Combating Political Religion: How Small Government, Free Market Dogma Fails to Account for Observable Reality

There is growing sense that those interested in finding out what is true of the world are becoming a rarer and rarer breed. Everywhere we look, someone is trumpeting some blatant inanity. Vaccines cause autism. Adding flouride to water is a government conspiracy. Genetically modified organism are dangerous. Organic food is particularly nutritious. Christians are a persecuted minority. The 44th President was a foreign national and communist agent. The 9/11 Terror Attacks were an inside job. The world is only 6000 years old. Humans can’t influence the climate.

Nonsense is everywhere, but the impression that it is more prevalent than ever is mostly a matter of appearances. Humans are innately tuned to focus on the negative aspects of their environment. Good reasons for this abound, easily distilled in the recognition that it is far more consequential for us to spend our time thinking about the things that could be better than it is to spend it thinking about the things that are going just fine. On the landscapes of our ancestors, where decisions about what to pay attention to were a regular matter of life and death, it was vitally important to take note when things were about to turn sour – when herds of prey were about to migrate to a new territory, when seasonal changes were about to reduce the availability of edible fruits, when an unfriendly band of visitors turned up in your neighborhood.

So it is today. We perk up and pay extra attention when our political rivals take office or slow down and drive more carefully after passing an accident on the side of the road. The idea that we live in a world anomalously dominated by halfwits and conspiracy theorists isn’t due to the fact that halfwits and conspiracy theorists are more common than they once were. Rather, it is due to two related facts.  First, that we have access to the knowledge necessary to identify half-witted and conspiratorial thinking. Second, erroneous views about the world are obnoxious at best, dangerous at worst. Because of this, they tend to stand out. It’s unfortunate that only some of us use the knowledge constantly at our fingertips to build a more consistent, reliable understanding of the world. But the larger reality – that any of us have access to any of that information at all – is the real historical aberration.

Ignorance persists despite the proliferation of tools for its easy obliteration. As a consequence, individuals with any amount of expertise in a given subject are likely to take note of the fact that a lot of their peers have firm beliefs about the way things work that are flat-out wrong. The resilience of discernible falsehoods is an unremarkable product of historical inertia. In that, we should rejoice – not that they are still around, but that we now know how to spot them.

Unfortunately, there are situations in which the perpetuation of obviously false views about how the world works can achieve special gravity. This happens when the people who hold the levers of power embrace attitudes that are thoroughly divorced from reason and evidence. Historically, we can point to the woe and misery wrought by efforts to force the square peg of communist fantasy into the round hole of reality as illustrative examples. Men like Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin held views about the way the world should work that had very little basis in fact. They achieved power and millions of humans suffered and died as a result.

Sadly, this is not a phenomenon that has been consigned to history books. In the United States, this kind of thing pervades government.  Powerful men and women who harbor ill-founded and objectively false ideas about how the world works are currently engaged in the cruel work of hammering Western society into a form that better fits their perverse vision. They are not communists, but like communists they celebrate a vision of society based far more in fantasy than in observable reality. In this, their categorical affinity with communists is striking:  that is, they are ideological fanatics.

Their fanaticism flows from two doctrinaire beliefs. First, that market liberalization results in the best kind of society possible. The fewer restrictions there are on the way people make money, the better off we will all be. This view can be reduced to a simple slogan: “markets produce the best possible distribution of wealth and resources.” Second, that government is the source of all evil. They believe that the only legitimate role for government is to militarily secure and protect an open field for profit generation. This perspective is captured by the old aphorism, “that government which governs least governs best.”

An immediate problem with both views is that they are meaningless tautologies. They don’t produce useful criteria for judging whether or not they are actually true. Instead, they frame things in such a way that any outcome that results from liberalizing markets or decreasing the size of government is granted a priori status as the best possible outcome that could have happened. For an ideologue, this is a useful definition. For anyone concerned with actually evaluating how accurate these prescriptions are and how effectively they produce worthwhile outcomes, these views are entirely useless.

There need to be external, independently verifiable criteria for deciding what does and does not count as effective governance or a desirable distribution of resources. Absent such benchmarks, slogans about the power of markets and the proper role of government are reduced to religious mantras. They don’t gain truth through repetition, but a lot of elected representatives have taken their steady repetition as a sign of truth.

Consider some concrete examples. Below are the mission statements of two influential think tanks.

The mission of The Heritage Foundation is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. 

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. Our mission is to conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level.

The first is immediately problematic. The Heritage Foundation is intellectually neutered by its interest in finding policy solutions that conform to a pre-established ideological litmus test. They have decided that the solutions to public policy problems involve free enterprise and limited government in advance of evaluating any evidence. The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, places initial emphasis on in-depth research as a tool for solving problems. Usefully, they do so without establishing ideological strictures on what the best solutions ought to look like.

Take any hypothetical problem and it becomes immediately obvious that The Heritage Foundation is going to have a harder time finding a good solution than The Brookings Institution. American students are scoring poorly in math and science. The burning of fossil fuels is having detrimental environmental consequences. Millions of American kids aren’t getting enough to eat. For The Heritage Foundation, the answer is always clear: less government, freer enterprise. If a branch of science worked this way, it would cease to be science. No congress of physicists is going to get together and outline a research program that says all good science must conform to Newtonian mechanics. But this is precisely what The Heritage Foundation has done with issues of public policy.

Yet the views of the Heritage Foundation carry enormous weight. They are endorsed by majorities in both houses of congress. The Speaker of the House, third in line for presidential succession, is a zealous devotee to the a priori assumptions of small government, free market fundamentalism. Conservative bill mills like the American Legislative Exchange Council produce legislature precisely tailored to reflect free market, small government dogma and Republican politicians – at every level of government – work to make that legislation the law of the land. Those willing to dissent do so at considerable risk. Skepticism is likely to be greeted with a well-funded primary challenge from an individual more willing to tow the party line. It is hardly shocking that there is an armada of well-heeled conservative ideologues willing to spend huge sums of money on the project of forcing Western society into the mold of libertarian utopia.

The Dubious Underpinnings of Conservative Economics

The ultimate tragedy in all of this is that the market religion of the modern GOP is provably false. Visions of conservative/libertarian utopia emerge from the logic of neoclassical economics. Starting in the 19th century, men like Leon Walras and Vilfredo Pareto took up the work of turning our understanding of human economic behavior into a respectable science. They turned up lot of powerful insights, but also set in motion a line of thinking that would eventually turn large segments of economics into nothing short of a mathematically sophisticated religion.

By the early 20th century, economics had come to invoke a number of simplifying assumptions in order to produce workable models. These assumptions included:

  1. The belief that economic agents are perfectly rational.
  2. The belief that economic agents work to maximize utility.
  3. The belief that economic agents are entirely self-interested.
  4. The belief that economic agents are infinitely knowledgeable.
  5. The belief that economic agents have consistent, well-ordered preferences.
  6. The belief that all contracts are complete.
  7. The belief that all economic agents are scrupulously honest.
  8. The belief that prices always accurately reflect the costs and benefits of a product.
  9. The belief that economies are closed equilibrium systems.

Deploying these premises, economists produced theories about how people ought to behave in idealized markets. They weren’t wrong. If all of the above assumptions were true, then the best governments could ever do to facilitate happiness and prosperity is get out the market’s way.

Problematic in all of this is that each and every one of those assumptions is false. Not just doubtful or misleading, but an objectively untrue statement about observable reality. Many economists were aware of this fact at the time and many are aware of it today. That’s why economists use fancy terms like “unpriced externality” – this is an implicit acknowledgement of the reality that assumptions four through eight are false.  But there’s no reason to stop there. Observational and experimental evidence also tells us that humans are not perfectly rational, that they aren’t good at maximizing utility, that they aren’t entirely self-interested, and that economic systems are neither closed nor precisely tuned to seek out any equilibrium states.

