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Pinker’s Enlightenment Environmentalism
Lina Brennan
7 min read

This paper will argue that Pinker’s argument for ecomodernism is convincing, tangible, and logically optimistic. To support this argument, firstly, the proposed solutions of other more radical mainstream groups, specifically those of ‘Greenism’ and ‘Climate Justice Warriors’, will be analyzed. The primarily apocalyptic outlook of these groups will be highlighted, in contrast to Pinker’s notion of conditional optimism towards climate change. Additionally, Pinker’s three main solutions to climate change will be discussed: the carbon tax, nuclear energy, and reforestation/afforestation; specifically, how they have been successful in the past and their potential. Finally, Pinker’s notion of poverty being the greatest polluter; contrary to the popular narrative of economic and technological growth being the Earth’s enemy will be analyzed.

Apocalypticism vs Conditional Optimism 

In the sphere of environmental consciousness, there are two dominant radical groups: ‘Greenism’ and ‘Climate Justice Warriors’(CJW). Both groups tend to fall under the lens of eco-pessimists; they dismiss the idea of technological advancement being important for progress, their view of human nature is that it is unchangeable, and they hold concerns about events which fail to transpire (Pinker, 2019, pp. 125-127). ‘Greenism’ is hardly new as it took off in the 1970s (Pinker, 2019, p. 122). It begins with an image of the earth as formerly pristine, before being defiled by humans (Pinker, 2019, p. 122). According to this narrative, the harm to the earth is continuously worsening and is unstoppable in nature; humans are a cancer that must be radically reduced (Pinker, 2019, p.122). Champions of ‘Greenism’ like Pope Francis, believe that the solution is to stop thinking of technology, science, and progress as a good thing; we must deindustrialize or face reckoning (Pinker, 2019, p.122). Additionally, followers of ‘Greenism’ tend to. predict disasters that have never occurred, and disbelieve in improvements despite them being made (Pinker, 2019, p.129). One such instance was the slashing of American emissions of 5 air pollutants by two-thirds, despite there being a 40% increase in population (Pinker, 2019, p.129). CJWs have a very similar negative outlook, and tend to pressure others to make unnecessary sacrifices for the sake of being ‘greener’(Pinker, 2019, p.140). Furthermore, they argue that the world should work to impoverish rich nations rather than enrich poorer ones, to help deindustrialize (Pinker, 2019, p. 141). Both apocalyptic outlooks are clearly extremely harsh, and hardly an appetizing or effective way of going about reverting the climate crisis. Pinker’s conditionally optimistic Ecomodernism offers a much more digestible point of view. Ecomodernism has 3 premises: industrialization has been good for humanity; pollution is inescapable; and technology can offset human damage to the environment (Pinker, 2019, pp. 123-124). Industrialization is not inherently bad, because of all the good it has done for humanity; for did industrialization not feed billions, slash poverty, extend life expectancy, emancipate women, and make it easier to abolish slavery (Pinker, 2019, p.123)? Pollution is inescapable, however: “...there is an optimal amount of pollution in the environment, just as thereis an optimal amount of dirt in your house. Cleaner is better, but not at the expense of everything in your life.” (Pinker, 2019, p. 124) Finally, despite eco-pessimists' disdain for technology, its benefits out way the costs in many ways, just one of which is allowing the population’s values to climb a hierarchy of needs (Pinker, 2019, p.124). Ecomodernism’s core values make it easier for the modern person to empathize with the issue of climate change because it does not rely on the slandering of the individual and the shaming of the modern lifestyle. 

