2017 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Leading Scholars Join Breakthrough

A leading agronomist addressing food demand and ecological protection. A renowned agricultural economist grounding the food and farming debate. An incisive thought leader on global governance and development in the face of wicked challenges. A nuclear engineer at the forefront of nuclear innovation. And a historian committed to countering the dogma of conventional narratives. The Breakthrough Institute is proud to announce Kenneth Cassman, Jayson Lusk, Samir Saran, Rachel Slaybaugh, and Maureen Ogle as our 2017 Senior Fellows.

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Does Climate Policy Matter?

Evaluating the Efficacy of Emissions Caps and Targets Around The World

The election of Donald Trump has raised deep concern about the future of international efforts to address climate change. President-elect Trump has called climate change a hoax, and has vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, and end the so-called “War on Coal.” It is not yet clear, however, what impact these actions would have upon US or global emissions.

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Energy For Human Development

For over two centuries, an abundance of dense, fossil energy combined with modern agriculture, cities, governance, innovation, and knowledge has fueled a virtuous cycle of socio-economic development, enabling people in many parts of the world to live longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives. The discovery and conversion of modern fuels arguably enabled sustained economic growth for the first time in human history. These energy sources–principally coal and oil along with natural gas, hydroelectric power, and nuclear energy–have enabled rising living standards since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

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How to Think About Our Environmental Future

Shortcomings and Suggestions for Environmental Forecasting

Where will the world be two, three, or four decades from now? Will carbon emissions have gone down to safe levels? Will the area of farmland have peaked and declined? Will the global population have reached 9, or 10, or 11 billion?

The future is unknowable, but that hasn’t stopped scholars from trying to answer these questions. Nor should it. Forecasting trends in resource use, population growth, and environmental impacts can help anticipate risks and opportunities, as well as assess the consequences of choices made today.

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Breakthrough Does the Impossible

First Taste of the Meatless "Burger that Bleeds"

On an otherwise ordinary fall Monday, the staff of Breakthrough Institute did the impossible. Impossible Burger, that is.

The Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods has started a limited release of its Impossible Burger, the meatless burger that "bleeds," at select restaurants in New York, L.A., and San Francisco. One hundred percent plant-based with ingredients including wheat, soy, and coconut oil, the Impossible Burger’s “magic ingredient” that gives it its unique meat-like quality is a protein molecule called “heme.” Heme is especially abundant in animal muscle and “is what makes meat smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty,” but the team at Impossible Foods was able to extract and ferment it from plant ingredients.

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Calestous Juma Receives 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

The Breakthrough Institute has named Calestous Juma the recipient of the 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award. Professor Juma will accept the prize on stage at the Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California next June.

The Paradigm Award recognizes accomplishment and leadership in the effort to make the future secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling for all the world’s inhabitants on an ecologically vibrant planet. Past recipients of the award include Mark LynasEmma MarrisJesse AusubelRuth DeFries, and David MacKay.

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A Climate Movement at War

A War on Climate Can Be Neither Democratic Nor Effective

The invocation of war—in situations other than where people in uniforms are firing guns at each other—is the last political stop before despair. In declaring war on crime (Hoover 1930s), cancer and drugs (Nixon 1970s), and terror (Bush 2001), politicians have long demonstrated their frustration in the face of intractable problems that seem to defy all efforts to resolve them. So it was only a matter of time before someone declared war on climate change. “World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing,” Bill McKibben wrote this month in an article for The New Republic titled “A World at War.”

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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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Evolving Toward a Better Anthropocene

How did people evolve the capacity to push the planet into a new geologic era?

Humans have now transformed Earth to such a degree that a new epoch of geologic time, the Anthropocene, may soon mark the emergence of humanity as a “great force of nature.” The big question is why? Why did humans, and no other single multicellular species in the history of the Earth, gain the capacity to transform an entire planet? What is the nature of this new global force? Can we guide this force to create better outcomes for both people and nonhuman nature?

