Doubling Down on Progress

A Response to Enlightenment Environmentalism

In a rather ungenerous review, John Gray describes Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now as a “monumental apologia for a currently fashionable version of Enlightenment thinking.” Fashionable among whom, one is tempted to ask? At least to me, it seems difficult to mistake the Trumpocene for le Siècle des Lumières. While leaders from Narendra Modi to Xi Jinping may all venerate “development,” few show much appreciation for dissent, cosmopolitanism, or constitutional limits to their own authority. Even among so called “progressives,” anti-Enlightenment ideas have made deep inroads, in particular with regard to the environment, where it is often axiomatically assumed that it would be ecologically impossible for all of the world to imitate Western lifestyles.

Thus, contrary to Gray, I would argue that Pinker’s intervention both is timely and runs against the grain of much contemporary political thinking. Weighing in at more than 550 pages, it is an incredibly uplifting book, highlighting how much progress humanity has made over the last two centuries along basically any measurable metric. Documenting how dramatically violence has declined, how much longer and healthier lives people live, and how much more equal today’s world is compared to any other time in history is important, in part to correct simple misunderstandings but also, in the words of Barack Obama, to “reject the notion that we’re suddenly gripped by forces that we cannot control.” If previous generations could overcome much deeper currents of nationalism, sexism, and zero-sum thinking, there is no reason that we should be any less committed to a politics of radical engagement.[1]

The most obvious frontline in these debates has to do with our relationship to the natural world. Whatever gains humanity has achieved, the default response among Malthusians has been that these have only been possible thanks to the unsustainable exploitation of nature and that firm limits on both population and consumption are now needed to avert a full-blown ecological collapse.[2] While there is no doubt that the “Great Acceleration” has exerted a formidable ecological toll and that radical political change is needed,[3] the question has to do with the direction of that change.[4] Just as an airplane at take-off must keep accelerating once it is about to expend its runway, I agree with Pinker that the prospects of achieving global sustainability depend on doubling down on an Enlightenment trajectory of scientific and technological progress. Instead of seeing humans as a liability, we should see a richer and more equal world as fundamental to the liberation and rewilding of nature. Advanced nuclear technologies, nanoscale manufacturing, and intelligent machine labor could each revolutionize our socio-ecological regime.

Yet technological and social progress is by no means automatic or inevitable. As shown by Mariana Mazzucato and others, the state has played an essential historical role in the innovation of practically every advanced technology.[5] More generally, an active social investment state appears crucial in driving long-term economic growth and unlocking the creative and intellectual potential of those currently trapped in poverty. While Pinker occasionally mentions the role of the welfare state and seems to recognize that “investing in education really does [seem to] make countries richer” (page 234), the long-term effects of insufficient social investments (as can be seen on the streets of any American city) are mostly ignored. So are questions of gender equality and how, for instance, public day care for children can broaden opportunity and propel the shift away from traditional hierarchical values and gender norms.

As with any work of such breadth, omissions are inevitable, and different readers will of course find different weaknesses. While it may be true that some of the finer nuances of Enlightenment history are lost to Pinker’s broad brush,[6] and that the manuscript would have been stronger without occasional asides that strike this reader as essentializing, such objections should not be allowed to overshadow the inspiring and emancipatory potential of his work. If we were living in a hyper-rationalist world where the ideas advanced by Pinker were indeed “fashionable” — or even in the 1960s and ‘70s when high modernism remained the dominant paradigm — then maybe a more cautious and critical stand would have been advisable. Yet given the prevailing confusion about the origins and objectives of progressive politics, as well as the urgency of the ecological crisis, all one can say is avanti!

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 9

Featuring pieces by Rachel Laudan, Alan Levinovitz,
R. David Simpson, Mark Sagoff, Fred Block,
Julie Guthman, Brandon Keim, and more.


[1] S. E. Bronner, Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[2] P. Cafaro and E. Crist, eds., Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012).

[3] W. Steffen, W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney, and C. Ludwig, "The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration," The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015): 81-98.

[4] R. Karlsson, "Three Metaphors for Sustainability in the Anthropocene," The Anthropocene Review 3, no. 1 (2016): 23-32.

[5] M. Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (London: Anthem Press, 2015).

[6] Cf. S. Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).