Accentuating the Negative
Why Eco-pessimism Has Become Elite Religion
I used to be an avid reader of science fiction before my academic work put a stop to it. During the 1990s, I noticed a gradual shift away from the physics-laden space travel narratives of progress and discovery towards a mix of fantasy, historical fiction, and genre-crossing exploration — often with a decidedly more pessimistic tone.
I learned that this shift had been under way for some time. Science fiction is a genre with roots in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It combines speculation based on scientific discoveries and technological progress with theorizing about their philosophical and socioeconomic possibilities. These roots were still clearly reflected in the classic “hard” science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, featuring the problem-solving and “linear” ethos of the pure and applied sciences.Adam Roberts,“Golden Age SF: 1940–1960,” in The History of Science Fiction, Palgrave Histories of Literature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
In the 1960s and 1970s, “new wave” titles began to appear, which were set in an unsettling twilight zone between the near-present and an unavoidable apocalyptic future — exemplified by the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, and Sheri S. Tepper. Science fiction began to further merge with a growing spectrum of speculative literature, offering nuanced, hard to classify narratives — such as works by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Margaret Atwood, and David Mitchell. These works often lacked linear time, inviting the readers instead into the churn of eternal recurrence. More recently, science fiction has further stratified into young adult fantasy. Adam Roberts, a British science fiction author, critic, and historian asserted what I had suspected: “The success of the Hunger Games novels crystallized a sense that the dominant mode of contemporary [science fiction] is dystopian.”Adam Roberts, “21st-Century Science Fiction,” in The History of Science Fiction, Palgrave Histories of Literature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 481.
In 2011, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel observed that the collapse of traditional science fiction reflects “the collapse of the idea of the future…. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.”George Packer, “No Death, No Taxes,” The New Yorker, Nov. 28, 2011, 44, accessed February, 7, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/11/28/no-death-no-taxes.
Like all forms of cultural production, science fiction is bound to detect and amplify sociocultural signals. The steady disappearance of optimistic science fiction is almost certainly a symptom of the cultural shift towards a pessimistic view of the future that began in the late 1960s — a major strand of which is oriented towards the environment.
Many have traced the founding of “eco-pessimism” to 1968, with Garrett Hardin’s famous Science essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” and Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb. Economic historian Eric Jones,Eric Jones and Brooks Kaiser, “Environment,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, ed. Joel Mokyr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). however, finds the seminal text of eco-pessimism in “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” a 1967 essay in Science by the UCLA historian Lynn T. White, Jr. Even though the term “eco-pessimism” does not appear in White’s text, the paper makes strong claims of environmental crisis rooted in Western culture — in particular, the Christian exploitative ethos. Its argument “caught the mood of the 1970s. The case it made chimed with other arguments that blamed Europeans for the alleged environmental destruction of the post-medieval world; it replaced triumphal optimism about the Industrial Revolution and the American frontier with eco-pessimism.”Jones and Kaiser.
Against these increasingly popular pessimistic narratives, journalists and scholars have been, over the same decades, consistently reporting positive trends in everything from widespread rewilding and reforestation due to efficient agricultural practices to the heartening decreases in world poverty. In addition to the classic output by Julian SimonJulian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment (Princeton University Press, 1998). dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, recent books by Johan Norberg,Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten reasons to look forward to the future. (Simon and Schuster, 2017). Gregg Easterbrook,Gregg Easterbrook, It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear (PublicAffairs, 2019). Steven Pinker,Steven Pinker, Enlightenment now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. (Penguin, 2018). Matt Ridley,Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper Perennial, 2011). Hans Rosling,Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (London, UK: Hodder Stoughton; 2018). Bjørn Lomborg,Lomborg, Bjørn, The skeptical environmentalist: measuring the real state of the world. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Indur GoklanyIndur M. Goklany, The improving state of the world: why we're living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet (Cato Institute, 2007). and Ron Bailey,Ronald Bailey, “Book: Earth Report 2000,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, accessed February 7, 2021, https://cei.org/books/earth-report-2000/. and the websites Our World in DataOur World in Data, accessed February 7, 2021, https://ourworldindata.org/.and Human Progress,Human Progress, accessed February 7, 2021, https://www.humanprogress.org/.justify a cautious optimism for the future of both humanity and the planet.
