First Chapter

Why I No Longer Identify as an Ecomodernist: The Psychological Crisis & the Paradox of Modernity

Nowhere is political polarization more pronounced than in environmental policy, particularly regarding climate. The newly dominant position in the Republic Party is that climate change is little more than a hoax, concocted by globalist elites keen to keep the masses in check and bolster their own standings. Many conservatives who do accept its reality deny that it as a problem, suspecting that it might even prove beneficial. In stark contrast, the dominant position in the Democratic Party is that climate change is a looming existential threat that requires us to abandon fossil fuels within a few years and run our economy almost entirely on the sun and wind regardless of the cost.

Neither of these wildly divergent views are popular with the public. Most Americans regard climate change as a serious problem that demands concerted efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Likewise, the idea that climate science is a massive conspiracy strikes most of us as ludicrous. But mainstream opinion also rejects measures that threaten national prosperity and risk undermining the wellbeing of the middle and working classes. Most Americans also understand that even the immediate elimination of fossil fuels in North America and Europe would have a negligible effect, given the rush into coal that is occurring in China, India, Indonesia, and other industrializing countries. They also recognize the impossibility of the global community compelling these countries, let alone Russia, to decarbonize. The benefits of rapid but unilateral decarbonization, in other words, would be largely symbolic, whereas its detriments would be all too palpable. In sum, the majority stance rejects both the climate indifference of the right and the climate catastrophism of the left.

For those concerned about the natural world, this growing ideological chasm has worrisome implications. Election results across much of the world show that voters tend to reject environmental measures that threaten their economic wellbeing. Parties that advocate abrupt decarbonization are consequently suffering at the polls. In the United States, the more insistently Democrats push for “net zero,” the more voters look for other options. But the only realistic alternative, the Republican Party, has been captured by skeptics who scoff at climate science and whose energy policy does not extend much beyond “drill, baby, drill.” Climate zealotry on the left thus tends not only to undermine itself, but environmental protection more generally.

The United States thus finds itself at a climate impasse, resulting largely from the missing middle. If most Americans want to confront the perils of a warming planet while maintaining their living standards, where can they turn? Not to the major environmental organizations, which not only favor precipitous decarbonization but also reject nuclear power, seeking full reliance on pricy and inconstant renewables. Nor is the Democratic Party a good option at present, given its tight alliance with the environmental establishment. On the other side of the aisle, moderate Republicans who advocate an economically realistic approach to climate change have been sidelined by their party’s base and are rapidly becoming an endangered species. The commonsensical approach has thus been politically orphaned, even though it is default stance of most American voters.

The Ecomodernist Response

But is such an environmental middle also intellectually stranded? In other words, are there any schools of thought devoted to protecting both the environment and the economy? Unbeknownst to most people, such a movement does exist and is gradually growing. The philosophy that undergirds it – ecomodernism [1] – is based on the idea that scientific progress, technological development, and economic growth are necessary for environmental protection. Impoverished people with minimal access to technology, ecomodernists argue, are often forced to damage their own lands merely to survive. Prosperous societies, in contrast, can afford to set aside large areas for natural habitat. As security increases and basic needs are satisfied, humans come to care more about other species. Transitioning into modern modes of life also reduces birthrates, thus defusing the “population bomb” that terrified an earlier generation and still worries those who are unaware of global fertility trends. Where birthrates remain worrisomely elevated, as in Afghanistan and over most of tropical Africa, modernity is in short supply.

As a coherent movement, ecomodernism is closely associated with the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank located in Oakland, California. Founded in 2007 by dissident environmentalists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, the Breakthrough Institute describes itself as a “global research center that identifies and promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges.[2]” It generates numerous policy reports on climate and energy, food and agriculture, and other environmental issues. It also publishes a journal and blog, holds two conferences annually, and runs a fellowship program. By all appearances, the Breakthrough Institute is a thriving organization. As the climate strategies of mainstream environmentalism confront economic, political, and even ecological barriers, the ecomodernist alternative is attracting attention in policy circles. The institute’s leaders, thinkers of a guardedly optimistic bent, are increasingly confident that their own breakthrough is forthcoming.

Yet for all the signs of its success, the Breakthrough Institute’s ecomodernist stance has made an inadequate impact on the public imagination and rarely appears in environmental conversations. Few people have even heard of ecomodernism, regardless of their level of education and knowledge of ecological issues. During my teaching career at Stanford University, I often asked students what they thought of it, but their responses never extended beyond perplexity. Internet searches on “ecomodernism” mostly point to critical assessments, many published in obscure journals and websites.

When authoritative publications do take notice of ecomodernism, they often couch it in contempt. A 2022 opinion piece in the New York Times by David Wallace-Wells [3] expressed fear that climate concerns are “blinding us to the biodiversity crisis” and thus misleading some environmentalists into unholy alliances “with forces that embrace technology, development and even ‘eco-modernism.’” Although Wallace-Wells’ central point has some validity, his fervid assessment of ecomodernism – note the scare quotes – reveals a profound misunderstanding of the movement and its aims. Ecomodernists embrace technology and development because they are convinced that they can help preserve biodiversity through human prosperity. This is not a matter of mere conjecture. Most wealthy countries are experiencing modest habitat and wildlife recoveries, with some actively rewilding, whereas most impoverished ones are seeing rampant deforestation and habitat loss, with many dewilding at a rapid clip. Land clearance and other drivers of the biodiversity crisis are far more often associated with inadequate human development than with excessive prosperity.

Ecomodernism’s Opposition

The popularity of ecomodernism’s main positions coupled with its near invisibility as a coherent philosophy present a paradox. Two resolutions suggest themselves, one external and the other internal. Externally, ecomodernism faces formidable foes, owing mostly to its position in the broad political center. Given the extreme polarization of American politics, the left and the right are equally threatened by viewpoints that fall between them. As a result, both camps are motivated to discredit the movement. As the mainstream press leans to the left, it is hardly eager to give ecomodernism a fair hearing – or even an unfair one. The same is true of the rightwing media.

For the populist right, the central tenets of ecomodernism are little short of anathema. If anthropogenic climate change is nonexistent or trivial – if not beneficial – then any efforts to forestall or mitigate it are pointless. The broader orientation of the ecomodernist community is also objectionable to fervent conservatives. Although ecomodernism sits under a tent wide enough to encompass a few libertarians and establishment conservatives, its core constituency is left of center. It has plenty of room for socialists and even Marxists, which is enough for staunch conservatives to consign it to enemy status. (Even more discrediting for the cultural right, Sam Brinton, the former deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Nuclear Energy who gained infamy for stealing women’s luggage at airports, was long an unmistakable presence at Breakthrough conferences. [4]) The establishmentarian orientation of ecomodernism also proves disconcerting to populists, as it defers to expert judgement and relies on technical analysis when assessing controversial issues. For those who think that academia has degenerated into mass fraud, such a position does not stand in its favor.