Yet for some reason, some people began to act as if the aforementioned beliefs were more than just useful assumptions. They didn’t just make it easier to model the exceedingly complex behavior of huge swarms of interacting humans. Rather, they were true reflections of how the world actually operates. If this were the case, the ideological fanatics working for The Heritage Foundation and populating every tier of U.S. Government would be onto something. Indeed, they would hardly deserve being labeled “ideological fanatics”. They would be right to think that all policy solutions ought to involve steps to limit government and deregulate markets.

Or would they?

Notions of market optimality – the belief that unfettered markets produce the best possible outcomes – do not withstand a lot of scrutiny and often fail in their own terms. Consider two examples: scientific research and pollution control.

Much of the technology we take for granted today would be impossible absent scientific breakthroughs from the first half of the twentieth century or latter half of the nineteenth. Some of these discoveries were funded by governments, others through private philanthropy. None of the foundational insights in theoretical and experimental physics that laid the groundwork for global GPS, cellular phones, communication satellites, or the worldwide web emerged from a desire to get rich. At the time, a physicist who displayed a thirst for profit was frequently greeted with scorn and ostracized by his or her community.

Governments across the Western world funded scientific research as an expression of human curiosity and a matter of national prestige. Curiosity-driven scientific research often yields enormous benefits, but the ways in which discoveries will shape futures landscapes are largely unforeseeable. Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, Marie Curie, Robert Oppenheimer, Alan Turing and their peers didn’t envision a world where Apple and Samsung would make billions producing portable, wireless communication devices connected to a worldwide web, granting hundreds of millions of people perpetual access to virtually all human knowledge. Yet without their discoveries, that world would not exist.

Indeed, a rational, entirely self-interested, utility maximizing agent would never make an investment in a research program that might, in some way or another, decades down the line, turn a profit for someone else. A CEO who sought to divert funds to scientific efforts that might – forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years in the future – prove foundational to some kind of profit generating enterprise would quickly be removed by shareholders and replaced by someone made business decisions more closely aligned with their interests – that is, making money.

The same logic bears out in the realm of pollution control. Some types of business are environmentally costly. The processes they use to manufacture products for commercial use also produce byproducts with harmful downstream consequences. According to the strict logic of neoclassical economics, businesses should only respond to the costs of pollution and mitigate the effects of harmful byproducts of production under a narrow range of circumstances.

If the costs of pollution are immediately obvious to customers, they can and will (under the assumption of rational choice) respond by sanctioning the company, who will in turn work to remedy the problem in order to placate their customer base. But any time the costs of pollution are not sufficiently large or localized to be immediately discernible to customers, the logic of the market demands that the business do nothing about it. In fact, being rational and self-interested, they should actually make efforts to conceal their harmful behavior anytime the costs of deception are lower than the costs of mitigation (one of the ways in which the founding premises of market optimality are inherently contradictory).

That means a factory that manufactures paper plates in Mississippi will have little incentive to clean up any harmful byproducts if most of those paper plates are sold in China. Likewise, pollutants that accrue gradually, such that their ill-effects are only exerted decades down the line, are invisible to corrective mechanisms internal to the market itself. Such is the case with anthropogenic climate change, where the costs of burning hydrocarbons aren’t necessarily felt until decades after the fact.

Suffice it to say, there are numerous conditions under which the reasoning behind the modern conservative ethos – the ruling dogma of billionaire oligarchs like Charles and David Koch and ambitious political zealots like Ted Cruz – crumbles under its own weight. This was widely known and commonly accepted in the first decades after World War 2. Economists and politicians alike recognized that market were only sensitive to a narrow range of inputs and entirely blind to many of the downstream costs that might accrue for any given method of production. Recognition that third-party intervention would sometimes be necessary to secure good outcomes was bipartisan. That’s why the EPA was founded under Richard Nixon and his signature graced the first iterations of the Clean Air and Water Acts.

The antipathy toward government now common on the political right emerged as part of a deliberate campaign undertaken by fanatical millionaires to peel back what they perceived as the creeping threat of socialism. They founded think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and launched an intellectually caustic propaganda war against any and all barriers to the generation of wealth – in particular, their wealth. In this, they have been enormously successful, managing to shift their fringe views so far into the mainstream that they are openly espoused as true and irrefutable on the most widely viewed cable news network in the United States.

Now, congress is populated by zealots oblivious to the dubious intellectual underpinnings of their ruling philosophy. Their worldview is the direct progeny of a set of premises adopted for instrumental utility, otherwise entirely lacking in reality. Based on their behavior, it is safe to assume that they are true believers – they really think that eradicating every piece of government that doesn’t relate to national defense is the best thing to do for everyone. They are simply blind to the fact that their core beliefs are so flimsy that they often fail in their own terms and crumple when measured against external benchmarks of success.

But there is no reason why we should confine ourselves to discussing such a spurious worldview strictly in its own terms. Few of the founding premises of modern conservative socioeconomic philosophy happen to be true. Shifting the dogma of the modern conservative movement into natural light reveals an edifice held together by tape and glue.

Humans are frequently irrational. And markets are made of humans. Those inclined to root their understanding of human systems in verifiable reality are rarely surprised to learn that market behavior is riddled with error. Investors sometimes value a parent company at millions of dollars less than its subsidiary, clearly falsifying the neoclassical prediction that the price set by the market is always right. Football teams sometimes trade multiple later round draft picks for the chance to pick up a star up front and win fewer games as a result. People take out loans they can’t afford, buy items they don’t need on credit, and don’t save enough for retirement.

Let’s reconsider those nine premises I listed a few paragraphs back.

  1. The belief that economic agents are perfectly rational.
  2. The belief that economic agents work to maximize utility.
  3. The belief that economic agents are entirely self-interested.
  4. The belief that economic agents are infinitely knowledgeable.
  5. The belief that economic agents have consistent, well-ordered preferences.
  6. The belief that all contracts are complete.
  7. The belief that all economic agents are scrupulously honest.
  8. The belief that prices always accurately reflect the costs and benefits of a product.
  9. The belief that economies are closed equilibrium systems.

Recall that the smaller government, freer markets at any cost emerges from taking these premises as reliable, high fidelity distillations of observable reality. They are instrumental to substantiating the mindset of men like Charles Koch and Ted Cruz. And every single one of them is undeniably false.

This is not a secret. It is widely known and easily discoverable. This is why it is impossible to take people like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz seriously as thoughtful stewards of American wellbeing. These people are not principled statesmen. They are ideological fanatics. They subscribe to a worldview that has been repeatedly and consistently refuted by the very nature of reality. Insofar as their policy prescriptions have any merit, it is largely a result of coincidence. They have not, I suspect, invented a remarkable method for reasoning from false premises to sound conclusions.

And yet they persist in these beliefs. Their belligerent insistence on clinging to a misguided vision of how the world ought to be, independent of any and all evidence of how the world actually is, makes them incredibly dangerous men. Though they have yet to scratch lowest rung of the anguish unleashed by the likes of Mao and Stalin, the fact remains that their ideology lives in the same epistemological neighborhood as communism. It is a vision of what the world could be if a number of important facts about what the world is actually like were otherwise. Their efforts to force the world to conform to their ideological prescriptions will only result in conflict and pain. Powerful solutions to pressing social, economic, and ecological problems will escape them, willfully hidden behind a veil of dogma. Even if compelling policy initiatives that violate their worldview are brought to their attention, they will be prohibited from adopting them by a blind commitment to ideological purity. As the mission statement of the Heritage Foundation clearly states, only solutions that embrace limited government and free enterprise are on the table.

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Combating Political Religion

The arc of recent history bends toward insight and discovery. Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and religious fundamentalist receive a lot of well-deserved public derision. This sometimes makes it look as though society has become infected by an unprecedented strain of ignorance. But the larger reality is that people have easier and easier access to better and better information about the world in which they live. It’s easy to feel disheartened when a poll shows that 40% of U.S. adults think the world was made, as is, by some divine power within the last 10,000 years. Every available strain of evidence says this view is false, yet people persist in maintaining it. Taking a wider view brightens things a bit. Sure, it’s a bummer that a bunch of adults are so enamored of a childish fairytale that they deny the fundamental nature of reality. But a couple centuries ago, we didn’t even have access to the information that exposed those beliefs as farcical. The vast majority of people held views about the age of the earth and the nature of reality with absolutely no basis in reality.

