Up to: Main Sustainability Page

Ideology and Sustainability

I get some very quick reactions to my main page on the sustainability of material progress. Quick reactions, whether favorable or unfavorable, cannot be based on reading the 50 or so pages. They are reactions to my attitude, which is apparent in the first paragraph. For many, prophesying doom if we don't change our ways, is a signal of virtue. Others are irritated by doom-saying and have an immediate favorable reaction. There are at least some who are worried by the problems that have been proposed as obstacles to sustainability and can be relieved by information about why they are not likely to stop progress. Maybe these are few, judging from the small number of questions that I get asking for elaboration of a particular point.

If we want to understand the politics of the environment and the attitudes of various people and groups toward questions of material progress and sustainability, we have to understand ideology as a social and political force.

Here's what Webster's dictionary gives us for ideology:

1 : visionary theorizing 2 a : a systematic body of concepts esp. about human life or culture b : a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture c : the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program

We are mostly concerned with 2b and 2c.

Ideological Tribes in America

Let's try to get above the battles for a while and look at human ideologies from a Martian point of view.

  1. American social thought is mainly polarized along one axis - the liberal - conservative axis.
  2. Most people who pay attention to the issues belong to one or the other ideological tribe. Each tribe has its views on a whole spectrum of issues, although logically these issues are not strongly correlated.
  3. Here are some of the issues.

    People's attitudes on these 10 issues tend to be strongly correlated, although logically there should be little connection between a person's attitude to abortion and his attitude to multi-culturalism.

  4. Here's a nice example of a reaction to my Web page on nuclear energy that illustrates membership in one tribe with many causes.
  5. Whether a person is religious seems independent of his views on the above issues, but most denominations seem to adhere to one tribe or the other.
  6. Most politically aware people get their opinions on the separate issues from the media leaders of their tribe.
  7. The views about who are the bad guys and who are the good guys are often more influential with a tribe member than any of the specific issues, and they outlast opinions on the issues.
  8. There are substantial biological and childhood experience components in ideology. Ideology is determined early, especially the notions of who are the bad guys. The notions of who are the bad guys are more stable than the notions of who are the good guys.
  9. For many politically active people, perhaps most, fighting evil is perceived as more important than doing good.
  10. Some scholars distinguish between classical and romantic personalities, the latter supposedly more interested in how they feel than in what they think. I fit the classical model.
  11. The majority of the public pays little attention to ideological matters. It doesn't read editorials or opinion columns and doesn't spend much time watching opinion-oriented TV. For this reason the majority isn't solidly enrolled in either tribe, and their opinions on the different issues are more likely to be uncorrelated and independent.
  12. In spite of the tribalism, objective thinking about issues and problems does play a role in determining a person's position. The interaction of this with subjective factors needs to be understood. Objective thinking needs to be distinguished from merely thinking up arguments in favor of a pre-existing position.
  13. The primary reservoir of objective thinking in human society is professional science. However, many scientists do not preserve their scientific attitude when the issues are far from their own fields. Many do, however, and individuals differ a great deal in the breadth of their scientific study. Some read only in a narrow field while others are well informed about many.

Ideological Vested Interests

Much that is written about public attitudes supposes that the public reacts directly to the facts. For example, Chauncey Starr's writings about the way the public responds to risk seems to assume this. However, the public gets its information through the media, and media people are likely to have tribal loyalties.

Moreover, what the media say is strongly affected by the existence of organizations. These cause a kind of hysteresis in the public response to events. An organization comes into existence, because of its founders' reactions to events. While the founders are still in control the organization's attitude may change. However, once the organization is set in its ways, events have very little effect on its attitudes. While an individual may react directly to a new fact about an issue, an official of an organization that has commitments cannot. Neither can a lawyer for an organization. The organization has a position, and the lawyer has the organization as a client. The same is true of the public relations people in an organization.

Pessimism as an ideology

It seems to me that pessimism has to be regarded as an ideology quite apart from the particular phenomena a person is pessimistic about. Maybe the psychological cause of pessimism is the realization by the individual of his own inevitable death, certainly a misfortune. I remember being quite disappointed at the age of 5 when I realized that I would eventually die.