One of the founders of the ecomodernist movement has, however, been embraced by the populist right. Michael Shellenberger has managed this feat by leaving the Breakthrough Institute, moving away from environmental issues, and concentrating his remaining efforts there on the ecological dangers posed by wind and solar power [5]. Shellenberger now focuses on free speech, taking a staunchly pro-First-Amendment stance. Such a position was until recently associated with the left but is shifting into ostensibly conservative territory as many (former?) liberals have come to oppose public communication that they regard as hateful, unpalatable, or misinformed. Shellenberger now receives kudos from the right for opposing censorship by the left. Right-populist gatekeepers, however, warn their followers to remain distrustful of all such independent and center-trending thinkers. For those on the left, Shellenberger’s openness to dialogue with detested populists like Tucker Carlson puts him beyond the pale of respectability. Even open-minded centrists often balk at such a maverick voice.

The political left remains unsympathetic at best to ecomodernism. Most leftists find its less-than-enthusiastic take on a renewable energy disconcerting and its embrace of nuclear power disturbing. For the most devoted environmentalists, however, ecomodernism’s fatal flaw is its advocacy of economic growth. For the past half-century, a key tenet of deep-green thought is that economic growth is unsustainable. The expansion of the economy is said to entail the ever-mounting consumption of resources and energy, which is already thought to be encountering planetary limits. According to this argument, GDP growth will eventually yield little more that ecological devastation. Environmental salvation thus requires transition into a steady-state economy if not one of calibrated GDP decline. This “degrowth” imperative is no fringe position, as it is championed in scientific publications as central as Nature [6]. For the true believer, sustainability demands severe economic retrenchment.

Ecomodernists reject these arguments. Those with futuristic inclinations think that we can escape planetary limits by expanding into the rest of the solar system. But most members of the school contend that continual economic growth is possible because it is ultimately based not on resource consumption but rather on the generation of value, made possible by efficiency gains underwritten by scientific progress and technological development. As a result, they think that we have probably already reached “peak extraction” of many resources without corresponding economic losses. Ecomodernists are therefore wary of resource-intensive and land-consuming forms of energy, which is one reason why they reject the renewables-only path. Ultimately, many argue, nuclear fusion will provide the truly clean, inexpensive, and land-, resource-, and atmosphere-sparing energy that can support indefinite economic expansion. But solid though these arguments may be, they are seldom aired in mainstream environmental circles.

The Ecomodernism’s Modernism Problem

Ecomodernism faces formidable headwinds, opposed by the country’s most powerful political forces. But such opposition is not adequate to explain its failure to gain public recognition. In our age of frictionless publication and overnight viral sensations, would-be gatekeepers have little power to exclude ideas from the public square. The rise of the populist right and the survival of the populist left, both roundly disdained by all establishment factions, demonstrate as much. As polling reveals, the American people are increasingly dissatisfied with their political options, with a vocal minority now viewing both parties with disdain [7]. According to a recent Gallup poll, 27 percent of American voters consider themselves Democrats and another 27 percent Republicans, but a whopping 43 percent now identify as independents [8]. There is a broad and unsated hunger for new ideas that fall outside the established political camps. Ecomodernism fits this bill well, with most of its positions enjoying plurality if not majority support, yet it languishes nonetheless. To understand this puzzle, we need to examine the movement’s internal dynamics.

My contention is that ecomodernism is held back not by its specific positions but rather by its philosophical framing. This flaw is encapsulated in the second part of its self-designation: “modernism.” Not to be confused with modernity, modernism, strictly defined, refers to a set of artistic and philosophical beliefs that emerged in the early 1900s and reached its apogee in the mid-twentieth century. Modernist thinkers sought the reinvention of both art and social organization to fit what they regarded as a radically new industrial order. Traditional aesthetics, ways of life, and modes of being were to be discarded, often with a strong measure of contempt [9]. As the influential poet Ezra Pound demanded of his followers, “make it new![10]” Modernism in this sense was an important artistic movement that commands the attention of serious thinkers. It is difficult to deny the significance of its achievements, which enriched the cultural stock of humankind in many ways. But it also had profound drawbacks, vitiating its usefulness for environmental philosophy.

From an environmental-policy perspective, the main problem with modernism is its lack of popularity. Many people find it cold and sterile, unsettlingly radical and unforgiving. Modernist music is intensively studied, but rarely listened to; well-known modernist paintings command high prices, but most people find them baffling if not unsightly. Planned modernist cities like Brasilia and Canberra long struggled to attract residents, and modernist architecture – especially brutalism – has prompted public bans. Today, modernism in the sense of Picasso, Pound, Joyce, Schoenberg, Beckett, and Le Corbusier has essentially played out, although its influence remains strong, if often in covert form. Put simply, modernism never had much demotic appeal, which is precisely what environmentalism needs. On these terms, “ecomodernism” makes little sense.

But it is not modernism’s aesthetic sensibilities that are troubling, but rather its devotion to restless change across all beliefs, standards, and social relations, which can easily lead in the wrong direction. Although often portrayed as liberatory for its casting aside of restrictions, modernism was an elitist movement affiliated with totalitarianism in both its rightwing and communist guises. Its most insistent apostle, Ezra Pound, was a thoroughgoing fascist who was indicted for treason by the United States after World War II. The execrable beliefs of one prominent modernist are not, of course, reason to condemn the entire movement. But its dismissal of everything that came before is cause for alarm. As a result, many contemporary critics emphasize its destructive aspects. The deeply learned and ever audacious historian Christopher Beckwith portrays “Modernism” as having been especially devastating in Central Asia, where it wiped away precious cultural institutions and vast ecosystems in its unrelenting “fight against tradition … and nature itself in all areas [11].” The erudite and always humane literary scholar Robert Pogue Harrison more subtly argues that modernism “has been mostly a story of combating and denouncing history rather than cultivating, in sheltered places, counterforces to history’s deleterious forces [12].”

Modernism was nothing if not ambitious, seeking to restore a sense of meaning and establish a new metaphysical center in a historical epoch marked by untold horrors. As such, it had utopian overtones, holding that we can move toward societal perfection by casting off the fetters of the past. In the late twentieth century, however, self-proclaimed postmodernists abandoned the quest for meaning and underscored the failure of metaphysical conjecture and the futility of “metanarrative.” Postmodernism also sought to recuperate traditional artistic motifs, but did so through ironic pastiche that entailed a measure of mockery. Overall, postmodernism is best regarded as late-stage variant of its modernist predecessor. It too is largely exhausted as a coherent artistic and intellectual movement. What survives from both streams of thought is a potent residue of contempt for traditional cultural forms and ways of life coupled with esteem for edgy novelty, particularly if it appalls traditionalists and can thus be seen as having revolutionary implications. But after a century of modernist and postmodernist attacks, the public is difficult to shock. Most elements of the haute bourgeoisie, modernism’s prime target, now revel in such assaults, especially if they can be commercialized.