This rosy outlook is tainted when people who cling to superstitious or ideologically clouded thinking achieve political power. It is easier today than at any other point in human history to find out when we hold false views about the way the world works. Yet a glaring majority of the elected officials in the U.S. Federal Government passionately subscribe to a view of human behavior and the role of government that is provably false. Not only do they hold these beliefs, they are using them to guide policy formation.

The GOP has held control of two out three branches of government for a little over two months. Already, they have taken steps to roll back vital environmental regulations and decrease funding for curiosity driven science. These, as mentioned, are two of the areas where their one-size-fits-all belief in smaller government, freer markets fails in its own terms. Unchecked, they stand to implement a campaign of ideological extremism unlike anything the nation has ever seen. That this is done in service of unchecked greed is largely incidental. The fact that very wealthy people stand to become even wealthier while the poor are left to wither as a result of the conservative agenda disguises the fact that that agenda is an expression of fervent religious devotion. I

Some scholars have made the mistake of using communism to point up the dangers of secularism. This ignores the fact that communism itself, as expressed in the regimes of Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin, cannot be derived from secular thinking. Secular thinking is an expression of reason, guided by evidence. It gives us things like an expanding circle of human rights and cures for dangerous infectious diseases. Communism, like exaggerated notions of libertarian capitalism, falls apart when subjected to evidentiary checks. And libertarian capitalism, like communism, is a form of political religion. Both are utopian visions that exist in obstinate indifference to the hard nature of reality.

Huge swaths of political thinking run afoul of this single, crippling fallacy – the mistaken belief that there is one right answer. Sometimes governments grow too large and run inefficiently. Sometimes free markets generate undesirable outcomes. Neither point can be used for the wholesale dismissal of either.

This is precisely why we need external, universally recognizable criteria for recognizing success and failure. What do we want governments and markets to achieve? If we want markets to achieve an optimal allocation of resources, we need a definition for “optimal allocation of resources” that is external to the market itself. Moreover, we need to recognize that the motivations required to thrive in markets foist on people a certain level of myopia – markets are incapable of planning for the distant future or taking into account all the potential costs a given business strategy might incur. That’s why we need both government regulation and government investment in curiosity-driven science.

The goal of government should be to make it easier and easier for larger and larger portions of the population to thrive. In this, it should be a democratic instrument. The goal of economic systems should be similar. They should not exist to generate wealth as an end unto itself. Rather, their purpose is generating the wealth necessary to pursue the end of human thriving. From these simple premises, we can derive a number of hallmarks for identifying success and failure.

By accepting these aims and jettisoning the fallacious dogmas that drive intransigent anti-government sentiment and fuel blind market liberalization campaigns, it is possible to achieve ground ripe for bipartisan collaboration. History teaches us that liberalized markets tend to be correlated with prosperity and peace. Together with democratic governance, they seem to make people generally better off. It is clearly desirable for people to have as much leeway for free economic choice as possible. That is where the reasoning of the market fundamentalists stops, thereby failing to recognize that the more apt and justifiable expression is that people should have a much leeway for free economic choice as possible, given the larger, perpetually shifting aims of society.

It should be recognized, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that markets sometimes generate undesirable outcomes. They produce entrenched inequality and unfairly discount the wellbeing of future generations in favor of current wealth. Nor do they include any discernible mechanism instituting ideals higher than “make money”. There is no room for curiosity and the quest for knowledge as ends unto themselves in a world ruled by smaller government, freer markets at any cost ideologues. In that world, a human animal invested in aspirations above and beyond the accumulation of wealth would be a creature bent on extinction. The utopia of the libertarian capitalist is just as bleak and gray as they utopia of the hard-line communist.

Thankfully, we don’t live in an either/or world. Continuing the historical embrace of reason that has been underway since the Enlightenment, we can build an understanding of economic systems and political order based on scientific evidence. Already it is clear that unfettered freedom of expression is unambiguously good and that economic liberty is often a powerful tool for making humans happier, healthier, and more prosperous. Eschewing one-size-fits all political religion can help us take these insights and put them to better use in a piecemeal engagement with the endless parade of political problems that are bound to emerge whenever humans live together in large numbers. Indeed, it is immediately obvious that government can play a vital role in encouraging markets to behave as if those nine assumptions about market optimality were true. For instance, they can make sure the prices of products reflect all of the unforeseen costs of production and ensure that consumers have access to all the information they need to make smart economic choices.

There may be other ways to solve these dilemmas. Discovering them will demand abandoning ideologically motivated, one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions. The point here is not to make the case that government is the solution to all of the world’s problems. Examples where precisely the opposite is true – where government interference in market behavior has produced undesirable outcomes – are plentiful. Sometimes the best solution will be market liberalization. Often, however, markets will generate unexpected and undesirable outcomes. It can never be a foregone conclusion that government is not the answer. Unless someone comes up with a better form of third-party enforcement than democratic governance, there will be many circumstances in which it is the best alternative we have.

 


An addendum in light of a comment.

The Righteous Mind: Religion, Cooperation, and Evolution

I’ve read a book.

In perfect candor, this is a feat I’ve accomplished once or twice in the past, but it never fails to stoke a certain sense of accomplishment and smug self-adulation. After all, I’ve forsaken untold hours of watching TV and playing video games in favor of an identical amount of time spent turning pages and reading words. Basically, the sort of opportunity cost only saints are meant to bear.

In this case, the book came with the additional reward of containing a surfeit of the sort information the late French pedant Claude Levi-Strauss might have called “good to think”.

Without further delay, the book: The Righteous Mind, by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I won’t go so far as to give an exhaustive review – suffice it to say that the book was good and you ought to read it, providing as it does a succinct and provocative run-down of research into the psychological underpinnings of our moral and political inclinations.

Of more interest here is an argument Haidt makes about the relationship between religious belief and cooperation. It’s an interesting proposal, not entirely original to Haidt, that gets to the ruddy flesh of a longstanding cultural and evolutionary puzzle.

Today, depending on the developmental status of the country in question, somewhere between 74% and 44% of people live in large urban centers – surrounded on all sides by strangers. Most people buy their groceries from strangers, have their appliances serviced by strangers, and are policed by strangers. Almost universally, these urban centers are part of larger polities, again, comprised primarily of people largely unfamiliar to one another. Nevertheless, these people usually manage to do a better than middling job of getting along. Twelve thousand years ago, human social interaction unfolded at the level of the tribe or band – groups structured around bounds of genetic kinship and personal familiarity.

For decades, the question of how people managed to make the transition from tiny bands of closely related individuals to larger political entities, full of relative strangers, has remained unresolved. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism are likely foundational, but these elements alone are widely considered to be insufficient to explain humanity’s unique capacity to get along across wide genetic chasms. Haidt makes a compelling case that religion has played a role in helping humans to cooperate with unrelated neighbors, a critical step in the process of building large-scale societies.

Now, it’s important to be precise about this hypothesis. Haidt and those who share his view are not arguing that religious beliefs have much of a role to play in facilitating large-scale cooperation in modern societies. That has much more to do with the rule of law and the adoption of liberal, democratic values (in the classical sense) than it does with religious belief. Instead, the argument here is that certain varieties of religious belief may have helped bridge the gap between communities in which kinship, familiarity, and reciprocity could explain cooperation in communities too large for those rudimentary elements to sustain amicable, productive relationships.