Nevertheless, people differ in their personal attitudes of pessimism or optimism. Pessimists generally consider themselves to be somehow morally superior to optimists, as is indicated by the derogatory terms used to refer to optimistic views. [I plan to put in a few examples here.] They include "cornucopians", "polyannas", techno-optimists,etc. Another derogatory term is "technofix", trying to fix a problem with technology that they think ought to be fixed by reforming people's ideas.

The most obvious published expressions of pessimism are about the human future, and they come from both sides of the political spectrum. Maybe moderates are less pessimistic than extremists. It is interesting that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the prospect of the US being substantially destroyed by Soviet missiles, many writings and speeches begin, "Now more than ever ...".

Besides pessimism per se, some people are dominated by a sense of sin, sometimes their own but more often other people's. Here's STOP ALL SPACE EXPLORATION NOW!. The reason given is that humanity has messed up this planet and shouldn't be allowed in space. The link died, so I hope the guy changed his mind. [2003 note: Alas, he only changed his address. It works now.]


That everyone should be equal is an idea that has intrinsic appeal. However, there are different senses of equality and one may favor some and not others.

Equality before the law

We are quite used to the idea that the law applies equally to everyone. However, the idea is relatively new. Many societies were established by conquest, and the conquerors often made themselves into a nobility with specific legal privileges. In Japan before 1868 the samurai had legal privileges, e.g. only samurai could carry two swords. In France before the Revolution, the nobility were exempt from taxes. It took revolutions to establish equality before the law in many countries.

In most societies, equality before the law is not totally effective. However, established violations are noted as scandalous. In feudal societies, commoners were legally obliged to make way on the street for nobles.

Equality before the law was a major component of the statement in the American Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal".

There is no present-day demand for inequality before the law on behalf of an upper class.

Equality of opportunity

Equality of opportunity can conflict with the freedom of parents to provide improved opportunities for their children. In modern societies, these issues tend to be compromised - at least in America. School districts with richer taxpayers are required to subsidize the poorer districts, but I am still free to provide my son individualized, computerized mathematics instruction. In Britain extreme leftists have long proposed to make private schools (called "public schools") illegal.

Equality of outcome

Egalitarianism proper often amounts to a demand for equality of outcome. Why should a person who happens to be intelligent, hard working, kind, and who has a reputation for honestly fulfilling his commitments make more money than someone whom fate has made stupid, malevolent, violent, lazy, and dishonest?

The frank belief that equality of outcome is a human right exists but is not common. Much more common today is the belief that inequality of outcome is in itself evidence of failure to provide equality of opportunity. This often leads to the same demands as would frank egalitarianism of outcome. The major disadvantage of legislating equality of outcome in some domain is that it eliminates incentives to work hard to achieve reward in that domain. It also leads to flight on the part of the able. In the U.S. this has mainly been middle class flight to the suburbs, but in some other countries it has stimulated emigration to the US.

Much more acceptable, even to most conservatives, is the doctrine that society (usually taken as the Government) should maintain at least a minimal standard of living for the unfortunate - and this without looking into the extent to which the misfortune might be caused by the unfortunate person's own actions or negligence. However, this is possible only in a technologically advanced and prosperous society. In backward societies, even the hardworking can be killed by a bad winter or plague, and under sufficiently desperate conditions, the undeserving cannot be helped without killing some of the deserving.

There is a practical reason for allowing intelligence and hard work to lead to material success as long as there are more than one country in the world. A government with very strong policies on who should make how much money will be faced by emigration by those who think they can do better elsewhere. All communist countries had to forbid emigration, the extreme example being East Germany. Similarly a government with determined views about what its citizens should believe will not allow freedom of speech or of the press. Communist governments did this, but so have many nationalist governments or those ruled by dictators. Some American and British universities have punished both students and faculty for their speech and writing. This hasn't been very successsful yet.

