Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Case Against Progress; A Plea for Courage

For more than six generations, we Westerners have lived in boom times. As a result, we're so used to things getting better, that we've come to see Progress as the usual way of things. Transportation gets better: from foot, to horse, to train, to car, to rocketship. Health gets better: from Black Plague, to tuburculosis, to more medicines than diseases. Communication gets better: from snail mail to email to gmail. And so on. Most people still seem to assume that this trend will continue as long as there are people on this planet.

But what I've read over the last five years has convinced me that Progress is wholly and utterly an illusion. The history of human civilization is not at all a story of overall improvement. The following facts have convinced me of this:

1) Before the appearance of technology, the human population was at equilibrium. A given tribe was equally likely to die out as to spread.

2) After the appearance of technology (such as fire and stone tools), the human population remained in this equilibrium for hundreds of thousands of years. Each new invention simply made certain tribes more prosperous, and other tribes less prosperous. The population did grow slowly over time, but limited supplies of food and water kept it in roughly the same balance it had before technology.

3) The only period left that might be called "Progressive" is the last two hundred years (1800-2000 A.D.) -- and only in Western countries. But worldwide disparities between rich and poor have never been greater, the environment is being destroyed, nonrenewable resources are running out, and species are dying at an unprecedented rate. To make matters worse, we depend on cheap labor in poor countries to get most of the "high-tech" goods that make our lives so progressed.

Might progress be possible in the future? As I see it, since it hasn't yet occurred, there is no reason to think it is even possible.

If you've never seen things this way before, you should be somewhat confused. I was when it first hit me. From the time we are wee tykes we are taught that the most important thing we can do with our lives is to make the world a better place. Without progress as a goal, we are left somewhat purposeless.

The first step to overcoming this confusion, I think, is to realize the most societies throughout most of history have gotten along fine without believing in long-term, world-wide progress. History was seen as a cyclical process, and the world consisted of one's village and perhaps a few surrounding cultures. Religions preached personal improvement, inner peace, and a quieting of worldly desires. Painters strove for perfection in their work (rather than wild new ideas as they do today). Science aimed at collecting and teaching knowledge already acquired (rather than ever pushing for strange new facts). There was nothing wrong or "backwards" about this state of affairs -- it still produced geniuses such as Mozart, Michaelangelo, and Isaac Newton. Of course, most people had to grow their own food, an admittedly difficult life, but not so difficult as to tip the balance that had always been there.

If progress is an illusion, it follows that Western society is mortal. Our culture, with its rock 'n roll, hollywood movies, and televangelists, will dwindle away, the same way that Roman gladiators, laurel wreaths, and chariot races did. Even more disheartening, so will the political entities we call the United States and the European Union, as well as all of the countries and states within them. When the boom times are over, the population shrinks, and technology simplifies, most of the knowledge we've gained, books we've written, and movies we've filmed will be lost forever. For an intellectual like myself, the inevitability of such decline is perhaps the hardest thing to come to grips with.

To be blunt: we Westerners are spoiled. We're used to long showers, getting answers from Google, and flying to France for fun. When we think about life on a medieval farm we get squeamish at the germs, all the hard work and calluses, rising at dawn, and dying of the plague. We're nerdy wimps. We're no different from the European nobles back at the dawn of Western democracy. We're lazy, happy, and oblivious. We think that hard work is sitting in front of a computer screen for 40 hours a week.

Life is supposed to be difficult. We are here to face challenges. What makes a challenge a challenge is that it is possible to fail. Life on a medieval farm is not always fair -- sometimes your fellow villagers die from disease or war -- but in the long run it is those groups of people who cooperate best, work hardest, think most deeply, feel a stronger connection to the earth, are most at peace with themselves, are the most heroic, the most loving, and have the deepest relationship with God, who succeed in the end. How do I know this? Because these are the qualities that are admired most universally in all cultures. If these qualities were not conducive to survival, then such cultures would have died out rather than spread.

As I see it, Western society is not currently conducive to the evolution of such traits. Instead we reward cowardice, blind drudgery, individualism, and greed. But this situation will naturally correct itself: as the environment degrades, as fossil fuels and arable land runs out, and as the poor of the world become more oppressed and angry, eventually the system will collapse, and we'll be forced to face the real world once again.

Maybe it sounds harsh, but it's the truth, as far as I can tell. Once it's properly understood, this truth should seem not oppressive, but liberating.


  1. I completely agree with this entree. And I know what it's like to work on a farm, morning to night for months at a time, and I know that it isn't that bad or difficult. Especially when there are others to work with you, it beats any desk job I know of! You don't have to worry about working out (you already are doing it), you don't have to worry about getting some fresh air or being outside.. its done! You don't have to worry about going to the grocery store every couple of days, you already have the supplies at the garden.. it's amazing how little we actually need. Plus, unless you have a greenhouse, you get the entire winter off!! how wonderful! In India I visited a medicinal garden run by indigenous women, they sold their herbs for a living. These herbs were curing serious diseases like sickle cell anemia and AIDS! If they can grow a garden to cure diseases like these, we can too. We really have everything to gain, in reconnecting ourselves to the earth.

    thanks for the post!!

  2. Thanks Esther, your encouragement means a lot to me :)