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March 31: Ecomodernism Debated: American Association of Geographers to Host Panel on Ecomodernism

Since its publication last year, "An Ecomodernist Manifesto" has attracted a great deal of academic and media attention, and contains numerous points of potential agreement and discord with environmental geographers. On March 31st, five panelists including Ecomodernist Manifesto co-author Ted Nordhaus will discuss some of the primary itellectual areas of "An Ecomodernist Manifesto" as part of the 2016 American Association of Geographers' Annual Meeting.

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Apples to Apples to Atoms

The Problem with Comparing Learning Rates Across Energy Technologies

Future energy scenarios are dependent on assumptions about the prices and scalability of energy sources, often relying on historic learning curves to predict the future costs of various fuels or generation technologies. But the academic literature has become overly focused on comparing learning curves for different energy technologies, often in an attempt to divine intrinsic economic qualities about different technologies. In particular, it’s common to highlight the difference between the trends for solar PV panels, which are often described as following Moore’s Law, contrasted with nuclear power, where costs appear to only increase over time. But the metric that matters most, cost of generating electricity, appears to follow no guaranteed trend for these technologies, as new data shows.

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Nuclear Costs Reconsidered

‘Negative Learning’ Not Inherent to Nuclear Power

Last month in Paris, the cognitive dissonance between environmental demands for immediate and rapid decarbonization of the global economy and the long standing rejection of nuclear energy by environmental NGO’s and advocates reached the breaking point. Four climate scientists, led by Dr. James Hansen, flew to Paris to reiterate their call for environmental leaders to reverse their opposition to nuclear energy. “The future of our planet and our descendants depends,” the four scientists wrote, “on letting go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”

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The Long Anthropocene: An Interview with Erle Ellis

Why Rush to Formalize a New Epoch in the Making?

Earlier this month, Science published a paper by the Anthropocene Working Group, or AWG, detailing the evidence of humanity’s impact on the planet. “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” reads the title of their paper. Erle Ellis, one of the authors of the new paper and a Breakthrough Senior Fellow, has a somewhat unique view on the issue as an ecologist. Below is a lightly edited interview with Ellis. 

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Do We Need a New Green Revolution?

Three Breakthrough Senior Fellows Respond to Sharp and Leshner

Earlier this week, Phillip A. Sharp and Alan Leshner argued in the New York Times that we need a new ‘Green Revolution,’ a step-change in agricultural productivity. The United States achieved tremendous productivity gains over the 20th century, the two science advocates argue, but...

Maintaining this level of productivity has been quite a challenge in recent years and is likely to become more difficult over the next few decades as weather patterns, available water and growing seasons shift further and threats of invasive weeds, pests and pathogens rise.

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2016 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Leading Scholars Join Breakthrough

A brilliant plant geneticist bridging the debate between organics and GMOs. A sociologist who has argued for throwing out environmentalism’s hallowed ‘precautionary principle.’ A climate scientist as committed to pragmatic solutions as he is to the seriousness of the climate challenge. A geographer unequaled in her study of agricultural systems and land use impacts. And a founder of both the Breakthrough Institute and ecomodernism. The Breakthrough Institute is proud to announce Ruth DeFries, Steve Fuller, David Lea, Pamela Ronald, and Michael Shellenberger as our 2016 Senior Fellows.

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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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India — Re-Energized

Samir Saran Argues that India Must Hold Fast Against Western Climate Change Demands

What motivated you to write your recent essay about the double standard the West is trying to hold India to on climate change?

Earlier this year I was speaking at a premier Washington DC think tank around the time India announced it wouldn’t commit to overall emissions reductions at the climate negotiations. Someone in the audience said to me, “Why can’t India play by the same rules everyone else is agreeing to?” My response was “Why can’t India develop like everyone else did?”

Where are Indians when it comes to energy for development?

Today Indians with grid connectivity spend at least 20 – 25 percent of their income on energy. This only allows them a fraction of energy that the developed world consumes. Indians on an average consume one-fifth of the average coal consumption of an American and one-third of a European. The Chinese, Americans and Japanese all spend less on procuring renewable energy relative to their incomes than do Indians.