Nonetheless, widespread pessimism persists, ironically in the publics of affluent countries most especially. Max Roser and Mohamed NagdyMax Roser and Mohamed Nagdy, "Optimism and Pessimism,” Our World in Data (2014), accessed February 7, 2021, https://ourworldindata.org/optimism-pessimism.showed that more Americans, on average, gave either incorrect answers or could not answer the question when asked about the global decline in extreme poverty. Only 15% of US respondents answered correctly that the number of those in extreme poverty had fallen globally over the last twenty years. More than half of the US survey participants were convinced that the share of world population living in extreme poverty had, instead, increased during this time.Roser and Nagdy.
The further removed the survey respondents were from the topic in question, such as poverty or childhood mortality, the less able they were, on average, to give correct answers. “People in richer countries […] — in which the majority of the population escaped extreme poverty some generations ago — have a very wrong perception about what is happening to global poverty.”Roser and Nagdy.
Why, despite the evidence of improvements to both the human condition and many aspects of environmental quality, is the pessimist outlook on our planet’s future so pervasive, particularly in the affluent world? What are the feedback mechanisms and key incentives supporting the culture of environmental pessimism?
Eco-pessimism, I argue, is rooted firstly in universal dynamics of human psychology. Pessimism persists in the face of, and even because of, rising prosperity because the human mind places more emphasis on what has gone wrong and what might go wrong than it does in how conditions have improved — and might continue to improve.
But eco-pessimism is also deeply entwined with politics and ideology. Pessimism is, to some degree, equal opportunity, insofar as one can find deeply pessimistic narratives on both the Left and the Right. But it is arguably more deeply entangled with the political project of the contemporary Left, for whom pessimism about the current state of human affairs and the rejection of the notions of progress and prosperity justify demands to fundamentally remake modern societies and economies.
Finally, pessimistic narratives serve to preserve the status of elites. Growing and dynamic economies disrupt the existing social and economic hierarchy. Often, the rich do get richer. But so does everyone else. One need only look to Silicon Valley or China’s rapidly growing middle class to see that growth and prosperity over time dilute, diminish, or displace the old elite.
Pessimism on the Left is often framed in egalitarian and democratizing language. But it is a discourse constructed by contemporary elites on their own terms. Pessimistic narratives are almost always in the end paternalistic, offered by those who want in neither material needs nor social status but purport to know what is best for the Earth, and hence for “everyone.”
Even though the official record would have it that the redistribution, limits on behavior or consumption, or sweeping mobilizations of societal resources that elites propose to administer would correct ongoing injustices or abuses, such changes as often reinscribe existing socioeconomic hierarchies and power differentials as upend them.
Eco-pessimism is no doubt bound up with fundamental psychological dynamics that have conferred an adaptive advantage over the arc of human evolution. The “negativity effect,” described by Roy Baumeister, is one such dynamic, a powerful mechanism without obvious counterparts or antidotes. We are in many contexts programmed to emphasize the negative. A cockroach in a glass of juice, Baumeister’s colleague Paul Rozin documented, can invoke a disgust response that, once triggered, can be extremely difficult to undo. “Negativity dominance” takes advantage of a number of evolutionarily hard-wired survival mechanisms: the emotional salience of threatening imagery, threat avoidance, and the tendency towards loss aversion.Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2011), 303.
Loss aversion, the bias humans tend to have toward avoiding losses rather than acquiring gains, also figures prominently. Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman described it as a “gravitational force,” a tractor beam towards the status quo.Kahneman, 305.
These biases mean that the media face a perpetual and well-recognized incentive to accentuate the negative. Even when the media are not motivated by perceived market pressures, authoritarian dictates, or a self-imposed ideological bias, their coverage will be biased towards what attracts attention. Consumer interest, regardless of all other factors, will be drawn to dramatic stories about cultural celebrities, accidents, mayhem and, ultimately, disasters.