Environmentalist Ideology

Environmentalist ideology in America has many threads. One of them is descended from the movement to preserve nature of the 19th century. This movement led to the creation of national parks, starting with Yellowstone in 1872 during the Presidency of U.S. Grant. Theodore Roosevelt was big on conservation and the establishment of parks.

One of the first collisions of environmentalism with progress was over the damming of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley shortly after 1900 to provide a water supply for San Francisco. John Muir and the infant Sierra Club opposed the dam. There was and still is no obvious alternative. In the 1980s, I think, the Secretary of the Interior offered to take down the dam if that was what California wanted. I didn't hear of any movement for taking him up on the offer. However, the old conservation movement favored progress per se, and the establishment of national parks had bipartisan approval.

An important change in environmentalist ideology came with the publication in 1962 of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The book introduced a doom-saying note and an anti-capitalist or anti-corporation note. This caused a confluence of environmentalism with leftist anti-capitalist ideology. The ban-the-bomb movement then began to oppose nuclear power.

An important step was the switch of the Sierra Club in 1975 from supporting nuclear power as less polluting than burning fossil fuels to opposing it. Environmentalism allied itself with the anti-establishment countercultural and anti-Vietnam movement.

American Indians have recently played a major role in environmentalist ideology, although romanticism about the "noble savage" goes back to Rousseau in the 18th century, and can even be traced in some sense to Roman admiration of the German tribes in ancient times. The 1971 Fake Version of an 1854 speech by Chief Seattle still lives in spite of having been exposed as fake many years ago.

Here's a quote from a 1999 email message that explains why the fake speech still lives.

Oh, why did you have to open my eye! Here ,I was amazed and touched by the "fake" version of Chief Seattle's speech. It conveyed a mystical wisdom which was somehow comforting to me. I say "so what" if the chief's words have been, from the beginning, embellished. They are good words and maybe coming at a time when we all need to hear them. Who's to say that the spirit of Chief Seattle was not whispering to the "tuned in" ear of the environmentalist rewriting those words.

I remain "a strand In the web,"

Today environmentalist ideology is dominant in the educational system, from kindergarten through college and in the media. Schoolchildren are taught to recite slogans. My son's role in one of these pageants was to recite repeatedly and as quickly as possible "Full circle food cycle". I forget what grade he was in at the time. The pageant was rehearsed and then performed by his class on a local TV station.


There have always been people who felt their neighbors didn't live or believe quite as they should and wished to reform them - sometimes violently. Sometimes this was with good reason and sometimes not. Historically, moralist reformism has mostly taken a religious form. Sometimes moralists win political power, but they always lose it after a while.

Here are two relevant literary quotations.

On the whole human beings want to be good but not too good and not quite all the time. - George Orwell

A hardened reformer never seems to be able to make up his mind which is the most beautiful word in the language - "compulsory" or "forbidden". - Robert Ryder, as quoted by James Thurber

Here's a collection of quotations expressing what strike me as extremist views. Perhaps they were written at 2am. Maybe the authors wouldn't endorse them all today. I have seen some wriggling on the part of some of them. It is interesting to note that Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 predictions of massive famines in the 1970s proved spectacularly wrong, has received the Swedish Crafoord Prize of $330,000 and the more recent Tyler Prize of $200,000. See Ehrlich's predictions in the file of quotations. A substantial part of the environmentalist movement is inclined to predict doom unless repentance is quick. The above-mentioned foundations seem to prize attitude and influence more than facts.


When environmental ideology dominates law or regulation making, the rules are often not cost-effective. One regulation costs $150 billion per expected life saved. In recent years Congress has put some requirements for cost-effectiveness, but enthusiastic bureaucrats have been known to evade Congressional requirements.

An interesting case of wishful thinking is that of the California Air Resources Board. It has made rules requiring that a certain fraction of cars sold in California by each manufacturer be entirely non-polluting. CARB ruled that electric cars powered by lead-acid batteries met the requirement. General Motors, Ford and the others built electric cars and tried to lease them. Because the cars have very low range very few were leased, and by 2003 January the GM and Ford projects had been abandoned after several billion dollars had been wasted. That such performance would be unacceptable had been predicted in 1910 by an electric car consortium consisting of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell. When the consortium couldn't develop a good enough battery they gave up. The more recent attempt spent vastly more money but gave up in 2003 for exactly the same reasons that made Ford, Edison, and Bell give up (perhaps before 1920.

