Synthetic Abundance

Overcoming Nature's Scarcity

We often talk about how bountiful nature is. But in reality, without engineering and enhancement by humans, natural ecosystems are very sparse in their supply of material goods.

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Towards Peak Impact

The Evidence for Decoupling

In the past few years, decoupling – breaking the link between economic growth and environmental impacts – has become the new catchword in environmental debates. The OECD has declared it a top priority, and UNEP’s International Resource Panel launched a report series on the topic in 2011. And last year, interest in the idea shot up after the publication of An Ecomodernist Manifesto” which declared decoupling a central objective of ecomodernism.

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The Year of the Good Anthropocene

Top Breakthroughs of 2015

In 2015, the Breakthrough Institute welcomed that debate. In April, several of us co-authored “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” which states that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” The theme of our summer Dialogue this year was “The Good Anthropocene,” where Clive Hamilton debated Manifesto coauthor Mark Lynas on our stage. We also released the fifth issue of our Breakthrough Journal, themed “The Good Anthropocene.” 

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Fear and Time

Risk Culture and the Broken Doomsday Clock

Things are getting bad — really bad — according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This past January, the journal reset the Doomsday Clock, its symbol of the imminence of global catastrophe, to a heart-stopping three minutes to midnight — closer than the seven minutes-to-midnight setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The specter this time isn’t World War III, the Clock’s longtime focus — disarmament treaties have slashed the numbers of nuclear warheads to a fraction of their Cold War peak — but a raft of terrifying new threats that, in the Bulletin’s estimation, more than make up for the receding menace of nuclear holocaust.

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Nature Unbound

Decoupling for Conservation

Over the last two centuries, the growing human population and rising consumption have caused widespread loss of wildlife and natural habitats. Existing conservation approaches based on protected areas and ecosystem services have been unable to stem this loss at the global scale.

There are also many trends that suggest hope for the future, however. Technological progress is increasingly decoupling environmental harm from economic growth. A new Breakthrough Institute report, titled Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation, offers a new framework for global conservation that focuses on accelerating the technological and economic processes that drive decoupling.

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A Good Anthropocene?

Competing Visions of Our Environmental Future

Human ingenuity has allowed the species to transcend every supposed ecological limit in the past, but will it be enough to surmount the challenges of a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene? There are many reasons to believe in the possibility of a “good Anthropocene,” says the opening panel of the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, but concerted political and social action – not techno-utopian thinking – is needed.

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Price Nature or Make Nature Priceless?

Evaluating Conservation in the Anthropocene

A panel of leading scientists at this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue considered how best to protect natural areas, at regional and global levels. The panelists agreed that dominant forms of environmental protection have failed in many regards. 

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On Pragmatic Conservation

How Decoupling and Pragmatic Rewilding Are Key to Conservation in the 21st Century

The last few years have seen a big debate among leading conservationists over the future of parks and protected areas. On one side are groups like The Nature Conservancy that work with foreign countries to site hydroelectric dams so they are less destructive of river systems and with big corporations to protect wetlands and reduce pollution. These groups have tended to argue that all of nature is a kind of “rambunctious garden,” a mix of human and nonhuman influences.

On the other side are groups like the Center for Biological Diversity that sue US government agencies to protect more endangered species and try to stop dams in poor countries. These groups criticize the view of nature as a garden and defend older views of wilderness as devoid of human activity. The fighting has been so intense that a group of scientists last year urged both groups to calm down and seek common ground.

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Rewilding Pragmatism

Or, What an African Safari Can Teach America

Perhaps it is no coincidence that at the same moment that scientists have concluded that we are now living in the Anthropocene, the age of humans, there has been a resurgence of interest in rewilding, the large-scale restoration of nature and the reintroduction of plants and animals (particularly large carnivores) by people to areas where they once thrived. 

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The Return of Nature

How Technology Liberates the Environment

In September 2014, a bear in the Apshawa Preserve, 45 miles northwest of New York City in New Jersey, killed Darsh Patel, 22, a senior at Rutgers University, while he was hiking with friends. Patel’s death was the first fatal bear attack recorded in New Jersey in 150 years. Five friends were hiking when they came across the bear, which they photographed and filmed before running in different directions. After regrouping, they noticed one was missing. State authorities found and euthanized the bear, which had human remains in its stomach and esophagus, and human blood and tissue below its claws.