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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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Worse Than Fossil Fuels? Why Bioenergy Is Not Green

An Interview with Princeton Research Scholar Tim Searchinger

The fundamental idea behind bioenergy is that it’s carbon-neutral because it releases the carbon that plants absorb when they grow, and thus does not add carbon to the air. Why is this wrong?

It’s a common misunderstanding. Burning biomass of course emits carbon, just like burning fossil fuels. The assumption is that the plant growth to produce that biomass offsets the emissions. But the first requirement for a valid offset, whether for carbon or anything else, is that it is additional. If your employer wants to offset your overtime with vacation, they have to give you additional vacation, not just count the vacation you’ve already earned. Similarly, you can’t count plant growth as an offset if it was occurring anyway. Plant growth can only offset energy emissions if it is additional. Counting plants that would grow anyway is a form of double-counting.

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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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Earth Makers

The Ancient Practice of Ecosystem Creation

Hawaii.

Thursday, March 26, 987 BC.

On the other side of the planet, smelters are bellowing in Europe. The Zhou Dynasty has begun. 52,403,609 people inhabit the Earth. None of them live in Hawaii.

I fill my lungs with cool, fresh air. A rich, thick taste of vegetation with floral notes. It is 6:26 a.m. Rays of sunshine kiss the tops of hulking, gnarled Ohia trees, lighting up their soft red flowers. I hear and see birds. Lots of them.

I recognize ‘I‘iwi, a cardinal-size bird with screaming red feathers and a gently curved beak, dancing happily through the canopy. Alongside it is a smaller red bird with a black tail and black beak, called Apapane. The equally small Elepaio is a flycatcher with brown and white feathers and a straight, tiny black beak. It sings an effortless jumpy chatter and eagerly raises the feathers on top of its head. 

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Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: Panels and Sessions

The Good Anthropocene

Over the last few years, ecomodernist thinkers have articulated a vision of a “good Anthropocene,” one where humans use our extraordinary powers to shrink humankind's negative impacts on nature. But the very discussion of a good Anthropocene triggered a critical response from some who see modernization processes and the age of humans itself as inherently risky and destructive. Critics of the good Anthropocene say, ecomodernism doesn’t adequately consider the potential for civilization-ending catastrophe or for a stronger societal connection to nature. In light of this debate, Breakthrough Dialogue 2015 focused its agenda on the question: “What is our vision of a good Anthropocene?” In late June, around 170 scholars, policy makers, philanthropists, friends, and allies of Breakthrough Institute gathered in Sausalito to pose tough questions of the ecomodernist project and its stated goals. The following articles offer summaries of the panel presentations as well as the resulting conversation. 

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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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Can Economic Growth Be Green?

How Prosperity Enables Environmental Progress

Against projections of unsustainable growth, industrializing countries are poised to enter an era of “green growth,” explained a panel at Breakthrough Dialogue. To encourage this transition, however, requires better metrics for valuing public goods like clean air and longer lifespans.

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What is Modern in Ecomodernism?

Nature, Technology, and Politics in the Anthropocene

“Is ecomodernism a white elephant to kill as soon as possible, or a hopeful monster that requires the care of a whole bunch of Dr. Frankensteins?”

So asked sociologist Bruno Latour at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, the theme of which was “The Good Anthropocene.” Latour offered a rollicking critique of ecomodernists and their manifesto, kicking off a discussion among the other panelists and participants about what it means to be human and the division between nature and society.

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Who Cares About Wild Nature?

The Practical Realities of a Rewilded World

As wildlife populations rebound with reforestation in rich countries, including Europe and the United States, a question is increasingly being raised — do people really care about wild nature? Or do they view it as more of a nuisance than a blessing?

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Anthropocene Opportunities

Humanity as a Global Force for Change

The old biology fable suggests that all life on Earth is like a protozoan in a petri dish, where it multiplies, quickly exceeds its resources, and dies off. Are humans doomed to the same fate? Some environmentalists say yes, in a world of finite resources, the walls of the petri dish are not far off. Ecomodernists, on the other hand, argue that humans are not the same as protozoan, and that they can overcome ecological problems. A concurrent session at the Breakthrough Dialogue explored how recent socio-ecological thinking provides a strong basis for local, regional, and even planetary opportunities to achieve a “good Anthropocene.”

