North Star

Why progressive sustainability ultimately will win

 Vintage cuckoo clocks in Munich, Germany.
ShutterstockVlada Photo
Pendulum swings aside, there is no permanent return to the ways of yesteryear. Vintage cuckoo clocks in Munich, Germany.

Russian right-wing philosopher Alexander Dugin recently was interviewed in Dagens Nyheter, the daily paper in Stockholm, where I live. "Which parties are closest to you in Europe?" asked DN. "Is it, for example, the National Front in France, and Alternative for Germany?"

Dugin’s answer sounded very familiar: "All who oppose globalization, are for Russia, and for traditional values. Center, right, extreme right, it doesn’t matter, it can even be the anti-capitalist extreme left, as in Greece for example." Substitute "America" for "Russia" and you have a mirror image of the Trump White House and its prevailing ideology. Dugin — who also promotes the belief that the European Union will break up and that NATO will dissolve — even told the interviewer, "I could have written [Trump’s inaugural] speech."

It is not news that today’s right-wing nationalists share a common agenda of retrenchment. They all want to return to the clear boundaries of yesteryear — national, economic, cultural, even sexual — no matter what country they live in. How this global mega-trend will play out is truly anybody’s guess, and is many people’s nightmare.

But one thing about the future is completely predictable: The tide eventually will turn.

The difference between the progressive center-to-green-left and the nationalist center-to-alt-right can be characterized by a surprisingly simple dynamic that underlies their core visions and causes much of the oscillation in global politics — although an "oscillation" today looks increasingly like a wild swing of the political pendulum.

Here are two linked propositions:

  1. The progressive center-left is forward-looking, more globalist and more committed to solving the problems of sustainability. It opens a multitude of possibilities but provides little certainty. It pushes forward and innovates unceasingly, which grows social tension.

  2. The nationalist-right, being anchored to the past, offers greater certainty and a feeling of security — and appears to many as the answer to the tension. The comfort of old, known patterns reduces some tension but slows or stops progress on the problems, which eventually create new tensions of their own.

And so it goes. First, we get Al Gore as U.S. Vice President, then Dick Cheney. After Obama accelerates hard on climate and other sustainability issues, Trump arrives to slam on the brakes.

[[Alan AtKisson is presenting at the GreenBiz 17 event held this week in Phoenix, Arizona. Catch the free virtual event on, with advanced registration here.]]

Underneath these cultural and political dynamics is a brute physical fact: there are more humans on this planet, with progressively better technology, living longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. This is growth, of the physical kind. It’s also progress, of the qualitative kind. Both growth and progress are measurable and undeniable realities: more humans, better technology, taking up an increasing percentage of the planet.

Equally undeniable are the enormous challenges that have come with that growth and progress, such as climate change, decaying natural systems and increasing migration, which is driven by war or by the simple longing for a better life. It’s important to remember that the better life sought by migrants and refugees is not a dream, either, but also a physical fact. Even people in the world’s poorest villages can see the reality of that better life on their televisions. It beckons to them. Attaining it is only a migration away.

New ideas and possibilities

In such a world, rapid change is unavoidable. Environmental problems must be solved. Increasing equity is an imperative. People must have the opportunity to thrive and prosper, no matter where they live.

That is why historically, progressive sustainability appears to be winning overall: because it is the source of new ideas and possibilities that solve the world’s real problems. Those problems will not go away. The backward-looking vision offered by the nationalist-right simply cannot solve them.

With each swing of the global pendulum in the progressive direction, the world demonstrably has become fairer to women and children, more environmentally conscious, more accepting of diversity and difference and generally more committed to equality. In fact, the recent global agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, with their emphasis on equality, poverty elimination and care for the planet, probably would be read by the right-wing nationalists of yesteryear as evidence of their ultimate defeat on the global stage.

If the arrival of the SDGs and Paris Agreement in 2015 were a global high-water mark for the historical forward march of progressive sustainability values, it should be no surprise that the nationalist right is rising up so vehemently now, as a kind of counter-tide. This is what a backlash looks like, on the global scale.

This is one phase of a cycle, and we just at the beginning of it. Things are likely to get much worse before they start getting better again. Our job now is to minimize the losses that this backlash is already causing and to keep moving things forward wherever we can. It is inevitable that we will lose ground, but we must minimize it. There is a big difference between "three steps forward, two steps back"and "three steps forward, one step back" — especially when the journey ahead is long.

Eventually, the pendulum will pause and swing forward again — although that does not mean I am optimistic about the immediate prognosis. We have been surprised at the strength of this backlash at every turn. The men and women leading it are hard-headed and deeply committed to their world views. Their constituencies are still growing.

We must match their hard-headedness with a steely determination of our own.