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An Ecomodernist Manifesto

From the Death of Environmentalism to the Birth of Ecomodernism

Ten years ago the two of us wrote a controversial essay arguing that inaction on climate change required rethinking everything we thought we knew. Our assumptions had us defining the problem and solutions too narrowly. Too much negativism was turning people off. We needed the death of environmentalism so that a new and more expansive ecological politics could be born. 

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On Becoming an Ecomodernist

A Positive Vision of Our Environmental Future

The last few years have seen the emergence of a new environmental movement — sometimes called ecomodernism, other times eco-pragmatism — that offers a positive vision of our environmental future, rejects Romantic ideas about nature as unscientific and reactionary, and embraces advanced technologies, including taboo ones, like nuclear power and genetically modified organisms, as necessary to reducing humankind’s ecological footprint.

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Forging an Ecomodernist Vision of the Future

From Water Consumption to Whales, Generation Fellows Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

Have the construction costs and duration of new nuclear builds always increased over time? How did humans move away from hunting whales for oil and lubricants? What will innovation look like in the 21st century given that it is increasingly complex? These are a few of the big questions Breakthrough Generation Fellows 2014 tackled this summer, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research in the areas of energy, environment, and innovation. 

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The Romance of Ecomodernism

Pragmatism, Romance, and Urban Renewal at Breakthrough Dialogue 2014

People will be drawn to an ecomodernism when it combines a romantic love for nature with the pragmatic use of technology and development. That was the advice offered by Emma Marris, Mark Sagoff, and Reihan Salam in the final panel of Breakthrough Dialogue 2014.

“Environmentalism has many characteristics of a religion — a religion I’m a member of,” said Marris. “But if we care about outcomes, pursuing personal eco-sainthood is not the most efficient means of getting to those outcomes,” Marris said. “Can we have a movement with excitement and enthusiasm but without the religiosity?”  

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A Wilder Bay Area

Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect

Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.

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A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet

Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century

Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife. 

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Can California Desalinate Its Way Out of a Drought?

New Technologies Promise Lower Costs and Fewer Environmental Impacts

This article was first published at Yale Environment 360 and is reprinted with permission.

A ferry plows along San Francisco Bay, trailing a tail of churned up salt, sand, and sludge and further fouling the already murky liquid that John Webley intends to turn into drinking water. But Webley, CEO of a Bay Area start-up working on a new, energy-skimping desalination system, isn’t perturbed. 

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Can We Grow More Food on Less Land?

Sustainable Intensification Needs to Continue For Trend to Last

Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.

When you consider that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70 percent increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).

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Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

International Energy Agency Faulted for Unrealistic Projections

World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.

“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”

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The Green Urbanization Myth

Suburban Sprawl and Self-Driving Cars May Reverse Land Sparing Efforts

Once a fringe idea, the notion of using technology to allow humanity to “decouple” from nature is winning new attention, as a central element of what the Breakthrough Institute calls “ecomodernism.” The origins of the decoupling idea can be found in 20th century science fiction visions of domed or underground, climate-controlled, recycling-based cities separated by forests or deserts. A version of decoupling was promoted in the 1960s and 1970s by the British science writer Nigel Calder in The Environment Game (1967) and the radical ecologist Paul Shepard in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973). More recent champions of decoupling include Martin Lewis, Jesse Ausubel, Stewart Brand, and Linus Blomqvist.  

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Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature

Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.

But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment. 

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2014 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

An outdoors enthusiast who studies innovations systems at the Consortium for Policy, Science & Outcomes; a masters student at the Massachusetts Institute Technology performing nuclear fuel cycle analyses; a young woman who biked across two states to advocate for moving beyond fossil fuels; and a postgrad studying water governance who spent a year in rural China. These are among the 10 outstanding young thinkers will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting new approaches to major environmental challenges.

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Beyond Food and Evil

Nature and Haute Cuisine After the Chez Panisse Revolution

“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.” So begins the recipe for “Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen,” a typical selection in San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s new cookbook. Fresh lichen powder, needless to say, is not available at the grocery store. Nor can you order it online. You have to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees. Then you have to turn technology loose on it: clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it. 

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Reducing Our Hoofprint

How Agricultural Intensification Can Boost Yields and Biodiversity

Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts. 

