A Different Kind of Progress

Number 33 / September, 1994

As Karl Polanyi has noted, the industrial revolution was marked by "an almost miraculous improvement in the tools of production" and by "a catastrophic dislocation of the lives of the common people." Gradually, and often without reflection or recognition, the vacuum began to be filled by the very aims and activities that had begun undermining security in the first place. Deprived of roots, traditions, and secure ties to a community in which a place was guaranteed, people began to try to reduce their anxiety by identifying with their increasing power over nature. The accumulation of wealth and material comforts, rather than secure rooting in a frame and context, began to form the primary basis for quelling the feelings of vulnerability that inevitably afflict us.
                    --Paul Wachtel, The Poverty of Affluence

During the 1950s and '60s, when I was growing up in the American Midwest, the evidence of progress was everywhere. Each year the cars grew lower, longer, and sleeker. Television was still a relative novelty, and virtually all of the consumer products it advertised were "new" and "improved." On Sunday evenings the family gathered to watch The Walt Disney Hour, which featured scenes from Tomorrowland, with rocket-shaped cars guided along elevated highways. I especially relished occasions when Dr. Werner von Braun appeared on the show to explain the principles of space travel. I also remember when the first shopping mall was built on the outskirts of my home city; and when, over the next few years, the downtown area, with its stately old brick buildings, slowly began to die. One Christmas my parents fed my fascination with science by buying me a Calculo Analog Computer-which turned out to be a useless toy (it was basically an electronic slide rule); still, I was intrigued by the idea that an ordinary person could own a computer.

Those were also years when everyone was dogged by a smoldering fear of the possibility of nuclear war: the same miraculous technology that was brightening our vision of the future was threatening also to obliterate that future instantaneously, at any moment, without warning. But for the most part, we devoted our attention to the promise of a world in which space travel would be commonplace and in which everyone would lead a life of leisure and sophistication. All human problems, it seemed, would soon give way to progress.

Sadly, the future isn't all it was cracked up to be. In the past thirty years we've gone to the Moon and we've sent probes to other planets. Today the cars are sleeker and more sophisticated (and more expensive) than ever. Now I have a computer that is not a useless toy, but an amazingly versatile publishing tool. Still, I think most people would agree that progress has brought as many problems as miracles. The world of 1994 is, on the whole, a much scarier place than was the world of, say, 1959--with the notable exception of a reduction in the likelihood of all-out nuclear conflagration. Then we were already well on our way toward overpopulation, species extinctions, air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of topsoil, the destruction of traditional cultures, the spread of poverty, and all the other dilemmas that hound us today. Yet in those days most people could still afford to ignore whatever warning signs were appearing. Then we had an easy answer: no matter what the problem, progress would solve it. Now we're not so sure.

Has progress failed? Or is it just getting warmed up? Perhaps the time has come to examine more closely just what it is that we have put so much faith in.

The Origin and Progress of the Idea of Progress

In 1980 Robert Nisbet published his book The History of the Idea of Progress, in which he traced the doctrine of eternal improvement back to the Greeks and Romans. While the earliest Greek mythology is suffused with the idea of a past Golden Age and the subsequent degeneration of humanity, by the fifth century b.c.e. this rather pessimistic world view was being widely replaced by a belief in the gradual betterment of life. Increasingly, according to Nisbet, philosophers described the original condition of human beings as "brutish," "animal-like," and "disorderly," and described history as a process whereby, "little by little," life was becoming more secure and refined for everyone.

The idea of progress didn't catch on immediately. It has always had to contend--as it did in the case of the Greeks--with the contrary doctrine of a primordial paradise whose tragic loss has led to humanity's moral decline. These two philosophies seem to serve different purposes and to condition people toward different kinds of social experiences. The ideology of progress serves the purposes of civilization by systematically downgrading the worth of the past, of "unimproved" nature, and of uncivilized life; by extolling the present, the future, and all that has been "improved" by human action; and by exhorting people to have faith that all of the problems created by our divorce from nature will be solved by more invention and sophistication. The paradisal world view, in contrast, because of its idealization of an age when people lived without artifice, is inherently more appropriate to traditional, humble, stable, and sustainable cultures.

