Enlightenment Now opens, more or less, with an injunction to value “Enlightenment ideals”, especially in the face of the widespread but — Pinker tells us — mistaken notion that modernity has failed and modern Western life “is in deepening crisis”. This idea, we are told, is the result of some perfectly forgivable human failings: we are inclined to believe what we see represents large-scale trends; we have a lot of faith in our personal observations, and we are pretty pessimistic our general outlook. This, Pinker admonishes, is unwise and ungrateful. In actual fact the world is pretty good, has been good for a long time, is continuing to get better, and isn’t in any kind of crisis — even climate change is pretty well solved. There’s no cause for alarm, he insists, and all the people worrying that we’re living in some sort of unique historical moment need to sit down.
This, we are told on the very first page of Pinker’s book, is really very important for people to understand — now more than ever.
The irony, it appears, escapes him.
The failure to understand that Pinker’s perceived crisis is not everyone else’s crisis, and concomitant inability to grasp that there may be crises which do not strike him as especially critical, illustrates the central theme of this book. Enlightenment Now is, in its entirety, built around saluting the successes of reason, science, humanism and progress as Pinker sees them and berating sceptics for their ingratitude — Dante, Pinker reminds us, reserved the ninth circle of hell for ingrates. In all its 500 pages, Pinker does not once acknowledge that almost no one opposes science, reason, and the other features of modernity he cheerleads.
Enlightenment Now addresses young modern Westerners, who are inclined to hold “emancipative values” (a polite Pinkerism for “liberal positions”, in much the same way that many authors prefer to say they write ahem “magical realism” to avoid being associated with the unwashed commoners who scribble fantasy). Consequently, Pinker’s grandiloquent effort to prove to all of us the glory of science et cetera amounts to tilting at windmills: we, his target audience, have smartphones. We already know. What we’re skeptical about is the direction, goal, and cost of scientific advancement and “progress”.
Rather than acknowledging and engaging in that worthwhile conversation, Pinker sidesteps it. He deploys “seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs” to show that science, reason and humanism have been changing things that no one thinks they’re not changing. This ridiculous narrative of an against-all-odds victory of “progress” comes wrapped in a snide tone, overconfident interpretation of matters beyond his understanding,((WWI commentary all the way through)) and a flagrant disregard for intellectual honesty to produce a 172,000 word screed of statistics proving a point that no one disputes and dismissing anyone with the gall to dissent from his extrapolations upon that point as a “counter-Enlightenment force”.
To say that this book fails is an understatement in the extreme. Enlightenment Now ignores the argument it purports to engage in; it actively misleads the reader and obfuscates important facts; it derides and dismisses its opponents without challenging their positions. At best, this book reeks of puerile ignorance. At worst, it can only be described as artfully specious — superficially plausible but actually wrong; misleadingly attractive. In this age of alternative facts and post-truth reality, Enlightenment Now is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Trumpian insistence — in the face of experts, lived experience and empirical data — that the United States of America was dealing “really well” with COVID-19.
Pinker’s primary tactic in the construction of his argument is distraction and obfuscation: directing the reader’s attention toward some positive statistical truth while keeping silent about equally important but damning facts and figures. In the deployment of this book-long stratagem Pinker arrogates unto himself the necessary weight to make an argument from authority by appealing to himself, and implicitly elides the relevance of any fact that he has not mentioned. By combining the attitude of ridicule-for-opposition with his obscurantist method of quashing dissent, Pinker produces a gish gallop of accurate but incomplete data that coalesces in an image of the world amenable to his worldview, but entirely divorced from reality. Pinker, for instance, wonders in his chapter on inequality how people could be so ungrateful as to complain about the unfathomable modern gap between rich and poor when the twenty first century world has welfare states. In the past, he points out, governments didn’t spend any money at all on relieving poverty, so — leaving aside that the very purpose of premodern societies was a complex network of intracommunal supports, which centralisation and industrialism destroyed, creating the need for the modern welfare state — what are we complaining about? In a chapter on agriculture he tells us that “sub-Saharan Africa never developed a network of roads, rails, or canals” (emphasis mine), demonstrating the power of a positive attitude (and the passive voice) for concealing all manner of evils.
