‘More! Forward! Progress!: a surprising approach to the climate conundrum
After years of becoming more and more deeply convinced by the idea that we humans need to disturb our environment less, consume less, stop pursuing growth, and take heed of our ‘environmental limits’, I have recently stumbled upon some quite surprising writers who claim “No! It’s not about LESS – it has to be about MORE!” Admittedly, this idea stems from a decade or so ago and I am behind the times in discovering it, but it has struck me because it is a thought-provoking suggestion and yet still, ten years on, is largely absent from mainstream conversations about how we should respond to the urgent environmental situation we find ourselves in.
The ‘more’ not ‘less’ argument, which first erupted when Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger published their essay ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ (2004), essentially goes like this: environmentalism as we know it is failing at getting any meaningful public and political traction on the issue of climate change because its approach is fundamentally based on limits: that we have gone too far and now we must make amends. This ‘politics of limits’ goes fundamentally against the grain of one of the most compelling forces in human history – modernity. The language of modernity has never preached “less, less, less”, but always “More! Forward! Progress!”. As the authors argue quite convincingly, the latter has always been a more compelling call to action.If, like me, you have come to think of progress as a dirty word, and boo and hiss at any mention of ‘growth’ (perhaps influenced by articles such as this one), then this support of modernity is something of an affront. Most people with a concern for environmental issues have come to understand modernity as a story of ever-expanding human destruction of nature, of stupidity, arrogance, greed, industrialisation and market growth – in other words, the root of all our environmental troubles, and a juggernaut that must be stopped or else we will continue on a downward trajectory and ultimately collapse. But this story has become so gripping and pervasive that we, for the most part, forget that it is just that – a story: a particular way of describing and making sense of historical events. And perhaps, as Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N&S) contend, not a very helpful story at that.
What they proposed in their follow-up book ‘Break Through’ (2007) was that the doom, gloom and stupidity story of modernity is inadequate because it not only omits some very positive outcomes of quite incredible human endeavor (things like health care, civil rights movements, and technology) but it also chastises humans for ever having the ambition and audacity to want to prosper. This has saddled us (or at least, as N&S call them, ‘the environmentalists’) with a keenly-felt guilt, a desire to repent, to backtrack, and to make amends.
But why should the ambition and will not just to survive but to thrive be such a source of shame, the authors ask? Guilt, after all, is a poor motivator for action, as much social research cited by the authors shows.
N&S want to replace the guilt trip with an alternative telling of modernity, one which acknowledges how the optimism, passion and drive behind it have made possible huge leaps in our prosperity and well-being. The crux of their argument is that addressing and adapting to climate change will require more leaps of human creativity, ingenuity, innovation, optimism and tenacity than ever before – not less. We must, they say, embrace modernity, not turn away from it.
Of course, N&S attracted much criticism for apparently advocating techno-scientific fixes which would ultimately serve to perpetuate the status quo and ignore the reality of resource degradation and depletion. I had the same thoughts myself, until I realised that their optimistic outlook on human development is as much about changing values as it is about techno-fixes.
For example, their work consistently cites Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, a well-known theory in psychology that charts how people’s values change as their basic needs (food, shelter, water) are met. Based on this model, N&S insist that, far from being the antithesis of environmental concern, prosperity is actually a prerequisite of it. This is because environmental concerns spring from the higher-order needs (such as purpose and meaning) which only emerge once basic needs are met. It is in this sense that N&S see modernity as such a crucial drive (at least in the societies which are already within its grip), because without prosperity there would be no environmental movement in the first place.
From this perspective poverty and climate change are two sides of the same coin. Any serious attempt to address and prepare for climate change must also take seriously the billions of people globally who are still aspiring to meet their basic needs. It must be an approach, N&S say, where ecological concern creates the conditions for prosperity. This may sound like pie in the sky given that the living standards of those in the West would, by most measures of current resource availability, be simply impossible for all 9 billion of the world’s population to maintain. However Ulrich Beck, in his essay on climate change and modernity (2010), believes that these two sides of the bargain can be upheld (eradicating poverty and averting dangerous climate change), but only if affluent societies do two things: first, help less well-off countries to prosper with clean, fossil-free energy technologies, and second, redefine what ‘prosperity’ means and how to achieve it:
“Developing economies will be sustainable precisely to the extent that the West invests in their development and adopts for itself a new definition of wealth and growth …” p262
New definitions of prosperity in affluent societies, in N&S’s opinion, would be underpinned by values which are better suited to our needs, and which have actually been shown to improve happiness, such as creativity, service to others, belonging, and fulfillment, rather than ever-increasing income and material accumulation.Ultimately, for Beck, if you see an opposition between modernity and the environmental crisis, then this is to consign the world’s poor to perpetual poverty, and to see the planet as too fragile to support hopes for a better world.
