My wife and I were watching a very interesting documentary the other night called Surviving Progress. It’s a fascinating film about the effects of rapidly changing technology and culture on our societies and minds. One of the more frightening things the film makes clear is that we are running 21st century software (culture) on prehistoric hardware (our brains which haven’t changed signigicantly imn 50,000 years). And how technology impacts the mismatch between culture and biology.

It reminded me of a chapter I wrote for The Alchemy of World and Soul, so I’ve decided to post it. It’s a bit long, so I’ll break it into two posts.

What Is Progress?: Or How to Tell a Hawk From a Handsaw – Part 1

In a world that seems to many people to have gone slightly mad, if not completely insane, it is helpful to find some clarity about the ideas that shape it. The idea of progress is a concept that from one angle looks like a hawk and from another, a handsaw.

Progress, development, growth, and sustainability are four words that crop up repeatedly in discussions about the future of our world, particularly in the contentious debate about the merits of globalization. To one camp, globalization represents progress pure and simple. To the other it is at best a perverted growth of the current system and at worst a reversion to the ill-conceived paradigms that gave us the worst evils of the first Industrial Revolution. Much of the problem in deciding who is right in this debate comes down to how poorly these four special words are usually defined.

Most folks don’t define progress and development the way I do. I’m not a government policy wonk, a politician, or a lobbyist for corporate interests. Neither am I a ranting anti-globalization protestor, although I do rant and I am critical of the current mode of globalization. I’m just a regular guy who took a year and a half out of his life to research and write a book about spirituality and globalization. Okay, so I’m not that normal. But I do think I have a unique perspective on these issues that is markedly different from what you will find in the mainstream discussions of progress and globalization.

The way we think about progress shapes the way we respond to the scientific advances and technological creations that in turn shape the world we live in. As Herbert J. Muller writes in his book The Children of Frankenstein, “… not before Francis Bacon had writers proclaimed that man could steadily, indefinitely improve his state on Earth by his own unaided efforts, for only with the rise of science did they possess a clear means to steady progress. As the novel faith in progress began spreading over the Western world in the Age of Enlightenment, it introduced a fundamental difference in man’s attitude toward change. Through all the changes beginning with the neolithic revolution men had never really banked on change, never believed that it would naturally be for the better or would go on so indefinitely.”[i]

Equating change with progress, which is really only development, we have created a society addicted to change. Everything must be the latest and the most advanced. We clamor for the newest styles of everything, even if the functions have failed to change for years. How different are cars from those sold a decade ago?  They might get better gas mileage, but that seems unlikely in the wake of the SUV craze. The latest fashions are certainly different, but what do they offer that is new?  The latest computer?  More power, yes, but how much power do you need for word processing?  Lots of development, and not much progress in sight. Where is the quality of life in all this?  Do newer more plentiful products mean that we are living better lives?

Mistaking development for progress is a rampant error among those who promote or caution against both. It is all the more devastating because few who promote or criticize progress tend to give much attention to the human aspect of the situation. Edward Goldsmith clarifies this with his comment in Turning Away from Technology when he says, “Progress is thereby seen as not having proceeded fast enough, for if it had the problems would quite clearly not have occurred. Thus, increasing floods are seen as occurring because we have not built enough dams and embankments. If the crime rate goes up, this is because we have not built enough prisons, hired enough police, or installed enough burglar alarms. If people are sick, this is because they have not consumed enough pills or not built enough hospitals.”[ii]

Jacques Ellul summed up the essence of the problem in his classic book The Technological Society when he wrote: “If a whole people is oriented toward the search for justice or purity, if it obeys in depth the primacy of the spiritual, it does not suffer from the lack of material things, just as we today do not feel the inverse need of the spiritual.”[iii]

We define progress in part by our needs. What are humanity’s needs?  What is progress for humanity?  Is progress greater material wealth or closer families?  Is it a manufacturing industry of low paying jobs or is it meaningful employment?  Is it being able to shop for everything in one multinational megastore that you have to drive to or is it being able to walk to several locally owned shops, or is it ordering your goods on the Web and having them delivered to your door?

The gross national product of a country is often touted as a sign of its progress. But is it really?  Everything that costs money is included in the tally, not merely the sales of products. A hurricane can actually increase our GNP because of the costs of rescue, clean-up, and reconstruction even in the face of lost productivity and wages caused by the storm. A person dying in a hospital raises the GNP. So does robbery, because you have to buy things again. There is no debit column to the GNP, particularly not in human terms.  However, Ted Halstead and Clifford Cobb have created an alternative measure of the quality of human life that reaches beyond simply economic interactions for its input. They call this the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). In addition to economic productivity it attempts to examine data on social stability, social welfare, and environmental health, among other things. (For more information see http://www.rprogress.org/.)

Economic growth is often seen as a sure sign of progress, but this is a category error as Lewis Mumford noted in his seminal Technics and Civilization. Writing about the way the English ideas of progress were implemented technologically and economically in the colonization of India he wrote that; “In the name of progress, the limited but balanced economy of the Hindu village, with its local potter, its local spinners and weavers, its local smith, was overthrown for the sake of providing a market for the potteries of the Five Towns and the textiles of Manchester and the superfluous hardware of Birmingham. The result was impoverished villages in India, hideous and destitute towns in England, and a great wastage in tonnage and man-power in plying the oceans between: but at all events a victory for progress.” Ironically this trend has been reversing to a significant degree under the economic pressures of globalization with many jobs moving from England (as well as the U.S.) to India and other developing nations, with similar effects on local economies.

Globalization isn’t about progress; it’s about development and growth. Moreover it is largely about development and growth out of proportion to the constraints of any particular system, or the system as a whole. This will increase the standard of living for some, decrease it for others, and leave many more right where they were. Progress would be the emergence of a system of technological and economic development and growth that did not distribute wealth primarily to those who were already wealthy and then to those who are lucky. Real progress will come when we learn to measure out technological development against the growth of the human population and gauge them both against the needs that really define our human standard of living, not just our access to food, water and shelter, but our access to free time, companionship, the company of family and friends, our mental health, and our spiritual fulfillment.

When most people use the word progress, they are usually talking about what I call development, or growth, or some combination of the two. Progress is rare, while development and growth aren’t. In fact, when development and growth are engaged in excessively they usually create conditions that actively retard the possibility of progress. Moreover, progress is not by definition beneficial to humanity. It implies a leap in complexity and novelty within a system, or the emergence of a new system. Unfortunately this does not necessarily mean that a new state of progress will be helpful to human societies, cultures, or individuals. For example, the progress, or complexity, created by the automobile has not always been advantageous for humanity.

[i] Herbert J. Muller, Frankenstein’s Children, p.41

[ii] Edward Goldsmith, from Turning Away from Technology, p.116

[iii] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, p. 192

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