March 27, 2008
Against Fall Narratives
By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
Jared Diamond wrote his 2005 bestseller "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," intending to motivate political action to forestall ecological crises. In this excerpt from Chapter Six, "The Death of Environmentalism," in Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility," Breakthrough Institute co-founders argue that political appeals to fear risk backfiring.
Collapse is a catalog of case studies of the deaths of past civilizations, such as the Mayans and Anasazi, as well as contemporary societies, such as Rwanda during the genocide. In "Collapse," Diamond argues that past civilizations collapsed for five reasons: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and societal responses to environmental problems.
Diamond's tragic narrative leads him to some disturbing political conclusions.
People in the Third World aspire to First World living standards... Third World citizens are encouraged in that aspiration by First World and United Nations development agencies, which hold out to them the prospect of achieving their dream if they will only adopt the right policies, like balancing their budgets, investing in education and infrastructure, and so on. But no one at the U.N. or in First World governments is willing to acknowledge the dream's impossibility: the sustainability of a world in which the Third World's large population were to reach and maintain current First World living standards.
Diamond believes he is being courageous in delivering this alleged truth. But how courageous is it for Diamond to insist that the poorest people on Earth should not aspire to the same standard of living that he himself enjoys? By the end of "Collapse," Diamond has apparently terrified himself to the point of believing that there's simply not enough room on Earth's lifeboat for everyone.
One common psychological effect of rising insecurity is for people to become more conservative, less generous, and more zero-sum: think pre-Hitler Germany or pre-genocide Rwanda. Many decades of social science literature strongly correlates rising insecurity, fear, and pessimism with authoritarian politics. In difficult situations, the insecure and the pessimistic seek out authoritarian leadership. What's more, social psychological research conducted in laboratory settings has found that manufacturing insecurity and fear, particularly of one's own death, can have the same impact as real social circumstances of fear, such as during a terrorist attack or rising economic insecurity.
Affluent First World environmentalists like Jared Diamond are no less subject to the effect psychologists call "mortality salience" than are peasants in Rwanda. Little surprise, then, that after writing hundreds of pages of terrifying prose, scaring himself senseless, Diamond effectively embraces maintaining inequality and poverty in countries like China and India.
Collapse was intended to help Americans change their social values and create a more ecological society in order to avoid the fate of groups like the Greenland Norse. But in terrifying himself and his readers about the growing risk of social collapse, Diamond's eco-apocalypse narrative risks having the opposite effect. What extensive research finds is that the more scared people become about social instability and death, the less likely they are to change the way they think. "Fear of death," wrote a group of social scientists in 2003, "engenders a defense of one's cultural worldview."
To direct our focus on collapse not only makes for a distorted view of human history, it risks undermining the security, confidence, and optimism required for social and political change. There has to be a better way.
A Better Story
There is a very different story that can be told about human history, one that embraces our agency, and that is the story of constant human overcoming. Whereas the tragic story imagines that humans have fallen, the narrative of overcoming imagines that we have risen.
Consider how much our ancestors -- human and nonhuman -- overcame for us to become what we are today. For beginners, they were prey. Given how quickly and efficiently humans are driving the extinction of nonhuman animal species, the notion that our ancestors were food seems preposterous. And yet, understanding that we evolved from being prey goes a long way to understanding some of the feelings and motivations that drive us into suicidal wars and equally suicidal ecological collapses.
Against the happy accounts of harmonious premodern human societies at one with Nature, there is the reality that life was exceedingly short and difficult. Of course, life could also be wonderful and joyous. But it was hunger, not obesity, oppression, not depression, and violence, not loneliness, that were primary concerns.
Just as the past offers plenty of stories of humankind's failure, it also offers plenty of stories of human overcoming. Indeed, we can only speak of past collapses because we have survived them. There are billions more people on earth than there were when the tiny societies of the Anasazi in the North American southwest and the Norse in Greenland collapsed in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, respectively. That there are nearly seven billion of us alive today is a sign of our success, not failure.
Perhaps the most powerful indictment of environmentalism is that environmentalists almost uniformly consider our long life spans and large numbers terrible tragedies rather than extraordinary achievements. The narrative of overpopulation voiced almost entirely by some of the richest humans ever to roam the earth is utterly lacking in gratitude for the astonishing labors of our ancestors.
Of course, none of this is to say that human civilizations won't collapse again in the future. They almost certainly will. Indeed, some are already doing so. But to focus on these collapses is to miss the larger picture of rising prosperity and longer life spans. Not only have we survived, we've thrived. Today more and more of us are "free at last" -- free to say what we want to say, love whom we want to love, and live within a far larger universe of possibilities than any other generation of humans on earth.
At the very moment that we humans are close to overcoming hunger and ancient diseases like polio and malaria, we face ecological crises of our own making, ones that could trigger drought, hunger, and the resurgence of ancient diseases.
The narrative of overcoming helps us to imagine and thus create a brighter future. Human societies will continue to stumble. Many will fall. But we have overcome starvation, disease, deprivation, oppression, and war. We can overcome ecological crisis.