From Prometheus to Arcadia: Liberals, Conservatives, the Environment, and Cultural Cognition

  • Review of The Progressive Environmental Prometheans: Left-wing Heralds of a “Good Anthropocene.” by William B. Meyer

Coming out of left field for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, the Michael Moore-backed documentary Planet of the Humans (henceforth Planet) indicted wind, solar, and biomass-generated electricity as mining intensive and carbon fuel-dependent (whether it be the manufacturing of components, their construction, and the need for back-up power generation when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow), costly, dilute, intermittent (wind and solar), non-scalable and environmentally destructive. Forget “Building Back Better” through a Green New Deal, director-narrator Jeff Gibbs and producer Ozzie Zehner told their viewers that truly sustainable development ultimately mandates population control and reduced standards of living.

Planet got mixed reviews from environmentalists. While many among the older (neo) Malthusian guard were supportive, younger academics and activists were generally apoplectic. Among other problems, the documentary challenged their faith in green modernization through ramped up, decentralized, and renewable electrification. It ignored the overconsumption and wasteful behavior of denizens of the Global North. It brushed aside the dubious intellectual history and track record of twentieth century environmentalism, from its Malthusian, eugenicist and reactionary roots to its misanthropic, nativist, classist and white supremacist leanings. As could be expected, some even accused Moore, Gibbs, and Zehner of veering into eco-fascism.

Another interesting aspect of the Planet debate was that, with one notable exception, none of the baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and zoomers involved in the controversy seemed aware that mainstream left-wing politics once stood for the enrichment of the poor and working class through the mastery of nature.

This now largely forgotten aspect of past Progressive thought is the subject of Colgate University geographer William B. Meyer’s 2016 book The Progressive Environmental Prometheans: Left-wing Heralds of a “Good Anthropocene.” An author whose sympathies seem to lie with the politics and economic development outlook traditionally associated with the blue collar/hard hat/lunchbox class, Meyer’s contribution further stands apart from the typical outlook and offerings of his generation of academic geographers by the clarity of his prose and his inclusion and respectful treatment of thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Michael Oakeshott, and Ayn Rand.

The “Promethean” in his title echoes the feats of the Titan Prometheus who—in some versions of the myth—discovers humans naked, unshod, unbedded and unarmed, pities them and introduces them to fire and several practical arts (e.g., building shelter, agriculture, calculation, writing, animal domestication, and sailing), along with a promise of future beneficial discoveries and greater material comfort. “Anthropocene” is a more recent and ideologically loaded concept that refers to the beginning of significant human impacts on our planet’s geology and ecosystems.

Meyer defines Prometheanism as a “belief in the desirability of the radical reform of nature by human beings, resulting in either an infinitude or merely an increased abundance of resources” (p. 11). He then points out that “most people in the past few centuries in the Western world whose thoughts have left a trace do… seem to have held more or less Promethean presumptions, at least tacitly, and very few those of present-day environmentalism” (p. 15). Because of its past preponderance, however, Prometheanism “remained somewhat unarticulated,” a problem worsened by the fact that “exponents of green thought have been studied much more carefully (and sympathetically) than have prophets of human mastery over the earth” (p. 15). As such, while Prometheanism is “not quite terra incognita to historians of environmental thought,” its intellectual history remains a “little-known and poorly mapped territory” (p. 50).

Fluent in English, French, and Russian, Meyer attempts to fill this void with a relatively concise (210 pages of text) survey of the thoughts, proposals, and actions of a wide range of American, British, French, and Russian/Soviet left-wing “technocrats,” “scientists,” and “prophets” whose advocacy of top-down bureaucratic planning and control was legitimized by the promise of much greater material abundance than could be delivered by chaotic and wasteful market processes. In this worldview, freedom from need trumped political freedom as the rule of trained experts would ultimately benefit marginalized people and communities.