Punitive Gods and Stable Cooperation

Recently, work in experimental economics, anthropology, and psychology has revealed that punishment plays an instrumental role in building and enforcing stable patterns of cooperation. People are more likely to cooperate and behave honestly when they perceive violations of established norms of interaction come with a reliable threat of reprisal. That is, people will be most likely to do the right thing if they believe cheating someone out of their hard-earned cash or trespassing a sacred cultural taboo will earn them some sort of stiff rebuke. Punishment is particularly effective when it involves a cost to the punisher, meaning that the amount of time, effort, or material resources forsaken in favor of punitive actions intensify their efficacy.

A reliable threat of punishment requires two things. First, it requires that people be convinced that their misdeeds will not go unnoticed. Someone – or something – needs to be watching. Second, it demands that people assume getting caught will spell serious trouble. If your fellow citizens or regulatory agency or tribe members catch you doing something nasty, they are going to respond by going out of their way to make you very uncomfortable.

Lately, researchers like Ara Norenzayan and Joseph Henrich have begun to argue that certain forms of religious belief can fill both roles. People with strong beliefs in an omnipotent god – one capable of and interested in punishing them for their transgressions – seem to be more likely to cooperate with one another. The basic thinking is that, even in situations where they can feasibly disguise their crimes from their neighbors, people are less likely to behave selfishly or maliciously if they think a powerful deity is watching them. They might not be punished by their peers, but they won’t escape the inevitable wrath of god – here on earth or in the afterlife.

If true, this could go a long way toward explaining the historical success of the monotheistic faiths that spread out of the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. These groups were able to outcompete their neighbors and, purely as a product of cultural selection, the underlying belief systems spread.

Haidt wants to take this argument a little further. He argues that religion and prosociality coevolved in response to multilevel (i.e. group) selection in the late Pleistocene and throughout the Holocene. The central claim – that certain forms of religious belief can benefit the groups that entertain them by giving them a competitive advantage in patterns of ingroup/outgroup competition – is perfectly in line with the aforementioned research. Groups that cultivate the kinds of religious beliefs that encourage social cohesion and discourage free-riding and defection should be able to outcompete groups with religious beliefs that encourage independence or fail to incentivise cooperation and/or punish defection.

Under these conditions, religious belief may have carried certain selective advantages. Those groups with the highest levels of prosocial religiosity might have regularly outcompeted their less pious neighbors. Any existing psychological traits that encouraged supernatural belief – such as false agency attribution, elevated neurochemical feedbacks from ritual experience, credulous acceptance of traditional knowledge, or strong tendencies to monitor and enforce social norms, for instance – would grease the skids for participation in religious ceremonies that nourish social cohesion and fear in the sort of punitive gods that discourage defection. If these traits have a genetic basis, they may have been favored by selection.

This is all very reasonable. It makes sense that certain cultural traits could confer advantages on the groups that possess them. In a way, it’s almost obvious. Groups with bow and arrow technology would have exercised a strategic advantage over those still using atlatls and darts – and the archaeological record bears this out. If there is an underlying psychological architecture – significantly correlated in its expression with the inheritance of genetic information – that promotes or enhances people’s ability to engage in these cultural practices, then there could very well be forces of biological selection at work in shaping relevant patterns of gene-culture coevolution.

In attributing the invention and spread of prosocial religions to group selection, Haidt’s error is twofold. First, he is wrong to attribute the evolution of any underlying psychological traits to group selection. Second, he ignores the ways in which cultural group selection – entirely distinct from biological group selection – can shape the spread of specific prosocial traditions. I’ll deal with these problems sequentially.

Prosocial Group Selection


First, the matter of group selection. In attributing the evolution of psychological traits that foster religious prosociality to biological group selection, Haidt’s foremost mistake is in thinking that because religiosity would have benefited the group, any selection for the underlying traits must have been “for” that purpose. This is an argument that exposes the potential risks of adaptationist reasoning. It claims that because a trait confers an advantage for a certain task – in this case, intragroup cooperation and intergroup competition – it must have arisen specifically for that reason. This is precisely what evolutionists mean when they say a certain trait is an adaptation for a specific challenge.

Let’s consider four plausible candidates for psychological traits that might foster religious belief:

  1. False agency attribution
  2. Strong tendencies to accept traditional knowledge
  3. Strong tendencies to establish and police social norms
  4. Elevated neurochemical response to ritual participation

All four could easily have evolved absent of and prior to the development of supernatural belief systems. As Daniel Dennett and Michael Shermer have been keen to point out, something like an evolved predilection toward false agency attribution – automatic type-2 error, as it were – would be useful independent of any beliefs in an underlying supernatural order: better to think the rustling in the grass is a lion when it’s just the wind than to dismiss it as just the wind when it’s really a lion.

A strong tendency to credulously accept traditional knowledge could likewise be favored in an environment devoid of religiosity. The causal mechanics of most cultural innovations – be they social institutions or hunting technologies – are frequently opaque to their users because they emerge from long-term processes of collective engineering – cycles of trial-and-error and social learning that unfold over generations. In most environments, it pays to accept traditional knowledge about prey behavior and hunting techniques without question, because these practices entail generations of accumulated wisdom. Under the conditions that prevailed throughout the Pleistocene, blind acceptance of extant information – foraging techniques, ritual practices, supernatural beliefs – would have often been a cheap route to success.

Again, any evolved inclination to monitor and enforce social norms could be selected on a thoroughly irreligious landscape. This is because a tendency to keep an eye on your neighbor and respond punitively when they step out of line is good way to overcome the free-rider problem. Living in larger groups and engaging in behaviors that require collective effort is a precarious business, because individual strategies that exploit the fruits of cooperation will rapidly come to dominate the system and cooperation will deteriorate. Groups can get around this problem by imposing heavy costs on the decision to become a free rider, encouraging the evolution of traits that help their bearer both reliably detect and consistently punish cheaters. Here, the only necessary condition is that the benefits of detection and enforcement exceed their costs.

Finally, evolving elevated neurochemical responses to ritual participation could simply be a matter of bootstrapping extant mechanisms for reinforcing social bonds. Any system that used neurochemical feedbacks to reward social engagement – pair bonding, grooming, food sharing – could be coopted (exapted, in evolutionary parlance) to encourage ritual engagement. That said, there is a case to be made that these feedbacks could be intensified and elaborated by the novel selective pressures associated with group living and increasing levels of supernatural belief.

Only in the latter two cases – tendencies to establish and police social norms and elevated neurochemical responses to ritual participation – do we see compelling candidates for group level selection. Both have the potential to confer distinct advantages on the groups that exhibit them, simultaneously stabilizing and intensifying social bonds. But to extend from that recognition – that those traits benefit groups – to the stronger assertion that they evolved for that purpose is to fall into a rather dastardly teleological trap.

Fundamentally, this is where the real trick of adaptationist thinking lies. It’s not a tool for actually discovering adaptations. Rather, it’s a tool for discovering plausible hypotheses about adaptation. Recognizing that a trait might be good tool for accomplishing a certain task doesn’t mean it actually exists for that purpose. Used correctly, adaptationism provides a powerful heuristic for thinking about evolution and posing useful questions about the underlying processes. Used incautiously, it can lead us into traps like erroneous claims about group-level adaptation.

This seems to be what’s going on with Haidt’s claims about the traits that foster belief in prosocial religions. Certainly it’s possible for the benefits of monitoring and enforcing social contracts to accrue at the level of the group – but it’s also true that these things could be rewarding at the level of the individual. Participation in cooperative hunting and foraging, for instance, can have the effect of both increasing per capita caloric returns and buffering against day-to-day uncertainty. Consequently, individuals have strong incentives to make sure cooperative efforts run smoothly – keeping an eye on each other to make sure patterns of reciprocity are enforced. If individual experience benefits from cooperation that exceed the costs associated with seeking out and punishing defectors, there is no need to invoke group-level processes to explain the evolution of those traits.

