It is not just environmentalists who misunderstand the prosperity-fulfillment connection. In private conversations, meetings, and discussions, we often hear progressives lament public apathy and cynicism and make statements such as "Things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get better." We emphatically disagree. In our view, things have to get better before they can get better. Immiseration theory- the view that increasing suffering leads to progressive social change- has been repeatedly discredited by history.
Progressive social reforms, from the Civil Rights Act to the Clean Water Act, tend to occur during times of prosperity and rising expectations- not immiseration and declining expectations. Both the environmental movement and the civil rights movement emerged as a consequence of rising prosperity. (Break Through 36)
A good argument that frankly, rings true to me. When I think of the grand majority of social contract programs, such as the NHS in Britain or the United States' Medicare program, they were birthed during times of rising prosperity. Nordhaus and Shellenberger use Maslow's hierarchy of needs to explain this phenomenon. When times are tough, people are more concerned with their basic needs: food, housing, etc. In more prosperous years, people are more likely to look outward to the good of society.
Okay, so for the sake of argument, let's posit that what Nordhaus and Shellenberger say is correct. Let's say that things do need to "get better before they get better." Where does that leave us today? Most first world citizens have their basic needs met, yet still live in a state of doubt and instability that is likely preventing many people from looking outward more. Is there a way we can harness the uncertainty of these times into positive energy? Or ... are we screwed?