Meyer’s survey goes beyond the traditional domains of historians of political and economic thought as it includes discussions of the words and deeds of activists, state planners, science popularizers, and fiction writers. Despite this, his text soon becomes repetitive, for no matter their nationality, time period, gender, profession, broad school of thought (e.g., Anarchism, Utopian Socialism, Marxism, Institutionalism, Pragmatism, Conservationism, Taylorism) or narrower ideological offshoots (e.g., Stalinism, Maoism, Trotskyism), all the individuals discussed in some depth in his book ultimately shared the same universalist creed.

To summarize, left-wing Prometheans exhibited a profound contempt for past ways of doing things, Malthusianism, and the randomness of natural processes. Existing landscapes were seen as nothing but the result of chaotic processes (e.g., retreating glacier, randomly created climate patterns) while most living things were deemed fundamentally inefficient in their use of scarce resources (e.g., animal and plant reproduction) and often dangerous and useless (e.g., parasites and predators). Humans were therefore granted carte blanche to conquer and master nature in order to improve their level of material comfort. This would best be achieved by freeing central planners from the constraints inherent to private property and profit-and-loss considerations. Through scientific and rational planning, they would drain marshes; build roads, railroads, canals, dikes and embankments; flatten hills; develop large-scale irrigation projects; dredge ports; and eradicate pests ranging from mosquitoes to wolves.

The Progressive Prometheans’ rejection of the “Malthusian conception of finite natural resources as a limiting factor for society” (p. 84) was rooted in a belief that “natural” resources did not exist in and of themselves, but were rather the products of human minds and actions. Material scarcity was therefore a creation of capitalism that could be remedied through socialist planning. Benevolent technocrats would achieve these results even faster if they could mobilize an ever growing population, which is why orthodox Marxist intellectuals and regimes promoted pro-natalist policies until at least the 1970s.

To give but a few illustrations from a very long list, Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) wrote in 1924 that under socialism nature would become ever more “artificial” as the

  • … present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad….

Although now largely forgotten because of the Chinese Communist Party’s later policy reversal, Meyer also reminds his readers that Mao Zedong (1893–1976) declared a “war on nature,” but without expanding on the topic. Perhaps the dictator’s most famous lines on the subject were published in 1949 when he celebrated China’s large population and argued that even if the country’s “population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production.” He further dismissed the “absurd argument of Western bourgeois economists like Malthus that increases in food cannot keep pace with increases in population” as both “thoroughly refuted in theory by Marxists” and exploded in practices in the Soviet Union and other centrally planned economies. Of “all things in the world,” he wrote, “people are the most precious.” Under “the leadership of the Communist Party, as long as there are people, every kind of miracle can be performed.” Revolution would change everything and before long a new China would arise “with a big population and a great wealth of products, where life will be abundant and culture will flourish. All pessimistic views are utterly groundless.”

To this reviewer, the most satisfactory aspect of Meyer’s book is his implicit takedown of present-day eco-socialists and other academics who argue that a close reading of some scattered musings and notebooks of the likes of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) reveals them to be proto-modern environmentalists.

“… shouldn’t conservatives embrace environmentalism in light of their devotion to the preservation of the existing order? Shouldn’t progressives be inherently supportive of economic growth and technological change in light of their emphasis on reason over tradition?”

Although he doesn’t really dwell on the topic, Meyer is curious about the deeper intellectual roots of modern environmentalism. Like other scholars before him, he finds many of them among conservative and patrician writers and academics in the German and English-speaking world. This, in turn, leaves him wondering why support for environmentalism now “clusters on the left and resistance to it on the right” (p. 1) After all, shouldn’t conservatives embrace environmentalism in light of their devotion to the preservation of the existing order? Shouldn’t progressives be inherently supportive of economic growth and technological change in light of their emphasis on reason over tradition? If so, why and when did the old developmental narrative of the left give way to the belief that humanity should be subservient to the commands of nature in order to avoid imminent collapse? And why are people on the left and the right so selective in their fear of disturbing complex systems, with most conservatives having much less compunction to promote mega-projects that alter ecosystems while most progressives wish to profoundly transform market economies?

