Why We Will Grow Together or Grow Apart
Cultural Intelligence and Climate Change
This article is an abbreviated version of an essay to be published in a forthcoming anthology: Routledge Handbook of Applied Climate Ethics, which will be available for purchase here.
The lion’s share of attention in climate discourse is devoted to the “hard” side of the problem: the needed STEM solutions. But solving the hard side is not sufficient. While political will is not a “hard” problem, in the United States it is proving to be the hardest problem of all. Thanks to social scientific research, we now know a lot about how psychology and culture shape people’s views around climate change, in particular that the “information deficit model”—exposing climate skeptics and deniers to scientific evidence—doesn’t work.
Political psychology has widely been embraced as the skeleton key for making sense of the poisonous polarization that plagues our politics. No approach has gotten more traction than Jonathan Haidt’s “Moral Foundations Theory” (MFT). While illuminating, Haidt’s approach is missing a key piece of the puzzle: development. Steve McIntosh’s integral, “post-progressive” approach can help us better understand the nature of and relationships between the major worldviews and value systems in American culture, and how and why they see climate change in such different terms. We require more of what McIntosh calls “cultural intelligence” to build political will around climate change by reframing approaches such as the Green New Deal.
Haidt’s approach rests on three principles. First, people’s moral responses are primarily moved by their intuitions—their “elephant”—not strategic reasoning—their “rider.” Second, there is more to morality than harm and fairness. Third, morality “binds and blinds.”
According to MFT, the human mind is governed by six different “moral foundations”: authority/subversion, loyalty/betrayal, sanctity/degradation, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, and care/harm.1 The major finding in Haidt’s research had political implications: while liberals tend to score highly on fairness and care (the “individualizing” foundations) and low on the other (“binding”) foundations, conservatives have a more balanced moral palate.
From this Haidt drew two conclusions. First, liberals and conservatives are caught in different “moral matrices.” A moral matrix binds the in-group together, but it also blinds it to the humanity and virtues of the out-group. The second conclusion is that because liberals have a narrower moral palate, the onus is on them to be more tolerant and understanding toward conservatives. For Haidt, the question is not “What’s the matter with Kansas?” but “What’s the matter with coastal elites?”
The primary problem in politics today, on this view, is dogmatic, self-righteous progressives. Haidt is partly correct: there is indeed an unhealthy, illiberal element found in some quarters of today’s left. When it comes to environmental politics, this element often frames climate change in ways that trigger both conservatives and moderates. As Haidt put it during a presentation to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby in 2019, the Green New Deal is “perfectly crafted to turn off as many conservatives, republicans and libertarians as humanly possible.” Haidt is correct to point to the rhetorical problems in the Green New Deal, but his approach has the unintended effect of gaslighting progressives by making them think that their perspective and morality are on par with—if not deficient with respect to—conservatives.
Another problem with Haidt’s approach is that it does not leave room for any notion of moral development through education and rational reflection. The frame of “tribalism” has powerfully shaped the way we think and talk about political affiliation over the last decade, and it seems to entail that political positions are akin to irrational religious convictions or “hard-wired” evolutionary dispositions that cannot be changed. This frame resists the notion that some “tribes’” beliefs might be truer and their values better than others; while all tribes are blind, some may be more blind than others. Indeed, there is empirical evidence that conservatives can be led to revise their judgements based on rational testing, but not the reverse. This idea—that there is a certain developmental trajectory to types of values and worldviews—is central to McIntosh’s approach.
In Developmental Politics, McIntosh presents a theory of cultural evolution aimed at defusing the hyperpolarization in American culture that obstructs action on climate change. He describes his position as “post-progressive.” FDR famously cast his New Deal as an attempt to “save capitalism from the capitalists.” Likewise, McIntosh’s approach could be cast as an attempt to save progressivism from progressives.
FDR famously cast his New Deal as an attempt to “save capitalism from the capitalists.” Likewise, McIntosh’s approach could be cast as an attempt to save progressivism from progressives.
By “post-progressive,” McIntosh does not mean “anti-progressive.” A number of the intellectual circles with which Haidt is associated tend to define themselves in opposition to progressivism. McIntosh concedes that progressives are often hypocritical in regard to tolerance and inclusion by denigrating and excluding white, poor, uneducated rural Christians (see “deplorables, the”). For McIntosh, however, anti-progressives are only seeing half of the truth, and they end up rejecting the key insights of healthy progressivism with the excesses of its illiberal iterations. Instead, we ought to recognize that progressivism is not some fashion or fad that is going away. It represents a new worldview and set of values—including environmentalism and multiculturalism—that is good, that is here to stay, and that emerged precisely to correct for the injustices of the modernist culture it sought to counter.
