The Unofficial Recap of Dialogue 2016: Great Transformations

I just got to spend 3 days inside of a Tom Robbins’ novel, the Breakthrough Institute’s Dialogue 2016: Great Transformations. Like a Robbins novel, it was brilliant, inspiring, and unexpectedly sweet at times. It was also occasionally Still Life with Woodpecker weird (in a good way) with environmentalist royalty and real-life anarchists. Robbins isn’t a fan of technology so he might hate this comparison.

The conference was held in Sausalito, California which might be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. There were all of these gorgeous eucalyptus trees scattered around and I heard someone complain about them being an invasive species that needed to be removed which is so California. Here in Florida, our best invasive species is the python somebody dumped in the Everglades after it snacked on the family pitbull.

Dialogue 2016 was a gathering of academic heavy-hitters, scientists, journalists, economists, and activists. And me.

Random Brilliant Person: I have a Ph.D in Everything. What did you study?

Amy:  Psychological Approaches to Literature.

Random Brilliant Person: *blinks*

Amy:  I know how to write stupid shit about boring books.

Random Brilliant Person: I have written 6 boring books.

Amy:  I have a blog.

The people at this conference really were brilliant and I mean brilliant as in “Let’s Gossip about Nobel Laureates” rather than the “Hugh Grant Enjoys That Salad” kind of brilliant. Esoteric conversations over turkey sandwiches are a given. (Calling conversations “esoteric” is my new thing after hanging with this crowd.)

My favorite part of the whole event was the tribute to Sir David MacKay, a man who made me look at renewable energy differently. Check that – a man who made me think about renewable energy at all. I’ve written about him here but it’s better to watch his Ted Talk or read his book, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. MacKay passed away this year and I’m so sorry I didn’t get to meet him in person. The Breakthrough Institute honored him with the 2016 Paradigm Award for his contribution to the global conversation about energy. It was obvious by the emotion in the room how much he was admired and loved by the people who knew him and worked with him. I felt honored to witness it.

On a side note, Oliver Morton, a senior editor at the Economist, made some touching remarks about MacKay. Before he spoke, he used rhythmic snapping for a really long time to get everyone’s attention and it seemed like most people in the room knew what the hell he was doing. Maybe that’s an ecomodernist thing. Snapping. I should try it with my kids. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet Morton and have this conversation:

Amy: I’m sorry for talking during your snapping. It was very rhythmic.

Morton: I am an editor at the Economist. I am used to people not understanding me.

Amy: I am also sorry for staring at your mutton chops. They are so interesting.

Morton:  I am busy being sad about Brexit. Please do not bother me about my interesting facial hair.

The next day was jam-packed and the highlight was definitely listening to Dan Kahan who is a Professor of Law and a Professor of Psychology at Yale because…why not? He talks about 500 mph so I’m assuming that’s how fast he thinks and how he had time to become Professor of All of the Subjects. It was a blast to listen to him talk about group identities and tribes and biases. I left his session feeling slightly immobilized and wrong about everything.  I’ll have to read more of Kahan’s work because there wasn’t enough time to process. I also got distracted with figuring out who he reminded me of which is sort of a Dark Crystal version of Conan O’Brien, Superman, and Jim Carrey. In a good way.

The next thing, the reason I was there, was my panel, Ecomodernism and the Left which should have been called Ecomodernism and the European Left with Snarky Asides from Amy. The 2 guys on my panel were science writer, Leigh Phillips, and Swedish professor, Rasmus Karlsson. They are uber-intellectuals and I could listen to them debate equality all day long but I didn’t have a whole lot to contribute to that conversation. I satirize anti-vaxxers and mock corporations with imaginary marketing meetings – I don’t spend a lot of time considering the relationship between economic growth and equality. Maybe I should but it’s hard to make that funny.

Q. Does economic growth drive equality or does equality drive economic growth?

A. Zzzzzz…?

The panel got a little dicey during the Q&A when a slightly rage(y) man yelled at Leigh and me to stop “trashing the left” which…oops. Yeah, we’ve done that. Leigh kind of apologized for calling people “Granola Druids” which is hilarious and way better than when I called them “dicks.” I understand what Ragey Guy is saying and he’s probably right – trashing someone’s beliefs may not be an effective way to win them over. I’ll have to circle back to Superman O’Brien to analyze that further but the next session got me fired up and ready to start trashing again so sorry, Ragey Guy, some of these Granola Druids are dicks.