On refugees, Pinker announces “claims that there are more refugees than ever before are a symptom of historical amnesia and availability bias”, then quotes the four million refugees displaced by the Syrian Civil War against a list of the numbers displaced by other individual conflicts. This is rank dishonesty: Pinker’s framing and his list obscure the fact that there were other conflicts displacing humans in 2016; indeed in his own chapter on warfare he admitted that there were three times as many armed conflicts worldwide in 2016 as there were nine years earlier. Pinker’s list cites 4 million refugees for 2016, but the UNHCR — that is, the body responsible for managing and indeed for defining refugees — was aware of not four but sixty-five million refugees in 2016. The claim that there had never been so many refugees (leaving aside climate refugees and internally displaced persons, neither group being defined by the UNHCR as formal “refugees”) in the world since the Second World War is objectively true. Perhaps the 61 million refugees that Pinker’s carefully crafted list of numbers sought to erase belonged to “counter-Enlightenment forces”, and therefore didn’t count. We will return to this idea.
Pinker continues his strategy of obscuring the truth as he moves on to equal rights, where he presents a graph purporting to show the number of hate crimes committed in the United States between 1996 and 2015. In Pinker’s graph, anti-white hate crimes occur about 1/3rd as often as anti-black ones, roughly as frequently as crimes against Jews (one wonders which 1,000 crimes per year against white people Pinker considers “hate crimes” — he doesn’t offer any explanation for this revolutionary data point, despite the purpose of the book being to challenge popular misconceptions, and the numbers he provides are wildly out of keeping with the FBI data he cites as the source of his information) and dwarfing the 2–300 yearly hate crimes against Muslims, which Pinker describes as seeing a “one-time rise following 9/11 and upticks following other Islamist terror attacks” (neglecting to mention that, following the “one-time rise” and “upticks”, his own graph shows that the number of hate crimes against Muslims has not gone back down).
That Pinker counts absolute numbers of “hate crimes” here is also important: in every other graph dealing with violence, including the ones he uses to demonstrate that war and terrorism aren’t actually all that bad, he counts numbers of casualties. It is possible that this is an innocent oversight. It is notable, however, that hate crimes against LGBT communities — a staggering proportion of the total sum of hate crimes committed in the USA — are omitted from Pinker’s graph, even though the FBI statistics that he cites as his source have captured hate crimes based on sexual orientation since records began. One wonders how the number of vanished anti-LGBT crimes compares to the inflated number of anti-white hate crimes that Pinker suggests take place every year. A clue to Pinker’s inclination to minimise or dismiss anti-LGBT crime comes in the same chapter, when he claims that “to this day it is unclear whether the Orlando shooting [acknowledged as the worst episode in the history of anti-LGBT violence in the States] was motivated by homophobia, ISIS sympathies, or just wanting to be a famous mass shooter”.
The same stratagem appears in Pinker’s brief and contemptible dismissal of eco- or environmentally-interested politics, which he calls “greenism”. Pinker disparages the “green movement” (ironically, given the blind, panting, eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head faith in capitalist liberal democracy that makes up the beating heart of his book) as “quasi-religious”, and ties it to “activists as diverse as Al Gore, the Unabomber and Pope Francis”. He then deploys Pope Francis’s 2015 entreaty to respect the Earth and appreciate “the relations between things” as not merely representative but the only example of green thought. Having invented this contemptuous, reductive image of greenism as a cult of terrorists and idiot religious cranks, Pinker issues a thundering denunciation of its backwardness and religious tone: greenism, he announces, demands that we “repent our sins”, “reject the false gods of science, technology and progress,” or “face judgement day”. He then turns to his preferred ideology, “eco-modernism”, and explains — in much more complimentary terms — how it demands that we repent our sins, reject the false gods of proven traditional methods, sustainable agriculture and considering consequence before applying new technologies, or face judgement day.