The Energy Religion

For reasons discussed in the pages on energy, energy is the commodity for which we can see adequate supplies into the indefinite future. Nevertheless, today most politicians and the press make a religion out of using as little energy as possible, far beyond what is indicated by economy. Engineering effort has been squandered on achieving small energy savings that could much better have been spent on improving the product. (I suspect that Energy Star compliance for computer equipment represents misplaced engineering effort. If the money spent on it had been spent on developing large flat panel displays, maybe we would have bigger ones now. Purely incidentally, present flat panel displays use less than half the energy of corresponding CRT displays.) [2007 note: We have the flat panel displays now - but still not wall size.]

The energy religion is a phenomenon that started in the early 1970s. Its origin is associated with the anti-nuclear movement. This in turn is associated with the ban-the-bomb movement, which is associated with anti-Western and anti-American ideology. Intellectually, the associations are rather loose. However, in terms of tribal allegiances, the associations are strong. The movements go from one issue to another. The anti-nuclear power movement got a boost in 1975 when the Vietnam War ended and the radicals needed a new cause. Former California Governor Jerry Brown said "Nuclear power will be the Vietnam issue of the 1980s."

What is left over from Marxism, namely the identification of capitalism as the source of evil, plays an important role in these ideologies, even though most of Marxist doctrine is almost unknown in the environmentalist left. Here is a Web page on Marxist ideology.


The belief that man is inherently vile arose repeatedly in human history. It was prominent among the early Christians and is still prevalent among some Christian denominations. It arises time and again among literary intellectuals and environmentalists. Sometimes all man is vile, and sometimes the vileness is limited to white, European males.

Here's a nice one from a prominent literary ideologist.

The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant Marx, Balanchine ballet, et al., don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history. It is the white race and it alone--its ideologies and inventions--- which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself. - Susan Sontag, Partisan Review, Winter 1967, p. 57.

The same Susan Sontag strongly hinted in the New Yorker issue after the 2001 September 11 terrorist attack that we deserved it. It shows a remarkable consistency of attitude over 34 years.

Over the years scientists have come under attack for views that offend religion or leftism or plaintiffs' lawyers. The New Know-Nothings: the political foes of the scientific study of human nature by Morton Hunt describes attacks from the left, attacks from the right, and attacks that can't be classified in this way. The left doesn't like the study of the genetics of behavior, especially of intelligence. The right doesn't like the study of sex. Feminists dislike the woman who uncovered that many "memories" of childhood sex abuse were put there by the psychotherapists. Plaintiffs' lawyers don't like the 1999 report that there is no evidence that breast implants caused major diseases. Hunt's book is an excellent summary.

While anti-scientific attitudes have stemmed from both the left and the right, since WWII the left has been more powerful ideologically and has been more dangerous to freedom and objectivity. Thus the efforts by part of the religious right to bar the teaching of evolution have mainly failed. In Kansas a majority of the state school board eliminated evolution from state examination requirements. After protests, including much jeering at Kansas, three of the members who voted for banning evolution from the requirements were defeated in the Republican primaries and the requirement for including evolution in the examinations was restored.

Global Warming

Global warming became a major ideological bandwagon in preparation for the Kyoto Conference. Vice-President Gore went so far as to call dissenters un-American.

Here's an article about the firing of a dissenter, apparently at the instigation of the Vice-President.

Here's a link to The Science and Energy Policy Project, perhaps the leading dissenting organization - if an organization can be said to be leading on a budget of $150,000 per year (1998).