Much the same can be said for ritual response. If traits evolve that make people feel good when they are participating in community rituals, they could realistically be expected to stabilize and reinforce intergroup relationships and foster a sense of shared identity useful in intergroup competition. This could benefit the group enormously. But again, all the explanatory work can be done at the level of the individual. If, as I’ve speculated, the relevant feedbacks rely on existing neural architecture associated with pair-bonding and food-sharing and the like, we’ve already gone a long way toward establishing mechanisms for reinforcing ritual observance. Then it may simply be the case that a tendency to feel an increased sense of shared identity may encourage cooperative behaviors that ramify into an array of downstream benefits: for instance, your neighbors may come to recognize you as a reliable collaborator, preferential sharing with you resources and knowledge that will aid in survival and reproduction on the belief that you are likely to reciprocate.

Of course, all of this is speculative – particularly the existence of traits related to elevated neurochemical responses to ritual participation. The point here hasn’t been to disprove Haidt’s claim about group selection, but rather to illustrate plausible routes by which individual-level selection could sculpt traits that look like group-level adaptations. All of the decisive work should be done empirically: observe, experiment, repeat – ad nauseum. But the simple fact that individual/gene-level selection are established mechanisms suggests strongly in their favor – one should convincingly demonstrate that they are not at work before seeking to anchor explanations in other, more spurious, processes.


The Case for Stabilizing Selection

 

When it comes to explaining the existence of traits that encourage religious prosocialitiy, there’s really no need to invoke group-level processes. To begin with, there is no reason to think that belief in a punitive god and participation in socially enriching rituals depends on an entirely distinct psychological architecture from other forms of supernatural belief. The underlying feedbacks could work just as well for promoting beliefs that involve the workings of capricious forces arising from rocks and trees.

More fundamentally, there is reason to think the psychological preferences around which the pantheon of religious traditions – both historic and prehistoric – have been scaffolded rely on traits that were selected for prior to the advent of punitive gods and deeply prosocial belief systems. That doesn’t mean selection stopped there. Rather, my inclination is that punitive gods and prosocial belief systems would likely have resulted in a form of stabilizing selection, wherein deviant traits like skepticism or a disinclination to participate in ceremony were actively penalized. In the language of economics, failure to conform to religious tradition could have entailed a massive opportunity cost. Being an agnostic in the neolithic Levant might have dropped your reproductive success to zero, or at least severely limited it through decreased access to alloparenting, often considered essential to the business of raising costly human offspring.

Daring momentarily to tread the fraught rhetorical ground of the anecdotal, allow me to use a point of personal history. I was raised in a religious family, taught from an early age that I had been fortunate enough to be born into the one true religion – i.e., the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the LDS faith, outgroup interactions are both implicitly and explicitly discouraged. Not prohibited, mind you, but there is strong consensus that it’s best to spend your time with coreligionists and, more importantly, marry within the church.

Fortunately, I was also born into a more or less pluralistic society, where the only tax on my growing disbelief was that my former coreligionists didn’t want to hang out with me and Mormon women were much less likely to consider me a suitable mate. I found new friends outside of the Church and eventually married a fellow heathen.

But consider the circumstances faced by a similarly skeptical human in the Bronze Age Levant. Deigning to spend their time designing new farming implements or inventing more effective forms of animal husbandry – or simply drinking in the woods – they regularly fail to show up for religious ceremonies. They don’t express much confidence in the existence of a punitive god and, in any case, seem to place little stock in such a being’s will. Over time, his neighbors begin to suspect his commitment to the group. They wonder if a man who doesn’t believe in the retributive power of god can be trusted to act honorably. Fathers and mothers discourage their daughters from considering him a suitable mate. Eventually, networks of social pressure have the effect of dropping his reproductive prospects to zero within the group.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much chance of finding sympathy in a neighboring group. Not only are they equally religious – and therefore likely to be equally suspicious of his irreligious tendencies – they also maintain a mutually hostile posture toward people of his ethnicity. They might greet him with death or enslavement. Sadly, that means his reproductive prospects have dropped to zero, period.

If I’d been born in a religious tradition like the Mormon church, but on a social landscape like the ancient Levant – where religious belief was ubiquitous but heterogeneous, draw along the lines of city-states with specific patron gods – my prospects for ever siring offspring would have been similar. And this is all you need for the proliferation of traits that favor prosocial religiosity. These traits confer an advantage on the bearer by making them more amenable to engagement in a social network where, critically among other benefits, they will be more likely to secure a mate and raise children with the additional help afforded by relatives and neighbors. But more importantly, the absence of these traits imposes an incredibly steep tax. Consequently, the range of phenotypes narrows to a more ardently pro-religious mean.

Now, this does ultimately have the effect of benefitting the group. More group members are more willing to entertain beliefs in the supernatural and participate in the associated rituals and ceremonies. If this god is properly punitive and the associated religious activities happen to reliably encourage internal cohesion, group members may have an easier time cooperating with each other. This would make the group itself more likely to outcompete neighboring groups with less prosocial beliefs. The group will grow and their beliefs will spread.

At no point does it make sense to attribute this to group level adaptation. All the important selective work has been done at the level of the individual.

Which brings us to the second flaw in Haidt’s reasoning. Punitive gods, properly done, seem like strong mechanisms for policing the unseen. However, there is no reason to image those belief system emerged as a direct product of biological evolution – the invention and proliferation of those beliefs doesn’t demand any specific gene-level selection. All the important work can be done at the level of social learning and cultural transmission, as beliefs that encourage intragroup cooperation flourish at the expense of more individualistic strategies in grander patterns of intergroup competition. This opens the door to sensible discussion of cultural group selection, because we’re talking about the differential success of groups based on the proliferation of cultural traits like  traditions, institutions, and beliefs.

This is quite distinct from biological group selection, where the traits of individuals are thought to be a product of the benefits they confer on the group. Instead, cultural group selection concerns the success or failure of beliefs and ideas that exist and spread by virtue of human interaction. Culture doesn’t exist without groups – there is no such thing as a culture of one – so it makes sense to think of cultural traits, by their very nature, as features of groups. Humans acquire cultural traits individually, but once acquired, they aren’t necessarily subject to the same ruthless calculus as biological traits. They can be beneficial or costly. Plenty of cultural traits are adaptive, aiding people in their quest for food and mates, but others are clearly maladaptive – hurting their prospects for survival and inhibiting their ability to reproduce in whatever environment they find themselves. The only real requirement is that they appeal to the suite of preferences – some learned, others evolved – that bias people toward certain flavors of thinking.

Inasmuch as there is a compelling case to be made that there are adaptations that grease the skids for religious belief, there is no similar case to be that religious beliefs are themselves adaptations – at least not in the strict biological sense. However, as cultural software running on biological hardware, they can be conceived of as cultural adaptations – it just depends on how beneficial they prove to be for the people who adopt them.

Scaffolded on a pre-existing architecture of evolved psychological preferences, belief in omniscient, punitive gods may very well have had a role to play in fostering large-scale cooperation in early Mesopotamian and Levantine city-states. Thereafter, they may have modified the selective landscape, eliminating some variation in the underlying traits (false agency attribution, credulous acceptance of traditional knowledge, monitoring and enforcing social norms, and neurological feedbacks from ritual observance). But nowhere does the plausibility of these arguments offer succor to the hypothesis that religious beliefs are themselves adaptations, much less the notion that they arose as a product of selective forces acting at the level of the group.

Additional reading:

Big Gods, Ara Norenzayan

The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich

Genes, Memes, and Human History, Stephen Shennan

Foundations of Human Sociality, Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowels, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, and Herbert Gintis

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (and Naomi Klein vs. Science)

This Changes Everything is a strange book. I agree with its central premise. Capitalism is a fundamentally flawed ideology, that, unchecked, has the capacity to cause untold social and ecological destruction. Within the bounds of the market, there are no mechanisms suitable to address climate change. The energy corporations responsible for pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere aren’t sensitive to the prospect of rising sea levels, more severe fire seasons, long-term drought, or more frequent and intense natural disasters. They might contain people who recognize these problems, but the ultimate arbiter of their decisions is short-term profit accumulation. Suddenly developing a social and ecological conscience – and acting accordingly – would be economic suicide. Corporations that remained responsive to the interests of shareholders would swiftly swoop in and happily gobble up the share of the energy market abandoned by their more environmentally friendly competitors.

