As the Amazon burns, one “progressive” loses his faith. Another warns we’re naturally wired to be too pessimistic. Who’s right?
At A/UK, we’ve always tried to keep some distance from the catch-all political term “progressive”. In a world where the advance of technology and markets has disordered our social and planetary conditions, can we easily agree on what “progress” actually means?
For example, we celebrate the advances of medicine driven by the profit motive, but wrack ourselves at the opioid epidemic, promulgated by the same corporate interests.
“Taking back control” of our conditions can be a necessary call-out against an accelerating future, where citizens feel they have little say in conditions imposed on them by far-off interests.
But this anti-progressiveness can be triggered from a number of sources - for example, the environmental crisis. What “progress” is there in the Amazon being razed by those emboldened by the new President Bolsonaro?
The Amazonian conflagration is exactly the news story which has occasioned this extraordinary change of heart from Adam Lent, Director of the New Local Government Network. “The time for my chosen political perspective” - which he associates with his support for New Labour, and a disdain for extremes of left and right - “has now well and truly passed”, he writes. Why?
Firstly, in the face of accelerating climate change, the progressive mindset seems frankly irrelevant. Being incremental, consensual and ever-so sensible strikes me as a total mismatch with the urgency and desperately high stakes of the climate crisis. If the citizens of Pompeii had been forewarned of volcanic eruption, I hope I would not have been standing with those calling for careful research and the construction of society-wide coalitions before action was taken. The razing of the rainforest, shamefully late I admit, has been my Pompeii moment.
Secondly, there is the fact that the world now faces a criminal political force that requires an aggressive response alien to the tamer mindset of progressives.
People like Trump, Bolsonaro, Farage and Salvini would, in most other circumstances, be utterly mundane. History is littered with narcissistic authoritarians who have taken the opportunity of hard economic times to lie, cheat and bully their way to power. Usually they cause various degrees of mass suffering until they are dealt with.
But this time it’s different. With their clear willingness to take action that is exacerbating the likelihood and severity of global warming, this particular bunch of authoritarians are uniquely dangerous.
Trump and his acolytes are going beyond the autocratic taste for crimes against humanity to commit a crime against a whole ecosystem. In short, authoritarianism this time round threatens the future of the human race and millions of other species.
Again it is the burning rainforest, with its multiple self-reinforcing climate impacts, that has brought this fact home to me more starkly than the other destructive acts of this malign network.
In the face of such historic criminality and when every single day counts for saving the planet, there can be no place for the reasoned debate and slow parliamentary and electoral timetables so beloved of progressives.
Thirdly, my final point is more complex and, admittedly, deeply controversial. It would take a number of blog posts to explore fully rather than a couple of paragraphs. So I will just state baldly that I now doubt the idea at the very heart of the progressive project: progress itself. A doubt deepened when I saw the self-destructive idiocy being committed in Brazil.
I accept that great strides have been made over the last 250 years to create a much more wealthy and healthy global population. However, I am now convinced that that progress has been bought at an enormous and unjustifiable cost.
Technology has enslaved and destroyed as much as it has liberated and enlivened in multiple ways. Most worryingly (although bizarrely the world seems to have stopped worrying), we now possess weapons that can eradicate all complex life at the touch of a few buttons.
And fundamentally, of course, we have polluted our planet to such an extent that we are on the brink of undoing what achievements have been made.
None of that sounds to me like real progress. Believing otherwise is only possible when one suppresses troubling thoughts about the current fragile state of humanity and the planet we occupy.
Of course, the belief in human progress is hardly unique to progressives. In fact, it is an unspoken and deeply embedded assumption across the whole political spectrum from far left to far right.
But progressives tend to have a particularly panglossian perspective believing inherently that benign state action combined with an entrepreneurial population will ensure the onward march of humanity for time immemorial.
That optimism leaves them particularly unquestioning of the values that underly the industrial society that has got humanity into the mess it currently faces.
So my time as a progressive has come to an end. I am instead convinced that we need to fight back with all the non-violent resources and methods we have against the climate criminals now controlling some of our most powerful nations.
