Breakthrough Dialogue East 2017

Democracy in the Anthropocene


December 4, 2017 |

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



Thursday, November 16, 2017

Opening Night Insight: No Cockpit: Evolving a Better Anthropocene

Presented by: Erle Ellis, environmental scientist, University of Maryland Baltimore County


Friday, November 17, 2017

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

  • Ted Nordhaus, cofounder and executive director, The Breakthrough Institute

  • Moderator: David Bellow, science curator, TED


Panel 2: 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 2:  Is There a Future for Nuclear?

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


Panel 3: 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 3 billion 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<

  • Kim Elliott, visiting fellow, Center for Global Development

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


Insight 3: 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 4: Nature Unbound

Despite the creation of parks and protected areas around the world, the Earth suffered enormous losses of animals and ecosystems in the twentieth century. That is because, more often than not, most land set aside for nature wasn’t actually under threat – too “high and far,” as one prominent study concluded, to be of much use to human societies. Meanwhile, some regions around the world have seen the return of forests and grasslands, as rising agricultural productivity and the transition from biomass to modern forms of energy have reduced or eliminated the need of marginal farmland and forests for food and energy. In this panel, we consider the opportunities to reduce economic pressure on nature through accelerated social and technological innovation. How might agricultural productivity, urbanization, and energy modernization processes be accelerated and what will be necessary to capture the benefits for conservation? And is it possible to decouple our material well-being from 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 4: It's All Gardening: Changing nature to save it

Presented by: Stewart Brand, co-founder and president, The Long Now Foundation


A Glimpse of the Breakthrough Dialogue: