Sunday, November 03, 2019

The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progress

Those who oppose change, even in a single category of life, are often labeled as enemies of "progress." In the modern era "progress" has become a catch-all word to describe every technological change by the proponents of that change. Thinking people will agree that not all change is progress. But it is striking how infrequently most people actually oppose technological change when it comes.

Often the technological change is billed as a "solution" to a problem created by a previous technological change that was billed as "progress." The proliferation of air filtering technology comes to mind. I am not opposing air filtering technology, only pointing out that it is not a step forward but rather at most a step sideways to make up for another supposed step forward.

It is logical to assume that making progress toward one's destination is a good thing. After all, if we have a goal, doing things which allow us to reach that goal seems positive. But this does not touch on the question of whether the goal itself will amount to progress once we get there.

One further thing to note is that "progress" in our modern technical society is almost always defined by others for us. Some corporation, inventor or software genius comes up with a new gadget or process that is then sold as an "improvement" on our current way of doing things. We don't get to vote on these "improvements." They are foisted upon us whether we want them or not. This is done partly by exploiting the networking effect. To wit, when everyone you know has a smartphone, they will pressure you to get one because they "need" you to be able to receive their text messages.

And, because many societies today regard any innovation by default as safe and beneficial until proven otherwise, those societies plunge headlong into toxic social, health, and environmental outcomes. Cellphone addiction, ubiquitous plastics pollution, and climate change come to mind.

Our response is often more technological fixes: cellphone apps to help you manage or even break your cellphone addition, efforts to clean up plastic from the ocean using new technologies, and, of course, technologies to remove carbon from the air to counteract emissions via "carbon capture stations."

A destination for world society that doesn't include smartphones or plastic or carbon emissions is almost entirely inconceivable. How could we live without these! The answer, of course, is that humans lived just fine without them for millennia. We have simply become addicted to them, and addicts naturally believe that they cannot live without the source of their addiction.

I am reminded of American author Kurt Vonnegut's quip: "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." What we are learning about humans in hunter-gatherer societies is that they largely build their lives around Vonnegut's dictum. Hunter-gatherers work less than farmers. And, they work a lot less than today's lawyers at top firms. Compare the crushing 80-hour workweeks of those attorneys with the 18-hour workweek of the !Kung Bushmen of Dobe.

Change benefits some and disadvantages others. When what's valued is the power to gather resources far in excess of one's personal needs and the power to control and dominate other people, it is no wonder that "progress" is a never-ending treadmill. As Aristotle opines in his seminal work The Politics, "The desires of men are infinite."

But it turns out that the planet is not. Herman Daly, the dean of the steady-state economists, long ago realized our predicament. His most widely read piece is probably Economics in a Full World. In this essay Daly assures us that a steady-state economy does not mean the end of change or progress, just the end of the kind that comes from undermining the biosphere to amass what we commonly call "wealth" today.

For Daly, in the steady-state economy, progress takes on other meanings, largely but not exclusively nontechnological. We can have progress in the arts, in our spiritual lives, and in the deepening of our personal relationships (for which we will have more time if we are not working 80 hours per week). We can experience technological change as we find new ways to minimize our use of resources in order to get what we need to nourish ourselves, keep us warm and keep us healthy on a daily basis.

The notions we have of progress are largely built around command of ever greater physical resources (typically through our ability to exchange money for those resources) and human resources (through the manipulation of others to gain more resources for ourselves—think: cellphone apps and advertising).

I doubt if the word "progress" can be reappropriated for a kinder, gentler outcome. We need a different destination for world society than the one currently implied by the way we use the word "progress" if we are going to experience something other than a chaotic decline in human fortunes over the next several decades.

What shall we call that destination and how shall we describe the movement we make toward it if we choose to jettison the now-too-sullied word "progress"? I leave you with that question because I have no ready answer for now. But I do know this: If you have no name for something, it is difficult to call people to it.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Joe said...

A belief that the general health of the living world is first priority for all human activities, including those that support a "kinder, gentler outcome" from those activities, is called Gaianism.

Hunter-gatherers had very little ability to damage Gaia, except perhaps by using fire to change vegetative succession, but modern humanity is well on the way to doing great damage. We just need to stop, something that is more and more difficult to do the further we go down the path of 'progress'.

zockerjoe said...

Every time, someone tells me about the hunter - gatherer paradise, I ask my self: What was the reason for humans to leave it? There must be advantages in a farmer life I dont know, but I want to know.

Timothy DC said...

I read somewhere that farmers had less risk to see their children starve as opposed to hunter-gatherers.