To Cut Nitrogen Pollution, Move Past the Synthetic-Organic Debate

There's No Silver Bullet Solution

Is organic farming key to cutting pollution from agriculture? Reducing farm pollution, especially from nitrogen runoff, is an important environmental goal. But expanding organic farming and its use of animal manure as fertilizer would undermine this goal. In fact, neither organic nor conventional farming practices provide a silver bullet for cutting agricultural pollution. Instead, environmentalists and sustainable agriculture advocates should find ways to reduce the environmental impacts from all types of nitrogen fertilizers, synthetic and organic alike.

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Breakthrough Dialogue 2018

Rising Tides

In this Dialogue, we consider opportunities to shape human and environmental futures for the better. Which trends can we shape, which are inexorable, and how might we tell one from the other? Can we mitigate, adapt to, and manage the climate to assure it will be hospitable for people and biodiversity? How should we balance the risks and opportunities that come with rapid environmental change and identify strategies that are robust to the deep uncertainties that are inherent to all hopes and fears about the human future? How, in short, might we ride the tide without being swept away?  

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Magical thinking won’t help us reconcile biodiversity and food production

Recently, Science published a major review of the potential for conservation on farmland, rangelands, forests, and other working lands, authored by Claire Kremen and Adina Merenlender. The latest installation in a long-running debate about the relative merits of conservation approaches ranging from “land sparing” to “land sharing,” the piece presents an alluring vision of landscapes that can deliver not just abundant food and timber, but ecosystem services and biodiversity, all at the same time. However, the piece can only paint this rosy picture by downplaying the very real trade-offs between different functions in a landscape, thus eliding rather than illuminating the challenge of providing food and other goods while also protecting biodiversity.

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A New Day for Nuclear Advocacy…and Environmentalism?

Union of Concerned Scientists Becomes First Major Environmental Group to Publicly Back Policy Support for Nuclear Energy

Today’s release of a Union of Concerned Scientists report calling for policies to support continued operation of nuclear power plants marks a watershed. UCS is the first major environmental NGO to recognize that nuclear energy presently, and for the foreseeable future, is a key climate mitigation technology. It is also the first to publicly and explicitly call for policies to support nuclear energy.

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Does wildlife loss threaten civilization?

Last week, the World Wildlife Fund released their annual Living Planet Report, which estimated that wildlife populations (including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish) have fallen by 60% between 1970 and 2014. This represents a staggering and tragic loss of non-human life and ecological heritage. But the loss of wildlife means more than that, according to the WWF. “Our health, food and security depend on biodiversity,” the report says, and “without healthy natural systems researchers are asking whether continuing human development is possible.” Mike Barrett, one of the authors of the report, puts it more bluntly in an interview with The Guardian: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is. This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ — it is our life-support system.”

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Nuclear for 1.5°C

Hope and Fantasy in Equal Measure

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report on pathways to limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The report is mostly a modeling exercise, as the 1.5° target is significantly more ambitious than most analysts consider feasible. The Paris Agreement formalized an international commitment to limiting warming to 2°, and even achieving that target may prove impossible. Nonetheless, IPCC reports deserve at least some attention, as they reflect the international scientific consensus around climate change.

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Deregulation and Decarbonization

Exploring the Evidence

Hopes were high when American electricity market deregulation began in the 1990s. By breaking up traditional utility monopolies on generation, transmission, and distribution, reformers hoped to create competitive markets that would increase dynamism while lowering costs. But despite the big promises of electricity deregulation, it appears to have had little obvious impact on innovation or prices.

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RIP Transatomic Power

Long Live the Advanced Nuclear Industry

Innovation is a messy business. With the benefit of hindsight, successful innovators are visionary seers while those who fail are tragically flawed: myopic, delusional, or incompetent, victims of forces they never saw coming or intractable problems they should have anticipated.

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Progress (Or Not) in Global Emissions

Decarbonization Stagnation by Sector

We talk a lot about decarbonization in the electric power sector, possibly because there are so many solutions on the table: nuclear reactors, renewable energy, carbon capture, and on and on. But electricity is only about one-fifth of global final energy consumption, and decarbonization outside the power sector is pretty disappointing. If we want to really tackle the emissions challenge, we’ll need innovation and deployment of technological options far beyond zero-carbon power generation.