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Bitter Harvest

How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Norm Borlaug had no illusions that the Green Revolution was anything other than a means to buy the world time. Time, to get our house in order, to stabilize our populations, to generate the knowledge that would allow us to support ourselves without destroying the environment; and to enable most people to lead their lives in dignity. The expectation, he told me in several conversations in the early 2000s, was that we as societies would take up the new knowledge and use it wisely. 

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Harmonic Destruction

How Greens Justify Bioenergy’s Assault on Nature

Look at the brochures of just about any environmental organization and what you will see are images of an energy system that appears to lie weightlessly on the land. Solar panels gleam atop suburban homes. Wind turbines sprout from fields where cows graze contentedly. It is a high-tech, bucolic vision that suggests a future in which humankind might finally live in harmony with nature, rather than waging ceaseless war with it.

But there are other images to consider as well. Trees clear-cut, chipped, and fed into boilers. Once diverse forests turned into monocrop plantations. Wild places sent under the plow. And melting ice caps from global warming. This is the underside of renewable bioenergy — biomass, biofuels, and biogases – one that is decidedly at odds with the ethos of pristine eco-friendliness described in the brochures.

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2014 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Distinguished Scholars Join Breakthrough Community

A economist studying electricity access for India’s poor. A Stanford University scholar who published a groundbreaking ecomodernist critique of environmentalism over two decades ago. One of France’s leading novelists and social critics. The co-inventor of a breakthrough nuclear technology. And the engineering professor who revitalized MIT’s nuclear energy department. Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce these individuals — Joyashree Roy, Martin Lewis, Pascal Bruckner, Per Peterson, and Richard Lester — as Breakthrough Senior Fellows 2014.

This is the sixth year of Breakthrough Senior Fellows. These five new Senior Fellows will join 30 Senior Fellows. Breakthrough Senior Fellows advise Breakthrough Institute staff, collaborate on scholarly and popular papers and reports, and attend Breakthrough Institute’s annual conference, the Breakthrough Dialogue.

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2013: A Year of Hope and Change for the Environment

How the Green Ideological Nucleus Split

For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.

But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.

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New Paper Challenges Metrics of Ecological Overshoot

Ecological Footprint Found to Be "Misleading"

Is humanity really using 1.5 Earths? That is the central finding of the Ecological Footprint (EF), a widely cited global sustainability indicator used by the United Nations and major NGOs around the world to estimate the impact of human activity on the biosphere. But a paper published today in PLoS Biology finds the method behind the Ecological Footprint "so misleading as to preclude its use in any serious scientific or policy context."

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Limiting Population Growth Is Not the Answer to Global Warming

‘Elephant in the Room’ Has Weak Relationship to Greater Carbon Emissions

Getting people to produce fewer babies – they already are – is a far less important challenge than getting them to consume and produce energy more rationally. It is time we worried more about rich people driving luxury cars than poor people having more babies.

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Challenging the ‘White Hat Bias’

What’s At Stake With the Subpoena of EPA Data

Last month Republicans in the US House of Representatives launched a new offensive in the long-running battle over the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. For the first time in 21 years the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology issued a subpoena requiring the EPA to hand over the data from two scientific studies, which provide the basis for most of the regulations.

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Building the Case for a High-Energy Planet

Generation Fellows Assess Future of Energy, Innovation, and Agriculture

How much land would be required to power the world on renewable energy alone? When does greater energy efficiency actually increase energy consumption? How are China and the United States working together on innovative technologies like solar and wind? What is the future of travel? These are some of the big questions Breakthrough Generation 2013 Fellows confronted this year, leading to surprising and path-breaking answers.

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A Green Vision of Technology

How Ecomodernists Foresee Room for Nature

There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace’s warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world’s last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?

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We Have Never Been Natural

As Environmentalism Fragments, Competing Stories About the Anthropocene Emerge

Environmentalism is no longer about saving nature alone: increasingly, it's about saving people given their dependencies on nature (witness the sustainability movement) and since environmental problems are often symptoms of deeper social problems (witness dumping in Dixie). Yet concepts of nature still suffuse the movement—perhaps no longer just wilderness, national parks, and Gaia, but also a spirit of wildness, community gardens, and an optimal 350-ppm-CO2 atmosphere. It is not surprising that manifold notions of nature are found throughout contemporary environmentalism, since that is what environment means to most people.