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What Is the Economics of Ecomodernism?

Decoupling and the Role of the State

What is the appropriate role of markets and the state when it comes to solving big environmental problems? A concurrent session at Breakthrough Dialogue debated different economic schools of thought with respect to how ecomodernists think about growth, innovation, and the environment.

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Can Environmental Education Be Saved?

Preparing the Next Generation of Thinkers to Solve “Wicked Problems”

Following a productive concurrent session at last year’s Breakthrough Dialogue on the current state of the undergraduate environmental studies and sciences (ESS) curriculum, six participants went on to author four of six articles, a “mini symposium,” on future directions for ESS education for the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The mini-symposium called for ESS departments to ensure students are exposed to a diversity of environmental perspectives and taught to think independently, a key insight that was also the focus of the session at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue.

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Can Ecomodernism Contribute to the “Rise of the Rest”?

Poor Countries Need Modern Energy for Development

The poor will need to increase their consumption of modern energy if the world’s nations are to ensure more equitable human development, said a panel of energy and development experts at the fifth annual Breakthrough Dialogue. To achieve this, the international community will need to think beyond providing the poor with access to household-scale electricity or placing other restrictions on energy consumption in the name of climate mitigation.

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A Theology for Ecomodernism

What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?

That in every corner of the Earth, human history and natural history combine — that no place remains as a pristine sanctuary apart from human influence — was reported as early as 1864 by George Perkins Marsh in his classic study, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Yet it was 131 years later that the publication of “The Trouble with Wilderness” by William Cronon set off a most difficult era for modern conservation. Cronon’s central observation, that wilderness was a cultural construct or invention, prompted scientific and conceptual work that has fundamentally challenged traditional views of nature and wilderness. Charles Mann, in his book 1491, published in 2006, marshaled a vast literature documenting how enormous populations of native peoples, before they were exterminated by disease and conquest, occupied and cultivated the pre-Columbian landscapes of the New World.

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Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene

Humanity As a Force for Good

Sometime next year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) may or may not decide that humans have changed the Earth so significantly that we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. The idea that humans have created a qualitatively different planet from the one we inherited was discussed at the beginning of the 20th century, but the informal use of the term dates back to the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2000, Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer formally proposed renaming the current geologic epoch, arguing that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, when the increased use of fossil fuels began the process of anthropogenic global warming –– a view that was echoed by other prominent earth scientists and promoted by environmental journalists.

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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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2015 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Three Trailblazing Ecomodernists Join Breakthrough

An iconoclast who forged a new path for environmentalism. A leading scholar on energy access and economic development in Africa. An industrial ecology researcher who shows us why human consumption isn’t a runaway train towards disaster. Breakthrough is proud to announce Stewart Brand, John Asafu-Adjaye, and Iddo Wernick as the 2015 Breakthrough Senior Fellows.

This is the seventh year Breakthrough has conferred Senior Fellows. Brand, Asafu-Adjaye, and Wernick join a group of 35 Senior Fellows awarded in previous years. 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. Congratulations and welcome to our new Senior Fellows!

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Peter Teague Joins Breakthrough Institute

Senior Advisor to Focus On Energy Access for Development and Nature

Breakthrough Institute cofounder, advisory board member, and longtime environmental philanthropist Peter Teague has become Senior Advisor at the Breakthrough Institute, where he has joined the staff leadership team and will oversee the think tank’s energy access work.

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The Year of Our High-Energy Planet

Top Breakthroughs of 2014

If 2013 was the year of hope and change, 2014 will be remembered as the year of the high-energy planet. The “small is beautiful” ethos crumbled as global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions grew faster than ever in recent years, despite the financial crisis, a global recession, and fears of “secular stagnation in the West.  