But are the deficiencies inherent in philosophical modernism also found in ecomodernism? Not really. Overall, the term functions mainly as an ambiguous tag, one signaling little more than the movement’s embrace of modernity. The Breakthrough Institute, as noted above, sits under a broad tent, one capacious enough to shelter both champions of ultra-modernistic indoor agriculture and traditional organic farming. Although I am now suspicious of its most modernistic aspects, I still think that the institute offers the best policy prescriptions for addressing the environmental crisis. But I also think that it would be wise to rearticulate its overarching vision, dropping “modernism” in favor of a less divisive and more accommodating term.

An unnecessary emphasis on modernism is unfortunately found in the cover image of the Breakthrough Institute’s signal publication, a 2015 tract called An Ecomodernist Manifesto [13]. As a signatory, I initially liked the illustration. Showing a forest of high-rise apartments and office buildings nestled below a verdant slope, it nicely conveys the idea that the hyper-modern and the fully natural can coexist in tight proximity. Doubts began to creep in, however, when I recommended the manifesto to friends and family members with moderately green leanings. Most were unexpectedly put-off, finding fault especially with the photograph in question. The most common response was along the lines of “count me out if you think that I should live in a place like that!”

The high-rise apartment building plonked down on a small plot of green land was a staple feature of the mid-twentieth-century modernist imagination. As Christopher Caldwell contends [14], “soaring apartments” were supposed to “give sunlight and fresh air,” as well as a smidgeon of greenery, to “city laborers who had been trapped in narrow and fetid back streets.” The reality has been different, with Caldwell concluding that residential towers more often became “machines for alienation,” playing on the description of houses as “machines for living” by the fascistic [15] high-rise enthusiast Le Corbusier. Few people want to live in machines. In the United States, high-rises are favored by some devoted urbanites, especially those without children, but are largely rejected by the public. Even where they are widely accepted, they have been linked to debilitating stress as well as a precipitous collapse of childbearing [16]. In high-rise swathed Seoul, the average woman can be expected to give birth to fewer than 0.6 children over the course of her life [17]. Apartment towers are also expensive to build, and their carbon footprints are usually massive, owing to their extensive use of concrete and steel.

None of this is to argue against dense cities, which do have pronounced environmental advantages and are cherished by many people (although fewer in the United States than in many other countries). But what most people prefer, residents and tourists alike, are not the stark vistas of the modernist metropolis but rather the more diverse scenes of traditional urban neighbor- hoods. These are usually characterized by mid-rise construction, with buildings of three to eight stories, often with residences above and shops on the street level. As Jane Jacobs argued decades ago, such an organically derived urban framework is more suited to the human spirit than the top-down modernist alternative [18]. It can also be more environmentally benign.

Despite the cover illustration of their manifesto, ecomodernists are not particularly devoted to high-rises and have no desire to force people into them. But the problems of modernism go much deeper. If taken seriously as a coherent philosophy, modernism per se is as inimical to genuine environmental concern as it is to true human flourishing. To the extent that the Breakthrough school aligns itself with a modernist viewpoint, it will have difficulty gaining the support that it deserves.

Is Modernist Society Socially Unsustainable?

Modernism’s drive for total transformation, along with its utopian aspirations, survives in techno-futurism, the favored ideology of Silicon Valley billionaires. Here we find torrid dreams of human immortality, superintelligence, and extraplanetary colonization waiting for the impending “singularity [19].” Several aspects of such technological utopianism have been embraced by the ecomodernist movement. My own Green Delusions extolled the nascent internet for its potential to push us into virtual forms of interaction, arguing that this would bring significant environmental and social benefits. Improved communication, I thought, would let us dispense with business travel, thus reducing our resource and energy consumption with little economic downside.

Today, the downside of the high-tech revolution appears to be large, as virtual existence is proving unhealthy [20]. American society is suffering a mental-health crisis, particularly among adolescents and young adults. Although this tragedy has multiple roots, the emergence of technologically mediated socializing evidently plays a major role. Jonathan Haidt argues that the psychological health of American boys began to gradually decline as early as the 1980s, concomitant with the introduction of video games. That of girls plummeted around 2010, at roughly the same time as the mass adoption of smart phones and the introduction of Instagram [21]. The evidence seems clear: we fail to thrive if we spend too much time in ersatz environments. Put bluntly, developments that promised utopia have delivered something that is becoming more reminiscent of dystopia.

At first glance, such disappointing results might not seem surprising. Utopian dreams often descend into dismal realities, as the history of communism shows. But in most cases the promised results were never delivered; the Soviet Union was supposed to yield abundance for all but instead delivered mass scarcity. But information technology is different. It has given us many if not most of its promised capabilities, but their social and psychological effects have been far more negative than had been imagined. Here we find the central paradox of the modern world.

The paradoxical pathologies of techno-modernism are most evident in East Asia, particularly South Korea. As recently as 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world; today it is a strikingly prosperous center of advanced information technology, its people noted for their technophilia. But despair is nonetheless pummeling the country’s youth. The burgeoning “Hell Joseon” movement (Joseon being the name of Korea from 1392 to 1897) advocates abandoning most aspects of adult life, starting with marriage, homeownership, and career, but ultimately extending to just about everything else [22]. Young men in South Korea are rapidly moving to the political right while young women are trending in the opposite direction, generating a seemingly unbridgeable gender chasm [23]. Partly as a result, the total fertility rate is plunging and currently stands at the astonishingly low level of 0.72 (children per woman) [24]. Most environmentalists, however, laud low birth-rates, arguing that the Earth is overpopulated as it is. But even if population decline is beneficial, it needs to occur gradually if it is to avoid the devastating result of having too few working-age people to support and care for swelling numbers of retirees and infirm elders. South Korea could counter its birth dearth by extensive immigration, but that option is rejected on cultural grounds. The only seeming alternative is the hyper-modernist path of mass roboticization. But if it does prove feasible to relinquish eldercare to androids, most people see that as a nightmare scenario. It is thus difficult to avoid the conclusion that regardless of South Korea’s glittering present, its future is dismal indeed.

The ultimate cause of South Korea’s demographic decay is hotly debated. Is an excess of modernism to blame, or is it more a matter of specifically Korean and more broadly East Asian cultural features? Although not as depressed as that of South Korea, the fertility rates of China, Japan, and Taiwan are exceptionally low. These countries are all strikingly modernistic, but they also have a legacy of Confucianism, a non-modern philosophy with religious overtones. Feminist scholars have linked Confucianism to plummeting fertility, arguing that it puts unreasonably high familial expectations on young women, forcing them to choose between childbearing and a career [25]. According to this argument, the combination of traditional cultural presumptions and modern economic opportunities for women pushes fertility far below the replacement level. The same reasoning is used to explain the depressed birth rates found across most of southern and eastern Europe, which are hardly the most modernistic parts of the region. In Asturias in northern Spain and on Italy’s island of Sardinia, the total fertility rate (TFR) hovers around 1.0 [26]. Much of Latin America, moreover, is rapidly heading in the same direction [27].