Faced with a flood of negative information, media consumers are bound to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes as a result of the “availability heuristic,” another fundamental psychological mechanism, which describes the observation that “people tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory.”Kahneman, 8.Like many cognitive biases, the availability heuristic establishes a positive feedback loop. We hear a lot about the burning Amazon and the loss of biodiversity but very little about the return of forests and increasing wildlife populations around the world. The “illusory truth effect,” which refers to the propensity to believe that which we hear repeatedly, or recognize right away, can have the same self-reinforcing dynamic.L. Hasher, David Goldstein, and Thomas Toppino, “Frequency and the conference of referential validity,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 16, no. 1 (1977): 107-112.,Jonas De keersmaecker et al., “Investigating the robustness of the illusory truth effect across individual differences in cognitive ability, need for cognitive closure, and cognitive style,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 46, no. 2  (2020), accessed February 7, 2021, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167219853844.,Matthew Warren, “Higher Intelligence And An Analytical Thinking Style Offer No Protection Against ‘The Illusory Truth Effect’ – Our Tendency To Believe Repeated Claims Are True,” British Psychological Society Research Digest, June 26, 2019, accessed February 7, 2021, https://digest.bps.org.uk/2019/06/26/higher-intelligence-and-an-analytical-thinking-style-offer-no-protection-against-the-illusory-truth-effect-our-tendency-to-believe-repeated-claims-are-more-likely-to-be-true/.The result is that people tend to overestimate the prevalence of negative trends, ecological and otherwise, and underestimate the positive ones.
Negativity bias and loss aversion that predispose us towards pessimism about the state of the world also predispose us towards a zero-sum view of human well-being. In the zero-sum narrative, human flourishing comes at the expense of the environment as humans compete for scarce resources. Elites situated at the top of existing social and economic hierarchies have the most to lose from an ever-larger field of competitors, as do denizens of rich countries more broadly. Little wonder, then, that Roser and NagdyRoser and Nagdy.find that pessimistic attitudes and misconceptions about global trends in human well-being are inversely correlated with actual material want. The global poor may be the most exposed to climate change and other potential manifestations of global collapse. But they also have less to lose, insofar as they are already at the mercy of the wars, pandemics, disruptions, and natural disasters that have plagued human populations through our history. It is those of us who have largely escaped those risks who have the most to lose, and hence are much more likely to become fixated on the ways in which our comforts, affluence, freedoms, and privileges might be lost to the blazes of the eco-apocalypse.
Any contemporary observer will doubtless be aware that the populist Right has its own pessimistic discourse, mostly focused upon the ways in which forces on the Left have undermined traditional social hierarchies and constrained economic freedom in ways that threaten social and economic collapse. But expressions of pessimism on the Left are arguably more centrally implicated in the Left’s political project and less obviously connected to defending the status quo.
Indeed, pessimism on the Left is almost always ostensibly associated with overthrowing the status quo. The view that poverty is bad and getting worse, public health and life expectancy are declining, inequality is worsening, and earth systems are on the verge of collapse are all arguments for public interventions to make things better — for economic redistribution, an expanded social welfare state, stricter regulation of industrial pollution, and more active state management of the economy.
The proximate sources of pessimism on the Left have changed over the course of the latter half of the 20th century and the early decades of the 21st. Once, the central claim was that capitalism immiserated the working classes and that population growth would lead to famines and resource scarcity. Today it is that neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and extractivism exploit the global poor and climate change will lead to ecological collapse. But at bottom, what almost all forms of pessimism on the Left call for is government intervention to shift the status quo toward what the purveyors of those various pessimisms believe to be more democratic, egalitarian, equitable, and sustainable outcomes.
Yet there is another dimension that is often obscured in the calls to remake government and society in order to rectify social injustice and avoid ecological collapse. It is no coincidence that most of our outspoken eco-pessimists are currently progressive opinion leaders: in the media, in the universities, and among the hyper-educated expert class advising the policy-makers. What they almost always demand is greater central planning, expert control, and government intervention, be it in the labor market, the energy sector, or healthcare.
