End of the World — or Decline of the West?

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part Three

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Global warming allows the West in general — and Europe in particular — to put itself back in the center of history at the very moment it is moving to the margins. Apocalyptic environmentalism is not simply old Christian wine in new bottles, but rather a uniquely narcissistic variant of it. What makes us special, we Western greens tell ourselves, is not simply that we love and understand nature better, but that our generation has the power to save it.

June 10, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Modern societies have been dealing with environmental problems since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that so many people began to see pollution and rising population as signs that human civilization was fundamentally unsustainable. 

In his 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Shortly after Ehrlich predicted that, between 1980 and 1989, food shortages would cause 4 billion people to starve to death — 65 million of them in the United States.

Ehrlich’s pessimistic book was followed by a raft of similar predictions. The Club of Rome not long after would publish The Limits to Growth, which claimed its computer models proved the world would soon run out of resources. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly in the 80s argued that the world must forsake further economic growth so as to not exceed the Earth’s environmental carrying capacity. In 2009, a prestigious group of natural scientists argued in the journal Nature for the existence of nine biophysical planetary boundaries, including for things like fertilizer and land use, beyond which human societies risked catastrophe.

In his sizzling new polemic against apocalyptic environmentalism, The Fantacisim of the Apocalypse, French philosopher Pascal Bruckner reminds us that, stripped of scientific trappings, our modern tales of environmental catastrophe are identical in structure to the Christian story of apocalypse. “I am trying through ecology to heal the wound that was opened by humanity’s split with nature thousands of years ago,” the seminal environmental thinker Murray Bookchin wrote in 1974. It is a story of our fall from grace in Genesis leading to the end of the world in Revelations.

Bruckner has long been a darling of the French media and avant-garde. His prior book, The Paradox of Love, was a critically acclaimed best seller, and was published in English earlier this year. But Bruckner’s Apocalypse inspired Le Monde to dedicate four full newspaper pages to denouncing him as a kind of reactionary. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bruckner is an environmentally minded liberal who accepts that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed. What Bruckner is after in Apocalypse is the religiosity that has become mixed up with legitimate environmental issues, like climate change, turning them into Biblical fables, rather than problems to be solved.

Bruckner argues that there are “two ecologies: one rational, the other nonsensical; one that broadens our outlook while the other narrows it; one democratic, the other totalitarian.” The first views environmental problems as side effects of development that are solvable through human ingenuity. The second views them as signs that human civilization, based on its attempts to control nature, is fundamentally unsustainable.

More psychologist than political scientist, Bruckner sees a kind of self-aggrandizement at the bottom of both post-colonialism and environmentalism. The guilt Europe expresses for its colonialism, Bruckner argued in an earlier book, is a way for it to assert its continuing hegemony in the face of declining influence. That is, Africa is failing not because of bad leaders, geography, culture or internal political dynamics but rather because the West remains so powerful.

Bruckner is after bigger prey than apocalyptic environmentalism per se. In this book and his books on love, happiness and colonialism, he is out to understand the contemporary Western mind. When he writes, “The prevailing anxiety is at once a recognition of real problems and a symptom of the aging of the West: a reflection of its psychic fatigue,” he is describing problems that only afflict those of us at the very top of the global economic heap.

Global warming allows the West in general — and Europe in particular — to put itself back in the center of history at the very moment it is moving to the margins. Writes Bruckner, “What a relief to know that we are not living in a little province of time but in the historic moment when time itself is going to be engulfed! What presumption, and what naïveté, to believe that we are at the pinnacle of history!”

Apocalyptic environmentalism is not simply old Christian wine in new bottles, but rather a uniquely narcissistic variant of it. What makes us special, we Western greens tell ourselves, is not simply that we love and understand nature better, but that our generation has the power to save it. The Greatest Generation got to defeat fascism and Communism while in the post-Cold War era, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials get to defeat an “adversary that is dispersed to the four corners of the earth and that can have all sorts of faces.”

There is thus, in the fanaticism of the apocalypse, equal parts misanthropy and narcissism, self-loathing and self-aggrandizement. “Behind their lamentations,” Bruckner writes sardonically, “the catastrophists are bursting with self-importance.”

In the end, it matters not a whit what we say; the world ignores our cautions. The United States and Europe rose to wealth and power by industrializing agriculture, burning fossil fuels and manufacturing for export. Now, as China, India and Brazil get rich the same way, the West stands in judgment, “The prophet is not a great soul who admonishes us,” writes Bruckner, “but a petty fellow who wishes us many misfortunes if we have the gall not to listen to him.”

The remedy to such nihilism, Bruckner argues, is the celebration of abundance, resilience and life itself. Bruckner demands that we not project our neuroses upon China, India and Brazil, but instead embrace their emergence as modern, powerful nations. Perhaps we have some wisdom to offer. But some humility is probably in order as well.

