Wicked Questions

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


Former Audubon magazine editor Keith Kloor, left, interviews UK environmental writer Mark Lynas at the 2012 Breakthrough Dialogue. Lynas received the Breakthrough Paradigm Award for his efforts to shift public thinking about major environmental and policy issues. Photo by Gabriel Harber

August 20, 2012 | Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus,

How do we create an urgent politics that is not apocalyptic?

Recession, unemployment, debt, and inequality. Global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, and drought. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, AIDS, failed states, and drug wars. The new challenges we face in a new century are serious.

Global warming threatens to profoundly transform the global climate, global ecosystems, and global agriculture. Economic inequality in the United States has reached its highest level since the Great Depression. Developed economies around the world are struggling to finance growing welfare states while rates of economic growth in those economies appear to have stagnated.

Yet, for the most part, all of our contemporary crises are better problems to have than the ones that have plagued human societies though much of our history. Even in the worst-case scenarios, for instance, most of us would still take global warming over energy poverty. For those of us in the developed world after all, the existential fear is that we will end up living like Somalis. And even for the global poor, the threat is that our overuse of fossil energy will ultimately take away the prosperity that, if they are lucky, greater energy use will bring them in the coming decades.

Or consider the Great Recession. Unemployment today can still be devastating, but it no longer results in either hunger or lack of essential medical care. While the Great Depression forced families to live on the street, the Great Recession has forced young people to move in with their parents. Fiscal realities may force wealthy economies around the world to reform entitlements, but few critics and reformers seriously imagine that the welfare state and the social safety net will go away entirely.

As liberals, the millenarian impulse runs deep and the politics of crisis and apocalypse is hard to resist, putting the narrator in the role of hero and prophet. But it also provokes fatalism among the disengaged, driving them further from both politics and the embrace of positive solutions that might address the new problems we face and polarization and zealotry among the engaged, driving partisans to entrench themselves ever further into positions that reinforce tribal identities but often have little relationship to the actual choices we have to make.

Might it be possible to construct a politics that retains a clarity of purpose, a strong sense of urgency, and a commitment to creating a better society even as we recognize that America and other developed societies, and increasingly many emerging economies as well, have been, by global and historical measures, remarkably successful? 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?

Are the problems harder because the stakes are lower?

Too often, the notion of Wickedness has become a synonym for complexity. But arguably, Wickedness is as much a function of lowered stakes. We disagree about things like climate change, nuclear energy, and health care reform because we can afford to do so. Climate change is a distant threat with uncertain impacts. We have abundant, cheap fossil fuels and do not need nuclear to keep the lights on. The vast majority of Americans have health insurance. Among those that lack insurance, virtually all have access to emergency rooms, vaccines, and other forms of medical care, even if we deem that level of care inadequate (or immoral) in an advanced, developed economy.

Complexity and uncertainty, fat tails, and long wave events conspire alongside our affluence and security to undermine the possibility of shared truths and common facts. Where once we built a Great Society, today we hope for a grand bargain — a sweeping accommodation among our fractious and pluralistic political tribes in place of a lasting social contract won from the blood, sweat, and tears of political movements that swept all opposition and backwardness from their paths.

We litigate our political differences endlessly because, while we may tell ourselves the end is near, our actual day-to-day experiences tell us otherwise. The planet may be warming, the health care system too expensive, gas prices too high, but each day we awake anew to a world whose comforts, opportunities, and possibilities would have been unimaginable to most of our grandparents. It is hard to say which makes us more inured to the risks, challenges, and injustices that exist in the world — the endless warnings and jeremiads to which we are subject or the complete disconnection between those dark incantations and the actual lives that most of us lead.

Consider how differently we respond to crises that actually seem to threaten our way of life. Within days of the 9/11 attacks, Congress voted 420 – 1 to invade Afghanistan. Faced with the impending meltdown of the global financial system, America’s bitterly divided polity united in a matter of days in favor of a financial rescue package of unprecedented scale. Forced to choose between the Euro and economic chaos, European governments consistently find a way to choose the Euro.