This same method—transcend the biases and limitations of a worldview (what “blinds,” in Haidt’s terms), but include its valuable contributions—is what McIntosh calls “cultural intelligence.” Here is where McIntosh’s approach departs from—and exposes the limitations of—Haidt’s, and from the conventional wisdom around what drives polarization. Instead of seeing political reality in two opposing camps (in “2-D”), it sees three distinct worldviews or cultures (in “3-D”).
Instead of two camps—Democrats vs. Republicans, Left vs. Right or Blue vs. Red—there are actually three: traditionalist, modernist, and postmodernist. McIntosh points out how Haidt’s moral foundations are correlated with these different worldviews: traditionalists (social conservatives) prioritize authority, sanctity, and loyalty; modernists (libertarians, classical liberals, fiscal conservatives) prioritize liberty; progressives prioritize fairness and care. Just as progressivism emerged to address the problems created by modernism, such as economic inequality and environmental degradation, post-progressivism is emerging to address the problems created by progressivism itself: including the hyper-polarization we see in the form of a culture war of all against all.
To paraphrase John Adams, values are stubborn things. Hence McIntosh offers a method called “values integration.” Rather than see the three worldviews as mutually exclusive, we must see them as interdependent.This involves first understanding what each worldview’s “core competencies” are and seeing how each worldview supports, and is supported by, the others. For instance, modernism without the discipline of traditional morality gets us Gordon Gecko—“greed is good”—which then leads progressives to reject capitalism itself, rather than a sick version of it. Conversely, modernism provides traditionalists with the freedom and prosperity to live their lives as they see fit. Meanwhile, postmodernism depends on modernism:
“Without the liberal protections of individual freedoms provided by modernist values, and the foundational norms of fair play and honesty provided by traditional values, postmodern culture would soon regress to a ‘pretraditional’ level of warring factions.” (McIntosh 2020, 42)
And a pre-traditional tribalism, rather than a postmodern pluralism, is precisely where we find ourselves: each of the three worldviews has temporarily regressed to what integral theory calls the “warrior” level of consciousness, which is exactly what Thomas Hobbes was describing in his “state of nature.” Everyone feels attacked, oppressed, and victimized.
The developmental dimension of McIntosh’s approach is the starkest point of divergence from Haidt’s. Haidt’s failure or refusal to explain why certain moral cultures are better than others is, ironically, a very progressive thing to do. At a minimal level, we need to be able to say that a worldview that regards all people as equal regardless of their creed, color, or country—as modernism does—is indeed better than one that does not—as is sometimes the case with traditionalism, which can be ethnocentric. Likewise, a worldview that also recognizes the moral value of nonhuman animals and the environment—as postmodernism does—is better than those that do not. And a worldview that recognizes the relative value and contribution of every other worldview is better still.
How might this approach help us think about the most ambitious and controversial approach to climate change in recent years—the Green New Deal?
In his 2012 book the New New Deal, Michael Grunwald tells the story of how the Obama administration folded the most significant federal investment in clean energy in history into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While the right-wing media fixated upon one of the investments that failed—Solyndra, which lost around $500 million—and criticized the administration for interfering in the “free market” by “picking winners,” the program succeeded in both reviving renewable energy industry in the US and recouping taxpayers’ money.
Proponents of the GND should take heed. Author and activist Naomi Klein, one of its most strident defenders, embodies what both McIntosh and Haidt would regard as the wrong approach to climate politics. The subtitle of one of her books—Capitalism vs. the Climate—encapsulates the mistake that progressives often make in trying to achieve their political goals. The problem is not capitalism, but a particular form of it, often referred to as “neoliberalism.” The language often used on the left—calls to “dismantle capitalism,” as well as the ideas that liberalism and capitalism are inherently premised on “white supremacy”—not only alienates traditionalists and modernists, but also advances ideas that are neither feasible nor desirable. Without martialing the power of private industry, there is no hope for decarbonizing the global energy economy; the only thing that can run the industrial revolution in reverse, as it were, is another industrial revolution. Moreover, the association of the GND with the “democratic socialism” of one of its co-sponsors, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, needlessly frames climate change as anti-capitalist. We do not need to abandon capitalism, we need to make it work better—make it more free, more equal, more prosperous, and more supportive of thriving communities.