Since Ehrlich made his famous prediction, the global death rate declined from 13 to 9 deaths per 1,000 lives, and India’s fertility rate declined from 5.5 to 2.5, thanks not to forced streilizations and cutting off food aid, as Ehrlich advocated, but due to the continuing development and modernization of Indian society.

If there is to be a solution to global warming, then it is as likely to come from the rising powers of the global East and South than the superannuated precincts of the West. “Old men like to offer good advice,” Bruckner writes, quoting the 18th-century philosopher François de la Rouchefoucauld, “in order to console themselves for no longer being in a position to give bad examples.”


Reprinted with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle.


THE GREAT PROGRESSIVE REVERSAL
 

Part 1: It's Not About the Climate

Part 2: How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor


Part 3: End of the World – or Decline of the West?


Photo Credit: John Martin, "Angry God"


Comments

  • I have to have a peek in the book, but one thing strikes me about Bruckner position. It’s a paradox that he criticises Western societes for being narcissistic, self-loathing and self-aggrandizement, when he takes a similar stake. It’s guilt, self-loathing and narcissism what drives Bruckner into re-evaluating the current Western culture. As for the Christian roots in the green apocalyctic fanatism, well it’s precisely the distance that Christian frame has widen between Humankind and Nature the reason we are in this situation. Bruckner should ask himself if the ‘new modern nations’ were so ‘modern’ prior to adopting the Western approach in their relations with Nature. The West is to be blamed for creating such a system, but BRICS do not escape the criticism only because they are young and pursue the ‘progressive ideal’. The problem is the effing ideal in the first place!! Another interpretation on Bruckner position is that if the current generations have the technology and the knowledge, and in India the birth rate is diminishing, the Humankind, as a whole, is self-regulating. I would expect this kind of laissez-faire proposal from the American right or Climate Change negationists, but in a European intellectual? No wonder Le Monde considers him a reactionary.

    By Okitsune on 2013 06 11

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  • So what if a handful of writers exaggerate about some sort of apocalypse?  Most people just tune out—and they tune out of the real problems, as well.  Note that you had to go all the way back to Ehrlich and Meadows to find well-known examples of the genre.

    I fear that Bruckner’s overwrought chimera will only aid the denialists, even as he himself accepts that global warming needs to be addressed.

    By Jym Dyer on 2013 06 11

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  • Dear Michael and Ted,

    What is frustrating, and at times infuriating, about you guys is your absolute refusal to acknowledge, much less honestly engage, the strongest arguments against the assertions and judgments you make and the positions you take.  Instead, you focus on weaker opposing arguments (tendentiously parsing the work of people like Klein and McKibben, and dragging out Paul Ehrlich’s mistakes of 40-some years ago - while ignoring what he’s been right about over the following decades), exaggerate the weaknesses and ignore the strengths of the most able among left theorists, ignore large swaths of scientific consensus among climatoligists and the work of leading historical and environmental sociologsts and moral philosophers (I’d be happy to give you chapter and verse—Nils Gilman and I have made some attempt to do that in the past and you have ignored us rather than engaging).  I would say you should be ashamed of yourselves, but really that’s beside the point.  If you are honestly interested in promoting the values you claim to believe in, and if you honestly seek a productive scholarly discourse and debate that will increasingly get at the truth and support sound policy, then you should be behaving quite differently.  Were you willing to engage in such a process, people like you and people like me might work our way towards being closer to arms-length allies on at least some important issues.  As it is, you function as de facto allies of people who in no way share the values you claim to hold.

    Dare you respond with something more than smug dismissal?

    Bill Barnes

    By Bill Barnes on 2013 06 11

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  • Bill and Jim,

    Actually, we didn’t leave it at Ehrlich and Meadows. We explicitly called out Herman Daly and the Planetary Boundaries authors. We’ve engaged both the scholarly and the popular literature on these issues repeatedly. For example:

    http://thebreakthrough.org/archive/planetary_boundaries_a_mislead
    http://breakthrough.turing.com/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/conservation-in-the-anthropocene/
    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/conservation-and-development/the-long-anthropocene/
    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/conservation-and-development/were-not-running-out-of-fertilizer/
    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/the-planet-of-no-return/
    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/the-rise-and-fall-of-ecological-economics/

    We have published responses from those who disagree, including you and Nils, Bill. This, I would note, is a marked contrast to the posture of many who disagree with us, who mostly characterize any dissenting view or evidence on these questions illegitimate.