Pessimism among progressive elites is almost always in service of technocratic rule. Critical theorists propose a Department of Anti-Racism, climate scientists have proposed carbon rationing via a global climate Fed, public health advocates propose soda and sugar taxes, antitrust experts want to turn big tech into public utilities. The pessimism of the expert class, in these cases, is inseparable from demands to empower the expert class.
Despite being seemingly antithetical, competing narratives of pessimism and crisis from Left and Right are both wielded in service of defending their rival versions of the status quo: on the one hand, traditional elites, mostly white and European and more closely connected with the business community, particularly in legacy sectors of the industrial economy; and on the other a newer, more multicultural elite, situated in universities, NGOs, philanthropy, and the knowledge economy — what the geographer Joel Kotkin has called the clerisy. In both cases, the view from above is zero-sum. Different groups of elites at the top will win or lose, but everyone cannot win in a resource-constrained world.
Like science fiction, progressive thinking was not always so zero-sum and pessimistic about progress. The idea of resource creation, sometimes called “resourceship,” was once prominent in left-wing economic thinking, from orthodox Marxism to Institutionalism.William B. Meyer, The Progressive Environmental Prometheans: Left-Wing Heralds of a“Good Anthropocene” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).Against Malthus and other classical economists who viewed economies as limited by the availability of land and labor, Marx understood that it was the application of labor and technology that turned raw materials into resources. Marx viewed scarcity as a product of the imperatives of capital, not biophysical limits. Capitalism, in Marx’s view, was a phase of human development that was replacing the static relations of feudal agrarian societies with more dynamic production arrangements and a new class structure. Capitalist social and economic order would in turn be replaced by socialism, which would finally allow for abundance for all.
After Marx, other economic thinkers embraced the idea of resources arising out of human agency and need, not biophysical availability. Against viewing resources as passive physical objects, the Institutionalist economist Erich W. Zimmermann memorably observed that “resources are not, they become.”Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries: A Functional Appraisal of the Availability of Agricultural and Industrial Resources (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1933).
The American pragmatist tradition, which developed in part to describe dynamic processes in the sciences, including evolution, was similarly grounded in process philosophy, the “ontology of becoming.” This tradition contrasted with classical philosophical models grounded in notions of equilibrium, stasis, and harmony. For the pragmatist philosophers like Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and for the heterodox economists, the static bias discounts the value of “understanding of dynamicity as a force of creating novelty.”Johanna Seibt, "Process Philosophy,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (2020), accessed February 7, 2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/process-philosophy.
To the substance metaphysics school of thought typical of the majority of Western science and philosophy, on the other hand, things are bound by conservation laws, equilibrium modeling, and the concept of the steady state. The first and second laws of thermodynamics are imprinted on every aspect of analysis, be it in physics, where these concepts originated, or in economics and sustainable development theorizing, where formalism-loving experts have improperly implanted them.
In reality, as the political economist Rob Bradley has observed, “There is no economic law analogous to the physical conservation of matter. There is no law of conservation of value; value is continually, routinely created by the market process. And this value creation does not deplete — just the opposite.”Robert Bradley, Jr. “The Liberating Theory of Resourceship,” in Master Resource (2014), accessed February 9, 2021, https://www.masterresource.org...
An example of resourceship is the creation of commercial frequencies in the FM radio spectrum, an ingenious hybrid of the measurable electromagnetic signal with the concept of a frequency band derived from Claude Shannon’s ground breaking ideas about channel capacity and bandwidth. Purchasing the rights to transmit a radio signal at a given frequency should not make sense because frequencies and bandwidth are only “there,” so to speak, if there are specialized devices to detect the signals. They have been created where no marketable resource existed to meet an unanticipated need. As absurd as it seems, this “something out of nothing” transformation sustains countless commercial and public radio stations year after year, and it exemplifies how resourceship works.
Value in anthropogenic systems can, is, and, in fact, must be created and destroyed. We have all had the experience of being on the cusp of “becoming”: the moment when a song we heard and liked became the unavoidable summer hit, the moment a news story exposed a nursing home scam. These events, these instances of emergence, are all examples of value creation or destruction. Physical matter may not have been created or destroyed but human fortunes, reputations, and relationships were measurably affected by these events and their repercussions.