The Biden administration has wisely distanced itself from the language of the GND while advancing a number of its core proposals and marrying action on climate to social and economic renewal under the brilliant banner “Build Back Better.” “Build” resonates with the modernist ethic of hard work and self-reliance, as well as the traditionalist value of patriotism and national pride. “Back” resonates with the traditionalist value of appreciating the past, and the idea that American heritage is a good thing worth recovering and preserving. And “Better” resonates with the modernist emphasis on growth, improvement and material progress, as well as the postmodern concern for sustainability and racial and environmental justice. From an integral perspective, the pathological modernism of which neoliberalism is the most obvious expression is not only responsible for the climate crisis, but for the psychological, cultural, and economic carnage that globalization has wrought on the rural communities that are the source of the right-wing populist movement that denies its existence. The prudent response is to frame the climate crisis in relation to this bigger picture, and craft and communicate solutions that will both appeal to, grow, and strengthen the connections between the healthy forms of traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews and values.
The prudent response is to frame the climate crisis in relation to this bigger picture, and craft and communicate solutions that will both appeal to, grow, and strengthen the connections between the healthy forms of traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews and values.
The integral perspective suggests a new approach to channeling the spirit of the GND into a suite of policy proposals while avoiding the political backlash inspired by its initial iteration. First, policy makers should decouple climate action from progressive social policies that are not obviously climate-specific, such as universal housing and healthcare, as well as a federal jobs guarantee. These policies trigger modernist concerns about undeserved entitlements, the welfare state, and “big government.” At the same time, stress the public health benefits and healthcare savings of reducing carbon pollution, and the job creation, energy cost savings, and community renewal fostered by investments in green building infrastructure.
Second, on the legislative front, 1) fold as much climate policy into ostensibly non-climate bills as possible, such as a transportation bill to raise the gas tax and change how funds are allocated, and 2) pursue carbon pricing through a fee and dividend with a border-adjustment tax. Economists across the political spectrum insist that a carbon tax is the most efficient market-based policy tool to drive emissions reductions. The border-adjustment tax protects American firms and consumers (which traditionalists value), the fee is rooted in personal responsibility, incentivizes efficiency and innovation, and reduces the needs for regulations (which modernists value), and the dividend ensures that the poor do not shoulder the burden of higher energy prices (which progressives value).
Finally, on the messaging front, activists, politicians, and policy-makers should consider the following ideas. First, stop regarding climate as an “environmental” issue, i.e., as a progressive issue. Second, frame climate less as a global issue—which summons the idea of our obligations to the global South—and more as a national, regional, and local issue, all of which resonate more with traditionalists. Third, expand environmental justice to include not just poor urban and minority communities, but poor rural and predominantly white communities, which are bastions of traditionalism. Fourth, emphasize that to the extent that there is a “war on coal,” it is being waged by market forces, not government regulation; the real way to protect workers and communities dependent on coal production is to invest in infrastructure and low-carbon and renewable industries to create jobs in transitioning communities. Fifth, rather than talking about “equity”—a concept that modernists mistakenly read as a call for equality of outcome that infringes on freedom and throttles the entrepreneurial spirit—emphasize that investment in renewable energy technologies and infrastructure is about creating more broad-based equality of opportunity and upward mobility. And finally, at the level of grand strategy, narrative, and vision, the president should frame the country’s response to the climate crisis as a “Place Race.” Much like the space race became both a real and symbolic proxy for the conflict between capitalism in the US and communism in the USSR, the goal to build a low-carbon energy economy, seen in the context of what many in the foreign policy community see as an emerging cold war with China, can become a long-term national project that binds the country to a higher purpose above tribal warfare. It can rally allied nations to unite in order to show that democratic capitalism, not authoritarian capitalism, is a superior model not just morally, but economically and ecologically. It constructively channels the ethnocentrism and patriotism of traditionalism, kindles the drive for innovation and love for freedom in modernists, and, obviously, addresses the environmental concerns of postmodernists.
“Growth” has become a dirty word on the left: it is seen as environmentally destructive and culturally condescending. But to paraphrase Ben Franklin, as a country we will either grow together or grow apart.
1. Brief descriptions of the foundations can be found at www.moralfoundations.org