The fertility collapse across most of southern and eastern Europe can be contrasted with the rebound that occurred in some of the region’s less traditional and more gender-egalitarian countries, particularly Sweden. Sweden’s TFR had dropped to 1.6 as early as 1978, but by 2010 it had jumped back to 2.0 [28]. Although slightly below replacement level, this figure would, if sustained, result in a slow and easily manageable population decline. But instead, Sweden’s openness to immigration has generated a gradual population increase. Such a favorable demographic scenario, one might imagine, would allow the country to withstand the problems of an aging population. Cosmopolitan, environmentally conscious, and social-democratic Sweden should be well positioned to reap the rewards of modernity.

Other signs, however, indicate that not all is well in Sweden. Its fertility rate began to fall again around 2010 and is now near 1.7 and dropping. This decline is causing concern among Swedish demographers and governmental officials [29]. The Swedish electorate, moreover, is turning against mass immigration, which is associated with rising crime rates. The nativist Sweden Democrats party now has the second largest number of seats in the Riksdag (Swedish parliament). In October 2023, its leaders called for the national army to be deployed against gangs and street crime [30]. Despite such provocations, support for Sweden Democrats is now so strong that other Swedish parties have reluctantly concluded that they can no longer shun it. Despair for the future also seems to be mounting among the country’s youth, as typified by the dour activist Greta Thunberg.

To be sure, many environmentalists view such despair as a rational and potentially productive response to a crisis seen as apocalyptic. But such fears are not themselves rationally grounded, as we will see in Chapter Three. We must therefore ask why so many young people would be so vulnerable to climate extremism, damaging their psyches and leading them to engage in bizarre and counterproductive protests, such as attacking works of art. Although this question is not easily answered, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are witnessing a more general psychological crisis, one paradoxically linked to successful modernization.

The Paradox of Modernity

The current psychological crisis is embedded in a fundamental enigma: modernity is at once an amazing success and a miserable failure. Its benefits are extraordinary, yet it is apparently generating mass malaise. To understand the broader dilemma that we now face, we must first confront this paradox.

To put this puzzle in perspective, it is useful to revisit the conditions that obtained before modernity’s advent. Perpetual poverty for the masses, early death for the vast majority, appalling rates of maternal and infant mortality even among the wealthy, and constant vulnerability to war, famine, plague, and various natural calamities were humanity’s historical lot. In most state-level societies, so too was the repression of speech and nonconformity, along with grotesquely unjust privileges for elites, disabilities for commoners, and crushing restrictions on class mobility. If one could go back to a time and place such as 1640 in central Europe [31] and describe to its denizens the life conditions of their descendants in the early twenty-first century, one would almost certainly be met with staggered disbelief. Even to an early-modern aristocrat, our world would seem a place of unimaginable marvels and miracles, a veritable utopia. Surely its inhabitants, one could imagine them thinking, would be overjoyed to live amid such freedom and plenty. Pointing out our social shortcomings, as contemporary critics are wont to do, would probably not sway such perceptions.

The main lesson derived from this thought experiment is that anything approaching utopia is impossible. Even if its supposed material attributes could be realized, its psycho-social payoffs would fail to appear. Perhaps negative psychological traits are lodged in human nature, unerasable by either economic development or social progress. Perhaps we need to struggle to feel alive. Such speculations, however, sidestep the underlying paradox. It is not just that progress has failed to deliver utopia, but rather that it now seems to be leading in the opposite direction. Over the past few decades, the more technologically advanced we become, the more anxiety and despondency deepen. In the United States, mental health is at a significantly lower level than it was in the mid-twentieth century. It suspiciously began to plummet just as information technology stated to deliver unparalleled social connectivity and unimaginable access to knowledge and entertainment. More puzzlingly, it probably sits at a lower level than it did two hundred years ago, when most people lived in squalid misery by today’s standards. The evidence indicates, in other words, that we are becoming more psychologically wretched as we grow less physically miserable.

As I have argued above, the transition into technologically mediated social interaction seems to be undermining mental health. So too does the deepening political divide and its associated atmosphere of contempt and distrust. As polarization is increasingly gender skewed, with young women trending left and young men right [32], relations between the sexes suffer as well, taking another toll. Concerns about climate change certainly play a role, particularly when they are magnified beyond reasonable levels. Other proposed factors are more debatable, including the over-use of prescription medications for psychological ailments and even something as simple as bad therapy [33].

But there are also more prosaic drivers of our mental-health crisis, particularly the erosion of living standards and security. When I was coming of age in the 1970s, one solid working-class job could support a family and maintain a decent home. Since then, per capita GDP has surged and most manufactured goods have become more affordable. But it is a different story for the fundamentals necessary for adult life, especially housing. For earlier generations, homeownership was the prime ticket for blue-collar workers into the middle class, stabilizing communities and engendering intergenerational hope [34]. Today, over much of the country, homeownership looks like an ever-receding mirage even for many young college graduates. Personal debt, meanwhile, is soaring, painting a bleak picture for much of the population. According to a 2023 Pew survey, two-thirds of Americans think that the U.S. economy will be weaker in 2050 than it is now [35]. A general sense of well-being is associated with the belief that one’s personal conditions are improving; even if one is wealthy, the prospect of decline usually yields discontent.

On the left, the paradoxical decline of living standard for the working class in an expanding economy is usually explained by the ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Social scientists measure such disparities, whether of income or wealth, through the GINI coefficient, in which a figure of “0” means that everyone has the same income (or wealth) while a figure of “1” means that a single person gets (or has) everything. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the GINI income index of the United States rose from 0.36 in 1967 to 0.46 by 2014 – a gargantuan jump considering the fact that no country comes close to either absolute equality or inequality [36]. In 2022, the census pegged the figure at 0.49, noting that the recent “increase in income inequality [was] driven by real declines in income at the bottom [37].”

Conservatives usually dismiss concern about the growing income and wealth gap, insisting that it is mostly a matter of envy. They also argue that unease about the surging GINI coefficient betrays a naive “zero-sum” understanding of the economy, one in which gains for one person mean losses for others. But although zero-sum thinking is indeed misinformed, so too is “infinite-sum” thinking, in which gains for one automatically translate into gains for all. Unfortunately, mainstream conservatism seems to be heading in this direction. National Review recently ran an article headlined “Trillionaires Should Exist [38],” which argued that such unimaginable wealth in a few hands would enlarge the total economic pie and thus benefit everyone. By the same logic, the emergence of quadrillionaires would be even better. For some conservatives, the mere suggestion that fortunes of such magnitude are excessive is seen as dangerously socialistic. The same sentiment is oddly found on the populist right [39], even though its adherents constantly rail against the malign influence of politically engaged billionaires. To put it in hyperbolic terms, one could imagine a scenario in which the members of some future successor to the World Economic Forum control all wealth, with the rest of humanity literally owning nothing, but with rightwing pundits solemnly intoning that “it is unfortunate that we are all now effectively the slaves of a handful of plutocrats, but anything that we might have done to counteract their acquisition of everything would have been socialism, which, as we all know, is the sure road to serfdom [40].”

