Summary of Lent’s Arguments Against Pinker

Steven Pinker

Yesterday’s post was of Jeremy Lent’s critique of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker. The essay was long so here is a summary of Lent’s positions.

(Note. I don’t necessarily endorse Lent’s views and will comment on them in my next post. This summary was forwarded to me by a collegue.)

Steven Pinker’s work is stocked with charts that provide indeed incontrovertible evidence for centuries of progress on many fronts. But, it’s precisely because of the validity of much of his narrative that the flaws in his argument are so dangerous. Rather than ceding the important idea of progress to the neoliberal technocrats who constitute Pinker’s primary audience, we should claim it back by highlighting his erroneous overall analysis.

Graph 1. Ecological overshoot

Pinker ignores overshoot. Overshoot (our civilization consuming resources faster than they can be replenished) is particularly dangerous because of the relatively slow feedback loops. It’s as if we keep taking out bigger and bigger overdrafts to replenish the account, and then pretend that these funds are income and celebrate our continuing “progress”. Besides ignoring this, Pinker also uses the rhetorical technique of ridicule to depict those concerned about overshoot as part of a “quasi-religious ideology”. No arguments whatsoever. Approaching a subject of such seriousness with emotion-laden rhetoric is morally inexcusable and striking evidence. Pinker “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend” (Monbiot). And when Pinker does get serious on the topic, he promotes ecomodernism, the green ideology that doesn’t take into account the structural drivers of overshoot: a growth-based global economy reliant on ever-increasing monetization of natural resources and human activity. (…)  In fact, until an imminent collapse of civilization itself, increasing ecological catastrophes are likely to enhance the GDP of developed countries even while those in less developed regions suffer dire consequences (!).

Graph 2/3. Progress for whom?

Who actually gets to enjoy Pinker’s narrative of progress? His book focuses on the welfare of humankind. That’s convenient because non-human animals won’t agree that the past sixty years have been a period of flourishing. While the world’s GDP has increased 22-fold since 1970, there has been a vast die-off of non-human animals. Human progress in material consumption has come at a serious cost. For every five birds or fish that inhabited a river or lake in 1970, there is now just one. Inside the human race: Pinker claims that “racist violence against African Americans… plummeted in the 20th century, and has fallen further since”, but he declines to report the drastic increase in incarceration rates for African Americans during that same period.

Graph 4. A rising tide lifts all boats?

Pinker unquestioningly propagates one of the great neoliberal myths of the past several decades: that “a rising tide lifts all the boats”. Inequality is not decreasing at all, but going extremely rapidly the other way.

Graph 5: Measuring genuine progress.

One of the cornerstones of Pinker’s book is the explosive rise in income and wealth (the rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita). There is no doubt that the world has experienced a transformation in material well-being in the past two hundred years (increased availability of clothing, food, transportation, etc). However, there is a point where the rise in economic activity begins to decouple from well-being. GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. An oil spill, for example, increases GDP because of the cost of cleaning it up: the bigger the spill, the better it is for GDP. This divergence is hidden in global statistics of rising GDP, with powerful corporate and political interests destroying the lives of the vulnerable in the name of economic “progress.”

One of the countless examples of how misleading and crude GDP is as a measure. Indigenous people living in the Amazon rainforest being forced off their land to make way for a hydroelectric complex in Altamira, Brazil. One of them tells how “I didn’t need money to live happy. My whole house was nature…I’d catch my fish, make manioc flour… I raised my three daughters, proud of what I was. I was rich.” Now, he and his family live among drug dealers behind barred windows in Brazil’s most violent city, receiving a state pension which, after covering rent and electricity, leaves him about 50 cents a day to feed himself, his wife, daughter, and grandson. Meanwhile, as a result of his family’s forced entry into the monetary economy, Brazil’s GDP has risen.

There is a prominent alternative measure, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), reducing GDP for negative environmental factors such as the cost of pollution and social factors such as the cost of crime and commuting. It increases the measure for positive factors missing from GDP such as housework, volunteer work, and higher education. It turns out that the world’s Genuine Progress peaked in 1978 and has been steadily falling ever since.