A couple of thousand years ago the philosophers and theologians of the Roman Empire began to explore ways to co-opt the paradisal doctrine so that it too could further the interests of civilization. One strategy consisted of positing a future restored paradise that would take the form of a perfected city with golden streets littered with gems. The present age may be "fallen," but the trajectory of history reaches toward a grand goal nevertheless. If people will sacrifice and work hard, this future paradise (or at least an otherworldly facsimile) can be brought within reach. (More recently, the Nazis forged their own unique amalgam of progressive and paradisal world views by promising to restore the hypothetical Golden Age of the Aryans through military conquest and technological achievement.)

In the nineteenth century the progressive impulse got another boost through its marriage with the theory of evolution. Over millions of years, said the proponents of this union, nature has inexorably transformed itself, with simple creatures giving way to more complex ones; perhaps human society is destined to undergo a similar process. Of course, this was really only a rough analogy at best: the actual mechanics of evolution were poorly understood then (and still are), and progress was a social rather than a purely biological phenomenon. But the commingling of the two lent progress a quasi-scientific aura of inevitability and gave evolution a new human relevance. Moreover, it resulted an offspring: social Darwinism, the proposal that since (as it was then believed) evolution proceeds by natural selection--the strongest and fittest surviving to pass their characteristics along to the next generation--therefore progress must likewise depend upon the subordination of the "unfit," i.e., the poor and the politically powerless, to the socially "fit," epitomized by the leaders of finance and industry.

Despite social Darwinism's justification of the triumph of the strong over the weak, many people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries envisioned progress as promoting not only the accumulation of wealth and power and the invention of new means of production, but "higher" human values as well--knowledge, holiness, compassion, and justice. In the future, everyone would be fed; war would become obsolete; knowledge and understanding would proliferate; perhaps all humankind would even become spiritually unified in an ontological "omega point."

These days faith in this humanitarian version of the idea of progress is still alive, though badly shaken. We have abolished slavery by law, but it still exists in many parts of the world; we are more keenly aware of the need for governments to respect human rights, but abuses of those rights persist on a vast scale. Meanwhile, anthropologists have shown fairly conclusively that people in many primitive societies enjoyed freedoms and rights in degrees that put even the most enlightened modern industrial democracies to shame. While scientific knowledge continues to accumulate, it seems to benefit fewer and fewer people. And though there is no way to gauge whether the population as a whole is more spiritually enlightened today than in the past, one cannot help but be struck by the mean-spiritedness of the current political climate throughout the West.

At the end of the 20th century the realization of our vision of the gold and crystal city of the future seems more elusive than ever, as does the goal of the universal moral upliftment of humanity. Progress is undeniable. But when we get down to cases, we see that it has come about primarily in terms of technological innovation and economic growth. Perhaps these are the real core of what progress has actually meant to us. But are economic growth and technological innovation, in themselves, necessarily good things? Perhaps we can find out by looking a little more closely at the history not just of the idea, but of the actual process of progress.

How Progress Has Worked So Far

While the course of economic and technological complexification can be traced in many societies and eras, the most dramatic and relevant example of progress is surely to be seen in the industrial revolution in Europe.

According to most historians, the economic foundation for the industrial revolution was laid by the enclosure movement, which began in England in the 16th century. "Enclosure" meant to surround pieces of open land with barriers to free travel, placing it under private control. This was done through acts of Parliament, license from the king, and (occasionally) by common agreement of the members of the village commune.

Until the enclosure movement, the common people of Europe held much land communally. The village commons was administered democratically through peasant councils, which decided when to plant, harvest, and rotate crops; how many animals could graze, how water should be allocated, and how many trees could be cut. For over six hundred years the system of the village commons provided a stable base for European society.