The lack of concern over the pending emergence of trillionaires may indicate failure to grasp the numbers involved. Two trillion dollars is seven orders of magnitude larger than the current median household wealth in the United States ($200,000). The difference between the two figures is equivalent to that between a jump of one meter and leap that takes one from the Equator to the North Pole. In terms of time, one trillion years is 222 times longer than the age of the Earth. In terms of expenditure, a trillionaire could squirrel away his or her money in a cosmic mattress and spend one million dollars a day for 2,739 years. If a hoard of wealth can be viewed as obscenely large, surely the threshold has been reached by this point. But for many rightwing thinkers, the point of financial obscenity can evidently never be attained.

But the real problem with extreme wealth is more fundamental. It is not so much that a few people have too much money or prevent the rest of us from realizing our rightful shares, but rather that excessive inequality is itself corrosive. Countries with extremely high GINI coefficients, such as South Africa (0.63) [41], are all socially troubled and politically fragile. A substantial body of historical evidence shows that as the wealth gap widens, social trust and cohesion decline, harming almost everyone. Massive fortunes also confer excessive political influence, undermining democracy [42]. As the resulting power plays out in the political arena, the sense that the system is rigged intensifies and anger deepens. Partisan thinkers recognize this threat, but only as it applies to “the other side,” with Democrats routinely denouncing the political interventions of the Koch family and Elon Musk, and populist Republicans constantly inveighing against the Soros family and Bill Gates.

Although leftists understand the dangers of economic polarization, their own policies do little to counteract it and sometimes exacerbate it. Is it coincidental that three of the four states with the highest levels of income inequality – New York, Connecticut, and California – are deep blue, whereas two of the three with the lowest levels – Alaska and Utah – are bright red [43]? In California, historically a land of opportunity for those of modest means, inequality has surged while the political balance has shifted firmly to the left. Expensive energy, accepted by most Democrats, batters the working class but spares the wealthy. Restrictions on housing construction, propelled by NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) environmentalism, undermine the prospects of the young while enhancing the wealth of those already in the ownership class. It is not surprising that many young adults are moving from more restrictive blue states to less restrictive red ones that have more affordable housing.

While those on the left often attribute deteriorating mental health and fraying social bonds and to rising inequality, those on the right more often link them to the decline of traditional practices, beliefs, and standards. This association is longstanding and has often been highlighted by centrists and liberals as well. Urbanization and modernity itself have been linked to the breakdown of moral values since the late nineteenth century, a phenomenon dubbed anomie by the pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim. The psychologically damaging loss of community and consequent atomization of the individual have often been associated with the steady march of modernization. In 2000, Robert Putnam famously underscored the erosion of civic organizations and voluntary associations in the United States, which he linked to a decline of public trust and social capital [44]. On the political right, the weakening of religious beliefs and practices is commonly invoked to explain the decline in wellbeing and the erosion of civility. Although the level of religiosity in the United States long remained relatively high, seemingly discrediting the thesis that modernization begets secularization, it too has been plummeting in recent years. Might this loss of faith be linked to the deterioration of mental health?

Religion, Earth Religion, and Environmental Pseudo-Religion

I was long skeptical of the idea that the modernity-driven decay of religion comes at a major social and psychological cost. I was raised an atheist and have been a confirmed agnostic for decades, but I have never felt any harm from my lack of faith. But the evidence shows that “spirituality/ religiousness [is] consistently related to both physical and mental health [45].” Time-honored beliefs offer comfort and consolation, giving hope to those who find themselves in hopeless situations. The main modern alternative, scientific materialism, holds that the universe and everything in it have no intrinsic meaning or purpose. According to this belief system, we are the mere products of chance mutations harshly winnowed by natural selection. Or, as the ancient Epicureans put it, existence is the result of swerving atoms randomly colliding. Such a stark credo may offer some consolation for philosophical adepts, be they ancient or modern [46], but it is cold comfort for most of us. It is therefore not surprising that public surveys show that religious adherents enjoy better mental health than non-believers. From a philosophically pragmatic perspective, spiritual beliefs can be seen as functionally true, or valid, even though they are empirically unverifiable and sometimes simply false. That, at any rate, was the conclusion reached by the great American pragmatist William James in the early twentieth century [47].

But regardless of any arguments leveled against it, religion in the broader sense is not easily eradicated. Even if consciously rejected, it slinks back in covert form. Key aspects of religious thought, such as the idea of the sacred, seem to be ensconced in our very structures of consciousness [48]. No human culture without religious beliefs has ever been discovered. Even in modern secular societies, many non-believers profess, if pressed, acceptance of some form of spiritual reality [49]. Those who foreswear such beliefs often act otherwise, assigning unacknowledged sacral value to nature, social justice (as they define it), or some other concept of consequence. As a result, their arguments and actions often stray far from the rational foundations on which they supposedly stand. For the most adamant activists, the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change are not to be evaluated through empirical investigation and logical analysis, but rather accepted as truths that must not be sullied by debate with nonbelievers. Those who deny them are seen not as intellectual opponents but as heretics deserving only denunciation or worse. Significantly, the charge of “denialist” is leveled not only against those who doubt anthropogenic climate change, but also those who question the worst-case scenarios. Even environmentalists who reject the renewables-only option find themselves tarred as apostates.

The transformation of deep environmentalism into a cryptic religion is not surprising. When contemporary eco-philosophy was being fashioned in the 1960s and 1970s, several of its key thinkers called for a new Earth-centered spirituality. I was at the time an eager young follower. The intervening years have seen an outpouring of green spirituality texts, many of which are sophisticated and laudable. The problem is not with these works, but rather with the ungrounded environmental pseudo-religion found among many radical activists. A sad substitute for genuine faith, it does not provide the solace that is crucial for long-term success and has little room for redemption and reconciliation. Whereas adherents of traditional religions have better mental health on average than their secular peers, followers of this crypto-creed fare worse. Established beliefs have withstood the test of time because they offer something of profound value, helping their adherents endure the trials of life and encouraging them to keep producing new generations to carry on the struggle. Contemporary eco-religiosity, on the other hand, is more often associated with despair and sternly discourages reproduction. As a result, its long-term prospects are not favorable. Like earlier sects that renounced childbearing, such as the Shakers, it may prove demographically unsustainable.

Genuine Earth-centered spirituality does have deep historical roots and could potentially be revivified to serve contemporary needs. But as its more insightful proponents recognize, to do so it would have to embrace a sense of hope. Recognizing the extraordinary resilience and self-healing capacity of Gaia [50] would be a good first step. Considering what the Earth has endured over the eons, the increasing level of atmospheric carbon that we now face poses no planetary threat. Although this realization is no grounds for climate complacency, it might offer some much-needed succor. Earth-oriented spirituality would also do well to reconsider its choice of saints. Devoted custodians of nature make more appealing prospects than aggressive scolds. There are many candidates out there, some of whom have crafted highly focused vocations. I am especially touched by those who become the human equivalents of cleaner fish, performing acts of care well beyond the removal of parasites and infected tissue accomplished by wrasses and other mutualistic species. Cristina Zenato, for example, has dislodged more than 300 hooks from the mouths of wild sharks. Quite a few of these magnificent animals have learned who she is and what she does, and as a result flock to her for ministration and, some insist, affection [51].