But once the crisis passes, we return to our wicked ways. For political elites, the stakes around our identities and the pleasures we take in moralizing arguably trump the crises that we endlessly debate. Hence it becomes possible to condemn the climate debt we owe the Bangladshi, preach of climate apocalypse, and moralize against excessive consumption, while opposing nuclear power and consuming at historically and globally unprecedented levels. And it becomes possible to bemoan the plight of small businesses while opposing measures to bring to account the banks that bankrupted them or to talk about the crisis of norms and values among the white working class while opposing policies that might offer them economic opportunities and security that might provide a context in which to abandon those norms. The partisan's interest in victims is limited to their use in dramatic stories that infuse our politics with grandeur, and that confer upon us a sense of moral superiority.

Absent a present day crisis then, how might we reconstruct a functioning polity capable of engaging in the mundane negotiations and compromises necessary for the day-to-day politics of making a good society better? Throughout our careers, we have engaged in constant discussions about how to raise the stakes around the issues we care about. But might we be better served in many cases by asking how we might diminish them? Turning wicked problems into tame ones often creates problems that are more solvable but less suited to grand narratives or political moralizing. Can there be a passionate constituency for "uncomfortable knowledge" and "clumsy solutions"? Does there need to be? Or is it more that the construction of clumsy solutions happens amidst and in spite of the partisanship?

The broader meaning of the Anthropocene.

We often talk about the Anthropocene as a new geological era, the point at which humans have become the greatest ecological force on the planet. But the Anthropocene is as much a metaphor as a biophysical reality. It reflects not only our influence upon the ecological systems of the planet but also our liberation from "Nature." Today, increasing numbers of humans no longer depend primarily upon ecological systems for their wellbeing but rather upon human socio-technological systems, like agriculture and cities. That transition is likely to only accelerate in the coming century, as most of humanity abandons rural and agrarian economies for cities and becomes integrated into national and global market economies.

The Anthropocene is both produced by and produces rising societal affluence and economic security, and its implications extend well beyond ecological politics. We are in control, partially and imperfectly, of our economies and our societies as well as planetary ecosystems. Our economies, as well as our ecologies, are not natural nor governed by natural laws. They are created, modified, and governed by human beings, for human ends, and always have been.

The choices we face across the entirety of the human endeavor are not fundamentally about whether we will survive but rather how we will live — and these questions turn on competing values. If we want to limit global warming, how much are we willing to pay for more energy innovation and deployment, whether of nuclear or renewables? If we want more of our agriculture to be organic, how much more land are we prepared to use? If we want to reduce agriculture's footprint, are we prepared to intensify mechanical and chemical inputs to do so?

Our economy and social safety net present us with similar choices and trade offs. If we want a more dynamic economy, how much creative destruction, entrepreneurial churn, and short-term economic and social dislocation are we willing to tolerate? As liberals, we frequently argue that we can have a society that has low levels of inequality, high rates of social mobility, and is highly meritocratic. But are these concepts really so easily reconciled? A perfectly equal society, after all, could have no social mobility at all. Social mobility is not necessarily meritocratic while inequality can be. How much inequality of outcomes are we willing to accept in order to have meritocracy and social mobility?

In every case, the real-world choices and trade-offs we have are different than the all-or-nothing choices suggested by exaggerated, partisan framings. These are choices that, for the first time in human history, we are in a position to make with no small amount of foresight and planning. Yet in embracing our great social, economic, and technological powers, we must at the same time embrace their partiality and contingency, and the uncertainty and complexity of this new world that we will have ever greater capacity to shape. Indeed, increasing complexity and uncertainty are products of our vastly expanding powers to both observe the world and shape it. A new politics for the Anthropocene will need to find an uncomfortable purchase that embraces our agency even as we acknowledge its limits.

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