What then explains the Progressives' abandonment of progress? In part, it was the failure of the old Marxist Left to bring forth a working alternative to capitalist free market economies. The rise of eco-pessimism coincided with the Left’s abandonment of the proletariat, as the working classes in market economies experienced unprecedented prosperity and mass consumption became accessible to virtually all citizens of those societies. The emergence of eco-pessimism in the 20th century as a major strand of thought in western societies is inseparable from the emergence of modern environmentalism in the decades after World War II.
Indeed, the modern environmental movement owes much to the reactionary — and elitist — dislike of mass consumption \. To the environmentally-minded activists, the fact that anthropogenic landscapes and technological innovation have enabled population growth, improved standards of living, and ushered in an endless flow of resources was always alarming rather than a cause for celebration.
The capture of left-wing ideology by environmentalism was further accelerated with the collapse of the former socialist and communist states. It is not entirely coincidental that the issue of climate change arrived on the scene as a major focus of international discussion and negotiation at virtually the moment that the Eastern Bloc economies were collapsing and the Cold War was coming to an end. The scandalous economic and ideological failures of the Soviet empire, coupled with the scandalous ongoing success of the market economy in over-supplying the average citizen, left the Progressives without a cause to champion. Climate change and related concerns about ecological limits to human well-being provided a new set of claims and concerns around which to advocate for the reorganization of modern social, political, and economic arrangements.
Historian Stephen Davies outlined the socio-economic preconditions for intensive economic growth in his book The Wealth Explosion.Stephen Davies, The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity (Brighton: Edward Everett Root, 2019).Davies argues that the period of sustained growth and innovation that began with the Western European Industrial Revolution (1700-1880) and has globalized today was the result of conditions during which the ruling class was uniquely open to technological innovation, largely due to the inability of any of the major European powers during the period to dominate the region. War and economic competition put a premium on technological innovation. The need to raise ever larger armies to fight land wars, particularly in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, led to democratizing social innovations and the creation of modern welfare states.
There have been a number of similar episodes in other regions of the world. Davies particularly focuses on China’s Song Dynasty (10th to 13th centuries C.E.), which in its heyday was significantly wealthier and more technologically advanced than Western Europe. But in those earlier episodes, once elites concluded that there were no further threats, they quickly shut down the dynamics of innovation, as they perceived them as threats to their position at the top of the existing hierarchy. Those who are in power, Davies suggests, share it grudgingly, and only when the benefits from innovation appear necessary to their own advancement.
Enter eco-pessimism, which, consistent with Davies’ analysis, assumes that there is a fundamental conflict over scarce and finite resources. In the eco-pessimist scenario only top-down control overriding individual decisions and a strict hierarchy of those who can initiate action can forestall civilizational collapse.
Increasingly, the intellectual elites and the ruling classes of the developed world argue for “sustainability” rather than economic growth. Preaching against the economic forces that ultimately enhanced their power and brought them unparalleled technological sophistication, influence, and affluence, eco-pessimists seek to replace the values of dynamism, innovation, and human flourishing with the idea of stasis. Some even preach that the entire civilizational arc starting with agriculture and leading to the division of labor, urbanization, the Industrial Revolution, the demographic transition, and the information economy was a grave mistake, robbing humanity of its relationship with the environment and the health benefits of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.Susan Gallagher, “What Can Hunter-Gatherers Teach Us about Staying Healthy?” Duke Global Health Institute, April 21, 2019, accessed February 7, 2021, https://globalhealth.duke.edu/news/what-can-hunter-gatherers-teach-us-about-staying-healthy.,Eileen Crist, Camilo Mora, and Robert Engelman, “The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection,” Science 356, no. 6355 (2017): 260–264.,Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (Harper Collins, 2018).
