Debate Magazine

Progressive Notes

By Cris

Whilst this is not the next post in my series on “progress,” I want to share some notes I’ve taken while preparing for that post. And before going any further, I want to note that I’ve long wanted to use “whilst” but have never done so until now, perhaps because it sounds rather corny, British, or both. Some grammarians argue there are differences between “whilst” and “while” and the latter should be used with the past progressive tense. Because past progressive tense describes an activity which was occurring but was interrupted, I probably should have used while to start this paragraph but I’m sticking with whilst in the hope that my British friends will appreciate it.

All this aside, I should note that the proximate inspiration for this series of posts was a recent Atlantic article, Is “Progress” Good for Humanity: Rethinking the Narrative of Economic Development, by Jeremy Caradonna. While (not whilst) my concerns with progress are broader in scope than Caradonna’s, he nicely captures the industrial-moral aspect of progressive stories:

The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress. The story tends to go something like this: Inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world…Europe had rescued itself from the pre-industrial misery that had hampered humankind since the dawn of time. Cheap and abundant fossil fuel powered the trains and other steam engines that drove humankind into this brave new future. Later, around the time that Europeans decided that colonial slavery wasn’t such a good idea, they exported this revolution to other parts of the world, so that everyone could participate in freedom and industrialized modernity. They did this, in part, by “opening up markets” in primitive agrarian societies. The net result has been increased human happiness, wealth, and productivity—the attainment of our true potential as a species.

This makes for a great, or comforting, story, but as Caradonna later observes it is not a neutral story. Like all cultural myths, it can be interrogated:

Narratives are inevitably moralistic; they are never created spontaneously from “the facts” but are rather stories imposed upon a range of phenomena that always include implicit ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. The proponents of the Industrial Revolution inherited from the philosophers of the Enlightenment the narrative of human (read: European) progress over time but placed technological advancement and economic liberalization at the center of their conception of progress. This narrative remains today an ingrained operating principle that propels us in a seemingly unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology, because the assumption is that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.

Advocates of sustainability are not opposed to industrialization per se, and don’t seek a return to the Stone Age. But what they do oppose is the dubious narrative of progress caricatured above.

The great intellectual historian of progress, J.B. Bury, is also attuned to the normative assumptions embedded in the stories we tell ourselves. In The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth (at 2, 4-5), he states:

In short, it cannot be proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is desirable. The movement may be Progress, or it may be in an undesirable direction and therefore not Progress. [Progress] cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.

The idea of human Progress then is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men as slowly advancing in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely.

As time is the very condition of the possibility of Progress, it is obvious that the idea would be valueless if there were any cogent reasons for supposing that the time at the disposal of humanity is likely to reach a limit in the near future. If there were good cause for believing that the earth would be uninhabitable in A.D. 2000 or 2100 the doctrine of Progress would lose its meaning and would automatically disappear.

Bury wrote these prophetic words in 1920, in the sobering and pessimistic aftermath of World War I. He could not have foreseen a nuclearized and industrialized world in danger of destroying itself. While I don’t think there are any particular time limits on humanity, there are time limits — set by the finite supply of fossil fuels on which industrial society is based and almost totally dependent — on our current ways of life. But this is a blog about religion and not the post-industrial future. Those interested in the latter should head over to The Archdruid Report, a superbly written blog that makes for fascinating reading.

Heads in Sand

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