Although he doesn’t use this concept, Meyer’s preferred explanation of these contradictions is what has sometimes been labeled “cultural cognition,” i.e., the “tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact… to values that define their cultural identities.” As he puts it, “environmental beliefs are not merely scientific but political” (p. 3), meaning that ultimately “people’s environmental attitudes are secondary and derivative, and their political allegiances primary and determining” (p. 207). In other words, most people do not have a well articulated set of positions on various social, political, and economic matters, but rather identify with a party and eventually imbibe its positions on various matters of public policy.

While there is some truth to this explanation, it is arguably incomplete. One could thus argue that rising technophobia in the nuclear age, the ever more obvious tyrannical nature and economic failure of communist regimes and the widespread promotion of the (neo) Malthusian narrative in the aftermath of the Second World War by otherwise discredited eugenicists all played a significant role in the demise of Prometheanism among the general public. Another problem is that Meyer exhibits a few significant shortcomings in his survey of intellectual history. For instance, despite a better grasp than other historians of environmental thought of some of the fundamental differences in outlook between what he labels “cultural conservatives” and “neoliberal conservatives,” Meyer fails to look into the classical liberal tradition as the source of the “mastery of nature” perspective among the political right. To clarify, many past conservative thinkers complained that market-led industrialization and urbanization obliterated local communities and landscapes, dislocated traditional lifestyles and values, and corrupted people. They further looked down upon putting a price on everything—profits above all else—and engaging in conspicuous consumption. As such, many conservatives have long shared with environmentalists a profound dislike of suburban sprawl (especially mass produced housing, big box retailing, and superhighways), unnatural foods, mass migration, and globalized supply chains. Recent representatives of this “green” conservative tradition in the English-speaking world include writers Roger Scruton (1944–2020), Rod Dreher, and political theorist Patrick J. Deneen. Classical liberals, by contrast, have historically been much more open to change, innovation, urbanization, industrialization, international migration, and the globalization of supply chains. Truth be told though, many early liberals did display strong Malthusian leanings and it is probably fair to say that this tradition was never as united and consistent in its opposition to Malthusianism as orthodox Marxists and past generations of Progressives.

Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming in Meyer’s book, however, is the absence of any significant discussion of a more culturally middle-class, decentralist, and “arts and crafts” left-wing tradition whose members were often contemptuous of both the working class and Prometheanism. Although Meyer does mention its most significant representative—the English novelist, poet and designer William Morris (1834–1896)—it is in the context of other left-wing thinkers having labeled him (at least partly) traditionalist and conservative. Had Meyer looked into the writings of some of Morris’ contemporaries (e.g., John Ruskin, Edward Carpenter) and later transitory figures (e.g., Lewis Mumford, John Robinson Jeffers, Jacques Ellul, Fritz Schumacher, Murray Bookchin, Herbert Marcuse) he might have gained a better understanding of the emergence of the New Left and modern left-wing environmentalism. Perhaps the best way to convey what this tradition was about is the (in)famous description offered by George Orwell in his 1937 Road to Wigan Pier which, with minimal tweaks, describes rather well the present-day urban clerisy (e.g., academics, journalists, upper rank managers, activists and consultants) that now dominates left-wing politics:

  • The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that Socialism, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes. The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik… or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. This last type is surprisingly common in Socialist parties of every shade….
  • In addition to this there is the horrible—the really disquieting—prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England….

Orwell then suggested that this list did not include the flakiest leftists of all, “those who ate no meat.” “If only the sandals and pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt,” he added, and “every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!”

For more on these topics, see

To be fair though, Meyer’s manuscript was completed before Brexit, the Trump Presidency, and the Canadian truckers’ “Freedom Convoy” that have given increased visibility to the political divorce between the traditional working class and the new left-wing elites.

In the end, the fact that one might quibble with Meyer as to the ideological, demographic, and political changes that resulted in the political left’s move from Prometheanism towards Arcadianism shouldn’t detract from the value of its main contribution. And although the author probably didn’t intend his book to be used this way, it also provides a strong cautionary tale to enthusiastic sustainability theorists who would like to change our economic and energy systems without having understood the factors that led to their emergence.