Ideology in the Scientific Community

Here's an excellent reminiscence of the effects of ideology on science, entitled Science and Ideology by Edward O. Wilson. Wilson is famous for his work on ants and his Sociobiology that looks for evolutionary explanations for many aspects of animal and human behavior. Wilson's ideas are less controversial today than they were when he first proposed them. They are one of the elements of evolutionary psychology, which studies how some important human psychological characteristics have evolved.

Even in 2001 sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are fiercely attacked, not just with claims that they are incorrect, but on grounds that they are racist and imperialist. Exorcising Sociobiology, by the microbiologist Paul Gross, describes the recent attacks on the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the late geneticist James Neel as racist, imperialist, etc. Although the charge that Neel had set off an epidemic of measles among the Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon were promptly refuted and had to be withdrawn, the opponents of evolutionary psychology still hoped to salvage a scandal.

Outside of their own work, many scientists today are as much affected by ideology as any other intellectuals.

The following is an example.

UCS Statement

The scientists whose names were solicited to sign this statement very likely didn't agree with every formulation. Each had to decide whether he agreed with enough of it and whether he thought the warnings in the statement were important enough to justify signing. Of course, some people refuse to sign statements unless they agree with every bit of them.

Science News published an article on Iron Fertilization by Richard Monastersky. Here it is in html form.

Note that the view that iron fertilization should not even be researched, because it involves tinkering with nature, does not depend on any specific scientific facts. However, exponents of the view will give any scientific considerations that can be interpreted as supporting their views. In the present case, they involve emphasizing the possibilities that iron fertilization won't work or will be harmful if it does.

A commentary in Nature for 1997 August 7 by Donald M. Anderson was entitled "Turning back the harmful red tide". It discussed the possibility of control measures that would kill the ocean bacteria that cause the red tides that kill millions of fish and make shell fish poisonous to people. Anderson discusses the ideological objections that hinder attacking marine pests in ways similar to those used to attack pests on land. (quotes later).

The scientific community is strongly affected by the ideological milieu. The 1995 report of The Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now out. Here are some comments.

Here's a site about people who blame global warming for both heat and cold.

The claim is often made that global warming will bring the tropical diseases, e.g. malaria, dengue and yellow fever, further north. This claim has been made by many scientists eager to do good, but apparently not by the specialists in these diseases. Dr. Paul Reiter, Chief, Entomology Section, Dengue Fever Branch, Centers for Disease Control, wrote Global warming and vector-borne disease: is warmer sicker?. In it he complains about "rocket scientists" spreading myths about tropical diseases. This is only a side remark in the long article which tells about the current state of insect borne disease world wide. His main point is that "wealthier is healthier", i.e. the elimination of malaria from Western countries isn't a matter of climate but of being able to afford screens, air conditioning and anti-mosquito control measures. It provides more evidence of the effect of ideology on scientists outside of their own fields.

According to simulations reported 2002 September 27 in Science, soot is an important influence on regional climate. The largest inputs are from cooking with coal and animal dung in China and India. Mainly it affects the weather in these countries and their neighbors. Its ideological sign is the opposite of that of CO2. It's the underdeveloped countries that cause the problem by their backward ways of cooking and heating. If the soot effect turns out to be large, I predict it won't much change environmentalist ideas about who are the villains.

Here's an article Climate Controls by Gregory Benford, a physicist at UC Irvine and science fiction writer. He describes many possibilities for mitigating global warming. He also describes the ideological objections to actively mitigating global warming, especially among scientists. Benford quotes Sherwood Rowland, the co-discoverer of the danger to the ozone layer and recipient of many honors for that as saying "I am unalterably opposed to global mitigation." Later note: Apparently Rowland has changed his mind to some extent.

George Orwell wrote about "nationalism" with not quite the conventional meaning. His notion overlaps the "tribalism" discussed above. The article is, as is everything Orwell wrote, extremely informative. It is to be found on the Orwell web site along with other political writings.

S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist, heads the Science and Environmental Policy Project. They are skeptical of global warming and offer much evidence of how a good part of the scientific establishment is sufficiently committed to green ideologies to distort the consequences of science, especially when it is out of their own fields.