I am not arguing that we need to embrace ancient faiths if we are to resolve our mental-health crisis. My contention is rather that we are currently on the wrong societal path and should reconsider some of the options that we have taken. Jettisoning accumulated wisdom in favor of incessant novelty and wholesale social reinvention – the modernist path – has not taken us to a good place. But returning to the past is no alternative. Modernity cannot be banished, and vanishingly few of us would want to do so anyway. Instead, the best track forward lies somewhere in the middle, one aiming at a workable balance between the modern and the traditional, finding value in both and appreciating their ability to temper each other. Such a via media does not blindly embrace whatever the coming years seem to promise, casting a skeptical eye at the untethered dreams of those besotted with wealth and power. But it also recognizes that technological advance, cultural change, and social evolution are necessary if we are to thrive as a species while allowing the rest of creation to flourish as well. This is the path that most of us prefer, although we will always disagree about its precise direction.

In sum, I no longer consider myself an ecomodernist, a philosophy that I long embraced without adequate scrutiny. But another problem with the term awaits consideration. The ecomodernist label, pithy though it is, no longer meaningfully differentiates the school of thought associated with the Breakthrough Institute from mainstream environmentalism, which is why it was coined in the first place. As the next section demonstrates, the conventional green movement has become just as modernistic as ecomodernism, with its more extreme adherents surpassing it in several respects. The differences between the two approaches are still profound, but they are now located on entirely different grounds.

The Covert Modernism of Mainstream Environmentalism

When the ecomodernist critique first began to circulate, the “modernist” label made sense. Most of the environmental philosophies that I criticized in Green Delusions were explicitly anti-modern. Their adherents rejected urban life, technological progress, economic development, and even scientific inquiry. Modern science, some argued, alienates us from nature, based as it is on violently masculinist modes of knowing and learning. They wanted to discard all of that and return to nature. I disagreed. Given this aversion to contemporary life and romantic misreading of subsistence farming and homecraft manufacturing, an explicitly modernist reformulation of environmental philosophy seemed in order.

But although anti-modern environmental sentiments are still voiced, they have retreated into the margins. Today’s green mainstream puts full faith in high tech and stakes its claims firmly on the terrain of science. To be sure, it shuns several forms of advanced technology that most ecomodernists endorse, most notably nuclear power. But the preferred alternatives entail highly sophisticated technology; there is nothing non-modern about sprawling solar farms, immense windmills, or massive battery banks. It also requires pervasive and thoroughly modern infrastructure. The once-popular idea of powering our homes with village-based windmills and solar cells has slipped out of the conversation. The justification of the green left’s climate policy also rests squarely on the authority of modern science. As such, the charge of “science denialism” is often attached to that of “climate denialism.” Nor are traditional ways of life given much respect, unless they are followed by indigenous peoples, preferably living in distant lands. Mainstream environmentalism, in other words, has become thoroughly “ecomodernist.”

Urbanization lies at the heart of the modernist vision. In Green Delusions, I argued that dense cities are the best settlement option, as they reduce energy use and resource consumption while preserving habitat by concentrating human population. At the time, green critics saw this as the book’s only worthwhile message. Since then, establishment environmentalism has veered in an increasingly urbanist direction. Many argue that we can manage the climate crisis only by aggregating into cities dense enough for all necessities to be obtainable within a fifteen-minute walk or bicycle ride [52]. Although exaggerated, this argument has some validity. Compact cities do have environmental benefits, and many people do find them attractive.

This eco-urbanist vision, however, is currently being undermined by unforeseen events. City centers in the U.S. are losing population, due mainly to security concerns and other quality-of-life issues. Mass transit – essential for this imagined future – is also declining, and for the same reasons. Critics of environmentalism see only hypocrisy, arguing that those who extol urbanism also pursue policies that undermine its viability. Conspiratorial musings follow about nefarious eco-elites seeking to terminate rural and suburban existence and force all commoners into dangerous and derelict hyper-cities. Blade Runner, anyone? Such conspiracy mongering has little warrant, as no organization comes close to having the power that would be needed to herd the American people into massive cities. But the anti-rural and anti-suburban biases of contemporary environmentalism are real enough. Even backyard vegetable gardening is now being questioned on supposedly environmental grounds [53]. Most Americans find this attitude insufferable. And as demographer Joel Kotkin demonstrates, even recent college graduates are now eagerly re-suburbanizing [54].

While the green left fecklessly imagines a futuristic urban renaissance, its vision for the countryside is based on a different strand of modernist thought. In it, vast swaths of land are to be studded with windmills and crisscrossed by high-voltage electrical lines. This resource-intensive energy path would require a major expansion of mining, which – owing to domestic restrictions– would be largely relegated to countries with lax environmental and labor regulations. It is hard to miss the whiff of neo-colonialism. What we seemingly encounter here is an updated version of midcentury industrial modernism, akin to that extolled by Ayn Rand. Tolerating an eagle-devouring turbine whose blades “sweep ten football fields per spin” as a necessary evil is one thing; hailing it as an environmental marvel is quite another [55].

Establishmentarian environmentalism’s underlying modernism is further revealed by its attitude toward rural people who want to keep many of the trappings of the modern world at arm’s length. Although Green Delusions criticized the ideas of the eco-romantic movement, it did not attack the people who held them. It is a different story, however, with the current eco- establishment. California’s supposedly green leadership is now pushing the aged back-to-the-landers and their descendants and emulators out of hills of the Emerald Triangle in a softer and gentler version of Britain’s highland clearances of the eighteenth century. But whereas Scottish crofters were reviled as threats to the state and polite society more generally, today’s micro-scale, low-carbon cannabis farmers have somehow been recast as enemies of nature. Instead, the state’s political establishment favors ultra-modernistic, carbon-intensive, corporate cannabis. Go figure.

One radical strand of establishment environmentalism reveals its modernist aspirations more in its omissions as in what it openly advocates. Consider, for example, a recent report entitled “The Future of Urban Consumption in a 1.5 C World [56],” produced by the University of Leeds for the C-40 Alliance of eco-friendly cities. This project has been widely pilloried for its eco-asceticism. In the “ambitious” version of its recommendations, meat and dairy products, as well as private vehicle ownership, will be eliminated, while new clothing purchases will be limited to three items per person per year and airplane travel reduced to “one short-haul return flight (less than 1500 km) every 3 years per person.” But as severe as this imagined future is, it remains embedded in the advanced technology on which twenty-first-century modernity rests. The changes proposed in this sector are modest indeed, with the only “ambitious target” being a lengthening of the “lifetime of laptops and similar electronic devices” from five to seven years. Tellingly, the energy-devouring developments extolled by technocratic elites, ranging from crypto-currency to artificial intelligence to virtual reality, receive no mention. Evidently, those who toil in the physical world and find emotional sustenance in natural settings are to pay a high price, whereas those who work and relax in simulated environments will be largely spared. This is not so much a modernist vision as it is one of hypermodernism. Tellingly, the psychological toll that will be exacted by such a retreat from the natural world is given no consideration.

