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An abundance agenda requires not just a change of policies but a change in our view of life
Why are we failing to reach the future?
In the past few years, more and more commentators have expressed concern that we are not reaching the potential projected for us in science fiction. It’s not just the absence of flying cars. It’s the overall sense that we are not achieving the kind of spectacular takeoff into new technologies and new abundance that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries.
You can see this trend in the worries about a Great Stagnation—Jim Pethokoukis, for example, mourns “the America we never got” because of “anti-growth and techno-pessimist . . . attitudes”—and in the emergence of a new and much-needed field of “progress studies.”
More recently, this general anxiety has crystallized around a more concrete concern about “cost disease socialism,” the problem of ever-increasing government subsidies spent to provide goods and services even as proliferating regulations make them scarcer and more expensive. The aftermath of the pandemic, during which stimulus money resulted not in new production but in shortages and inflation, served as a reminder that production must come before consumption. No amount of money can buy what you didn’t make.
This insight has very recently been touted under the banner of so-called supply-side progressivism. In The New York Times, Ezra Klein laments that “progressives are often uninterested in the creation of the goods and services they want everyone to have.” So he calls for “a movement that takes innovation as seriously as it takes affordability.” If only someone had ever thought of that before.
I can’t quite restrain myself from a little sarcasm, but we should welcome converts to this cause, no matter how belated. It is all part of a growing acknowledgement that the world has lost some sort of spark of innovation and ambition, that we have stopped trying to create the prosperous and technologically advanced future we used to dream of and that we need to embrace a new “abundance agenda.”
But no one has yet followed this idea all the way to its root. We tend to view the problem as one of distorted politics and misguided policies, but we can’t really address it until we understand it as the expression of a worldview.
The Anti-Promethean Backlash
The deepest anyone has gone in diagnosing the problem is Brink Lindsey, who finds the root of our stagnation in an “Anti-Promethean Backlash,” a “broad-based cultural turn away from those forms of technological progress that extend and amplify human mastery over the physical world.”
The quest to build bigger, go farther and faster and higher, and harness ever greater sources of power was, if not abandoned, then greatly deprioritized in the United States and other rich democracies starting in the 1960s and 70s. We made it to the moon, and then stopped going. We pioneered commercial supersonic air travel, and then discontinued it. We developed nuclear power, and then stopped building new plants. There is really no precedent for this kind of abdication of powers in Western modernity.
Lindsey doesn’t view this as a mere problem of overregulation. Instead, he views the overregulation as a symptom of something deeper and broader.
Among educated elites, people more or less stopped thinking about the possibilities of harnessing vast new powers and physical capabilities. . . . Progress was redefined to mean cleaning up our messes, learning to live within limits by using resources more efficiently, and sharing what we have more equitably. In particular, the development of new energy sources like solar and wind was viewed simply as a means of replacing fossil fuels—not as a way of pushing past current limits toward energy abundance.
Where Lindsey is wrong is that he imagines the root of this phenomenon is relatively recent. He attributes the problem to an overreaction against pollution and nuclear weapons. In fact, the anti-Promethean backlash is much older. It is rooted in the same cultural and religious basis as the original myth of Prometheus.
The root of the current anti-progress, anti-innovation outlook lies in the rebellion of 19th-century intellectuals against the legacy of the Enlightenment. I like to cite Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which was written at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution but cast the scientist who pursues technological breakthroughs as a man driven by hubris to create monsters. The original version of the story begins when Victor Frankenstein, in pursuit of his monster, is found by the captain of a sailing ship that is attempting to break through the ice to reach the North Pole. The rest of the book is a long flashback as Frankenstein recounts his tale of woe. After hearing his story, the captain decides to turn back, learning from Frankenstein that he should moderate his ambitions and limit the quest for knowledge.
The Modern Prometheus
The full title of Shelley’s novel is “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus,” and the myth of Prometheus is a particularly appropriate metaphor. In Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to man; he is then punished for this by being chained to a rock and tortured. What is the central transgression in the myth? The human discovery of a new source of energy.
That is precisely the target of our own anti-Promethean backlash. Who would best fit the role of a real-life “modern Prometheus”? The scientists and engineers who gave us the ability to tap oil and natural gas and to split the atom. And we, too, seem to want to punish ourselves for having dared to harness forbidden sources of energy.
The best indicator of this reluctance to use new energy sources is the Henry Adams curve—a graph of power use per capita over time. It shows that we unlocked the secrets of nature and used that knowledge to harness a geometrically increasing amount of energy, employing it to do all manner of work to make our lives better. And then, about 50 years ago, we just stopped, and the curve flattened. It is as if we were given the fire of the gods and decided to give it back.
You may notice that most complaints about this anti-Promethean backlash still rest on anti-Promethean assumptions. We complain about excessive regulations—but only, as in the case of “cost disease socialism,” when those restrictions get in the way of expanding the welfare state. We talk about making it easier to build new infrastructure or reviving nuclear energy—but only in the context of stopping climate change.
In other words, we can stand up for progress and growth only under the guise of atoning for our sins. We can’t yet stand up and advocate for greater wealth and innovation simply because humans deserve to be happy and prosperous and to enjoy life.
Is This Who We Are?
Our reluctance to assert the unqualified value of growth and innovation is the product of a profound anti-humanism that predates the Great Stagnation and even the anti-Enlightenment backlash of the 19th century. In “The Fountainhead,” Ayn Rand notes that the Prometheus myth has had many variations, expressing a universal tendency toward a perverse resentment of the innovator. “Whatever the legend, somewhere in the shadows of its memory mankind knew that its glory began with one and that that one paid for his courage.”
In the Bible, for example, Adam and Eve are cast out of paradise for eating from the tree of knowledge and threatening to seize powers that seem like a primitive premonition of our modern technology.
Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever, therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.
But knowledge does not make us like gods. It makes us like humans.
There are two etymological theories for the origin of the name “Prometheus.” One is that it is related to the Proto-Indo-European word “pramant,” which referred to the fire-drill, the earliest tool for making fire. The other is that it comes from Greek roots that mean “forethought.” You can see a natural connection between the two meanings. At some level, in our oldest myths, we grasped that this is who we are: We are creatures who use a special mental power, the power of reason, to build new tools and unleash unprecedented capabilities.
Is this what we are supposed to be punished for? Apparently so. A few years ago, British environmentalist George Monbiot published a hauntingly anti-humanist screed denouncing us as “diminutive monsters of death and destruction.” It’s a secular update of that old sermon about humans as “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” minus any clear promise of redemption. What Monbiot blames us for is the impact of early humans—our primitive, far-distant ancestors—whose big brains made them into formidably effective hunters who transformed every landscape they entered. He denounces us for “our ingenuity, which for two million years has turned so inevitably to destruction.” This anti-Promethean mythology is embedded deeply in the culture, and it keeps popping up again and again in new variations.
To challenge it, all we need to do is accept who we are. The power of human reason is our distinctive natural endowment, and from the beginning we have used it to gain knowledge of the world and to harness this knowledge to improve human life. This is the true divine fire, the transformative power that brings us innovation, prosperity and the explosive growth we have enjoyed, particularly in the past few centuries.
We don’t just need a change in politics or policies. We need a change in our basic ideas and worldview. We need to fully embrace and defend our distinctive human power—we need to unbind the Prometheus within us.