Bruno Latour, another heavy-weight of sociological thought, has also lent support to N&S’s argument. Latour, in his discussion (2008) of the ‘Break Through’ book, picks apart modernity – its good bits and its bad bits – in a little more detail in order to show why the environmental crisis challenges us to develop more, not less.
His argument is that the ‘Great Narrative’ of modernity has always been the promise of freedom and the aspiration to protect and separate ourselves from the topsy-turvy external world through knowledge, science, and technology. But what we have achieved is something very different to freedom. Far from being freed from external, environmental threats, we find ourselves evermore entangled with them (climate change being just one example). According to the Great Narrative of freedom, unwanted consequences like climate change weren’t supposed to happen, and so we find ourselves recoiling, backtracking and repenting for the ‘error’ of modernity, as N&S have described. And yet, Latour believes that dispensing with modernity is the last thing we need to do. Rather, we just need to accept that the Great Narrative was always ‘complete bunk’, and come round to the idea that modernity has always, and will always, be about greater and greater attachments to our environment and that with this comes responsibility. It is vital, however, to hold onto the essence of modernity (‘More! Forward! Progress!”) because no other movement offers a sufficiently inspiring and motivational vision for the future.
Latour’s version of a reinvented modernity is founded on different ‘psycho-social’ conditions, by which he means the emotions and feelings that are mobilised by and for political issues. He argues that our societies consistently fail to properly take into account environmental issues and the more-than-human world because, conceptually, we hold it outside the realm of our specifically human politics. As long as we are stuck with the mental, moral, and emotional resources associated with the ‘freedom’ narrative (which prevents us from perceiving our relationship with the rest of life on earth as attached rather than separate), this will remain so. He speaks, like N&S, of the need for values which will enable us to understand and intervene in a world which is actually comprised of complex attachments and responsibilities. As such, Latour is not advocating for a wholesale change but more of a gear change – a shifting up a notch:
“From now on, we should stop flagellating ourselves and take up explicitly and seriously what we have been doing all along at an ever increasing scale, namely, intervening, acting, wanting, caring.” p9
Latour likens modern societies’ relationship with the unfolding environmental crisis to that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his monster: Frankenstein uses his creative powers to produce something which has never before been created. The creature turns out to be not what Frankenstein expected so he is horrified and abandons it, calling it a ‘monster’. The creature, starved of care and attention, indeed turns out to be a monster and causes Frankenstein more trouble than he had bargained for. It’s a simple but effective warning not to abandon our creations.
Again, this can be uncomfortable stuff. The idea that humans should behave as ‘masters’ feels counter-intuitive and arrogant. But for many, like the writers discussed here, it is too late for back-tracking. In (consumer-capitalist, industrialized) societies like ours, our influence on local and global ecosystems is now so great that we no longer have any option but to step up to the mark and to do so responsibly. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of climate change.
I think the arguments put forward by N&S, Latour and Beck will take some time to settle down in my mind and find a way to rub alongside my knee-jerk suspicion of ‘modernity’. This is surely indicative of the scale of the challenge. After all, the authors set out to do a hard thing, namely undermining a story which, for many, feels part of their identity. This is about changing the story of modernity from one of greed, growth and stupidity to one of responsibility, creativity, and evolution. But for me the biggest revelation has been precisely that it is about stories, and that the stories we tell ourselves about our history have enormous implications for our future. The biggest question that N&S ask is ‘which story of human development will we tell ourselves – one of failure or of overcoming?’ It seems clear to me now which one would be more effective for helping us imagine and create the futures we want and need, but the question remains how, where and when will we begin to re-spin what is ultimately a tough old yarn.