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Enlightenment Now, Climate Change Later

February 28, 2018



I always find Steven Pinker’s books to be a great read, witty and thought-provoking. His latest book, Enlightenment Now, is no exception.  It includes what I believe is his first public writing on the subject of energy and climate change.  In these 20 pages he tries to cover a lot of ground, advocating for a carbon tax and expanded nuclear power, while explaining that we have made progress in dematerializing our culture and decarbonizing our industry. Along the way he finds some environmental researchers to commend – namely the “eco-modernists” who are primarily focused on technological innovation.  But more often, he finds groups to disdain, especially environmental justice advocates and mainstream environmental organizations, as well as the climate denialists on the right.   


One type of individual, however, gets a free pass in this book -- the very high greenhouse gas emitting person, which is a large and growing cohort in the United States.  They seem to have been forgotten about entirely while Pinker sings the praises of energy consumption in general and the accomplishments that have allowed us to decarbonize.  The United States, European Union – 28, and Asia and Pacific, locations of the world’s highest consuming cultures, look rather minor in Pinker’s graph on regional emissions.  Instead, it is China that pops out as their emissions took a great leap during the last two decades.  A reader looking at his graph may not know that much of these emissions are related to Chinese industry producing goods that are used by Americans.   He notes in the text that American per capita emissions are higher than the Chinese, but he does not volunteer that they are much higher, especially considering all those made-in-China imports.


While in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker expounded on the concept of a widening circle of empathy found in culture over time, in his new book he dismisses the prospect of significant voluntary action on climate change. “One can, alternatively daydream that moral suasion is potent enough to induce everyone to make the necessary sacrifices,” he writes. I agree with him to some extent, moral suasion on its own is unlikely to have much of an effect and it’s unrealistic to expect people to make painful sacrifices.  The weakness in his argument lies in the crude brush he paints about the benefits of access to energy and his unmoored concept of sacrifice.  He does not distinguish between the developing country household whose access to lighting and refrigeration is life-changing, and the American householder who contemplates moving from a 3,000 square foot abode to one twice that size.  Pinker volunteers the helpful information that he himself lives in an apartment, but otherwise does not comment on the housing choices that underlie much of America’s high greenhouse gas footprint.


Human well-being is a complex notion of course and Pinker looks at conventional data on life expectancy, suicide rates etc, as he explains that life has gotten better.  But how would well-being change with loss of access to nature and the consequences of severe climate change?  Is this a good time to be content or are we at peak happiness?


The United States could cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half if individuals made different lifestyle choices – lived more compactly, reduced air travel and consumed less stuff and meat.   Many Americans do this already, not because they’ve decided to “sacrifice” – but because they have decided -- out of choice or necessity – that this is the best way to go through life.  Whether the low emitters know it or not (most do not know their own emissions) the atmosphere has benefited.   In Enlightenment Now Pinker slides right past the salient idea of cutting emissions in half, enroute to his comment on the challenges of cutting emissions to zero.  “Most important, the sacrifice needed to bring carbon emissions down by half and then to zero is far greater than forgoing jewelry: it would require forgoing electricity, heating, cement, steel, paper, travel, and affordable food and clothing.”  


A target of zero emissions would require immense sacrifice from everyone, whereas cutting emissions in half in America would not necessarily have a commensurate effect on American happiness.  American material culture is already so high that there’s a wide margin of opportunity to reduce without painful sacrifice.  Pinker says as much elsewhere in the book where he acknowledges that increasing GDP and wealth in the United States during recent decades has not led to evidence of greater happiness.  He finds such a link in most of the rest of the world but suggests that in this regard surveys reveal that the United States is an outlier.


Understanding just that, which parts of our energy consumption habits bring us happiness or a sense of meaning, and which parts are trivial or detrimental, is the crux of my sense of what the Enlightenment tradition may bring us one day. If cognitive scientists like Pinker could get on board with this and make their own contribution, we would have a better chance.  

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