However, beginning in the 1500s, increased urban demand for food created inflation, which meant reduced income to landlords whose rents had been fixed at pre-inflationary rates. Simultaneously, the textile industry was expanding, requiring more wool. Landlords borrowed money from the new bourgeois class of merchants and bankers, bought up common lands, and turned them into pasture for sheep. This resulted in millions of peasants being forced off the land and into the cities, where they formed a huge and expanding pool of cheap labor. On many occasions the peasants rebelled, but the law was against them and enclosure proceeded until the village commons finally became extinct in the early 19th century.

Enclosure has been described as "the revolution of the rich against the poor." Especially during the second wave of enclosure in the 1700s, English society underwent a catastrophic transformation. Increasingly, a few individuals were freed--indeed, encouraged by capitalist economic philosophers-to pursue their self-interest without being held accountable to a larger community. Meanwhile, the majority of people became economically and culturally disenfranchised and were forced to sell their labor to the highest bidder. Larger social units-the village, the neighborhood, the extended family--disintegrated into smaller and smaller ones-the nuclear family, the married couple, the individual.

With human labor available in surplus, and with seemingly boundless new sources of raw materials being discovered in overseas colonies, investors found plentiful opportunities for profit. Markets were expanding, transportation systems were being improved, and inventors were finding new ways to intensify the means of production. The factory was born, and with it an entirely new pattern of life for the average person.

Today enclosure continues both in the Third World, where tribal common lands are being privatized at a furious pace, and in the older industrial nation-states, where the process is being extended to genetic materials in plants and animals, information, and technical knowledge.

By detaching people from land and land-based customs, enclosure has led to ever greater reliance on the market for the satisfaction of all human needs. Markets, in order to operate successfully, require profits. And profits can come in only three ways: by the growth of the market, so that incomes expand with no one being made worse off; by one firm winning orders previously filled by another firm (so that someone's profit comes at the expense of someone else); and by raising prices, which leads to inflation. Since the second and third alternatives are clearly of limited use, economists have put overwhelming emphasis on the first-economic growth. Today, with all industries relying on borrowing, for which interest must be paid, economic growth is not merely desirable; it is a necessity. Without it, the economy does not merely continue at a steady rate; it collapses.

Economic growth is progress. But it is also a form of collective addiction that, in the long run, intensifies the problems (unemployment and inflation) that it is meant to solve. As economist Herman Daly and others have pointed out, our world is finite, and in a finite world unlimited economic growth is an absurd policy that eventually leads to disaster. And as Donnella Meadows has shown in her books Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, we have already followed the path of economic growth further than it may prudently be trod.

But progress is not a matter of economics alone. Over the past three centuries we have witnessed revolution after revolution in the technologies of transportation, communication, manufacture, warfare, and entertainment. The world has seen the birth of the automobile, telephone, computer, robot, radio, television, microwave oven, fax machine, and nuclear missile. When most people think of progress, this is what they mean.

When we use a new technology to satisfy a basic human need, are we thereby enhancing life? A few decades ago virtually everyone would have answered unquestioningly in the affirmative. Today there is a growing chorus of doubters.

Many new technologies claim to save time and labor. In individual cases they indisputably do. But when we add in all of the extra costs that a new technology entails, these sometimes more than cancel out any short-term benefit. Today the typical American is surrounded by labor-saving devices, and yet the European pre-enclosure peasant actually worked fewer hours per week on average than a modern American with a full-time job.