If the views of establishment environmentalism do not differ fundamentally from those of ecomodernism on the supposedly key issue of modernism, where might they be found? The main divergence, I now think, lies in their positions on wealth and poverty. Put simply, the eco-establishment favors austerity for the masses while ineffectively advocating a modest measure of redistribution from the rich to the poor, whereas ecomodernism champions prosperity for all. My own preference is for a market economy geared more to the needs of the working and middle classes and less to the dreams and desires of the ultra-wealthy. In the eco-establishmentarian vision, non-elites will pay a high cost, priced out of most housing options and forced out of private automobiles. Not so the rich, who will still be able to obtain what they want so long as they make modest amends by purchasing carbon offsets and other eco-indulgences. Even “super-yachting” is applauded by the Davos crowd if it is done in an “sustainable” manner [57]. In many ways, members of the overclass can expect more comfortable lives under their envisaged new regime than they now enjoy. Currently, no amount of money can save a Silicon Valley billionaire from the hell of highway congestion. In their favored future, that problem will evaporate as the plebes are forced off the road to save Mother Nature.

 

Notes

1. See Ecomodernism: Technology, Politics, and the Climate Crisis, by Jonathan Symons. 2019. Polity.

2. See the institute’s website: https://thebreakthrough.org

3. “Has Climate Change Blinded Us to the Biodiversity Crisis?” by David Wallace-Wells. The New York Times, December 21, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/21/opinion/climate-change-biodiversity-crisis-cop15.html
To be fair, the New York Times did publish a favorable account of ecomodernism by Eduardo Porter in 2015: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/15/business/an-environmentalist-call-to-look-past-sustainable-development.html.

4. See this page on the Breakthrough Institute’s website: https://thebreakthrough.org/people/samuel-brinton

5. See the website of Shellenburger’s organization, Environmental Progress: https://environmentalprogress.org

6. “Degrowth Can Work — Here’s How Science Can Help,” By Jason Hickel et al. Nature, December 12, 2022.
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-04412-x

7. As reported by the Pew Research Center on September 19, 2023: “The U.S. public’s views of both the Republican and Democratic parties are more unfavorable than favorable, with a record number of Americans (28%) now expressing unfavorable views of both parties.” According to Pew poling, 61 percent of Americans view the Republican Party unfavorably and only 38 percent favorably. The comparable numbers for the Democrats are 60 percent and 39 percent. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/09/19/the-republican-and-democratic-parties/

8. “Independent Party ID Tied for High; Democratic ID at New Low,” by Jeffrey M. Jones. Gallup, January 12, 2024.
https://news.gallup.com/poll/548459/independent-party-tied-high-democratic-new-low.aspx

9. There were, unsurprisingly, major exceptions to this rule, as modernism has always had disparate streams. T.S. Elliot, the prime modernist apostle of despair, was, for example, a religious conservative. He was also a something of a dissolute puritan; lived consistency is often lacking among the great poets.

10. Although there are some doubts about the authorship of the quote, “Make It New” was the title of a collection of Pound’s essays published in 1934 by Faber and Faber.

11. Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press, 2009. Page 263.

12. Robert Pogue Harrison. Gardens: An Essay of the Human Condition. University of Chicago Press, 2008. Page 159.

13. The manifesto can be found at: http://www.ecomodernism.org

14. “Revolting High-Rises,” by Christopher Caldwell, New York Times Magazine. November 27, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/27/magazine/revolting-high-rises.html

15. See “Le Corbusier’s Architecture and His Politics Are Revisited,” by Rachel Donadio. New York Times, July 12, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/13/arts/design/le-corbusiers-architecture-and-his-politics-are-revisited.html

16. See my blog post “Does High-Rise Housing Contribute to Ultra-Low Fertility Rates?” GeoCurrents, December 11, 2023 https://www.geocurrents.info/blog/2023/12/11/does-high-rise-housing-contribute-to-ultra-low-fertility-rates/

17. “Total fertility rate in Seoul, South Korea from 2005 to 2022,” Statista: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1290118/south-korea-total-fertility-rate-in-seoul/#:~:text=In%202022%2C%20the%20total%20fertility,sharply%20over%20the%20past%20decade.

18. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. 1962. Random House.

19. The classic text in this genre is The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil. 2005. Viking.

20. See, for example, “Association of Habitual Checking Behaviors on Social Media with Longitudinal Functional Brain Development,” by Maza et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2023;177(2):160-167. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4924. See also “Windows of Developmental Sensitivity to Social Media,” by Orben et al. Nat Commun 13, 1649 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-29296-3

21. See, for example, “Social Media Is Taking a Dangerous Toll on Teenage Girls,” by Jonathan Haidt. The New Statesman, March 29, 2023. https://www.newstatesman.com/technology/2023/03/jonathan-haidt-social-media-dangerous-teenage-girls-anxiety-depression

22. See my blog post, “‘Hell Joseon’: The Paradoxes of South Korean Development.” GeoCurrents, December 7, 2023. https://www.geocurrents.info/blog/2023/12/07/hell-joseon-the-paradoxes-of-south-korean-development/

23. See “What Prevents & What Drives Gendered Ideological Polarisation?” by Alice Evans. GGD World. https://www.ggd.world/p/what-prevents-and-what-drives-gendered?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=1385611&post_id=141065203&utm_campaign=email-post-title&isFreemail=false&r=zccyx&utm_medium=email

24. “South Korea Expects Its Already-World’s-Lowest Fertility Rate to Keep Falling,” by Sam Kim. Time, December 13, 2023.
https://time.com/6488894/south-korea-low-fertility-rate-trend-decline/

25. See my blog post “Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself?” GeoCurrents, December 8, 2023. https://www.geocurrents.info

26. 2022 and 2020 data, respectively. See “Fertility Rate in Spain in 2022, by Autonomous Community,” Statista and “Fertility Rate in Italy in 2020, by Region,” Statista: https://www.statista.com/statistics/450104/fertility-rate-in-spain-by-autonomous-communitiy/
https://www.statista.com/statistics/777168/fertility-rate-by-region-in-italy/

27. See “Latin America’s Fertility Decline is Accelerating. No One’s Certain Why,” By Paul Constance. Americas Quarterly, January 4, 2024. https://www.americasquarterly.org/article/latin-americas-fertility-decline-is-accelerating-no-ones-sure-why/

28. Fertility Rate, Total (Births Per Woman) – Sweden.” The World Bank.
https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN?locations=SE

29. “Why Are Birth Rates in Sweden Falling?” by Daniel Rossetti. Population Europe
https://population-europe.eu/research/policy-insights/why-are-birth-rates-sweden-falling

30. “Sweden’s Crime Wave Sparks Nationalist Call for Army on Streets,” by Niclas Rolander, October 13, 2023. Bloomberg.
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-10-14/sweden-crime-wave-sparks-nationalist-call-for-army-on-streets

31. Although there are many excellent works on this topic, I recommend Geoffrey Parker’s monumental but dismal Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. (2014. Yale University Press.)