Pinker’s Solutions

Rather than proposing extreme solutions that would completely clash with the modern lifestyle, Pinker provides three viable solutions. Firstly, Pinker states that a carbon tax is needed. Although one of the main arguments against the carbon tax is fear of negative economic effects, Pinker discloses that economic growth is not in fact synonymous with burning carbon (Pinker, 2019, p.145). Having a carbon tax would make it easier for consumers to make more environmentally conscious choices without added stress, as carbon emissions will be calculated within the prices (Pinker, 2019, p.145). Along with making the process easier for consumers, it would incentivize companies to lower their emissions in order to have competitively lower prices (Pinker, 2019, p.145). Without a carbon tax, fossil fuels will beat out ‘greener’ options every time because of their lower costs (Pinker, 2019, p.145). A carbon tax would make for a more seamless transition for consumers and play on the capitalist motives of corporations. Secondly, Pinker stresses the importance of transitioning towards nuclear power as a source of energy, and the de-stigmatization of it. Although renewable resources like wind and solar energy are great, they simply cannot provide the amount of energy that is needed to power the world. Nuclear power however is the world’s most abundant carbon-free energy source (Pinker, 2019, p.146). Nuclear power plants take up one-five-hundredth of the land needed by solar and wind energy, provide energy that is available 24/7, leave a much smaller scar than mines for fossil fuels, and have a lower carbon footprint than solar hydro or biomass power while being safer (Pinker, 2019, p.146). The main barrier nuclear power faces is a lack of education about it (Pinker, 2019, p.147). If governments work to educate the population and integrate nuclear power into infrastructure, this would be pivotal in the fight against climate change. Pinker’s third solution is to encourage reforestation over deforestation. According to Pinker, even if greenhouse gas emissions are halved by 2050 and zeroed by 2075, there will still be a risk of global warming because of the previously emitted carbon dioxide emissions (Pinker, 2019, p.150). Plants absorb carbon dioxide. By investing in reforestation, levels of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere will be decreased. When these plants start to rot, they can be used for building, or cooked into biochar and disposed of as a soil amendment (Pinker, 2019, p.150). Unlike inefficient solutions of deindustrialization, and abandonment of the comfort of modern lifestyle proposed by more radical groups, Pinker’s solutions are far more tangible. Pinker’s proposals, although a change, are ones that will require less sacrifice from individuals, and that will provide more environmentally beneficial rewards. 

Poverty the Great Polluter 

Arguments of Eco-pessimistic groups such as ‘Greenism’ and CJWs, argue that industrialization, or rather modernization, is the root of climate issues. Due to this perspective, there is a theory that if richer nations were to become poorer thereby being forced to deindustrialize, emissions would no longer be such a prevalent issue (Pinker, 2019, p. 141). This argument however is proven by Pinker to be separate from fact: “As countries develop, they prioritize growth over environmental purity. But as they get richer, their thoughts turn to the environment. If people can afford electricity only at the cost of some smog, they’ll live with the smog, but when they can afford both electricity and clean air, they’ll spring for the clean air.” (Pinker, 2019, p.124) This statement can be verified by bends in the Kuznets curve caused by advances in both technology and values (Pinker, 2019, p.124). Environmental concerns may start off as practical as worrying about smog, but as society gets richer and worries less about things like getting food on the table, concerns can become spiritual (Pinker, 2019, p.124). When people aren’t fighting to survive day to day, they are able to worry about the fate of their descendants, and even of other animal species (Pinker, 2019, p.124). This trend in higher economic stability being better for the environment is demonstrated once again through a World Values Survey. The survey found that people with stronger emancipative values and higher levels of affluence and education are more likely to recycle, and pressure governments and corporations into protecting the environment (Pinker, 2019, p.124). Clearly, along with being more practical, Pinker’s arguments are more logical than other mainstream solutions. 


Unlike other theories to fight climate change, Pinker’s Ecomodernism provides a strong, realistic and hopeful argument to save our planet. Through an analysis of radical apocalyptic movements, a discussion of Pinker’s proposed solutions, and an analysis of a nation's wealth affecting emissions, it is clear that Pinker’s argument is a convincing one. Pinker’s proposals are sound and would be more appealing to the public if put into practice over extremist agendas.


Pinker, S. (2019). Enlightenment now the case for reason, science, humanism and progress (pp. 121–155). London] Penguin.

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