change: Catastrophe or Chronic Condition?

Climate science does not definitively decree that the apocalypse is right around the corner, nor that human societies will be able to cheaply and easily adapt to all impacts of anthropogenic climate change. But both of these polarizing perspectives can, and have been, argued using the consensus science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change and other mainstream scientific authorities. While it’s clear that humans are causing rapid and dangerous global warming, the timing and scale of the impacts, the existence and nature of tipping points, and the resilience of future human society are much less understood. This debate will examine the knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns in climate science, with an eye towards what and what type of impacts human societies should plan for.


  • Oren Cass, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute

  • Kate Marvel, associate research scientist, Columbia University and NASA GISS

  • Moderator: Kendra Pierre-Louis, climate reporter, The New York Times*

Two Visions of a Global Food System

An emphasis on the synthetic, the intensive, and the technological, versus an emphasis on the ecological, the small-scale, and the local. Farming systems, technologies, and practices vary to an almost dizzying degree: from urban gardens and small local farms to thousand-acre plots and row crops extending towards the horizon. What does the assemblage of these approaches entail for our food, for our planet, and for ourselves? This debate will consider the different impacts farming systems have on on- and off-farm wildlife; pollution like nitrogen runoff and carbon emissions; and farmers and farm laborers.


  • Steve Savage, food and agriculture consultant

  • Anna Lappe, author, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork*

  • Moderator: Eliza Barclay, science and health editor,

Cities or Suburbs: Should We Build Up or Build Out?

The shape of human settlements shapes environmental impacts. Urbanization is widely recognized to accelerate economic growth, which increases total human consumption. And yet the move to cities also tends to lower society’s fertility rates, improve the efficiency of material throughput, and making agriculture more productive and less sprawling. So cities are an essential component of an ecomodern future. But what will the cities of the 21st century look like? In America, a new urbanism debate has taken hold: will urban centers build up, densifying to accommodate new populations and keep housing prices stable? Or will the suburbs continue to expand, giving all classes of Americans an affordable place to live even if it’s farther from the job centers? As is often the case, the reality will fall somewhere between these two models. In this debate, we’ll consider how building up and building out will proceed this century.


  • Wendell Cox, urban policy analyst*
  • Kim-Mai Cutler, partner, Initialized Capital

  • Moderator: Amanda Kolson Hurley, senior editor,  CityLab


Saving Nature for Nature’s Sake, or Our Own?

The “environmentalist's paradox” considers how, if human well-being is dependent upon ecological vibrancy, can human societies continue to consume and grow even while wreaking havoc on landscapes, waterways, and the atmosphere. Many scientists argue that we are approaching tipping points, sometimes called “planetary boundaries,” which imperil the continuation of economic growth and consumption. Others argue that modern society is enabled by the actual decoupling of human systems from ecological ones. Whether one side is more correct or the other, what are the policies and practices that can best protect nature? Should we place market values on more ecological services as an incentive to protect more natural systems? Or should we accelerate the move towards the unnatural and the synthetic, in an effort to make more room for nature?


  • Eric Sanderson, senior conservation ecologist, Wildlife Conservation Society

  • Helen Kopnina, anthropologist, The Hague University of Applied Science 

  • Moderator: Brandon Keim, freelance journalist

Insights: Future of Technology

These short insights from entrepreneurs and innovators will highlight promising technologies that could bring major environmental benefits. In short order, these technologies might make a big difference, even as governments struggle to advance ambitious policy. These under the radar or unheralded products are headed towards the market today -- innovations such as advanced nuclear microreactors, nitrogen-fixing corn breeds, and clean meat that promise to sustain the progress of modernization and decoupling.


*Invited Speaker