The dilemmas of technology are perhaps best illustrated in the fields of human health and health care. The people with the simplest technologies-the hunter-gatherers-are also generally the healthiest, with no cancer or heart disease, typically perfect teeth, vision, and hearing, and few infectious or degenerative diseases. The domestication of animals several millennia ago introduced smallpox, measles, typhus, salmonella, influenza, and parasites into the human population, and agricultural life brought poorer nutrition and dentition and increased stress. Modern industrial living entails a raft of still more new ailments resulting from air and water pollution, chemicals in food, nuclear radiation, and computer- and job-related stress. The miracles of modern drugs and surgery are only partly able to keep up with these burgeoning diseases of civilization, and have produced a wide range of damaging side effects of their own. Today the average human life span is longer than ever before, mostly because of a dramatic reduction in infant mortality, but the resulting overpopulation introduces the threat of famine and pestilence on an unimaginable scale. Modern medicine continues to make impressive strides; meanwhile, compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the typical civilized human is overweight yet poorly nourished, lacking in muscular development, overstressed, and unhappy.

Each new technology changes society, and not all of these changes are desirable or foreseeable. But once a technology has been adopted, society tends to remold itself around it so that it becomes an essential part of life. Therefore people find it nearly impossible to reject a technology, once adopted, even if its effects are later found to be mostly negative. While some chemical pesticides have been banned in America, their makers have merely opened markets to the south and overseas; and while nearly everyone would likely agree that nuclear weapons are the worst invention in history, governments continue to manufacture them in record numbers.

The true role of technology in society becomes clearer when we see beyond its magical aura and view it in functional, historical terms as the means of economic change. When, because of enclosure, people are separated from their lands and cultures and thrust into cities, they can no longer satisfy their needs directly and communally. They therefore tend to find ways to fill them indirectly and artificially through technology. New technologies create new opportunities for economic growth, and are therefore encouraged regardless of tradeoffs and long-term costs. Novelty comes to be valued for its own sake.

Must Progress Always Work This Way?

All of this suggests that the "progress" of the industrial revolution reflected certain unique historical developments. Enclosure, colonialism, capitalism, and an intensified interest in analytical science all converged to create an economic and technological transformation of unprecedented scope and intensity, with horrendous unanticipated costs. But must all progress follow this same pattern?

Perhaps not. There are two important reasons why European progress turned out the way it did.

First: Because of the availability of cheap labor and raw materials, economic and technological change came so readily and produced such successes (from the standpoint of those in positions of power) that it became tempting to see the whole of human life purely in economic and mechanical terms and to ignore the entire range of human interests that do not reduce to money and machines. It is said that to a person whose only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails. A person whose primary social tools are economics and technology is likely to see life mostly in terms of personal gain, short-term profit, growth, speed, and novelty for its own sake. Health, community, the sense of belonging, the appreciation for human and natural diversity, the feeling of connection with the land where one lives, the satisfaction of meaningful work, play, the sense of self-worth, self-determination, and of sympathy and solidarity across generational lines simply do not register on the scale of monetary values (or do so at best only indirectly), and are therefore of little concern to Homo economicus.

Second: Because economics and technology have been cut off from these deeper and broader priorities, they have themselves developed along skewed lines.

As Herman Daly and John Cobb point out in their book For the Common Good, the word economics derives from the Greek oikonomia, which referred to the management of the household so as to increase its use value to all members over the long run. Implicit in this original meaning were a sense of community and a mutual responsibility to future generations. Aristotle carefully distinguished economics, in this sense, from chrematistics, which is the branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term monetary exchange value to the owner. In the early industrial period, wealthy elites pursued chrematistics so successfully (again, from their standpoint) that they tended to confuse it with economics, and this confusion has only grown with the passage of decades and centuries.

But things need not have gone this way. It should not be difficult to imagine an economics that is not utterly subservient to chrematistics; after all, every stable traditional society on Earth has had one. And there is every reason to think that, within such a reconstituted economics, progress (in the sense of gradual refinement or improvement) would be possible.