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The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part Two

The Case for the Proactionary Principle In the Face of Uncertainty

In part one of the interview with Steve Fuller, the professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick discussed an emerging ideological axis in which the Left and the Right are replaced by Up-Wingers and Down-Wingers. Up-Wingers, Fuller says, are fundamentally opposed to the dominance of the precautionary principle in guiding policy. In the second part of the interview below, we explore the failings of the precautionary principle and the advantages of a proactionary state, which has a documented history throughout the United States and Europe. 

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The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part One

Steve Fuller on the Proactionary Principle, Environmentalism, and Interstellar Flight

Cryogenically preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, the transhumanist Fereidoun Esfandiary – “dead” since 2000 – might better speak to the future of politics than today’s prognosticators. The leader of a loose group of futurists and thinkers in the 1970s, FM-2030 (as he dubbed himself) believed that humankind’s full potential could be unlocked by advances in science and technology. 

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Ruth DeFries Announced as 2015 Paradigm Award Winner

How Humans Thrive in the Anthropocene

The Breakthrough Institute will honor Ruth DeFries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University, with the 2014 Paradigm Award in recognition of her exceptional research on how humans transform their environments. 

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The Left vs. the Climate

Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein's Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet

Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before. 

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Ecomodernism

Ecomodernism is a pragmatic philosophy motivated by the belief that we can protect beautiful, wild places at the same time as we ensure that the seven-going-on-nine billion people in the world can lead secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives. Ecomodernists are optimistic about humanity’s ability to shape a better future – a “good Anthropocene.” 

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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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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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The Education of an Ecomodernist

From Eco-Romanticism to Radical Pragmatism

Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.

But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress

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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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Embracing Creative Destruction

Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World

Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.

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American Pastoral

How Romantic Elites Became the Eco-Puritan Left

For years, political divisions over the environment have had the seemingly odd feature that Americans farthest from the open country have tended to be most supportive of protecting the environment, while those nearest to it — farmers and other rural residents — have been most resistant. This split has been muddled in recent years as nature lovers have retired to the countryside, country folk have realized the business advantages of environmental tourism, and political polarization has increasingly subsumed specific issues. Still, when contentious topics such as the Keystone Pipeline or expanding national parks come up, the nature purists tend to be upscale urbanites. The General Social Survey asked how willing respondents would be to “accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment;” highly educated, white liberals in metropolitan areas were the most willing.

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Embracing Our High-Energy Planet

More Energy, Not Less, the Key to Cutting Emissions

"The long story of human progress is one of continually rising energy consumption," says the Breakthrough Institute's Alex Trembath. 

In order to continue the path of human progress, and indeed to extend it to all of the world's inhabitants over the next century, Trembath argues that we need a "high-energy planet." 

This idea flies in the face of the conventional environmental movement. Our profligate energy use is our biggest problem, the story goes. So in order to avoid doomsday scenarios, we need to cut back. We all need to live simpler and smaller lives.

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Mapping the Anthropocene

Visualizing How Humans Are Embedded in Nature

Any ecology student could tell you what biomes are: vegetation types, such as grasslands and tropical rainforests, that ecologists use to map the planet. But there’s a problem. Biomes exist only at the discretion of nearly 7 billion people trying to live their lives on a crowded planet.

Invert that ancient image of invasive humans chopping away at the edges of a pristine nature. The era has long since moved from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Nature is now embedded within a matrix of human-altered croplands, pastures, towns and cities. These anthropogenic biomes — “anthromes” for short — offer a fresh way of seeing our planetary pastiche.

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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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The Proactionary Principle

Between No Caution and Precaution

What is the most prominent science-based principle that influences international law today? The answer is undoubtedly the precautionary principle, which aims to promote only those policies whose likelihood of harm to both target and collateral populations is relatively small.

The principle is "scientific" insofar as it invites skepticism towards ambitious claims, typically about proposed innovations, which are sufficiently uncertain that their worst outcomes would be catastrophic and possibly irreversible. Thus, applications of the precautionary principle tend to be accompanied by "risk assessment" studies that try to distinguish what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the "known unknowns" from the "unknown unknowns." This sounds very hard-headed. But is it really?