The session following mine was a discussion about industrialization in the 21st century. Lack of access to cheap energy is one of the obstacles to overcoming global poverty – it’s difficult to operate a factory and create jobs if you don’t have electricity or if electricity is a huge percentage of your costs. On the flip side, growing energy demands negatively affect the climate so how is that addressed? That’s the billion dollar question but one of the panelists, Samir Saran, vice president of the Observer Research Foundation, made a comment that global poverty was a climate change mitigation strategy. That’s a strong statement (and accusation) – keeping people poor, without access to energy, is one of the ways to address climate change? I doubt anyone on the Green Left would agree with this and maybe it’s not true (Dan Kahan has ruined all of my convictions) but the idea that that anyone, especially on the left, would intentionally adopt policies to keep people poor is abhorrent. So, brace yourself, Ragey Guy, if I decide I agree with Saran.

I can’t recap everything because it would take forever but I have to mention my friend and co-writer, Julie Kelly, and her panel. It was basically about ecomodernism and the political right which was the mirror image of my panel. The contrast was awesome.

Audience Members: Please be philosophical and tell us how you truly care about environmental issues.

Conservatives: Fuck that. We’re doing a cost-benefit analysis first.

Also, I think that someone gave the poor guys on Julie’s panel some bad information because they thought she was just a “housewife” so they apologized for getting too wonky. They obviously didn’t understand her political background or the fact that she can write a Wall Street Journal article at the same time she kicks your ass. She has the Vermont GMO labeling bill memorized and she might be the only person on the planet to read the National Academy of Science report on GMOs, cover to cover. So, wonky is not a problem for her. The guys were also lost when she offered to get the executive editor of National Review a glass of water if he’d publish one of her pieces. Funny women are confusing. The panel was interesting though and oddly enough, Julie and my socialist co-panelist, Leigh Phillips, found some areas of agreement when it comes to energy poverty. This is why I find ecomodernism hopeful.

Other notable/embarrassing moments for me were exchanges with Pandora’s Promise director, Robert Stone, and then later with Environmental Progress’ founder, Michael Shellenberger.

Amy:  Hi, Robert Stone. I’ve been dying to meet you. I am the one who wrote the ridiculous review of Pandora’s Promise.

Robert Stone:  There were exactly 1000 ridiculous reviews of my movie. How much wine have you had?

Amy: I have had all of the wine. I am the one who said nuclear energy has a White Guys with Sweater Vests problem.

Robert Stone: *blinks*

Amy:  I should look for more wine.

Later that night…

Amy: I have had all of the wine. I am an environmental activist. *cries*

Michael Shellenberger:  We are going to commit civil disobedience tomorrow and have a sit-in in front of Greenpeace offices.

Amy:  I did not bring an outfit for a sit-in plus I need to go to the spa for a scalp massage.

Michael Shellenberger:  *blinks*

Amy:  I am the worst environmental activist so I better drink the rest of this wine. *cries*

The trip went by too quickly and I’m still processing so I may do a follow-up piece. I also need to write a second, more serious article about a couple of the scientists I met there and the work these women are doing.

I’ve spent most of my time since Friday trying to figure out where ecomodernism is going as a movement – if it’s even a movement at all. It’s a difficult thing to define because there are so many competing viewpoints and philosophies, which is one of the things I find appealing, the lack of dogma. The common threads though are humanism and optimism. Everyone who attended Dialogue cares about the environment, most are concerned with climate change, many are optimistic, but everyone involved cares deeply about the welfare and future of humanity. I think this is ecomodernism’s strength and appeal and why it will continue to grow as a movement – or whatever it is.

Tom Robbins said:

“To achieve the impossible; it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.”

To me that’s what this gathering was about – a group of people who are stretching their thinking to solve impossible world problems; problems that many are refusing to even acknowledge, much less trying to solve. Imagine what we could achieve if more people were thinking the unthinkable…

So, thanks for having me. It was wonderful and weird and I can’t wait to do it again.

eco