Pinker lauds David Keith’s proposal for temporary climate engineering (exemplifying his unmitigated enthusiasm for technological solutions without thought for consequences) because “it will give humanity breathing space” to eliminate carbon. No mention is made in this chapter on the environment of the fact that humanity has had breathing space since (a conservative date) at least 1992, more reasonably 1965, if not 1912, and “progress” marched on ever more destructively regardless.((“More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the three decades since… the United Nations established its climate change framework, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance”. David Wallace-Bell, The Uninhabitable Earth, ch.1.))
Continuing his effort to obscure important information with positivity and non sequitur, Pinker’s chapter on the environment engages with deforestation (a micro-scale issue), the absolute quantity of land being included in protected parks (as if that has any meaning at all), and carbon emissions. And that, pretty much, is it. Like the rest of the book, the “environment” chapter is smooth and assured enough to be outwardly convincing, but in reality relies on the reader bringing none of their own background knowledge to the conversation.
Pinker does not touch on the pressing issues of water scarcity, ocean acidification, marine dead zones, fertiliser-driven annihilation of maritime biodiversity, the loss of ice sheets, or the toxification of the global environment by the deployment of manmade chemicals in vast quantities. Topsoil degradation, now a problem so enormous as to pose an existential threat to human civilisation, is not even mentioned. Instead, Pinker celebrates that soil-compacting, water-poisoning, erosion-amplifying industrial agriculture has produced an exponential increase in food supply. He does not mention, here, his rule that “things that can’t go on forever don’t” (this is reserved for letting us know that things Pinker thinks are bad must come to an end), or that informed predictions see industrialised food production running us out of arable land within 60 years. There’s not a whisper of the highly fertilised algal blooms choking the Caribbean and shaking economies from Alaska to the Sahara, but Pinker makes much of the fact that there are once again fish in the Thames. The pollution that once plagued that river has been outsourced — externalised — to the developing world, but that’s — presumably — not an Enlightened thing to bring up.
Concerns about the West’s prodigious output of waste and the fact that much of the Earth has been converted into, essentially, a receptacle for the abandoned, functionally eternal refuse of single-use products, are collapsed into a single paragraph on the 1987 “trash barge” incident, in which Pinker sneers at anyone concerned about the sheer quantity of garbage modern civilisation generates: “the [USA] has plenty of landfills”.
Similar occurrences of objective truth shrinking into the background before the onslaught of Pinker’s myopic positivity and carefully-manicured statistics pop up throughout this book like flies on manure. Pinker lets an entire chapter on terrorism go by — cheering that terrorism affects only a small number of people and carefully implying that it’s all to do with the “terrorist cause” of Islam — without acknowledging the explosion of right-wing terrorist violence in the last sixty years, or the existence of right-wing terrorism at all. He exults in the fact that the modern poor are likely to be obese because that means they’re not starving, and completely fails to even hint at the possibility that the prevalence of obesity among low-income demographics is something to be concerned about (or indeed that one can “starve” on an inadequately nutritious diet and still gain weight). He repeatedly, nauseatingly cites the entirety of Islam as a monolithic, retrograde “terrorist cause”, but dives into the specifics of right-wing ideology to absolve it from suspicion — right-wing extremism couldn’t be a “terrorist cause”, Pinker tells us, because it advocates for a “nebulous cause such as ‘starting a race war’ or ‘revolution against anti-gun laws’”. He announces that conservation has reduced the rate of bird species extinction rate by 75% and, presumably, we therefore have nothing to worry about, but neglects to mention that this figure came from a pair of traditional “green” conservationists defending their methods against assault by the “eco-modernism” Pinker himself is advocating: the appalling extinction figures we see every day are modern reality after the heroic 75% reduction achieved by methods that Pinker and his comrades-in-outlook denigrate. He parrots as gospel truth the popular but nonsensical idea that organic farming is less sustainable than industrial farming because, since it doesn’t use commercially produced fertilisers, it surely must require more space to produce the same amount of food.
