Ecomodernism in Action

2021 in review

The Breakthrough Institute was founded 15 years ago in service of an optimistic, technologically focused environmental politics. Over time, that vision became what is now called ecomodernism. Today, we are finding more and more ways to put ecomodernism into practice.

Under the leadership of our new executive editor Kathryn Salam, formerly of Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs, we will publish four issues of the Breakthrough Journal over the next year, hosting a variety of perspectives on environmental politics, urbanism, food culture, polarization, “ecomodern justice,” and more. This last year, we were among the first environmental NGOs to return to in-person events — hosting the annual Breakthrough Dialogue in August and our regular Ecomodernism conference in October — bringing together some of the world’s leading thinkers on environmental politics, policy, and philosophy.

This year, Vijaya Ramachandran, a founding fellow of the Center for Global Development, joined Breakthrough to advocate for the energy and development needs of the global poor, increasingly under threat as monomaniacal climate catastrophism has taken hold within Western-led development institutions.

Our food and agriculture team, led by Dan Blaustein-Rejto, continues to publish cutting-edge research while developing new policy initiatives to support agricultural innovation, climate-smart agriculture, and alternative proteins at the federal level.

Our climate and energy team, headed by Zeke Hausfather and Seaver Wang, continues to offer a non-catastrophist, pragmatic framework for understanding climate science and global decarbonization challenges. And Adam Stein, who now directs our nuclear energy program, has in six short months on the job built out an ambitious, multi-year, coalitional civil society strategy for accelerating advanced nuclear energy commercialization in the United States and around the world.

After the release of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report and the 26th Conference of the Parties in Glasgow this year, it has become clearer than ever that a technologically inclusive approach to energy investment and decarbonization is essential, and that growth and abundance offer the best pathway towards both a stable climate and resilient societies. And while substantial corners of traditional environmental civil society remain committed to technophobia and “green colonialism,” the coalition in favor of pragmatic, techno-optimistic environmental solutions is stronger than ever before.


Advanced Nuclear Commercialization

After a decade of advocacy, incubated by Breakthrough, most observers today recognize the need for nuclear energy in global decarbonization efforts. Against so much else related to energy and climate policy in the United States, nuclear energy and the necessary innovation and investment to allow it play a critical role in climate mitigation efforts have been embraced by both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Efforts to expand the role of nuclear power in the global energy economy and climate mitigation efforts have reached a critical inflection point. The nascent advanced nuclear industry that has grown up over the last decade has begun efforts to license and build the first advanced non-light water reactors. The first of these, Oklo, has begun licensing. Several others, including Terrapower and XEnergy will soon follow.

The terrain for civil society nuclear proponents has shifted from high-level debates about the need for nuclear and whether it can be built economically to much more specific challenges related to the practical need to reform licensing and regulation of advanced nuclear reactors to support innovation and allow for the commercialization of advanced reactors in a way that might allow them to become cheap enough to scale globally.

Earlier this year, we hired Adam Stein to lead Breakthrough’s efforts. Joining us from Carnegie Mellon University, Adam has already overseen a surge in our research and advocacy around nuclear innovation and regulation. He has overseen engagement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, the California Public Utility Commission, and other agencies — engagement that we believe has strengthened the policy and investment case for advanced nuclear reactor technologies in the United States.

In the coming year, we are planning on adding engineering, policy, and regulatory expertise to Breakthrough’s existing efforts, including by expanding our own team and deepening our collaborations with our partners at Third Way, the Clean Air Task Force, ClearPath, the Good Energy Collective, and the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.


Ecomodern Justice

Breakthrough’s vision for addressing climate change has always been centered on questions of justice and equity. For us, accelerating transitions to lower-carbon energy and food systems cannot come at the expense of the poorest among us, either in the United States or in less-developed countries around the world.

To that end, we have long held a commitment to internationalizing both our network and our policy agenda. We never made as much progress in that effort as we did in the last year.

This year, we were pleased to welcome long-time Breakthrough partner Vijaya Ramachandran, formerly a founding senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, as Breakthrough’s director of energy and development. Vijaya has already developed a high-level agenda for advancing agricultural and energy modernization in sub-Saharan Africa and intervened in major policy debates over funding energy infrastructure in low-income countries.

With this and other work in mind, this year we hosted our annual Breakthrough Dialogue under the theme of“Ecomodern Justice.” As we described the Dialogue this summer:

Too often, discussions of climate and environmental justice have bundled standard environmental framings of risk, technology, modernity, and nature together with commitments to social justice while failing to interrogate the underlying environmental claims inherited from a movement born of affluence and privilege, steeped in neo-malthusian catastrophism, and prone to primitivism and romanticism of agrarian poverty. In this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue, we [opened up] that black box and ask how growth, development, technology, and decoupling can advance the cause of social justice.

You can watch the opening session from this summer’s Breakthrough Dialogue, as well as all other conversations from our in-person events over the years, on our YouTube channel.


Climate-Smart Agriculture

We launched Breakthrough’s food and agriculture program with a vision of creating a “prosperous, ecologically vibrant future, characterized by large-scale, high-productivity and high-technology agriculture,” as Ted Nordhaus wrote in 2015. Productivity growth and technological innovation enable the production of more food on less land with less fertilizer, fuel, greenhouse gas emissions, and other environmental impacts.

For years, US policymakers paid little heed to this notion. Public spending on agricultural research and development (R&D) stagnated. For example, USDA agricultural R&D agency budgets were about $4.2 billion in 2020, essentially unchanged from $4.1 billion in 2010.

Our food and agriculture staff has a plan to change that. Our goal is to achieve a doubling of US public agricultural R&D in the coming years. With our partners, we are building policy agenda in support of high-tech, low-carbon agricultural innovation, through investments in conventional and alternative proteins, crop resilience and productivity, CRISPR and other biotech solutions across the food system, advanced fertilizers, aquaculture, and more.

Already, our efforts have made a clear impact. The White House and Congress proposed historic budget increases for USDA R&D agencies. Though a spending bill has not been passed, recognition of the environmental benefits of agricultural R&D is clearly growing. USDA has announced an“Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate” to fund international research in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, as well as a “Sustainable Productivity Growth” coalition. Most tellingly, 30 Members of Congress cited Breakthrough’s research in a letter calling for billions of dollars in new funding for agricultural R&D, noting it is “essential to addressing the climate crisis.”


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