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The Limits of Limits

Scientists Debate Planetary Boundaries at New York Academy of Sciences

Almost every environmentalist would answer “yes” — and have pugnaciously strong opinions about what we should do (or stop doing) to avoid crossing such lines. But what does science tell us about Earth’s limits? Which are really science-based? Can innovation stretch any of them? Are they even useful for motivating policymaking and behavior change?

A world-class panel of scientists grappled with these questions last Thursday’s during “The Limits of the Planet: A Debate” — the final forum in this year’s “Nature and Our Future” discussion series, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and held at The New York Academy of Sciences headquarters in lower Manhattan.

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The Progressive Case for Modernization

Against the 'Infantile Left'

It is virtually impossible to discuss manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and related subjects from what I consider a center-left perspective without being challenged by anti-industrial or post-industrial Luddites who claim that the genuine progressive position is an amalgam of Mathusian anti-consumerism and energy austerity, often combined with support for old-fashioned, premodern methods of making artifacts and growing food.  I had thought that this debate was limited to the liberal left, and was surprised to learn, from an interview with Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, that a similar debate occurs within the less familiar (to me) circles of the radical left.

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The Twin Janus Faces of Genetic Engineering

By Carl Pope. Original post at Green on

I don't think I have Dengue Fever - no symptoms yet. But my use of mosquito repellent in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, didn't work totally. One clan of local mozzie's flew in silently, at mid-day, close to the ground, and instead of biting once, left a neat row of burning bumps.

Returning to the US, I discovered, in a remarkable and gripping New Yorker piece, that my antagonists were exotic intruders to Brazil - Aedes aegypti, Egyptian mosquitoes, which arrived several hundred years ago from Africa, probably with slavers. Aegypti brought with it yellow fever and dengue, "break bone" fever, for which there is no prevention and no effective treatment - you either get a little sick, or very sick, or die. (Most stunning factoid in the article - mosquito bites may be responsible for half of the deaths in human history - to yellow fever and dengue, add malaria, filariasis, chikungunya, encephalitis, Nile fever and host of others.)

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Breakthrough Debate Continues at NYT

The Breakthrough Journal essay that called for a dramatic shift among conservationists has sparked further debate at the New York Times.

Peter Kareiva -- the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy -- and coauthors Robert Lalasz and Michelle Marvier wrote that conservation was failing and needed to adopt a more human-centered approach.

Last week the Breakthrough Journal published four responses to Kareiva et al. and a rejoinder by the authors. Now John Lemons, an emeritus professor of biology and environmental sciences at the University of New England, has taken Kareiva to task at Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog.

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Conservation for the Real World

Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier assert that in the 21st Century, "conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness... and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision... Conservation will likely continue to create parks and wilderness areas, but that will be just one part of the field's larger goals." Unfortunately, their article was written 100 years too late. -- By Kierán Suckling

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Anthropocene Revisited

Conservation is improving in its treatment of indigenous communities and attitudes toward people. But we should not go overboard with self-congratulation on this front. The change is neither complete nor a done deal. Conservation must not fall back into the ideological and impractical fortress mentality, a mentality that is insensitive to humans with needs that might supersede biodiversity. -- Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier respond to their critics.

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Corporate Partners Can Be Bad News

For the past 30 years, those who pointed to the inherent weaknesses and contradictions in traditional approaches to conservation were treated at best as marginal, and at worst, as anti-environmental. How things are changing. Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier herald the pragmatic arrival of this kind of critical thinking into the mainstream. But there also lurk challenges and contradictions in Kareiva et al.'s insufficiently articulated vision of the economy. -- By Paul Robbins

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The Wrong Conservation Message

We applaud Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier for broadening the constituency of the conservation movement, but regret that the message of "Conservation in the Anthropocene" seems at odds with their larger objective. For a reader outside the conservation community, the paper is likely to reinforce the misconception that the conservation movement is fueled by a dogmatic, nature-before-people ideology. At the same time, a reader within the conservation community is likely to chafe at the incompatibility of the authors' arguments with the consensus of best available science and with the scientific process in general.