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Toward a Half-Earth Future

How Agricultural Intensification Can Minimize Conservation Trade-offs

Over the last several years, a growing network of conservationists, through efforts like the Nature Needs Half network, has proposed an audacious goal for 21st century conservation: set aside half of the earth’s land area for nature. As an aspirational goal, the concept has inspired. Rather than framing global conservation as an exercise in damage control, the new effort offers a vision of an ecologically vibrant future in which people and nature thrive together.

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Beyond Yucca Mountain

Innovative Solutions to Nuclear Waste Management

Most nuclear advocates, often including us here at Breakthrough, tend to dismiss the issue of nuclear waste, noting that “you could fit all of the nuclear waste in the US on a football field at a depth of less than ten yards.” But that answer is insufficient: just visualizing the amount of waste won't make the political and technical challenges of managing nuclear waste (or “spent fuel”) go away.

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To Cut Nitrogen Pollution, Move Past the Synthetic-Organic Debate

There's No Silver Bullet Solution

To address the environmental challenges of nitrogen pollution, many advocate for a universal switch to organic farming, which eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizer. But talking about “organic” as a monolithic category doesn’t make very much sense: organic encapsulates both animal manure and green manure (cover crops), which have very different impacts. While green manure is, overall, carbon-negative, animal manure disproportionately contributes to nitrogen pollution. Instead of one-dimensional debates, then, we should focus on broader ways to reduce nitrogen pollution from all types of fertilizer.

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CA State Senator Scott Wiener Announced as 2018 TOP Award Winner

The Breakthrough Institute is excited to announce that the 2018 TOP Award will go to California State Senator Scott Wiener. The TOP award recognizes policy-makers who exemplify Talent, Optimism, and Pragmatism in their public service and will be presented at Ecomodernism 2018, Breakthrough’s annual East Coast Dialogue. Recipients of the TOP Award are chosen in recognition of their commitment to disrupting conventional partisan debates, pushing back against tribal ideology and litmus tests, and finding ways to do good for everyone

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Welcome to the Narcisscene

Returning Humans to the Center of the Cosmos

Geology has long struggled to study the Earth as a scientific object separate from the religious, ideological, and political persuasions of the day. With the Anthropocene, that struggle, such as it was, is over. By enshrining the Anthropocene, geologists are asked to name an epoch ad hoc and ex ante, in prospect rather than in retrospect, in view of the future not of the past. The point of the naming act originates in the Manichean conflict between “the armies of insight” and “the forces of avarice.” In the Anthropocene, the agenda and the science are, once more, the same thing.

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BP’s Annual Energy Rorschach Test

Progress and Disappointment in Global Energy Transition

It’s finally summer, and energy wonks know what that means: the annual release of energy data from BP. While the data can be extremely useful for all manner of analysis and modeling, it also serves as tea leaves, allowing people to proclaim the truth of their preferred narrative, clearly reflected in the mess of data.

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Book Review: Synthetic

By Sophia Roosth

Synthetic intends to capture a holistic, human picture of the discipline in its emergent form. This lens is radical and deliberate. As Roosth argues, it is crucial to examine synthetic biology in this way before it becomes an established discipline, one that will be harder to question and reshape. 

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Poem: A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

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If We Could Talk to the Animals

Do Our Politics Have Room for Nonhumans Too?

Political inclusion of animals would reflect the cherished fundaments of democracy. It would count everyone who has interests, not just a select few. And the more inclusive and open-minded our politics toward animals, perhaps, the more inclusive and open-minded we will be toward one another.

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The Wrong Animal Welfare Debate

A Response to Better Living through Technology

When debates over animal welfare restrict the conversation to a future of feedlots or a future of free-range pasture, the discussion remains firmly entrenched in the frameworks of the past. Looking ahead, it is those efforts that aim to decouple meat production from the bodies of living, sentient animals that represent the more effective, innovative, and humane future of food.

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Strawberry Fields Forever?

When Soil Muddies Sustainability

The California strawberry industry raises challenging questions about the difficulty of adjudicating among the many principles of sustainability in any farming system when these principles come to be at odds. Feeding the soil, reducing food miles, attending to local conditions of production, eliminating toxic inputs, and reducing the use of nonrecyclable material and nonrenewable energy are easier said than done when attempted all at once. With social justice concerns thrown into the mix, such as improving pay and working conditions for farm workers and keeping prices affordable for low-income consumers, meeting multiple goals of sustainability becomes all but impossible. Indeed, these different ideals and emphases have long been fracturing points for the organic movement.