Much has been made of finding market-friendly solutions to climate change. The idea that corporations that make billions off the extraction and production of hydrocarbons will somehow responsibly and organically respond to social and ecological threat of climate change is pure fantasy. There’s too much inertia in their current mode of production, and too little incentive for them to change it. Indeed, as Klein reports, some fossil fuels giants have tens of billions of dollars invested in future extraction initiatives. Shifting away from burning hydrocarbons would entail huge immediate blows to their bottom line.  Which brings us to Klein’s central thesis: while the burning of fossil fuels is directly linked to the increases in atmospheric carbon heating the planet, the final and ultimate cause of climate change is the profit motive and the haphazard paths followed in pursuit thereof. In this regard, Naomi Klein makes a pretty good case.

Klein’s critique of capitalism is bold and refreshing. Interestingly, it’s a point the fossil fuel industry’s most zealous advocates had seized upon well before the terms “global warming” and “climate change” had entered the popular vernacular or become the focus of intense, widespread public scrutiny. Klein reports on conferences held by organization like the the Heartland Institute and Heritage Foundation where attendees issued dire prognostications about the social, political, and economic implications of climate change. Not in terms of the direct ramifications of large-scale environmental change, mind you, but in terms of the large-scale social planning that will inevitably be needed to address them. Surprisingly often, people at these conferences accepted the reality of climate change. Many had even made peace with humanity’s role in causing it. Their concern was not whether climate change was real or not. It was if and how the reality of climate change might redefine the social order, undermining decades of neoliberal policy and the ceaseless march of privatization and deregulation. In short, they were concerned that a public tuned-in to the threats posed by a changing climate could begin to use their influence as voters to exert control over the behavior of markets – via the intermediary control of representative governance. In other words, they recognized that addressing climate change demands top-down intervention – i.e. socialism.

It’s hard to overstate the perversity and cynicism of this outlook. Recognizing that unregulated energy markets contain no mechanism for responding to the social and ecological toll exacted by a changing climate, these people are more concerned with protecting their bank accounts than working to ensure the wellbeing of future generations.

Of course, one could go too far in tarring the intentions and motivations of people so concerned about the threat of democratic socialism that they are willing to openly deceive the public about the risks associated with a changing climate. These people are unbridled greed-heads, to be sure. But deeper down, they’re also true believers, possessed of such desperate, unwavering faith in the wisdom of the invisible hand that they are willing to ride full-bore into the maw of ecological chaos, confident that, in the end, the market will provide.

It was once well-understood and widely accepted that there were bound to be economic transactions that involved variables and produced outcomes that couldn’t be accounted for in the price of goods. Recognizing the potential for markets to accumulate unforeseen costs and produce unpredicted benefits, economists advocated the use of taxes and subsidies, facultatively increasing the price of goods that are ecologically or socially harmful, reducing the prices of those that engender surprising benefits. Economists modelled markets as if they were comprised of perfectly rational, infinitely selfish, all-knowing agents as a matter of mathematical convenience. For simplicity, theorists conceived of transactions as instantaneous auctions, wherein everyone knew all the relevant information – including all the potential downstream costs and benefits, however distantly realized – and were entirely open about their values and motivations. Everyone knew everything they needed to know and no one tried to deceive anyone.

Somewhere along the line, this thinking leaped off the rails, and the market principles espoused and enumerated by the likes Smith, Pareto, Walras, Keynes, and Hayek morphed into an ideological religion. Enough people indifferent to nuance and obsessed with the myth of the self-made man read Hayek and Friedman – filtering their works through a hazy lens of Ayn Rand – that market liberalization became a religious crusade. They began to take the simplifying assumptions of economists too seriously. Instead of treating them like normative prescriptions for how things would work in perfect world, they began to treat them like divine ordinances about how things should work in the real world. Market fundamentalists and their allies have since made it their mission to shape the world into an Eden of free, unmitigated exchange – a perfect paradise for the idealized creatures of economic theory. Sadly, this is about as reasonable as setting up a game preserve for unicorns.

Their vision of utopia is one entirely divorced from the realities of human behavior and the natural world from which it emerged. In this vein, market fundamentalists have come to mirror the hardline communists ideologues the United States fought a nearly five decade cold war – punctuated here and there by intense moments of southeast Asian or central American heat – against. They’re so enamored of a romanticized ideology that they’ve been rendered blind to the unburnished strictures of reality. Decades of work in behavioral economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology have revealed evidence that humans are irrational, myopic, parochial, tribal creatures, riddled with internal contradictions, from an awe-inspiring capacity for altruism and selflessness to a sickening taste for self-indulgence and materialism. The governing tenets of normative theories of economics have been repeatedly proven to be false. They make the modelling simpler, but lose descriptive fidelity with reality in the process.

When it comes to their personal fortunes, the people placing such fevered conviction in the benevolent providence of markets probably aren’t wrong. For them, the market will provide – at least for the time being. Incredibly wealthy and politically influential, they’ve got what it takes to ride out whatever storms (both literal and metaphorical) anthropogenic climate change might throw their way. Some of them will even likely make a tidy profit doing so. Already a market has emerged for in the insurance sector for companies interested in buffering themselves against the potential costs and disruptions that are bound to come with a changing climate. Climate change is the perfect storm for disaster capitalism (which Klein has written about elsewhere), opening the door for people to make millions off the suffering of others.

For those unfortunate enough to occupy rungs farther down the economic ladder, outlooks are considerably more grim. Market fundamentalists and their cronies in various world governments have placed so much rabid faith in the wisdom of the market that they are unwilling to budge an inch from the territory they’ve staked out on the frontiers of ideological fanaticism. Their belief that a market, sensitive only to the feedback of profits lost and profits gained, will always provide the best possible outcome for the most possible people has no more basis in reality than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ visions of communist utopia. The men who flew a Boeing 767 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center had just a much justification for their belief that they’d be greeted in the afterlife by 72 virgins as a man like Ted Cruz does for his belief that a market entirely unleashed from the shackles of government oversight and regulation will maximize human flourishing.

Even without the looming specter of climate change, the idea that wholesale privatization and deregulation will benefit anyone outside a small minority of wealthy elites is difficult – if not fundamentally impossible – to justify. Markets simply don’t have the ingredients necessary to set prices that account for all the potential costs and benefits that come with production and consumption. Nor is there a compelling argument to made that, were prices thus set, humans would respond to them in a way consistent with their own long-term best interests. This crude reality alone should be sufficient to derail campaigns for endless market liberalization. Unfortunately, the zealots have sunk their claws so deep into the fabric of modern society that the precepts of unmitigated capitalism are treated like features of the divine order of the cosmos, built and bred into the marrow of social, political, and economic institutions the world over.

Now, as humanity has finally become sensitive to the full range of costs associated with centuries of barrelling growth and consumption, the need to overturn this fanaticism has grown more urgent than ever. This Changes Everything’s greatest strength is the force and clarity with which Klein makes this point, supporting it with detailed reporting and mountains of evidence.

Yet, for a book with such a compelling central thread, I was surprised by how frequently I found myself disagreeing with the author. Klein consistently evokes apocalyptic language, writing of human extinction and the habitability of the planet earth as if either is actually at stake. Climate change could spell untold human suffering and ecological devastation, but it’s very unlikely to drive the human species to extinction. Likewise, she romanticizes the primitive past and indigenous lifeways, treating pre-industrial societies like expert conservationists, living in perfect, blissful, harmony with the earth. Based on available archaeological evidence, this view is naive at best. Globalization is painted as a ubiquitous evil – never mind the fact that, inasmuch as it has contributed to climate change, it has also raised billions of people out of crushing poverty and perpetual hunger. Her treatment of GMOs, geoengineering, and nuclear power evinces a relationship to science that is more a matter of ideological opportunism than a devotion to reason and evidence.