But we also need to rapidly develop a new politics that has climate at its heart and is rigorous about refocusing society on goals that don’t encourage the destruction of our environment.
I don’t see such a politics emerging anywhere in the UK’s main political parties. It is absent even within the supposedly radical Labour Party. For all the main parties, climate is just a discrete policy area playing second fiddle to another issue they each see as the real priority.
While the lungs of the world go up in smoke, it is an approach that reeks of a fatal and irresponsible complacency.
Only one political force now gives me hope: the rise of direct action movements such as the school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion.
They alone seem to have grasped the necessary sense of urgency and the need for radical change that this historical and ecological moment demands. It is to them, not the self-designated progressives, that I now look for genuine progress.
Yet it’s easy to find a counter to this take. One came into our streams this week from the Human Progress site. The author asks the question: “Why are we as a species so willing to believe in doomsday scenarios that virtually never materialise?”
One could immediately argue that our current environmental circumstances are the very real materialisation of these scenarios. But lets run with the progressive mentality, in its purest sense:
The Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, Peter H. Diamandis, offers one plausible explanation. Human beings are constantly bombarded with information. Because our brains have a limited computing power, they have to separate what is important, such as a lion running toward us, from what is mundane, such as a bed of flowers.
Because survival is more important than all other considerations, most information enters our brains through the amygdala – a part of the brain that is “responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate and fear.” Information relating to those primal emotions gets our attention first because the amygdala “is always looking for something to fear.”
Our species, in other words, has evolved to prioritise bad news.
The Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker has noted that the nature of cognition and nature of news interact in ways that make us think that the world is worse than it really is. News, after all, is about things that happen. Things that did not happen go unreported.
As Pinker points out, we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” Newspapers and other media, in other words, tend to focus on the negative. As the old journalistic addage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
To make matters worse, the arrival of social media makes bad news immediate and more intimate. Until relatively recently, most people knew very little about the countless wars, plagues, famines and natural catastrophes happening in distant parts of the world.
Contrast that with the 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster, which people throughout the world watched unfold in real time on their smart phones.
The human brain also tends to overestimate danger due to what psychologists call “the availability heuristic” or a process of estimating the probability of an event based on the ease with which relevant instances come to mind.
Unfortunately, human memory recalls events for reasons other than their rate of recurrence. When an event turns up because it is traumatic, the human brain will overestimate how likely it is to re-occur.
Consider our fear of terror. According to John Mueller, a political scientist from the Ohio State University, “In the years since 9/11, Islamist terrorists have managed to kill about seven people a year within the United States.
All those deaths are tragic of course, but some comparisons are warranted: lightning kills about 46 people a year, accident-causing deer another 150, and drownings in bathtubs around 300.” Yet, Americans continue to fear terror much more than drowning in a bathtub.
Moreover, as Pinker also points out, the psychological effects of bad things tend to outweigh those of the good ones. Ask yourself, how much happier can you imagine yourself feeling? And again, how much more miserable can you imagine yourself to feel? The answer to the latter question is: infinitely.
Psychological literature shows that people fear losses more than they look forward to gains; dwell on setbacks more than relishing successes; resent criticism more than being encouraged by praise. Bad, in other words, is stronger than good.
Finally, good and bad things tend to happen on different timelines. Bad things, such as plane crashes, can happen quickly. Good things, such as the strides humanity has made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, tend to happen incrementally and over a long period of time.
As Kevin Kelly from Wired has put it, “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of Science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades in to what we might call civilisation … [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect.”
In other words, humanity suffers from a negativity bias or “vigilance for bad things around us.” Consequently, there is a market for purveyors of bad news, be they doomsayers who claim that overpopulation will cause mass starvation, or scaremongers who claim that we are running out of natural resources.
Politicians, too, have realised that banging on about “crises” increases their power and can get them re-elected. It may also lead to prestigious prizes and lucrative speaking engagements.
Thus politicians on both Left and Right play on our fears – whether it is a worry that crime is caused by playing violent computer games or that health maladies supposedly caused by the consumption of genetically modified foods.
The negativity bias is deeply ingrained in our brains. It cannot be wished away. The best that we can do is to realise that we are suffering from it.