    Ted

    By Ted Nordhaus on 2013 06 11

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  • Ted,
    As far as I know, you never published what Nils and I wrote.  For sure you never published the version I wrote before you asked Nils to tone it down.  And after inviting me to submit the piece, you never communicated about it to me again.  But anyway that was just a short polemical piece, I ‘m talking about your general failure to engage or take into account the arguments and references in pieces like Barnes & Gilman, “Green Social Democracy or Barbarism: Climate Change and the End of High Modernism,” in Calhoun & Derluguian, eds., The Deepening Crisis: Governance Challenges after Neoliberalism, NYU Press, 2011, which we showed you pre-publication.  And many many recent scholarly articles and books that you studiously avoid, despite the fact that, in scholarly terms, they make much stronger cases than the opponents you choose to acknowledge..
    Bill

    By Bill Barnes on 2013 06 11

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  • Really Bill? We published your response in both the print edition and online.

    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/debates/against-cosmopolitanism-a-breakthrough-debate/the-arbitrage-of-the-nation-state/

    As far as I know no one here asked you or Nils to tone anything down. And how would you even know if you claim to not even know that your piece had been published?  Seems like your complaint is not that we haven’t addressed the scholarly literature but that we haven’t responded to you.

    By Ted Nordhaus on 2013 06 11

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  • Ted, I’m talking about my contribution to the roundtable on Earl Ellis’s essay - Nils told me after I’d sent it in to you (at your invitation) that you guys had indicated to him that you wouldn’t publish it unless he rewrote it to tone it down.  That (about a year ago) was the last I ever heard.  But there’s no reason for us to be cluttering your blog with personal stuff (lets take that private - respond to my email address).  That was just an illustration.  If you’ll change your regular practice of ignoring challenging scholarly literature, I’ll be happy, regardless of whether you ever mention me or anything I write.  Really.  How about reading and responding seriously to, for example, Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years; Brahma Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis; Andrew Guzman, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change; Stephen Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Strom: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change; Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.  I could go on and on.  Give me a subject and I’ll give you facts, arguments, sources that you’re ignoring that are worth taking seriously - I don’t mean that I expect to convert you - but you could be making a much better contribution to the debate if you were engaging stronger arguments rather than only weaker ones.

    Bill

    By Bill Barnes on 2013 06 11

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  • for pete’s sake Bill make an argument or get off the comments string. They published your damn articles.

    By Jeff Figuerero on 2013 06 11

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  • Jeff, You really ought to check the facts before you pop-off.  I had no involvement whatever in the piece Ted links to above and that piece has no connection whatever to the subject under discussion here.

    By Bill Barnes on 2013 06 11

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  • I posted the wrong link. Correct link below. I have no idea why Bill chose not to co-author this piece with Nils as planned but I do know that no one here asked that the piece be toned down.

    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/debates/planet-of-no-return-a-breakthrough-debate/dr.-pangloss-i-presume/

    By Ted Nordhaus on 2013 06 12

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  • Ted, I wouldn’t clog your blog this way, cept seems like nothing else is going on here.  So lets get this straight.  Going back through my records, I see all my communications were with Michael - four email exchanges during January 2012.  I submitted my article to Michael on Jan 19 or 20, and never heard anything again from Michael or anyone else.  Some weeks later, I asked Nils if he knew what was going on, and he said he’d been communicating with you guys and you weren’t going to publish what I wrote.  I responded OK, I’ll withdraw and you (Nils) go ahead and do whatever you want.  Here’s the article that I wrote and submitted to Michael:
         
    Dr. Pangloss, I Presume

    Comments on Erle Ellis, “The Planet of No Return”

    Erle Ellis’ essay presents a God’s-eye view of the human story that infuses that saga with a cohesion and momentum that smooths out all rough spots, and would not be recognized by any mere mortal who has actually lived on this planet at any particular place at any particular time in the history that has actually happened – with the exception of certain economists.  One doesn’t have to be a romantic tree-hugger and wildlife worshiper, or gushing bleeding-heart, to find this morally obtuse and historiographically useless.  Ellis does himself no favors here – you can tell from a glance at other of his recent journalistic pieces (not to mention his scholarly production) that his thinking is not always so simplistic.  In general, we might say that Ellis’ perspective is closer to that of Leibniz himself than to Voltaire’s parody of Leibniz – unlike Dr. Pangloss’ Best of All Possible Worlds, Leibniz’s Best of All Possible Worlds is full of challenge and difficulty that is acknowledged as such, and not facilely, nonsensically explained away (except in the sense that any reliance on Divine plan is facile and nonsensical).  Nonetheless, the parallel between Dr. Ellis and Dr. Pangloss is real - Voltaire was targeting the absurdity of Leibnizan “Optimism,” and its assumption that ultimate human triumph was assured, in the face of the massive destruction of the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755.  Voltaire then went on to show up Pangloss/Leibniz by confronting Candide, and the reader, with other intractable rough spots and horrors of the real world.
    Ellis’ way of averting his eyes and avoiding such confrontation is two-fold.  First, as suggested above, by adopting a 10,000 year time-scale and emphasizing the totality of advance over that frame as a whole, reducing mountains that human beings experience as profound tragedies to unnoticeable molehills.  Second, like mainstream economists, Ellis thinks only in terms of aggregates and averages, not in terms of distributions, inequalities, discontinuities.  As he says in a June 2011 piece in New Scientist:

        We have seen what we can do, and it is awesome.  In just a few milllennia, humanity has emerged as a global force of nature – a networked system of billions of individuals creating and sustaining an entirely new global ecology.  We live longer than ever, and our average standard of living has never been higher.  These unprecedented achievements clearly demonstrate the remarkable ability of our social systems and technologies to evolve and adapt…

    If aggregate productivity, average income, the overall power of science and technology show long-term advance, that means that the entire human race has been increasingly thriving and empowered, and can be presumed to be continuing on that trajectory.  In Ellis’ view, there can be no question that on-average, in the aggregate, past, present, and future results deserve to be conceptualized as thoroughly positive, even if they include some rough spots for some people and some species.  He accepts with calm equanimity that in the foreseeable future the established trajectory will result in the total eradication of all wilderness and wild animals from the planet.  His catalogue of past, present, and future human accomplishment elides and implicitly discounts not only much work on climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation, but everything discussed in works such as Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts and Planet of Slums, Richard Wilkinson’s The Impact of Inequality, Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture, Thomas Pogge’s Politics as Usual, Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos, among many others.  For Ellis, the predominance of the positive elements of the past and present record of human civilization is assumed, the continuing coherence and adaptability of “our social systems,” come what may, is assured.  (Even under the leadership of the likes of our current Republican Party!)  This is neither natural science nor social science; this is religion. 
    (cont)

    By Bill Barnes on 2013 06 12

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    • Bill,

      TL;DR.  Although apart from your post being to long, your grandstanding and whining on the thread didn’t compel me to read it either.

      Thank you for giving more weight and credence to what the main article is stating.

      By Jason on 2013 11 14

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  • (cont)

    William Barnes and Nils Gilman     1000 words
    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    On Ellis’ core substantive argument:  Ellis assumes that technological innovation will always stay ahead of the impending bankruptcy threatened by the human compulsion to strip-mine the planet of useful resources.  In particular, he expresses blithe confidence in our ability to indefinitely increase food production. But the historical truth is that virtually all agricultural civilizations, from Babylon to Rome to the Maya to China, have experienced repeated crises of production that resulted in massive famines and catastrophic collapses in political order. It is only in the last two hundred years that societies in the West have for the most part put such destructive episodes behind them, and this in turn has been fueled, quite literally, by the one-time bounty of harvesting the planet’s supply of fossilized sunlight. That this harvesting has unfolded continuously over a period of the last several hundred years may make it seem like a permanent state of affairs.  But this is another time-scale mistake, the reverse of Ellis’ more general such mistake.  Here he’s turning a briefly elevated molehill into an enduring mountain, because his own lifetime happens to fall right on top of it.  In the longer run, this development will be looked back upon as a one-time pulse that permitted a huge but temporary expansion in the size of the global human population and the material living standard of much (but not all) of that population. Once the fossil fuels run out—and inevitably they will one day—unless we can come up with some alternative source of high-intensity fuels, most agricultural production will necessarily fall back to methods closer to those that predominated when humans and animals provided the main sources of power. The real question, therefore, is whether humans can come up with an alternative supply of readily usable energy, and here the record of innovation is in fact quite bad. With the dubious exception of nuclear power (itself not a renewable resource, it’s worth noting) there has been no major innovation in the sourcing of energy in the last century.  The idea that human ingenuity makes it inevitable that we will innovate our way around this most basic of limits to growth—that somehow, sometime soon, we will virtually transcend the Second Law of Thermodynamics—is not science but faith, rooted in belief and hope, rather than observed fact.  Who knows, it may happen in some fashion, to some degree, in some far distant future.  But there is no good reason to believe that it will happen in time to save us from several hundred, or several thousand, years of rough spots so extreme that not even the likes of Dr. Pangloss will be able to swallow them without choking.

    By Bill Barnes on 2013 06 12

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  • Thanks for another thought provoking article.  In the last one you sent to me you spoke of those that would like to go back.  We can’t go back. We can’t sit still without the risk spoken of in the articles that you have cited.  Advancing technology got us where we are and only advancing our state of technology will sustain us.  My fear is that too many that make policy decisions on research will decide: that there is nothing more to learn; that research is too expensive; that I have mine and if others come to my standard of living level, there won’t be enough to go around and I will lose mine; that we should just stay where we are.

    By Alex Crawley on 2013 06 14

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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

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