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Liberals and Progressives for Nuclear

The Coming Atomic Age

While historically conservatives have been the prominent supporters of nuclear energy, the urgency of climate change has recently compelled liberals and progressives to reconsider nuclear as the best zero-carbon source of baseload electricity for a world with rapidly rising energy demand.

A couple years prior to the release of Robert Stone’s documentary Pandora’s Promisewhich follows five anti- to pro-nuclear converts, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Barry Brook, writing at his blog Brave New Climatecomposed a list of the most prominent intellectual leaders and public figures who changed their mind about nuclear energy and now support it.

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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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The Ethics of Ecological Modernization

Embracing Creative Destruction

The concluding panel at the Breakthrough Dialogue raised questions about the doomsday narratives embedded in current conversations of mankind’s ecological impacts, and pointed to an alternative set of ecologically modern ethics that might succeed the “small-is-beautiful,” anti-consumerist, and technologically skeptical values of traditional environmentalism.

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A Deeper Climate Conversation

How Natural Gas and Nuclear Are Essential to Decarbonization

In the last month, the Breakthrough Institute has published two major reports that inject fresh and pragmatic perspective to the discourse on climate and energy. In contrast to the binary and simplistic conception of decarbonization that imagines a step-wise shift from fossil fuels to exclusively renewable technologies, we have aimed to simultaneously place the role of natural gas in the broader process of decarbonization and chart a new path for nuclear energy innovation. These two goals are neither replacements nor antecedents for continued support for renewable energy, but they do and should complicate dialogues over how best to transition to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet.

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Mugged By Reality

Nordhaus on the Smarter Environmental Agenda

In 2007, when Ted Nordhaus, the co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, published his first book (Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility) he became simultaneously one of the most despised and one of the most revered figures in the U.S. environmental movement. The book, coauthored by Michael Shellenberger, was a seething indictment of the sort of traditional environmentalism that prizes renewable energy, condemns fracking and nuclear plants, and threatens global apocalypse should we fail to address climate change. Five years later, he hasn’t backed down. What follows is an edited interview based on two recent conversations with Nordhaus.

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‘Pandora’s Promise’ Stirs National Debate Over Nuclear

"The Most Important Movie about the Environment Since ‘An Inconvenient Truth'’’

Following a strong critical reception at the Sundance Film Festival, the new documentary “Pandora’s Promise,” which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, is sparking national debate over whether to embrace nuclear energy to address global warming.

“Life is about choices, and we need to make one,” writes Michael Specter in the New Yorker. “Being opposed to nuclear power, as [Richard] Rhodes points out [in the film], means being in favor of burning fossil fuel. It’s that simple. Nuclear energy — now in its fourth generation — is at least as safe as any other form of power.”

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The Long Anthropocene

Three Millennia of Humans Reshaping the Earth

Humans have been changing Earth’s landscapes at globally significant levels for at least 3000 years, and doing so by increasingly productive and efficient means, according to our new research challenging the claim that use of land by industrial civilization is destroying planetary ecology at an accelerating pace.

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Beyond Virtuous Nature

Rachel Carson in History

That women are the caretakers of a society’s virtue and morals might be one of the few ideas historically that can rival, in power and persistence, the idea of nature as the authentic source of virtue. It’s as if Rachel Carson stands between the meanings of women and the meanings of nature, and both radiate virtue towards and around her in a kind of closed system.

And this powerful vision of nature, as the central environmentalist trope has gotten us far. But it is long past time to move it away, to dislodge it, from the center of environmentalism. We owe so much to Rachel Carson. But I don’t think that her vision of nature can ultimately sustain a culture of environmentalism that will effectively arm us to create the clean, healthy world, full of healthy wild things and places, as well as healthy people.

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Shellenberger on Colbert Report

Breakthrough Cofounder Talks Climate, Nuclear, and Frankenstein with Stephen Colbert

Michael Shellenberger, president and cofounder of the Breakthrough Institute, made the case for a new environmentalism on the Colbert Report last week.

The new environmentalism is defined by its embrace of technology as essential to human progress and overcoming environmental challenges such as climate change.