As well as the general dishonesty of obscuring truth so as to elide and discredit the legitimacy of opposition, Pinker deploys the much more specific dishonesty of measuring and judging similar things against different standards. In his introduction, Pinker gives the limitless plenty of modern liberal capitalism as a glowing example of the success of progress, exalting “abundance” as the opposite of “poverty”; in the chapter on economic inequality he announces that enough is in fact what matters, and equality is completely unimportant. Limitless plenty is the definition of progress, it seems, only until the huddled masses ask for some. In his chapter on poverty, Pinker tells us that extreme poverty is in stunning decline all over the world. To get to this conclusion, he uses a calculation based on the 1981 poverty line; by using a modern poverty line calculation (or, importantly, by using a modern calculation of the amount of money necessary to get enough food to sustain normal human activity, i.e., the amount of money necessary to not be starving) Pinker’s number is off by an order of magnitude. Evidently even having “enough” isn’t what matters, when it comes to the legions of starving in the developing world. They just need to buck up.
Elsewhere, Pinker dismisses the widely-held fears about biological warfare and bioterrorism on the tenuous grounds that the requisite technology to manufacture and deploy an artificial bioweapon does not yet exist, but rejects popular fears about the growing inevitability of climate catastrophe with a cry of “why expect that the knowhow of 2018 is the best the world can do?” He rejects any contention regarding the carrying capacity of the Earth being overloaded out of hand as “ghoulish and Nazi-like”, but applauds Ruth Defries’ “boom-famine cycle” as a powerful tool for developing new methods of food production. Of course, an inevitable part of the cycle is that after the boom the system fails to keep up with exploding demand so, inevitably — in Pinker’s wonderfully ghoulish euphemism — “the hatchet falls”.
Perhaps most egregiously, Pinker celebrates that terrorist violence predominantly occurs in Africa and the Middle East “because terrorism is a phenomenon of war and wars no longer happen in the United States and Western Europe”. The root causes of strife, war, and terrorism in unhappier regions of the world are their disappointing lack of Pinker’s Enlightenment, of course. Any more distant catalyst — let alone the foundations of North Atlantic wealth, power and security — is dismissed in all the analytical depth and comprehensiveness of a single line as worthless, counter-productive “root-causism”.
In a similar sleight of hand, Pinker reduces many potential arguments and contradictions to “counter-Enlightenment forces”, which he then dismisses on that basis and that basis alone. In the interest of doing so, Pinker cheerfully rolls almost anything he doesn’t like into “romanticism”: militarism, so that the viciously “realist” geopolitical tangle that produced the First World War becomes a narrative of Romantic irrationality; nationalism, so that brutally scientific — by the science of the day, though you won’t get Pinker to admit it — justifications of oppression, dispossession and genocide become the fault not of their scientific inventors and Enlightened articulators but of un-Enlightenedness. “Enlightenment” thus becomes a historical back-projection synonymous with things that succeeded and which Pinker therefore approves of. Anything else is a “counter-Enlightenment force”, especially the Islamic world and Africa, where failure to embrace the Enlightenment, not “oil, colonialism, Orientalism or Zionism” are to blame for any and all suffering.
The responsibility of “Enlightenment forces” of oppression, scientific discrimination, imperial subjugation, obfuscation, calculated undereducation and disempowerment, colonisation, disenfranchisement, and dispossession apparently don’t apply to Africa and the Middle East. This leads Pinker to take all kinds of awkward and unpleasant philosophical stances: at one point he expresses regret that the newly independent postcolonial states left to pick up the pieces in Africa “were no longer legitimate targets of conquest by more effective powers”, and so because they couldn’t be colonised, existed in “various states of collapse and strain”. Similarly, Pinker’s determination to blame the counter-Enlightenment force of Islam for suffering in the Islamic world creates a peculiar broken logic. If emancipation comes hand in hand with agency and affluence, as he repeats ad nauseam, how can it be a surprise that an Islamic world in the grip of the Enlightenment forces of disempowerment, discrimination, colonisation and dispossession is moving only slowly toward “emancipative values”? That these regions and populations were hamstrung both intentionally (see the vast discourse on the CFA franc, or the calculated effort to block colonised Africans from education) and as a necessary corollary of their colonisation (the division of ethnic groups in Rwanda, the hub-and-spoke layout of infrastructure like railways in Africa) doesn’t bear mentioning. The trends, for Pinker, justify the means.