Fear of ideological attack

Here's an excerpt from an article in the 1998 December Science and Technology Review, the house magazine of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The whole article deals with the collection of energy projects in which LLNL is involved. The important thing to note is that storing waste at Yucca Mountain is and will be subject to fierce attack from the ideological anti-nukes. There will be lawsuits. However, the writers of the article choose not to notice the ideological component of the decision to activate Yucca Mountain as a waste storage site or of the opposition to this decision.

The decision to ignore ideological attacks is undoubtedly correct from the point of view of getting their work done. However, it means that counterattacks on the anti-nuke ideologists are left to amateurs like me, and there is no publicly available analysis of the anti-nuke meme.

2000 October note: A bill to authorize further work on the Yucca Mountain repository was passed by the House and Senate but vetoed successfully by President Clinton. Lack of progress on a permanent waste site is extremely important to the anti-nuke movement. 2002 October note: The bill was passed again by both houses and signed by President Bush. Alas it is predicted to be 2010 before any waste is actually stored.

There is one mistake common to both those who predict widespread extinctions and those who doubt the prediction including the Idsos. Neither considers intentional human action to move the range of a species. Thus if it is discovered that a species of tree will grow better 500 miles north of its present northernmost boundary, trees can be planted in the new area. Not even discussing such actions is common among scientists, less so among engineers. See my discussion of Global Engineering.

Fri Apr 16 01:41:32 2004: This really belongs somewhere else but I can't remember where I referred to William Calvin's Atlantic Monthly article in which he predicted doom from the Gulf Stream disappearing and thus giving Western Europe a climate like Siberia. He predicted streams of refugees and wars, whereas I said the Europeans would invent and engineer their way out of the problem and had some students calculate what it would cost to greenhouse Western Europe's agricultural areas. I also predicted that Calvin's 1998 article would lead to a disaster flic. Indeed The Day After Tomorrow is a soon-to-be released disaster flic along these lines. The 2004 April 17 Science also has a letter from Wallace Broecker who originated the idea of the Gulf Stream being clobbered in the past and in the possible future. Broecker denounces the more lurid ten year predictions and says it can't happen for 75 to 100 years. Alas, neither Broecker nor I will be around to see.

I worry that boredom with prosperity and peace will stimulate many people to adopt aggressive ideological extremist views. The news was most interesting during WWII, became less interesting during the cold war and bcame still less interesting after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

To us, to whom safety has become monotony, to whom the primeval savageries of nature are so remote as to become a mere pleasing condiment to our ordered routine, the world of dreams is very different from what it was amid the wars of Guelf and Ghibelline. Hence William James's protest against what he calls the "block universe" of the classical tradition; hence Nietsche's worship of force; hence the verbal bloodthirstiness of many quiet literary men. The barbaric substratum of human nature, unsatisfied in action, finds an outlet in imagination. In philosophy, as elsewhere, this tendency is visible; and it is this, rather than formal argument, that has thrust aside the classical tradition for a philosophy which fancies itself more virile and more vital. - Bertrand Russell in "Our knowledge of the external world", p.10, 1914, delivered as Lowell lectures, March and April 1914

Note that World War I started in August 1914, four months after Russell's lecture.. I don't suppose it was philosophy that made Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, Tsar Nicholas of Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany bored with peace. Mark Twain wrote that the American Civil War was partly the fault of Walter Scott who romanticized chivalry and undid the good that Cervantes had done in making fun of it.

All man's miseries arise from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone. - Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

A Perspective article "Global Warming and the Next Ice Age" by Andrew J. Weaver and Claude Hillaire-Marcel, Science 16 April 2004: 400-402 gives the current view that the effects will be much milder than the disaster flic predicts.

2007 January: If I had time, I'd update this page with more recent quotes. The general effect wouldn't change much, but maybe some of the media have become a little more rational. The leadership of the scientific community has become slightly less rational in its 2006 attack on Exxon for supporting scientists skeptical about global warming.

Send comments to mccarthy@stanford.edu. I sometimes make changes suggested in them. - John McCarthy

The number of hits on this page since 1995 October 20th.