“That’s why we wrote this book — it’s called Love Your Monsters. It comes from this idea that we should treat our technologies like our children, like our creations,” Shellenberger explained. “When they fail us — when they disappoint us — you don’t abandon them, you improve them. You make them better.”

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Emma Marris Receives 2013 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Environmental Writer Has Challenged Dominant Views of Nature

The Breakthrough Institute honored author and journalist Emma Marris in June with the 2013 Paradigm Award in recognition of her intellectual leadership in reimagining conservation for the 21st century.

Marris has demonstrated a singular commitment to scientific evidence — wherever it takes her — in questioning longstanding assumptions about nature and creating a compelling and vibrant vision of life in the Anthropocene.

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The Rise of the ‘Modernist Greens’

Slate Features Breakthrough Institute and Allies

A growing movement of “modernist greens,” made up of cutting edge scientists and thinkers, innovative activists and policy experts, has reimagined environmentalism over the past decade and is today actively creating a powerful new ecological politics for the twenty-first century.

These efforts, profiled expertly by former Audubon editor Keith Kloor last week in Slate, are fashioning a “radical departure from the nature-centric framework that has long dominated environmental politics and policy.”

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Environmentalism, the Face of a Deeper Fight

The Lesson of Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner, an ecologist and pioneer of modern environmentalism who passed away on Sunday, pursued a mission that went far beyond preserving biodiversity or reducing pollution. Like many environmentalists today, he sought to advance a values-based vision of how society should work.

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Love Your Pythons

Managing a Changing Everglades

Biologists with the United States Geological Survey recently captured a 17-foot Burmese Python in the Everglades and put it down because it was an invasive species. But should we “learn to love” these pythons, instead of try to root them out in the name of a “pure” Everglades? After all, the Burmese Python, first introduced to Florida through the exotic animal trade, is unlikely to go away entirely any time soon.

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Wicked Questions

How Do We Create an Urgent Politics That is Not Apocalyptic?

Can we advocate greater effort to break cycles of poverty, alienation, and despair even as we acknowledge that our lives, including the lives of the very poor, have vastly improved with increased wealth, modern medicine, and better infrastructure? Can we acknowledge that the new environmental risks that our prosperity has created are serious and must be dealt with, while acknowledging that they are unlikely to result in the end of human civilization? In short, can we imagine a non-apocalyptic politics that is neither Cornucopian nor Panglossian?

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‘Silent Spring’ is 50. The Credit, and the Blame, It Deserves.

By David Ropeik. Originally published at Risk: Reason and Reality at Big Think.

In the 50 years since Silent Spring was published, the environmental movement it helped create has accomplished a great deal. It may be less popular to suggest, but it is no less true, that this seminal book and the movement it helped spawn have also caused a great deal of harm. As much as Rachel Carson's inspiring work deserves significant credit for our cleaner air and water and progress on so many other environmental issues, it also deserves some of the blame for having helped foster a set of accepted truths and common beliefs that have caused enormous damage to human and environmental health.

Given that there will hopefully be a lot of deserved praise for Silent Spring on this anniversary, let's look at the other side of what Carson's cri de coeur, and environmentalism, have done, because there is an important lesson here about the danger of narrow thinking that refuses to see the bigger picture.

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Beyond Planetary Boundaries

Environmental Science After Rio+20

The failure to account for different environments points to the main problem with the planetary boundaries framework: it only measures environmental change as negative -- as progression toward supposed biophysical boundaries -- and never as positive, either for humans (e.g., more food) or environments (e.g., higher yields resulting in less deforestation).

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Environments Are Not Constraints

Long before Malthus, "the population bomb", "population overshoot" and the "planetary boundaries", ancient sages portrayed humanity as confronted with imminent collapse in the face of environmental limits and as degraders of nature overall (i.e."Earth's life-support systems"). Without halting population growth, pollution, or other harmful activities, humanity would collapse and nature along with it. While contemporary scientists, policy makers and the public are generally aware that this formulation profoundly oversimplifies the situation, it remains the core message behind the efforts of many of those concerned with improving environmental decision-making, both locally and globally.