Each of these points is worth addressing, because each entails a breed of error that does much to undermine the strength of Klein’s larger argument.

First, there’s the issue of human extinction. Klein oft references the final end of the human species, written in some onrushing future by the blind avarice and indulgence of past and present generations. Perhaps she’s being deliberately hyperbolic, but I don’t see how that level of exaggeration and emotionalism serves her point. It is disturbingly likely that the drought, biodiversity loss, superstorms, ocean acidification and sea level rise caused by unmitigated climate change could unleash a cascade of escalating disasters, each one feeding into the next, locking humanity into an endless, frantic cycle of catch-up. Klein is savvy enough to recognize how these crises will be handled within the logic of the market – profiteering and exploitation will run rampant, as a small minority reaps enormous benefits from the misery of everyone else.

Yet it is exceedingly unlikely that climate change will cause the extinction of Homo sapiens. This isn’t really much of a ray of hope – it’s entirely plausible that the compounding cycles of disaster released in the wake of worst-case-scenario climate change could reduce the human population to scattered bands living on the fringes of the high arctic, scavenging rancid scraps from the shores of poisoned seas and eating one another to survive. More probable scenarios – mass human displacement, massive social and economic inequality, bloody conflicts over bread and water, the emergence of hardcore corporate feudalism – aren’t much more appealing. But short of making the planet earth literally uninhabitable to our kind of organism (which it seems very unlikely to do) climate change will not drive humans extinct. Our facility with social learning, coupled with our capacity to store and transmit cultural knowledge from generation to generation, make us one of the most adaptable organisms to have ever existed. You’d have to look to tardigrades (water bears) or certain strains of fast-adapting bacteria for a more resilient species.

As with her dire prognostications, Klein’s approach to primitive and/or indigenous lifeways leaves much to be desired. She readily and consistently falls into Rousseau’s old trap, speaking wistfully, if not explicitly, of the wisdom and probity of the “noble savage”. There’s a sort of magnanimous racism to this kind of thinking, which I’m sure anyone given to it would be damn quick to deny. It suggests there’s something fundamentally different about “primitive” peoples, something that makes them more finely tuned to nature and equality than the rapacious scalawags that spilled out of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. This is pure rubbish. In terms of behavior, the only meaningful difference betweens industrial and pre-industrial peoples are cultural. It just so happens that Europeans happened to have inherited and modified innovations in agriculture, animal husbandry, food production, preservation, and storage – significantly conditioned by ecological happenstance – that facilitated massive population increases. Later, they became widely infected by the ideological prescription that material surplus and increase were desirable above all else.

The exact processes that led to this have been dealt with extensively. I won’t dwell on them here. Instead, suffice it to say that the concept of primitive utopia that emerged in the 19th century – persisting, in various forms, to muddy the thinking of an otherwise intelligent author in the first decades of the 21st – is a rosy-eyed fiction. Primitive societies often give credence to the Hobbesian diagnosis of a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short”. Rates of interpersonal violence are higher. Infanticide is commonplace. People die preventable deaths from injury and disease and animal attack. And, more to the precise point of Klein’s romanticism, they are hardly conservationists. Strong evidence indicates that the first Americans had a major role to play in the extinction of the North American megafauna – mammoths, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, giant bisons and ground sloths. In Australia, the first humans played a role in the eradication of a menagerie of bizarre giants – marsupials the size of hippos, carnivorous kangaroos, and an eight foot long tortoise, among others. In New Zealand, the Maori drove the giant moa to extinction. More prosaically, the archaeological record implicates humans in a number of resource depressions, extinctions, and extirpations. By around 1500 years ago, California hunter-gatherers around the Sacramento Valley had significantly reduced deer and elk populations. The earliest inhabitants of Easter Island introduced invasive species and over-exploited local resources, destroying the local ecology. My own research reveals a series of local depressions in steller sea lion populations in the seas around Sanak Island off the Alaska Peninsula – well before the arrival of Russian sailors – caused at least in part by human hunting.

Humans are humans, gifted with the same level of foresight, cursed with the same level of myopia, wherever they live. The idea that there has ever been, anywhere, a perfect relationship between humanity and nature (or even a clear demarcation between the two) is a point of hopeful fiction. The places where superficial appearances are otherwise relate not to the pure, uncorrupted conservationist ethos of indigenous peoples, but to a lack of technology or a sufficient resource base to sustain long-term population growth.

Globalization is a trickier beast. Free trade agreements have been disparaged across the political spectrum, often due to their perceived role in job loss. Because they make it easier for companies to outsource work to wherever they can find the cheapest employees, free trade agreements are often implicated in the decline in the availability of local manufacturing jobs. There is some truth to this – free trade agreements have resulted in job loss – but the larger reality is that, in the United States, most of the manufacturing jobs lost in recent years have gone to robots, not foreigners.

More insidiously, globalized commerce tends to increase the carbon footprint of economic endeavors and undermine localized efforts at political self-determination. As Klein notes, an increasingly globalized economy depends on the transportation of goods over longer and longer distances. This inherently entails pumping more carbon into the atmosphere, as cargo planes circle the globe and massive container ships drive through the oceans. Not only does this intensify and accelerate climate change, it also distances consumers from the direct ecological costs of their economic decisions. The already frail and unreliable tools consumers might have available to punish a local factory for producing goods in a way that damages local water and air supplies are entirely extinguished when the poisoned water and smoggy air are thousands of miles away. Throw in an international court system that allows foreign polluters to sue local governments for establishing regulations that favor cleaner businesses closer to home and the prospect for constructing sustainable, environmentally conscious markets look incredibly dim.

Klein’s solution is to refocus economies on a local level. This is all well and good, but it ignores the ways in which people in the developing world have benefitted from globalized trade. Certainly something must be done – urgently – to address the ecological costs of international commerce, but it shouldn’t be done at the cost of throwing billions of people back into poverty. Localized trade is generally a good idea: it lowers the carbon footprint of economic transactions and puts people in direct contact with the consequences of their economic behavior. But in finding a way to realize those benefits in local communities, it’s essential that we don’t fall into the trap of placing a higher premium on local lives simply as a consequence of proximity. The people who have been lifted out of poverty by global trade matter too – let’s find a way to limit the harm produced by a globalized economy without eliminating its benefits.

Which brings to my final major criticism: Klein’s selective science-phobia. She has a wealth of praise for solar and wind technology, but every other potential energy source is either greeted with the wary eye of a hardened Luddite or outright dismissed as too scary or too tainted by corporate greed to be a feasible alternative to fossil fuels. In my view, the best solutions to some of the environmental problems posed by global trade are technological. Let’s not do away with international commerce because of its large carbon footprint. Instead, let’s just do away with the large carbon footprint and power humanity’s aerial, terrestrial, and aquatic shipping fleets with clean fuels. This, of course, involves developing more and more efficient means of converting solar energy into electricity and inventing more efficient and resilient storage techniques (i.e. better batteries) – both realistic, if unrealized, prospects. It might be the science fiction enthusiast in me, but I have a hard time swallowing the argument that the solution to any of our problems will somehow involve less technology and innovation.

Klein seems to have a narrow and rigid list of technologies she considers worthy of approbation. Ubiquitously, they are those technologies that are perceived to make the most unobtrusive use of existing natural resources: wind and solar power. I don’t disagree with her that these are technologies that should be pursued with vigor. Especially not when it comes to solar power. Rather, my point of contention is with her ideologically defined disregard for any technology that involves manipulating the natural world in ways that might be trespass some vague bound of permissible use.

