Making our own progress

This is my least favourite day of the year, so I’ve been gazing moodily out at the rain while reading this and that online. Courtesy of Andrew Kelly of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, I came across this extraordinary essay, Dark Ecology, by Paul Kingsnorth. I can’t do justice to its existential gloom – it needs to be read to get the full, intense flavour of its despair and anger. It took me on to the Dark Mountain Manifesto, launched by Kingsnorth in 2009. Point 1 of the manifesto is:

“We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.”

Empires and societies clearly do collapse. Ecological disasters occur. There is a large literature on it – recent references would include Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies and Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

And yet, New Year’s grouch though I am, the Dark Mountain call to withdraw from modern, technological society does not convince me at all. It conflates environmental questions, which any sensible person will be concerned about, with a range of different economic and social questions. It therefore rejects any application of the conventional framework of policy thought to the environmental problems – whereas I believe pricing carbon properly would be the biggest single step possible towards environmental sustainability, meaning anybody who cares about this should be focused on the political economy of raising the price of carbon-use.

This isn’t to say there won’t be some dark times ahead. The global economy isn’t remotely out of the financial/economic crisis, and political leaders haven’t begun to respond adequately to tackle huge challenges ranging from the fiscal via the demographic to the ecological. But progress, including technological progress, is both possible and continuing; while many of the problems identified by Kingsnorth are in principle soluble. To take one (minor) example, his “human scale” shops are feasible – it is weak competition policy and dismal planning policies that have turned the UK into a monoculture of giant stores.

Indeed, I hope Dark Mountainism doesn’t spread too far, interesting as the manifesto is. As Paul Krugman set out in a brilliant but relatively unknown QJE paper (pdf), History versus Expectations, in 1990, the rate at which the economy grows depends fundamentally on positive expectations for the future outweighing the habits of the past: people need to have a sense of progress for it to occur. Much better to engage with the world and change it, than to withdraw from it.

A happy, peaceful and prosperous 2013 to all readers of this blog -  and here’s to making it happen.

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One thought on “Making our own progress

  1. Everyone has always thought that we are living in the end times – it’s human nature. Right now (as someone said on radio 4 earlier) it’s ecological doom, in the last generation it was the shadow of the atom bomb, the generation before that it was global war and before that it was Malthus. I wouldn’t worry about it – technology will see us through.

    Since by any objective measure you could care to name we are better off now than anyone ever has been in the entire history of the homo sapiens, this doom mongering must mean something else, mustn’t it?