32. “What Prevents & What Drives Gendered Ideological Polarisation?,” By Alice Evans. GGD World, January 27, 2024. https://www.ggd.world/p/what-prevents-and-what-drives-gendered?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=1385611&post_id=141065203&utm_campaign=email-post-title&isFreemail=false&r=zccyx&utm_medium=email

33. See, for example, Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up, by Abigail Shrier. Sentinel. 2024.

34. See, for example, this fascinating YouTube interview of maverick environmental lawyer Jennifer Hernandez by Reihan Salam: “California’s Climate Hypocrisy”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xVbE3oL6jM

35. “Americans Take a Dim View of the Nation’s Future, Look More Positively at the Past,” by Andrew Daniller. Pew Research Center, April 24, 2023. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/04/24/americans-take-a-dim-view-of-the-nations-future-look-more-positively-at-the-past/

36. See “Gini Index of Money Income and Equivalence-Adjusted Income: 1967 to 2014. U.S. Census Bureau, September 16, 2015. https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/2015/demo/gini-index-of-money-income-and-equivalence-adjusted-income–1967.html
Note, however, that there is a slight difference between the “equivalence-adjusted GINI Index” and the “money-income GINI Index.” I have used the former figures here.

37. See “Increase in Income Inequality Driven by Real Declines in Income at the Bottom,” by Jessica Semega and Melissa Kollar. U.S. Census Bureau, September 12, 2022. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2022/09/income-inequality-increased.html

38. “Trillionaires Should Exist,” by Luther Ray Abel. National Review, February 1, 2024.

Trillionaires Should Exist

39. As one example, see this defense of “trillionaires” in the right-populist aggregator of X (“Twitter”) posts called Twitchy: https://twitchy.com/justmindy/2024/01/31/trillionaires-hillary-clinton-n2392408

40. With apologies to Friedrich Hayek, whose Road to Serfdom (1944, University of Chicago Press) was an important warning about the potential dangers of central planning. In my view, however, Hayek’s arguments were somewhat exaggerated.

41. “Gini Coefficient by Country,” Wisevoter.

Gini Coefficient by Country

42. Historically, pathologically high levels of inequality have been periodically erased by calamities such as wars and plagues, which can paradoxically restore balance and even set off a virtuous cycle of economic expansion; see Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. 2018. Princeton University Press.

43. “Income Inequality by State 2024,” World Population Review: https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/income-inequality-by-state

44. Robert Putman, The Collapse and Revival of American Community. 2000. Simon & Schuster

45. “Spirituality, Religiousness, and Mental Health: A Review of the Current Scientific Evidence,” by Giancarlo Lucchetiti et al., World J Clin Cases. 2021 Sep 16; 9(26): 7620–7631.
Published online 2021 Sep 16. doi: 10.12998/wjcc.v9.i26.7620

For an overview of religiosity and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, see “Pre- and Post-Pandemic Religiosity and Mental Health Outcomes: A Prospective Study,” by Connie Svab et al., Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2023 Jun; 20(11): 6002.
Published online 2023 May 30. doi: 10.3390/ijerph20116002

46. For a fascinating celebration of this view of the universe – which also claims that it generated the modern world – see The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. 2012. W. W. Norton & Company.

47. James’s classic text on the topic is The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. 1902. Longmans, Green, & Co.

48. See The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathon Haidt. 2012. Pantheon Books.

49. Czechia is perhaps the least religious country in the world, with a 2017 Pew poll indicating that 72 percent of Czechs do not identify with a religious group and that 66 percent do not believe in God. But “despite relatively low levels of belief in each concept, a majority of the Czech public (65%) believes in at least one of the nine [spiritual] concepts included in the survey”: see “Unlike their Central and Eastern European Neighbors, Most Czechs Don’t Believe in God,” by Jonathan Evans, Pew Research Center, June 19, 2017. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2017/06/19/unlike-their-central-and-eastern-european-neighbors-most-czechs-dont-believe-in-god/
See also “More Czechs Believe in Aliens Than in God, But More Have Started Thinking About Spiritual Matters Thanks to Pandemic,” Prague Radio International, November 5, 2021. https://english.radio.cz/more-czechs-believe-aliens-god-more-have-started-thinking-about-spiritual-8733249

50. The classic text here is Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, by James Lovelock. 2000 (subsequent edition). Oxford University Press.

51. The best way to appreciate Zenato’s calling is through YouTube videos, such as this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8LmxwOgBhA. She is by no means alone in this endeavor. For intriguing explorations of human-shark affection, YouTube videos of Emma the Tiger Shark and Jim Abernathy are well worth watching; see, for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rr_T4Aim6Fw

52. See “The 15-Minute City Offers a New Framework for Sustainability, Liveability, and Health,” by Zeheer Allam et al., The Lancet Planetary Health, Volume 6, Issue 3. March 2022, Pages e181-e183.

53. See this informative Next-Level Gardening video, “Now They Want Us to STOP BACKYARD GARDENING? What’s Next?”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59x4zgJvIHg

When right-populists encounter such environmental opposition to everyday activities, they often take it to indicate that the real concern is not addressing climate change but rather annihilating our remaining independence from complete corporate and state control. I do not agree with this view, but I understand where it comes from.

54. See the archives of Kotkin’s informative website, NewGeography, https://www.newgeography.com. See also “You Won’t be My Neighbor: Opposition to High Density Development,” by Jessica Trounstein. Urban Affairs Review, 223, 59(1). As Trounstein reports, “Across every demographic subgroup analyzed, respondents preferred single-family home developments by a wide margin. Relative to single family homes, apartments are viewed as decreasing property values, increasing crime rates, lowering school quality, increasing traffic, and decreasing desirability.” See also Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. 2020. Encounter Books.

55. “World’s New Largest Wind Turbine Sweeps 10 Football Fields Per Spin,” by Loz Blain.
New Atlas, January 9, 2023
https://newatlas.com/energy/h260-18mw-biggest-wind-turbine/

56. “The Future of Urban Consumption in a 1.5°C World,” ARUP:
https://www.arup.com/perspectives/publications/research/section/the-future-of-urban-consumption-in-a-1-5c-world

57. See, for example, “Turning the Tide: The Sustainable Future of Superyachts.” Luxury London, By Rowena Marella-Daw. June 25, 2019. https://luxurylondon.co.uk/lifestyle/drive/yachts-and-jets/sustainable-superyachts/