The proximate reason for embracing stasis is environmental, but its casualty is upward mobility. Although they come to the subject from somewhat different perspectives, both KotkinJoel Kotkin, “The Growth Dilemma,” Quillette, Jan. 9, 2020, accessed February 7, 2021, https://quillette.com/2020/01/09/the-growth-dilemma/.,Joel Kotkin, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter Books, 2020).and Michael LindMichael Lind, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (Portfolio/Penguin Random House, 2020).have come to a similar conclusion, suggesting that after a period in the post-war era of equitable growth and shared prosperity, technocratic leaders and oligarchic elites in the developed world have been muscling in on political power for awhile. In their perspective, environmental protection and its constraints on economic growth provide a strong rationale for maintaining or increasing the power of the established political elites.
End-of-days narratives are, of course, nothing new. We are wired in important ways to accentuate the negative, to recall wounds, to prioritize safety above aspiration and avoid costs rather than pursue benefits. But the persistence of pessimism in the face of decades of unprecedented progress and most especially among those who have benefited most from it requires more than that.
In her unusual book Systems of Survival, the great mid-century urbanist Jane Jacobs argues that human societies depend upon two radically different systems of meeting our needs. “Like the other animals, we find and pick up what we can use, and appropriate territories. But unlike the other animals, we also trade and produce for trade. Because we possess these two radically different ways of dealing with our needs, we also have two radically different systems of morals and values — both systems valid and necessary,” Jacobs explained.Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (Penguin Random House, 1992), xi.
Jacobs called these two systems the moral “syndromes” — from the Greek meaning “things that run together.” The Guardian syndrome included administrative, governmental, and legal work such as police and law enforcement, elected political office, state-run education, and all state services. Those engaged in Guardian ways value loyalty, order, hierarchy, tradition, and obedience.
The second syndrome Jacobs called the Commercial syndrome. It encompasses the creative sector and the production of commodities: manufacturing, information, art, farming, mining, wholesaling, retailing, logistics, and transportation, to name a few. Those called to Commercial syndrome work prize honesty, innovation, openness, voluntary agreements and contracts, collaboration with strangers to achieve a common goal, and “dissent for the sake of the task.” The Commercial syndrome ethos embraces ambiguity, individual freedom, finesse, and growth.
The Commercial syndrome is ultimately premised on assuming a better future in a win-win world. In the Guardian syndrome, change is a matter of life and death and life a zero-sum game.Peter J. Taylor, Extraordinary Cities: Millennia of Moral Syndromes, World-Systems and City/State Relations (Edward Elgar, 2013), 36.Neither can be banished, Jacobs argued, and it is the interplay — and tension — between these two modes of being that makes us human. The ability to shift dynamically between the Guardian and Commercial syndromes has allowed us to survive and prosper materially both as a species and as a succession of cultures.Taylor, 32-44.
Jacobs’s analysis of these two irreconcilable attitudes towards the goals of human activity would seem to extend to eco-pessimism and optimism. The eco-pessimists exhibit the zero-sum mentality evident in their calculus of stasis, limits, and degrowth. The optimists lean towards the dynamism of change, innovation, and resourceship.
Since the Enlightenment, the Left, whether in its Marxist, Classical Liberal, or Pragmatist expressions, has been the home of the Commercial syndrome. While they differed in their analyses and ideas about how societies should be organized, all were optimistic and believed that universal abundance via resourceship and dynamic change was possible. Meanwhile, the Right, in its clerical, traditionalist, Romantic, and authoritarian expressions, has historically championed Guardian values. The gods did not smile upon all of us equally. Loyalty to one’s tribe, patrimony, and homeland mattered above all else, and success for those privileged by birth, religion, or nationality could only come at the expense of others.
But the capture of the Left by environmentalism has thrown that relationship out of balance within affluent, Western societies. Even as our economies continue to operate on Commercial values and morality, the political cultures of both Left and Right are dominated by Guardian values. Today, there is little room in our politics or culture to celebrate innovation or economic dynamism. Little wonder that publics across the developed world have become blinded to the abundance, prosperity, and unprecedented personal and political freedoms all around them.
In the long run though, neither equitable prosperity nor any sort of egalitarian politics worthy of the name can co-exist with pessimism. When elites adopt a zero-sum view of society, whether grounded in pre-lapsarian edenic nostalgias, racial and ethnic hierarchies, or misguided notions of thermodynamics, they will, inevitably, prioritize their own privileges and prerogatives over the common good.