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Seeing the State

In Search of a New History of Economic Modernity

The reality is that neither political partisans nor policy-oriented intellectuals have a persuasive strategy for solving the interlocking problems of the US economy. When so many intelligent people are unable to see a way to fix something that is clearly broken, the obvious explanation is that their intellectual tools are deeply flawed. The fundamental problem is that scholars, regardless of political orientation, have been working with a false history of how economic modernity emerged and developed in Europe and the United States. This mistaken history of capitalism has in turn hamstrung their ability to see viable paths forward.

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The Trouble with Ecosystem Services

When Pricing Everything Means Valuing Nothing

Bioprospecting was an early example of an appeal to an “ecosystem service” in an effort to motivate conservation. In its wake, the conservation community has turned its energies to other ecosystem services that place more emphasis on the benefits that preserving relatively undeveloped habitats would bring to the communities living in or adjacent to them. These include services such as water purification, pollination, pest control, and flood and storm protection. But the economic case for this tack is often weak also. When development pressures are high, it tends to be more cost-effective to rely on artificial substitutes for ecosystem services than to forgo converting land to agricultural or residential uses. Even when the argument can be made to retain some remnant areas of natural habitat to provide ecosystem services, it’s not clear that much meaningful conservation results. Trying to make nature valuable, it turns out, has had a disappointing track record.

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On Naturalness

Nature as Metaphor, Not Fact

The reality and importance of an existential connection to nature seems to be one of the only things most environmentalists agree on. We should nurture that motivation, not question the existence of its object. Doing so can help to heal deep divisions in the conservation movement, establishing a united front that will attract potential allies instead of confusing them. Rather than reject the idea that nature exists and has irreducible value (the easier philosophical move by far), we should get down to the more difficult business of defending it, articulating in theory what we know to be necessary in practice.

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With the Grain

Against the New Paleo Politics

Presumably, when James C. Scott and others argue that life in grain-based states was a step backward, they do so not to advocate a return to non-agrarian ways but to indicate that states, modern as much as ancient, can be less than benign and wise. The reminder is salutary. Yet even if life in early states were as grim as they claim, it is irrelevant to the role of grains now and in the future. The advantages grains always offered have been enhanced and the costs brought way down. Progress has been made in feeding people, not in one giant step, but in countless small ones that in aggregate have moved us in the right direction. 

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Nature Wars

Introducing Issue 9 of Breakthrough Journal

This issue of Breakthrough Journal, our ninth, turns on “nature wars”: how we talk about nature, represent it, value it, and conserve it. How we grant nature ethical, and even political voice, and how we navigate the various competing ideas, interests, and values encompassed by it.

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Issue 9: Contents

Featuring Rachel Laudan, Alan Levinovitz, R. David Simpson, Mark Sagoff, Fred Block, Julie Guthman, Brandon Keim, Leslie Ullman, and Jacob Samuel.

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Breakthrough Welcomes 2018 Fellows

Scholars Join the Breakthrough Institute for the Summer

Each summer, the Breakthrough Institute welcomes a new class of Breakthrough Generation fellows to join our research team for 10 weeks. Generation fellows work to advance the ecomodern project, by deepening our understanding in the fields of energy, environment, technology, and human development. 

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Ecomodernism 2018: Achieving Disagreement

September 30 - October 2, 2018

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

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?

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Using Technology to Address Climate Change

Oral Testimony to the House Science Committee

Thank you for having me. It is an honor to testify before this committee. My name is Ted Nordhaus, and I’m the Founder and Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank located in Oakland, California. My think tank counts among its senior fellows a number of prominent climate scientists, technologists, and social scientists. My testimony today will draw upon this work to present a synthesis — reflecting our assessment of the nature of climate risk, the uncertainties associated with action and inaction, and pragmatic steps that we might take today to address those risks.

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A Plausible Vision to Feed the Planet

Responding to Chris Smaje on the Future of Agriculture

Is a future in which global food demand is met by small-scale, labor-intensive, and local farms desirable or even possible? Chris Smaje, a British farmer, social scientist, and writer seems to think so, and he wants a great deal to change in order to accommodate his vision.

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