Similarly with technology. Many people assume that technology is somehow value- and context-free; that when anyone, anywhere, becomes smart enough, they will inevitably invent the same technologies we have. But this assumption flies in the face of data from history and anthropology. In fact, every technology reflects and embodies specific, non-arbitrary social values. For example, a decentralized, egalitarian, nature-loving society-no matter how advanced or sophisticated-would never invent the atomic reactor, because nuclear technology requires a centralized managerial bureaucracy, uranium mines, and toxic waste storage facilities, which such a society would never tolerate. But what technologies would such a society eventually create? Perhaps technological progress, in such a context, might take a form quite different from what we have come to know and expect. It might, for example, concentrate on the refinement of the simplest, most versatile, and most easily obtainable of tools, so that every member of the society could participate in their manufacture, use, and improvement. This is, in fact, the trend of technological development that we see in the traditional egalitarian societies that have been studied.

To put the matter as succinctly as possible: Western civilization has developed in the way it has because it has allowed its collective values and goals to be artificially narrowed for the sake of the short-term gain of a relative few at the expense of the many. The ecological and social problems that have resulted are not attributable directly to human nature, nor to evolutionary necessity. The course of Western civilization may be described as progress, but it is progress of a very peculiar kind.

Reinventing Progress

The idea of progress has been--and is being--used to justify all manner of mischief. One is therefore tempted to reject it altogether in favor of the older paradisal world view. After all, from the standpoint of native peoples and other species civilization has proven itself to be the scourge of the Earth. Perhaps we would all be better off in non-civilized cultures that look to ancestral tradition--rather than new theories and gadgets--for answers to life's challenges.

And yet it is difficult to give up the anticipation that somehow we can together learn, change, and improve our society. Granted, our criteria for what constitutes "improvement" have become grotesquely twisted by our addiction to certain dangerous brands of economic and technological development. But if we were to base those criteria on deeper and more universal values, then might we not still enjoy a certain cultural dynamism? The alternative to progress-as-we-know-it need be neither cultural nostalgia nor permanent stasis.

The first step toward this new kind of progress would be to sort out our collective interests, values, goals, and priorities. This sorting process is not likely to be accomplished once-and-for-all in a single stroke. It will itself provide an arena for ongoing refinement.

Once we have made some headway in getting back in touch with our real needs and innate values, we may find that the actions required to fulfill and further them will be ones that appear, from our present perspective, to be regressive. That is, we may find it necessary to undo some of our old economic and technological "progress." We may, for example, find it necessary to restore the commons and to rediscover the participatory, communal attitudes that once enabled us to live in a world without borders. We may wish to do away with our sophisticated systems for monetary speculation and manipulation. We may also find ourselves giving up cars, fossil fuels, and factories-and breathing a sigh of relief as we do so.

All the while, we will not be moving toward some idealized image of the past, but will instead be using our freshly clarified priorities as a foundation on which to build anew. The economies and technologies of the Middle Ages or of tribal societies may offer encouraging examples along the way, but they need not serve as our end goals. When values that were implicit and instinctive in those societies become conscious and explicit in ours, then we may see progress of a kind that is altogether unprecedented.

Perhaps vistas of opportunity await us that are far grander than those advertised by even the most eloquent of our twentieth-century social engineers. Perhaps evolution and progress can converge in a single process as we reenter the free community of sovereign species as equal (not dominant) members, and devote our attention to the welfare of that entire community. Perhaps we may eventually even realize our Promethean dream of being space explorers . . . though not as Star Trek colonists and cosmocrats, but as children waking from sleep, ready to go outside and play. Given different criteria of progress, we could find healthy feelings of cultural pride and loyalty being rekindled within and among us. We might find ourselves simultaneously savoring the present in a way that most civilized people have forgotten how to do, and regarding the future with optimism and confidence. We might come to enjoy a future in which the principal economic currency is human caring; a future in which each new generation is concerned to be kinder than the last, rather than richer; a future where the only technologies that matter are those that make the world a healthier, happier, and more beautiful place for all creatures.

That, I suggest, would be real progress.

© 1994 Richard Heinberg. All rights reserved.

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