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.


Climate Change: Catastrophe or Chronic Condition?

It is now well established that humans are causing global warming. But the timing and scale of climate impacts, the existence and nature of tipping points, and the ability of human societies to adapt to those impacts are far less certain. In this Oxford-style debate, we will consider a variety of perspectives on the nature of climate risk and what sort of response is justified to mitigate future climate impacts.

Resolved: Anthropocentric climate change is a singular and existential threat justifying slower economic growth and development today to mitigate catastrophic climate risks in the future.


  • Moderator: Jean Chemnick, reporter, E&E News

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

  • Opposed: Oren Cass, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute

  • Respondent: Jeremy Carl, research fellow, Hoover Institution
  • Respondent: Dan Sarewitz, professor, Arizona State University

Two Visions for a Global Food System

What sort of food system is sustainable for a planet of 7 going on 10 billion people? Does meeting growing global food demand require a food system that is increasingly synthetic, intensive, and technological or one that is small-scale, local, and organic? In this panel, we will debate the different impacts that farming systems have on wildlife, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions as well as on farmers and farm laborers.

Resolved: Large scale, high productivity, high tech agriculture is the best way to meet growing global food demand sustainably.


  • Moderator: Eliza Barclay, science and health editor,

  • Affirmative: Steve Savage, food and agriculture consultant

  • Opposed: Diane Hatz, founder and executive director, Change Food

  • Respondent: Miriam Horn, writer, Environmental Defense Fund
  • Respondent: Bruce Goldstein, president, Farmworker Justice

Is Modernization the Path to Saving Nature?

Modernization — including urbanization, economic growth, and a shift from subsistence farming to manufacturing and services —has been associated with both absolute increases in environmental impacts and falling per capita demands on many resources. Some argue that the latter developments are our best hope of conserving and restoring biodiversity. By accelerating modernization processes, we might reach “peak impact” sooner. Others retort that without much more fundamental change, enormous losses in global biodiversity are inevitable. In this debate, we will consider whether urbanization, economic growth, and agricultural intensification might offer the best path for global conservation.

Resolved: The most viable path to conserving global biodiversity is through urbanization, economic growth, and agricultural intensification.


  • Moderator: Brandon Keim, freelance journalist

  • Affirmative: Eric Sanderson, senior conservation ecologist, Wildlife Conservation Society

  • Opposed: Helen Kopnina, researcher and lecturer, The Hague University of Applied Science 

  • Respondent: Reed Noss, president, Florida Institute for Conservation Science
  • Respondent: Ariane de Bremond, executive officer, Global Land Programme


Should We Build Up or Build Out?

For many people concerned with both housing costs and the future of cities, YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) is in and “Smart Growth” is out. But what is it we should say yes too? Should we build up, focusing new housing development in cities, or out, by making it easier to build cheaper housing beyond the existing urban footprint. In this debate, we’ll hear different views on whether efforts to restrict suburban development have contributed to the housing crisis in many parts of the country and whether affordable housing and urban density are compatible objectives.

Resolved: Urban limit lines and other policies to limit the growth of suburbs are a primary cause of rising housing costs in many parts of the United States.


  • Moderator: Amanda Kolson Hurley, senior editor,  CityLab

  • Affirmative: Tory Gattis, senior fellow, Center for Opportunity Urbanism
  • Opposed: Kim-Mai Cutler, partner, Initialized Capital

  • Respondent: Steven Teles, professor, Johns Hopkins University
  • Respondent: Willow Lung-Amam, urban planning professor, University of Maryland-College Park


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.

  • Zunum Aero, presented by advisory board member, Birger Steen

  • Memphis Meats, presented by manager of communications and sustainability, David Kay

  • Pivot Bio, presented by industry and regulatory affairs manager, Keira Havens 

  • Oklo, presented by co-founders, Jake DeWitte and Caroline Cochran


Concurrent Sessions: State of Play

During these sessions, participants will be able to discuss the status of federal policies and opportunities for advancement in different key areas. Each session will be facilitated by a leading expert in the field. Confirmed State of Play sessions include:

  • Challenges and Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear, chaired by Jessica Lovering, The Breakthrough Institute

  • Geoengineering, chaired by Rachel Pritzker, Pritzker Innovation Fund & Kelly Wanser, Silver Lining

  • Research and Innovation for Agricultural Sustainability, chaired by Dan Blaustein-Rejto, The Breakthrough Institute

  • Energy for Development, chaired by Todd Moss, Center for Global Development

  • Down-to-Earth Case for Carbon Capture, chaired by Noah Deich, Center for Carbon Removal