The most glaring example is nuclear power, which Klein brings up and dismisses repeatedly without offering any solid justifications for doing so. As near as I can tell, her concerns boil down to the fact that nuclear power seems scary, representing as it does a distillation of man’s abusive dominion and exploitation of the natural world. There seems to be an arbitrary boundary between good innovation – where humans create novel materials and systems to harness solar energy – and bad innovation – where humans create novel materials and systems to harness the energy of nuclear fission. Probably this has a lot to do with the relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, in addition to the looming specter of disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Nuclear power, however, is safe. Since its invention, nuclear power has been linked to 300 deaths worldwide (and that’s a rather generous estimate). Over the same period (starting with Fermi’s discovery in 1934) coal mining has been the direct cause of 29,949 deaths in the United States alone. Globally, the count is surely much higher. The generation of energy from coal has killed 100 times more people in the United States than the generation of nuclear power has killed in the entire world.* Obviously, this doesn’t even begin to account for the colossal environmental costs of coal – even if we were to stop mining and burning coal tomorrow, the environmental toll would still be counted for generations to come.

The idea that we should dismiss nuclear power because of a few frightening accidents is patently absurd, especially when one considers the fact that technology already exists to build reactors that are inherently safe. In the 1970s, 80, and early 90s researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory developed and tested the integral fast reactor (IFR) – a reactor made safe by the very physics upon which it operates. The IFR was tested, simulating loss of coolant flow (the problem at Fukushima) and all normal shutdown options: it shut itself down, proving itself a meltdown-proof reactor.

Klein, I’m sure, would be quick to point out that there are additional hazards associated with an IFR. Some of its constituents – like liquid sodium – are inherently dangerous. Though the IFR produces less waste, it still comes with attendant waste disposal problems. These are real concerns, but they aren’t cause for a wholesale abandonment of nuclear energy. They should motivate further research, not outright dismissal. The raw reality is that every technology comes with its share of problems. Windmills kill bats and produce vibrations that disturb burrowing animals and subterranean communities. Solar photovoltaics are often produced using heavy metals like cadmium, which have the potential to accumulate in food chains. There are no perfect solutions. And, often enough, the only way to find out how good a solution is and what costs it carries is to try it out.

This is precisely the reason why I don’t see the use in taking large-scale geoengineering options entirely off the table. Researchers have dubbed these the Pinatubo Option, after a volcanic eruption that laid the seed for thinking about climate change in terms of solar radiation management (SRM). The basic idea is to ameliorate the effects of harmful greenhouse gases by pumping aerosols like sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to cut down on the amount of solar radiation (i.e. sunlight) that reaches the earth’s surface. These are clearly last-case scenario options, but the idea that they should be automatically shunted into the intellectual dustbin because they come with a fog of unknowns – some of them likely dangerous – is truly strange.

In general, Klein is eager to steer the safest possible route, both ideologically and environmentally, eschewing all but the most well-established green technologies. Investments in nuclear power and geoengineering are risky, and therefore anathema. I used to be sympathetic to that kind of thinking – less and less so, as I grow and learn. The fact of the matter is that all human progress entails some amount of risk and uncertainty. Dealing with that fundamental fact is the flat fee that comes with living in a dynamic, vibrant society that values curiosity and exploration.


The puzzling thing about This Changes Everything is that it can simultaneously be such an incredibly forceful, scrupulously sourced argument against the perilous excesses of unrestrained capitalism and so gravely misguided when it touches on issues of human nature and the power of innovation. In the final analysis, Klein’s book is as much an ideological screed as it is a cold assessment of the facts. She meets the barking madness of free market fundamentalists with an ideological fervor redeemed only by the fact that it currently aligns with humanity’s best interests. This, of course, makes her an ally – not only to progressives, but to all humanity. She’s not wrong: capitalism, left unchecked, will devour the world.

Klein fetisizes indigenous lifestyles, exaggerating their cultural commitment to sustainability and regeneration. Low impact living is a natural outworking of forager lifestyles, not an internalized ideological commitment to perpetual balance. At the same time, she casts the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution as Icarian follies – humanity learned too much, too fast, hungrily consuming the world’s resources in callous indifference to the potential consequences. Certainly it’s true that the fruits of the Enlightenment/Scientific/Industrial revolution have poisoned the natural world. That point is virtually inarguable. But the endless cycles of discovery, criticism, debate, and revolution they set in place are also responsible for every good thing in existence. The notion of individual human rights was an Enlightenment invention. Thanks to science, we now have treatments or cures for hundreds of terrible diseases. Our very understanding of the natural world – including the ways in which we’ve harmed it and the ways to cease doing so – are due to the scientific revolution. Klein’s most cherished ideal – sustainability – is a modern invention. It’s not a vestige of the primitive past, but a modern discovery.

Climate change is a problem. As are the underlying patterns of production and consumption. More fundamentally, the driving ethos of the industrialized West – that markets, unleashed, are pristine, unimpeachable optimality engines, spelling the best lives for the most possible people anywhere and everywhere they reach – is not only blatantly fallacious, it’s wantonly destructive. Markets are very good at some things (e.g., stimulating innovation) and very bad at others (e.g., adapting to variables that can’t be accounted for in price, or basically anything that requires even a modicum foresight about the social or environmental implications of market behavior). For those of us willing to accept this rudimentary truth, the necessity of top-down – yes, that is, socialist – intervention is obvious. This isn’t a matter of surrendering to a colorless dystopia of central-planning. It means whipping the dusty, tattered, rapidly decaying tools of representative government into shape and using them to assert our will in systems that are otherwise beyond our control.

This really isn’t a radical proposition. Within the confines of the market, few of us have the capital necessary to exert meaningful influence over the behavior of giants like Exxon and BP, but all of us will be affected by the environmental consequences of their business model. Using our powers as voters and citizens (diminished – and diminishing – though they may be) is the only viable option left to us. That’s why the efforts of the protestors at places like Standing Rock are so important. Civil disobedience is rapidly becoming our last line of defense against an economic system hell bent on devouring the world.

Nowhere in this recognition is there an obvious repudiation of the larger framework of values and methods that emerged out of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolutions. There’s no denying that they gave us the coal-fired steam and gas fueled internal combustion engines whose exhaust is currently warming the planet. But there’s also no denying that, inasmuch scientific discovery has the power to doom us, it is also true that it is the only thing that can save us. Modernity comes with its own litany of woes. It also comes with a wealth of invisible comforts that make life today better than life at literally any other time in human history. Fewer people live in poverty or die preventable deaths. The attendant ecological problems are real and in urgent need of redress. In no way is that a matter of trading one delusional ideology for another. The truth is much deeper and far more difficult to master: there are no perfect solutions. Utopia is an illusion. It has not and will never exist. But progress is real. It’s just riddled with error and struggle, giving way to faltering improvements – each new order better than the last, but still flawed and ripe for replacement.

Such is the case with the mythological market of the rational, all-knowing, self-made man. It has its merits. Hard work and self-determination are great. Competition is a powerful engine of innovation. A market wound-up and left to its own devices is a blind behemoth. Let’s use the tools of scientific discovery and representative government to give it a little discipline and foresight.


* It might be contended that these numbers aren’t fair. More people have worked in coal than in nuclear power, so obviously more people have died in the former than the latter. I considered this, and tried to calculate per capita fatalities. Unfortunately, good labor statistics for the nuclear sector are notoriously difficult to find. That said, I gave it my best shot. Between 1934 and 2015, 1 in every 680 coal workers in the United States died of job-related illness or injury. Grossly underestimating the number of nuclear power workers (assuming that no one has ever worked in nuclear before 2015 and using the Nuclear Energy Institute’s best workforce estimates), nuclear power related injuries and illnesses in the United States have claimed the lives of 1 in every 11,111 employees. Coal has gotten safer over time. In 2015, just 1 in every 8,567 workers died. The same is true of nuclear, however: in the same year, 0 of an estimated 100,000 nuclear workers died.

God these things are long…

Here’s the book. Criticism withstanding, it’s well worth a read.

this-changes-everything-9781451697391_hr