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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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

Introduction
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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It’s the Technology, Stupid

A Response to Enlightenment Environmentalism

Steven Pinker is right that environmental progress can come about in two forms — as the result of conscious international collaboration, and as a by-product of innovations with other purposes.  We can be pessimistic about the prospects of the former without being pessimistic about the likelihood of the latter. 

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Green Growth Is Still Possible

A Response to the Decoupling vs. Degrowth Debate

Jason Hickel and I have exchanged a few rounds of public debate, prompted by his critique of ”green growth” published at Fast Company. The question being debated is whether decoupling offers a pathway towards a sustainable future. His core conclusion is that the answer is no, and that ecomodernists such as myself are indulging in magical thinking. “Even under best-case scenario conditions,” Hickel argued, “absolute decoupling of GDP growth from material use is not possible on a global scale,” and certainly is not enough to reduce material use sufficiently to stay within planetary boundaries. Consequently, he argued that slowing GDP growth is necessary to avoid environmental collapse.

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Why Bans of Internal Combustion Engines Don’t Make Sense

We Need Better Technology for a Smooth Transition

The imperative to respond to climate change, as well as recent progress with electric vehicles and other alternatives to gasoline, has emboldened many countries to mandate a transition to zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) through a ban on internal combustion engines. Great Britain plans to ban the sale of new gasoline or diesel cars by 2040 and completely ban their operation by 2050. France will also ban new gasoline burning cars by 2040, though hybrids will still be allowed. Several other countries have adopted or are considering similar policies. Legislation under consideration in California would also end the sale of new internal combustion cars by 2040.

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Eating Environmentally Requires Embracing Technology and Industry

On Earth Day, Let's Value Human Ingenuity

Sunday, April 22nd, marked nearly 50 years since millions of people gathered for the first Earth Day. Their celebration raised awareness in the US and across the globe of modern environmental threats, including those posed by agriculture. Just one year later, Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet, one of the first books advocating that people adopt vegetarian diets for environmental reasons.

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Doubling Down on Progress

A Response to Enlightenment Environmentalism

If we were living in a hyper-rationalist world where the ideas advanced by Steven Pinker were indeed “fashionable” — or even in the 1960s and ‘70s when high modernism remained the dominant paradigm — then maybe a more cautious and critical stand would have been advisable. Yet given the prevailing confusion about the origins and objectives of progressive politics, as well as the urgency of the ecological crisis, all one can say is avanti!

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It’s the Institutions, Stupid

A Response to Enlightenment Environmentalism

The real underpinning of the material gains of the last two centuries has been more institutional than ideational. This in turn implies that we must scrutinize the solidity of our institutional matrix if we want a real purchase of the sustainability of these gains.

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Atoms for Africa

Is There a Future for Civil Nuclear Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa?

In a new paper commissioned by the Center for Global Development, Breakthrough Institute analysts tackled the question of whether nuclear energy has a future in sub-Saharan Africa. They outline the current status of nuclear deployment in Africa, explore the challenges that remain, and summarize new ways to move forward. Download the full report here.

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Regenerate Soils? A Good Goal, But Where Will We Get the Nitrogen?

A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on the Hidden Footprint of Making All Farms Organic

The soil’s supply of organic matter can be viewed as a bank. In agriculture, we make deposits through high-residue grain crops, perennial crop roots, cover crops, and organic amendments. We make withdrawals through tillage, low residue vegetable crops, and accounting for the annual nutrient release from organic matter and uptake by crops. Where will this nitrogen come from if not from synthetic N fertilizer?

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How Not to Save Nuclear

Emergency Bailouts Aren’t Climate Policy

Nuclear closures are dramatic affairs. The past week has been a tragedy for FirstEnergy. It announced the planned retirement of three of its nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy for its subsidiaries, and requested an unlikely emergency subsidy — putting the fate of its nuclear plants in the hands of the federal government. The maelstrom of uncertainty surrounding FirstEnergy illustrates the challenges facing American nuclear as a whole. Nuclear is politically unpopular and economically undercut by natural gas; at least a dozen nuclear plants across the country are scheduled for retirement in the next ten years.

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Decoupling or Degrowth?

Why "Peak Stuff" May Not Be As Dire As You’ve Heard

Does humanity’s growing use of materials mean that decoupling is impossible? In a word, no, and attempts to reduce all resource and environmental problems to our material footprint won’t help us solve problems of resource scarcity or environmental impacts.

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Remember the Guano Wars

A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on the Hidden Footprint of Making All Farms Organic

Nitrogen has always been central to human civilization. Guano powered the farms that supported the complex Inca civilization, the Roman Empire expanded largely in search of fresh sources of nitrogen, and international wars in the 19th century centered around access to nitrogen-rich land in Peru. The invention of synthetic fertilizer changed everything.

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Organic or Conventional Farming? Wrong Question.

A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on the Hidden Footprint of Making All Farms Organic

The question of “organic vs conventional” is too simple for a complex food system. In attempting to quantify our land footprint, we should ask several, layered questions that balance yield, sustainability, and wellbeing, among other factors. Rather than answer an either-or binary, we must find the sweet spot along the spectrum.

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Fixing Nitrogen

The Hidden Footprint of Making All Farms Organic

What would be the consequences of massively scaling up organic farming and eliminating synthetic fertilizer use? It’s widely recognized that synthetic fertilizer increases yields. But most people overlook that it also reduces the need to set land aside to replenish the soil’s nutrients, usually by planting legumes. Aiming to simply eliminate synthetic fertilizer would therefore have larger negative consequences than commonly believed. Environmental groups and policy should aim to reduce fertilizers’ negative impacts rather than to stop using it.

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Video: Fixing Nitrogen

To feed a growing planet, some propose scaling up organic farming rather than relying on synthetic fertilizers. Yet without synthetic fertilizers, farms need to grow additional crops — legumes — to provide nitrogen, and these require extra land. This "shadow land footrpint" of organic farming and other agricultural systems that don't use synthetic fertilizer is crucial to understand

In a new essay in The Future of Food series, Breakthrough's Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist demonstrate how continuing to use synthetic nitrogen, albeit more efficiently and wisely, will be key to growing more food with minimal environmental impact. 

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