In 1980, Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich famously bet libertarian economist Julian Simon that the price index of several precious metals would increase over the ensuing 10 years. Ehrlich, author of the apocalyptic hit The Population Bomb, expected that resource scarcity would inevitably drive up prices. Simon took the bet, insisting that the free market and human ingenuity would find ways to produce more resources at lower costs. Simon won.
That wager, expertly recalled in Paul Sabin’s The Bet, is a microcosm of the left-right divide on the environment and economic growth that has existed for the past several decades. Ehrlich was on the left: an angry, pessimistic academic demanding government policy to halt the growth of population, technology, and consumption. Simon was on the right: a sunny, gregarious economist arguing the free market would forever solve humanity’s resource challenges and that government should get the hell out of the way. Lefties and righties across Western economies have played these roles consistently for a generation.
That divide no longer matters.
Or, at least, it’s on its way out. Two remarkable books that came out this year—Austerity Ecology & the Collapse Porn Addicts by Leigh Phillips and The End of Doom by Ronald Bailey—each makes the case that growth, technology, and accelerated modernization can solve the twin global problems of poverty and environmental devastation. The twist is that Phillips and Bailey argue from diametrically opposed left and right positions.
Phillips’ important socialist polemic—subtitled A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff—resurrects the progressive vision of Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Somewhere in the last 50 years, Phillips writes, the left abandoned progressivism. “The New Left in America,” he argues, “from its birth in the early 1960s, turned away from the expansive ambition and productivism of earlier social democratic and Communist left, and toward the fear of the large, the modern, and the technological.” From this perspective, Phillips advocates global socialist government, nuclear power, biotechnology and genetic modification, and even space exploration.
Bailey, a scholar and columnist at the libertarian Reason magazine, makes a similar case. An update to his 1993 book Eco-Scam, End of Doom counters 50 years of apocalyptic environmentalist rhetoric on pesticides, GMOs, fossil fuels, and other hallmarks of modernity. Along the way, he regularly chides environmentalists and big-government bureaucrats for slowing the advance of promising technologies.
Bailey writes that not only are the risks of advanced technologies massively overhyped by nominal lefty spokespeople like Vandana Shiva and Bill McKibben, but said technologies in fact have the consistent and demonstrable effect of lifting people out of poverty and saving more room for nature. For instance, Bailey cites studies showing that biotech crops have produced $120 billion in economic gains for farmers over the past 20 years while sparing 300 million acres—an area almost twice the size of Texas—from being converted to agricultural land. The evidence in Bailey’s book is convincing: Technology boosts incomes and saves nature.
On GMOs, nuclear power, energy consumption, and industrial activity, Phillips the socialist and Bailey the libertarian agree. But for their positions on the role of government, they have written nearly the same book. How can this be?
The two authors do not fit neatly into political categories. Phillips excoriates his fellow leftists for abandoning their historical faith in progress, technology, and institutions. According to Austerity Ecology, the anti-technology “small-is-beautiful” ideology of the modern left feeds right into the anti-government right of the latter 20th century. This is an evolution of the progressive movement that Phillips harshly rejects. Bailey, likewise, contrasts sharply with past conservative ideas of Malthus, Thomas Jefferson, and other anti-modernists.
Left and right have been around for centuries. But they’ve never actually been the most relevant ideological divide. Rather, humanity has always been tugged between the proponents and skeptics of progress. In his recent work, University of Warwick’s Steve Fuller has borrowed a 40-year-old distinction between “up-wingers” and “down-wingers” to advocate a proactionary principle, a deliberate contrast to environmentalism’s hallowed precautionary principle.
Fuller describes how the reorientation from “left-right” to “up-down” could take place:
The “90-degree revolution” I foresee is that the communitarians and the traditionalists will team up to form the “down-winging” pole, while the technocrats and the libertarians will join forces to form the “up-winging” pole. … The geometry of the political imagery implies that the Left and the Right are each divided and then re-combined to form the Up and the Down.
It’s a compelling visual, and the new books by Phillips and Bailey make me think Fuller’s revolution might actually be taking place. (The two are, of course, not alone—see also the reorienting work of Michael Lind, Ruth DeFries, Martin Lewis, Jim Manzi, and other scholars who confound conventional political categories.)
I think it would make for an encouraging change, for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m an up-winger, so of course I’m in favor of this ideological revolution. Second, it wouldn’t really be a revolution, but more a reversion to the mean: the up-down distinction has historically been more practically relevant than the left-right distinction. Third, an up-down distinction would redound to the benefit of upwingers. Downwingers are present on both the left and the right, but are more sound than fury—refocusing the debate toward upwinger varieties on the right and the left would further marginalize the opponents of progress.
Fuller’s framework explains why ostensibly lefty environmentalists like Naomi Klein can adopt similar back-to-the-land, localist positions as right-wing doomsday preppers and reactionary anti-urbanites. More optimistically, it’s how socialist technocrats and libertarian free-marketers could collaborate on technological innovation, global growth, and open societies.
With political polarization at an all time high in the United States and the knowledge that fear and dogma embed deeply in the public psyche, I wouldn’t expect a swift Up-Winger revolution is just around the corner. But reading Phillips, Bailey, Fuller, and others, I do think it is somewhere in our future.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.