We agree that conservation leaders should seek opportunities to come to the table with corporations. But engagement with industry introduces new risks, including the possibility that nonprofit organizations will damage their own credibility and the credibility of the movement through association with corporate "greenwashing" schemes. Effective negotiation, both with industry and with policy makers, requires a positive and forward-looking vision, along with a strategy for risk management. Unfortunately, we feel that neither a vision nor strategy have been outlined in the authors' paper, although we strongly suspect the authors are in a position to significantly inform both.


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Marine Parks Are Fishy

In "Conservation in the Anthropocene," Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier argue that conservation needs to move beyond parks and protected areas. While their arguments and examples are drawn from terrestrial ecosystems, much of their article is relevant to marine ecosystems, my field of study, and the new frontier for conservation. -- By Ray Hilborn

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Agriculture Didn’t Plow Under the Hunters

By Robert Dello-Russo

In, "The Planet of No Return," Erle Ellis contends that "hunting-and-gathering was not displaced for lack of wild animals and foods, but due to the superiority of agriculture."

I disagree. Ellis's view of the rise of agriculture is a classic myth that has been propagated by non-archaeologists for generations -- the "better mousetrap" theory of agriculture. My own archaeological research suggests the opposite.

Take the commitment to agriculture in North America. We have good evidence that maize arrived in the American Southwest about 3,800 years ago. Yet, in the archaeological record, we do not see the sustained development of maize-based communities until about 1,500 years ago. If agriculture was so much better than hunting-and-gathering (H&G), what was everybody doing in the intervening 2,300 years?

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Paradigm of No Return

Erle Ellis, who authored "Planet of No Return" for Issue 2 of the Breakthrough Journal, replies here to responses from Bill McKibben, Nils Gilman, Robert Dello-Russo, Ronnie Hawkins and Francisco Seijo.

My goal with "Planet of No Return" was to explain the emergence of the Anthropocene and its implications for the future of humanity.1 It seems that the brevity and provocative nature of my essay have managed to inspire remarkably diverse criticisms.

Ronnie Hawkins likens my thinking to that of "a sentient bacterial culture confidently asserting" that "perpetual growth" is possible "while sucking dry its petri dish." In transferring this textbook biological metaphor (the inevitable collapse of exponentially growing bacteria populations) to the dynamics of human systems, we see a perfect example of the failures of old-school environmental thinking.2

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Dr. Pangloss, I Presume

Erle Ellis begins his essay, "The Planet of No Return," with a worshipful paean to humanity's powerful ability to exploit the natural environment:

We have seen what we can do, and it is awesome. In just a few millennia, humanity has emerged as a global force of nature -- a networked system of billions of individuals creating and sustaining an entirely new global ecology. We live longer than ever, and our average standard of living has never been higher. These unprecedented achievements clearly demonstrate the remarkable ability of our social systems and technologies to evolve and adapt.


In Ellis's view, there can be no question that on average, and in the aggregate, the past, present, and future deserve to be conceptualized as thoroughly positive, claiming that "human societies are likely to continue to thrive and expand, largely unconstrained by any hard biophysical boundaries to growth." In particular, he expresses blithe confidence in our ability to indefinitely increase food production.

But his claims are historically blinkered. In fact, the last "few millennia" have not seen a continuous uninterrupted expansion of agricultural productivity. Until about 1800, all agricultural civilizations, from Babylon to Rome to the Maya to China, were fated with repeated crises of production that resulted in massive famines and catastrophic collapses in political order.

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The Ponzi Scheme of Perpetual Growth

In his hubristic essay, "The Planet of No Return," Erle Ellis argues, "The perennial concern that human civilization has exceeded the carrying capacity of Earth's natural systems and may thus be fundamentally unsustainable" is a notion that "rests upon a series of assumptions that are inconsistent with contemporary science." Yet Ellis fails to identify this series of assumptions or present well-articulated arguments against the validity of what they might claim. Indeed, Ellis takes issue with only one widely shared assumption: he apparently disagrees that there are any "natural" or "biophysical" limits that could ultimately constrain "the human enterprise." Ellis's overall argument, crudely put, seems to be that we've so far gotten away with our increasingly frenetic human activities and the toll they are taking on the biological systems of the planet, so we will surely continue to do so in the future.