Graph 6: What has improved global health?

One of Pinker’s most important themes is the undisputed improvement in overall health and life expectancy in the past century. So, what has been the underlying cause of this great achievement? Pinker melds together his “twin engines of progress”: GDP growth and increase in knowledge. However, more profound research found that a country’s average level of educational attainment explained rising life expectancy much better than GDP. This has enormous implications for development priorities in national and global policy. Instead of following the neoliberal mantra (raise a country’s GDP and health benefits will follow), which has dominated mainstream thinking for decades, a more effective policy would be to invest in schooling for children, with all the ensuing benefits in quality of life that will bring.

Graph 7: False equivalencies, false dichotomies.

Many of Pinker’s missteps arise from the fact that he conflates two different dynamics: improvements in the human experience and the rise of neoliberal, laissez-faire capitalism. By lacing his book with false equivalencies and false dichotomies, he gives the impression that free market capitalism is an underlying driver of human progress. One example is his false dichotomy of “right versus left” based on a twentieth-century version of politics that has been irrelevant for more than a generation. By painting a black and white landscape of capitalist good versus communist evil, Pinker obliterates from view the complex, sophisticated models of a hopeful future that have been diligently constructed over decades by a wide range of progressive thinkers (e.g. Raworth’s Doughnut economics). These fresh perspectives eschew the Pinker-style false dichotomy of traditional left versus right. Instead, they explore the possibilities of replacing a destructive global economic system with one that offers potential for greater fairness, sustainability, and human flourishing. In short, a model for continued progress for the twenty-first century.

Graph 8: Progress Is Caused By… Progressives!

One of Pinker’s graphs shows a decline in web searches for sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes (2004 – 2017), attributing this in large part to “the benign taboos on racism, sexism, and homophobia that have become second nature to the mainstream.” Pinker recognizes that changes in moral norms came about because progressive minds broke out of their society’s normative frames, dragging the mainstream in their wake, until the next generation grew up adopting a new moral baseline.

But then, Pinker contradicts himself by lamenting political correctness, social justice warriors, and the environmental movement that “subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem”. Pinker seems to view all ethical development from prehistory to the present day as “progress,” but any pressure to shift society further along its moral arc as anathema. This is the great irony of Pinker’s book. In writing a tribute to historical progress, he then takes a staunchly conservative stance to those who want to continue it.

In reality, many of the great steps made in securing the moral progress Pinker applauds came from brave individuals who had to resist the opprobrium of the Steven Pinkers of their time while they devoted their lives to reducing the suffering of others. For example, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, with the first public exposé of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, her solitary stance was denounced as hysterical and unscientific. Just eight years later, twenty million Americans marched to protect the environment in the first Earth Day. These great strides in moral progress continue to this day. Not surprisingly, the current steps in social progress are vehemently opposed by Steven Pinker.

It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim. Progress in the quality of life, for humans and nonhumans alike, is something that anyone with a heart should celebrate. It did not come about through capitalism, and in many cases, it has been achieved despite the “free market” that Pinker espouses.

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3 thoughts on “Summary of Lent’s Arguments Against Pinker

  1. This argument, which has raged since Pinker published his book — and perhaps forever — begs a question. Is humanity really better off being convinced that everything is turning to shit? Isn’t a serious and scholarly attempt to find hope worth more than a serious and scholarly attempt to prove that there is no hope?

  2. Really good point Bruce. I intend to make a similar point in my next post. And as you may know hope holds a special place in my thought about life’s meaning.

  3. So…..I am wondering if/ when Pinker may rebut Lent, with argument(s) of his own? My suspicion says he won’t. Why? He need not defend his position(s) in such manner. Whether anyone reading Pinker’s work is or is not skeptical is more irrelevant than not.
    Professor Pinker is a respected PI (public intellectual). Lent, as anyone else, has his interests, motives and preferences, along with charts, graphs and data. Pinker, 1; Lent, 1.
    Gentleman’s draw. The prosecution rests…

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