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And, key to progressive social change – turns and solves racism

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And, key to progressive social change – turns and solves racism

Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 07

Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Ted & Michael, Managing Directors of American Environics, A social values research and strategy firm 35-37

Just as prosperity tends to bring out the best of human nature, poverty and collapse tend to bring out the worst. Not only are authoritarian values strongest in situations where our basic material and security needs aren't being met, they also become stronger in societies experiencing economic downturns. Economic collapse in Europe after World War I, in Yugoslavia after the fall of communism, and in Rwanda in the early 1990s triggered an authoritarian reflex that fed the growth of fascism and violence. The populations in those countries, feeling profoundly insecure at the physiological, psychological, and cultural levels, embraced authoritarianism and other lower-order materialist values. This is also what occurred in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. This shift away from fulfillment and toward survival values appears to be occurring in the United States, albeit far more gradually than in places like the former Communist-bloc countries. Survival values, including fatalism, ecological fatalism, sexism, everyday rage, and the acceptance of violence, are on the rise in the United States. The reasons for America’s gradual move away from fulfillment and toward survival values are complex. Part of it appears to be driven by increasing economic insecurity. This insecurity has several likely causes: the globalization of the economy; the absence of a new social contract for things like health care, child care and retirement appropriate for our postindustrial age; and status competitions driven by rising social inequality. Conservatives tend to believe that all Americans are getting richer while liberals tend to believe that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. In our discussion of security in chapter 7 we argue that what is happening is a little bit of both: homeownership and purchasing power have indeed been rising, but so have household and consumer debt and the amount of time Americans spend working. While cuts to the social safety net have not pushed millions of people onto the street, they have fed social insecurity and increased competition with the Joneses. It is not just environmentalists who misunderstand the prosperity-fulfillment connection. In private conversations, meetings and discussions, we often hear progressives lament public apathy and cynicism and make statements such as “Things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get better.” We emphatically disagree. In our view, things have to get better before they can get better. Immiseration theory—the view that increasing suffering leads to progressive social change—has been repeatedly discredited by history. Progressive social reforms, from the Civil Rights Act to the Clean Water Act, tend to occur during times of prosperity and rising expectations—not immiseration and declining expectations. Both the environmental movement and the civil rights movement emerged as a consequence of rising prosperity. It was the middle-class, young, and educated black Americans who were on the forefront of the civil rights movement. Poor blacks were active, but the movement was overwhelmingly led by educated, middle-class intellectuals and community leaders (preachers prominent among them). This was also the case with the white supporters of the civil rights movement, who tended to be more highly educated and more affluent than the general American population. In short, the civil rights movement no more emerged because African Americans were suddenly denied their freedom than the environmental movement emerged because American suddenly started polluting.

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