The greatest flaw of this deeply flawed book is not its rank dishonesty, its multiple-novels-long effort to deceive the reader by measuring similar things with different standards, its misrepresenting, disparaging and unjustified dismissing of its its opponents, or even its routine tearing down of strawmen and obscuring of important facts in favour of things Pinker wants you to believe. These are despicable, certainly, and more than a little ironic given that the mission of the book is to re-energise the pursuit of objectivity and fact-based engagement with the reality of our world, which we need “now more than ever”, but they are at least a staple of the genre.
Enlightenment Now is a fundamentally political book: it’s written to buttress a worldview, an ideology, and ultimately a suite of policies and outcomes that Pinker thinks will benefit — ahim — society.
This means that Enlightenment Now is an unequivocally bad book for anyone interested in an accurate view of the world, i.e. the people it purports to be written for, but a potentially good book for anyone who has already bought into Pinker’s mindless slavering support for the status quo. The greatest flaw of this book for clinical, right-leaning, affluent, self-satisfied, unconscientious members of the modern Western privilegia — the only people for whom this worthless diatribe could possibly be any use — is Pinker’s crippling ignorance of the ethics that he is arguing against.
As I noted at the beginning of this lengthy review, no one actually contests that science and reason are powerful forces with potential for benevolence or that progress has happened. Pinker, though, in his facile narrowmindedness, snipes repeatedly at self-described progressives by emphasising that “progress” is a component of the word, implying that rejection of blinkered narrative and thoughtless definition of progress equates to a rejection and opposition to all progress, forever.
The existence of models of progress in forms other than or opposite to those that Pinker celebrates does not enter his distended book even once. I expressed before picking up Enlightenment Now that I did not believe Pinker had a frame of reference, a viewpoint or a perspective, even to say anything of value on the subject of progress. Having trudged through his book, my prediction has been vindicated. At a fundamental level, his lies and mistruths, sneers and condescensions aside, Pinker is so divorced from the real conversation, so deluded by his collapsing ideology, so blinded by his desperation to hold onto his position in the face of encroaching reality that he simply is not equipped to say anything useful at all.
In a comment remarkably similar to the W. Bush administration quip that Americans couldn’t be poor, they had mobile phones, Pinker sums up his attitude to poverty and inequality by observing that the poor have electricity and colour TV, making them “richer” than the Rothschilds of a hundred years ago; he celebrates that poverty “calculated by what people consume rather than what they earn” has reduced by 27 percentage points because of the cheapness of consumer goods — precisely the “progress” that makes up the cankerous heart of modernity: a culture of imagined limitlessness and limitless wastefulness.
In a number of interconnected statements, Pinker celebrates the enormous increases in food supply we wring out of the Earth every year (much of which, incidentally, goes to waste), culminating in a lengthy quote he thinks amounts to a rejection of traditional farming. In reality, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the issues of modern agriculture could have told him, the quote is precisely the opposite: vigorously attacking the unsustainable destruction wrought by the industrial farming methods that Pinker in his myopia believes to be the crowning triumph of progress.
Pinker cheers for the dubious blessings of urbanisation, the creation of artificial human-free wilderness preserves over traditional managed landscapes, the movement of people away from (you can hear the contempt) “rural squalor” to “higher-paying lines of work”,((One cannot write a better dismissal of this absurd idea than Wendell Berry’s comment in <look it up>, “[a body of thought exists] showing how developing countries can use government policy to become high-growth, knowledge-intensive economies rather than remaining low-cost producers of commodities… by ‘low-cost producers of commodities’, [economics] means ‘poorly-paid producers of commodities’; that these commodities are material goods or raw materials produced from the land, that ‘knowledge-intensive economies’ are based on the abilities to exploit, trade, add value to and market the cheaply produced commodities… does not appear to figure.”)) and the growth in “density” that have emerged from “progress”. He cites modern, progressed “leisure” as the opposite of traditional “drudgery”. Clearly, Pinker is either shockingly limited in his reading on the arguments he pretends to challenge, or willfully ignorant of a powerful current of thought that understands “progress” as abandoning density and moving back to small communities and managed landscapes; as giving up bullshit jobs and pointless recreation in favour of good work.
