Breakthrough Institute: Everything Modern Environmentalism Should Be

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

“[K]nowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene [Age of Humans]. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”

That statement, from An Ecomodernist Manifesto, summarizes the primary guiding principle and cri de coeur of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think-tank whose mission is to simultaneously prioritize human flourishing and environmental responsibility. Who could possibly disagree with that?

Many mainstream environmentalists, apparently.

Last week, I was invited to be a panelist for a discussion of GMOs at the annual Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California. (Full disclosure: Breakthrough paid for my flight and hotel room, but not the funky coffee mojito I purchased at Philz Coffee.) The most interesting part of the conference was not my panel, however, but the debate that occurred on the very first night of the meeting.

Mark Lynas, the internationally renowned environmentalist and author who famously “converted” from being anti-GMO to pro-GMO, kicked off the debate with his vision of the Good Anthropocene. He believes that technology, far from being a curse, will play a vital role in healthfully shaping our planet in the coming decades and beyond.

To make his point, he said that the typical hunter-gatherer lifestyle (which, by the way, is unscientifically mythologized by paleo dieters) requires some 10 square kilometers of land per human being. This is clearly unsustainable; the population of the UK, for instance, would need to forage on a piece of land the size of North America. Modern agriculture solved this problem, yet we still act as hunter-gatherers in our oceans, where we are literally overfishing some populations to extinction. Aquaculture is an obvious fix. Such optimistic technological solutions characterize Breakthrough’s vision for the Good Anthropocene.

Yet, such optimistic ideas are not obvious to doomsday prophets. In response to Mr. Lynas’ positive vision, Clive Hamilton, an ethics professor and merchant of gloom, essentially believes that mankind is incapable of doing anything good in the long run. Because the shift from the Holocence (the prior geological epoch) to the Anthropocence has in many ways been catastrophic, Dr. Hamilton rejects the notion that the Anthropocence can be “good.”

Glaringly absent from his diatribe, as is typical of those who adhere to such an apocalyptic worldview, was the proposal of a single solution to any problem. This was not lost upon the moderator, Oliver Morton from The Economist, who asked to much laughter: “If the Anthropocene cannot be described as ‘good’, then how would you describe it? Short?”

Predictably, Dr. Hamilton had no answer. He did, however, rail against “America’s obsession with nuclear power,” geoengineering, and other “techno-fixes.” He also managed to cram in a non-sequitur about the Koch Brothers and Exxon, and then flatly denied the reality that environmentalists are largely to blame for the lack of clean energy sources by refusing to embrace nuclear power. Germany, for instance, had to bring back coal because — at the behest of environmentalists — the government is phasing out nuclear.

In short, Clive Hamilton forcefully but unintentionally demonstrated the sheer intellectual bankruptcy of mainstream environmentalism.

With their knee-jerk pessimism and apparent belief in the parasitic nature of mankind, it is no surprise that environmentalists have failed to win over many hearts and minds. It is time for the optimistic, pro-science, and pro-humanity vision of the Breakthrough Institute to become the fresh new face of modern environmentalism.

(Photo: Alex Berezow)