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Erle Ellis’ Cheap Fantasy

I found Erle Ellis's piece, "The Planet of No Return," badly overblown, even on points where I'm in basic agreement. For instance, I've written a good deal about the huge challenges posed by corporate overfishing to the earth's marine resources. But his claim -- one of the few quantifiable facts in the piece -- that "wild fish and wild forests have almost disappeared, receding into the depths of our ancestral memory" -- is simply not true. The most recent figures I can find are for 2005, when the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reported that 93.3 million tons of fish were landed as a result of commercial fishing in wild fisheries, compared with 48.1 million tons produced by fish farms. It's true that that number is off the peak of 96 million tons set in 2000, but "almost disappeared" is typical of the airy disregard with which Ellis treats actual data. (He cites three papers in a footnote after his sentence about fisheries, but none contain numbers supporting his claim that they've disappeared; in fact, the latest FAO data indicates 260 million human beings employed in this phantom pursuit). If this seems picayune fact-checking, it in fact reflects a problem for his more fundamental argument, since it indicates that we're still mostly living off the fat of the incredibly fecund land we were born onto, even as we trash it.

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When Worlds Collide

By Francisco Seijo

Anthropogenic climate change represents one of the greatest and swiftest transformations the earth has experienced. Some scientists argue that since the advent of the industrial era, humanity has caused enough biotic, sedimentary and geochemical changes to the planet that we have left the Holocene and entered a new geological phase: the Anthropocene. The implications of this geologic event for the future of life on earth are unclear. Understandably, some scientists have interpreted this wholesale transformation of the planet's climate and biosphere systems as a sign that humanity is reaching, or has already exceeded, the limits of the planet's carrying capacity.

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The New India Versus the Global Green Brahmins

The Surprising History of Tree Hugging

On March 26, 1974, dozens of women from the small village of Reni in the Uttarakhand Himalayas confronted a crew of out-of-town loggers. Accounts vary as to whether the women actually hugged the trees, but they successfully prevented the loggers from chopping them down. In the years that followed, the Chipko movement would become an international media sensation. "Tree hugger" entered the lexicon as an all-purpose signifier for environmental sympathies. But the Chipko movement became iconic in rough proportion to the degree to which it became detached from the actual events that transpired in Uttarakhand. From the start, Chipko was driven by a desire among villagers for local autonomy and economic opportunity.

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Conservation in the Anthropocene

Beyond Solitude and Fragility

Conservation is losing the war to protect nature despite winning one of its hardest fought battles -- the battle to create parks, game preserves, and wilderness areas. The worldwide number of protected areas has risen dramatically, and yet we are continuing to lose species and wild places at an accelerating rate. In spite of these failures, most conservationist organizations have chosen to double down on the parks model. This constitutes a failure of imagination. Conservation must seek a new vision, a planet in which nature exists amidst a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. But for this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness and forge a more optimistic and human-friendly vision.

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The Rise and Fall of Ecological Economics

A Cautionary Tale

Ideas about ecological collapse, earth in the balance, and nature batting last exert great influence in popular culture, and yet mainstream ecology and economics have rejected the theories upon which those concepts rest. Ecological economics was born in the 1980s in reaction to Reagan's use of cost-benefit analysis to attack environmental laws, and as a reconstruction of neo-Malthusian warnings against economic growth, which were discredited by the agricultural Green Revolution and the work of economist Amartya Sen in the 1960s and '70s.

The ecological economists argued that economic growth wore out the potential of ecosystems to sustain life, and that only an economic steady state (no growth) economy could save human civilization. They used the laws of thermodynamics to misdescribe the earth as a closed system. And they relied on highly abstracted cybernetic "systems" theory of the fifties to dress up an old religious idea that all of nature exists in a Great Chain of Being where every piece is perfect and necessary, and that any alteration of it could cause the system to collapse. The rise and fall of ecological economics is a call for greens to abandon religious conceptions of nature and stop using scientism to justify political and moral preferences.

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The Planet of No Return

Human Resilience on an Artificial Earth

Over the last decade, the idea that we have entered the Anthropocene, the age of humans, has become inappropriately entangled with the belief that human civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. We are transgressing "planetary boundaries" it is said, and thus must return to natural, Holocene-era limits. Yet the history of human civilization is also a history of changing nature to support human populations. Just as the Stone Age did not end due to lack of stones, hunting-and-gathering was not displaced for lack of wild animals and foods, but due to the superiority of agriculture. Humans have no more reason to return to the Holocene than early agriculturalists had to return to the Pleistocene. The true significance of the Anthropocene is not that we must return to the Holocene to survive, but rather that the continuation of Holocene-era nature depends on human civilization.