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Evolve Beyond Planetary Boundaries

In the two years since climate treaty talks fizzled in Copenhagen, the international community finally seemed to be learning from its mistakes. A growing number of NGOs and academics pointed to the lack of cheap and clean alternatives to fossil energy as the underlying cause of the failure of Kyoto, cap and trade, and the Emissions Trading Scheme in Europe. Business leaders like Bill Gates called for radical energy innovation as the key to feeding and electrifying the planet -- without over-heating it. And in a recent BioScience article, a number of prominent ecologists issued a manifesto calling for an international embrace of "planetary opportunities" like urbanization and agricultural innovation, two keys to truly sustainable development. 

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Evolve

The Case for Modernization as the Road to Salvation

Sometime around 2014, Italy will complete construction of seventy-eight mobile floodgates aimed at protecting Venice's three inlets from the rising tides of the Adriatic Sea. The massive doors -- twenty meters by thirty meters, and five meters thick -- will, most of the time, lie flat on the sandy seabed between the lagoon and the sea. But when a high tide is predicted, the doors will empty themselves of water and fill with compressed air, rising up on hinges to keep the Adriatic out of the city. Three locks will allow ships to move in and out of the lagoon while the gates are up.

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Love Your Monsters

Why We Must Care for Our Technologies As We Do Our Children

Environmentalists chastise humanity for transgressions against Nature. We are told that by creating technologies, we have sinned. But if humanity has sinned, it is not through the act of creation. Instead, we sin when we fail to care for our technologies. We should not stop creating; rather, our goal should be to never stop innovating, inventing, creating, and intervening. Instead of turning our backs on modernization, we must learn to modernize modernization. This challenge demands more of us than simply embracing technology and innovation. It requires exchanging the modernist notion of modernity for one that sees the process of human development as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it, but rather as a process of becoming ever more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of nonhuman natures.

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Love Your Monsters Ebook

Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene

These are demoralizing times for anyone who cares about the global environment. Emissions trading, the Kyoto treaty, and sustainable development have all failed. And yet climate change, deforestation, and species extinction continue apace. What lessons can we draw from the failure of environmentalism — what must we do now?

In this provocative collection of essays edited by the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism,” leading ecological thinkers put forward a vision of postenvironmentalism for the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Over the next century it is within our reach to create a world where all 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living that will allow them to pursue their dreams. But this world is only possible if we embrace human development, modernization, and technological innovation.

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The Long Death of Environmentalism

It is a great pleasure to be here at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies for this retrospective on "The Death of Environmentalism." In early 2005 Yale invited us to debate that essay, and since then the School has continued to demonstrate a genuine interest in what our friend and colleague Peter Teague has taken to calling ecological innovation. You train your students to ask hard questions -- we saw this first hand in 2010 Breakthrough Fellow and Yale School Masters candidate David Mitchell -- and your flagship publication, Yale360, is publishing some of the most interesting green thinkers today. We are grateful once again for this opportunity to reflect on the nearly seven years since we wrote our essay, and make some new arguments about what the green movement must do now.

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‘Break Through’ The Book

From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility

Greeted by controversy on its publication, Break Through soon became recognized — as much by those who criticized it as embraced it — as a book of historical significance. Kyoto, cap and trade, and sustainable development in the Amazon have failed. The planet is getting hotter, faster, and the old environmental solutions cannot save us. What’s required is not that we constrain human power but rather unleash it.  In opposition to regulation-focused greens and anti-government conservatives, the authors call for epic government investment in a new economy, and herald a “politics of possibility” — one of hope and renewal — to overcome global warming and allow America to become, once again, a great nation.

“Prescient.” — Time

"Convincing, resonant and hopeful." — Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

2008 Green Book Award Winner

“To win, Nordhaus and Shellenberger persuasively argue, environmentalists must stop congratulating themselves for their own willingness to confront inconvenient truths and must focus on building a politics of shared hope rather than relying on a politics of fear.”

New York Times

“If heeded, Nordhaus and Shellenberger's call for an optimistic outlook — embracing economic dynamism and creative potential — will surely do more for the environment than any U.N. report or Nobel Prize.”

Wall Street Journal

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