Pinker characterises climate change as a race between “progress” and a disembodied threat with a nebulous cause; we, he suggests, need more progress to keep ahead. There’s a small but growing consensus in circles beyond Pinker’s unhelpful remit that understands the blindingly obvious fact that last thing we need is more of his kind of progress; progress of Pinker’s narrowminded sort is what got us here. Progress in fighting climate change comes from recognising we know the answers, we don’t need more science, we just need to do the things we know we need to do. Pinker’s complacent hope that technology will save our civilisation without having to alter his retrograde lifestyle is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst. A wiser writer than me has observed that — for all Pinker’s Enlightenment bluster — this hope is “not a certainty or even a faith; it is a superstition.”
Demonstrating his credentials as a member of the unthinking cohorts of mindless, limitless thinkers, Pinker fails to distinguish between “need”, “want”, and “are used to”, claiming that people “need growing amounts of dense electricity delivered to their door instantly”. Do they? They’ve got along for a long time without it. Many people would suggest that the real progress lies in realising that, in fact, we don’t need more electricity. More importantly, Pinker confuses surviving climate change with there is not a problem, conflating “we should be able to get through climate change intact if the technology pans out as we hope” with “we are not damaging the global environment” and “we are not despoiling a pristine Earth”. He does not profess or even acknowledge any sense of responsibility to the world as an ecological whole, or any recognition of humanity’s place within a system, demonstrating that his vision of progress is completely divorced — and in fact completely useless to — many other visions of the same.
Most troubling, Pinker suggests that progress, specifically “moral progress” of his personal preference and which he suggests is the only kind of progress there is, comes from implementing the the ideas of a “thin stratum” of philosophers and intellectuals (of whom, of course, Pinker is one). He announces elsewhere that “human morality is not moral”, a triumph of solipsism that would make the Kardashians blink. Rather than moral progress emerging from human morality, the “natural aristocracy”, Pinker suggests, generate ideas to be implemented by “removed-from-the-common-man” democracy to help “the People” — in their ignorance and worthlessness as mere producers of food, clothing and diversion — struggle along behind. Fundamentally, Enlightenment Now aims to dismiss skepticism about the status quo — the central feature of all Enlightenment thinking. Positions contrary to Pinker’s are attacked not with evidence or his vaunted “reason”, but with appeals to emotion (“ghoulish”), contempt, and a heaped helping of bare-faced dishonesty.
Pinker’s articulation of his so-called Enlightenment ideals are as fawning, as aristocratic, and as circumscribed by the dictates of power as the Ancien Régimes which his cherished Enlightenment thinkers rejected and attacked. His arguments for progress are rooted in his political ideology, entrenched by his refusal to engage with models of progress other than those held by the world’s financial and political elites, and buttressed by lies and misinformation. This book challenges nothing, answers nothing, and provides nothing but an encouragement to myopia and apathy as Pinker’s agenda crawls toward further victories.
Pinker sneers openly at those thinkers and commentators — and, presumably, NGO workers, volunteers, farmers, development consultants, conservationists, scientists, activists and endless others — who don’t accept his blithely cheerful view of “progress”. And when that doesn’t work, he lies: at one point he quotes the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, holding it up as an example of the greatest counter-Enlightenment force of all: dimwitted religious people “offloading their worries to a higher authority”. In fact, if one reads the text in its entirety (or even reads the quote conscious Pinker’s tendency toward dishonesty), it’s abundantly clear that the Cornwall Declaration is a call to action, absolving no one but reminding people of their perfectly agnostic responsibility for “caring dominion over the Earth”. It’s couched in religious terms, certainly, but the real Declaration is a diametric opposite of the reading that Pinker tries to foist upon his readers. In fact, the Cornwall Declaration is a perfect example of just how effective his much-maligned “traditional”, “backward”, “regressive”, “counter-Enlightenment forces” can be at rallying people, giving them guidance, meaning, and direction, and leading them toward progress.
It’s just progress that Steven Pinker doesn’t like.
Which sounds pretty good to me.