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Can Technology Save the Environment?

In the conservation and environmental communities, technologies like nuclear power and GMOs are usually spoken of as threats to the environment and biodiversity, or at best as superficial "techno-fixes" that "fail to address the root cause of problems." In a recently published paper in Biological Conservation, Barry Brook (blog) and Corey Bradshaw (blog) ask if this aversion to technological solutions is tantamount to ignoring a way of dealing with the ultimate, rather than just proximate, drivers of biodiversity loss. Conservation might be winning battles, but it's losing the war. Can this be changed?

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The UK Steady-State Economy

Steady-state economics as promulgated by the likes of Herman Daly is founded on the belief that the physical size of the economy cannot grow forever, as it will eventually reach the limits of the biosphere. An analysis of UK data shows that for nearly a decade, UK GDP has been growing whilst resource throughput, or material consumption, has remained steady or even decreased. This is the first ever apparent evidence of absolute decoupling between economic growth and materialconsumption in an advanced economy, and as such, undermines the widespread claims that economic growth is inherently unsustainable. But the implications might not be as significant as they appear.

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An Environmental Journalist’s Lament

In the fall of 2006, honey bees began dying in strange and unsettling ways. Scientists named the phenomenon "Colony Collapse Disorder" and journalists quickly began to point to pesticides as the likely culprit. With the benefit of time, it has become clear that the story was a lot more complicated than that. But the rush to judgment and the end-of-days narratives it spawned should serve as a cautionary tale for environmental journalists eager to write the next blockbuster story of environmental decline.

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The limits to environmentalism - Part 1

Environmentalists have always had a problem with economic growth. In the crisis ridden 1970s, the narrative was about the Limits to Growth set by natural resources. In 1980, ecologist Paul Ehrlich made (and lost) a bet with economist Julian Simon that supplies of a number of different metals used in industry would run out and their prices would skyrocket.

There are now similar strands of thought in the peak oil movement. However, this time round the green critique of growth looks a bit more compelling, partly because of the step change in pressure on biodiversity, but of course most of all because of climate change. We all know that carbon emissions are at one level driven by economic growth. Human development is currently abutting a range of biological limits not least the atmosphere's carbon carrying capacity, which is seriously overstretched. So maybe this time the environmentalists really are right.

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The Death of Environmentalism

In the fall of 2004, Breakthrough co-founders, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, triggered a firestorm of controversy with their essay, "The Death of Environmentalism." In it they argued that the politics that dealt with acid rain and smog can't deal with global warming. Society has changed, and our politics have not kept up. Environmentalism must die, they concluded, so that something new can be born.

The essay received front-page coverage in The New York Times, The Economist, Salon, and publications around the world. The essay can be downloaded by clicking here.

In 2011, Nordhaus and Shellenberger revisited the essay with a major speech at Yale University on "The Long Death of Environmentalism."

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Environment After Nature: Time for a New Vision

The following is an excerpt from Breakthrough Senior Fellow Jim Proctor's essay "Environment after nature: Time for a new vision1," one of 16 essays examining the five central visions of biophysical and human nature in Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion, which Proctor also edited.


Recently I left an enviable faculty position of thirteen years, sold my house on the ocean, and became director of an environmental studies program at a small liberal arts school in the US Pacific Northwest. I say this, so that when I say what I will say next you will not ignore me as some rabid anti-environmentalist:

I am anti-environment.

At least in the sense that environment is generally understood today, a taken-for-granted notion underlying everything from environmentalism to "environmentology."2 Somehow our notion of environment got wrapped up in our notion of nature, and with it came a whole host of conceptual binaries that effectively drive a wedge through any lasting resolution of environmental problems.

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Decoupling refers to the way new technologies and substitutes can help humanity meet its needs while treading more lightly on nature. Whether it’s growing more crops using less land, water, and fertilizer, or producing more energy with fewer natural resource inputs, decoupling is the key trend that explains how humans can save nature in a modern, globalized world.