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Cover Story: The Progress Myth

Humanity’s ascent is often measured by the speed of progress. But what if progress is actually spiraling us downwards, towards collapse? Ronald Wright, whose best-seller, A Short History Of Progress inspired the film Surviving Progress (2011), shows how past civilizations were destroyed by “progress traps”– alluring technologies and belief systems that serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. As pressure on the world’s resources accelerates and financial elites bankrupt nations, can our globally-entwined civilization escape a final, catastrophic progress trap? Illuminating insights from thinkers who have probed our genes, our brains, and our social behavior, this requiem to progress-as-usual also poses a challenge: to prove that making apes smarter isn’t an evolutionary dead-end.

PROGRESS TRAPS

Ronald Wright
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In defining progress, I think it’s very important to make a distinction between good progress and bad progress. I mean, things progress in the sense that they change. Both in nature and in human society, there appears to be a clear trend towards increasing complexity as change proceeds. We tend to delude ourselves that these changes always result in improvements, from the human point of view.

We’re now reaching a point at which technological progress and the increase in our economies, and our numbers threaten the very existence of humanity.  I came up with the term “progress trap” to define human behaviors that sort of seem to be good things, seem to provide benefits in the short-term, but which ultimately lead to disaster, because they’re unsustainable.

One example would be when our ancestors were hunting mammoths. The people who discovered how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made real progress, but the people who discovered that they could eat really well by driving a whole herd over a cliff and kill 200 at once, had fallen into a progress trap.

Jane Goodall

Arguably, we are the most intellectual creature that’s ever walked on planet earth.  So how come, then, is this intellectual being destroying its only home?

Ronald Wright

The Ice Age hunter is still us, it’s still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there’s always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.

Faith in progress has become a kind of religious faith, a sort of fundamentalism, rather like the market fundamentalism that has just recently crashed and burned. The idea that you can let markets rip is a delusion, just as the idea that you can let technology rip, and it will solve the problems created by itself. That has become a belief very similar to the religious delusions that caused some societies to crash and burn in the past.

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus sailing, it took 13 centuries to add 200 million people to the world’s population. Now it takes only three years.  Somebody in the United States or Europe is consuming about 50 times more resources than a poor person in a place like Bangladesh.  If China were to reach the level of consumption of, say, the United States or Europe, it’s very unlikely that the world could support the addition of a billion consumers at that level.

Margaret Atwood

Instead of thinking that nature is this endless credit card that we can just keep drawing on, we have to think about the finite nature of that planet and how to keep it alive so that we too may remain alive. Unless we conserve the planet, there isn’t going to be any “the economy”.

A SHORT HISTORY OF DEBT

Michael Hudson

Written records go back about 4,000 years, and from 2,000 BC to the time of Jesus, it was normal for all of the countries in the world to periodically cancel the debts when they became too large to pay.  So you have Sumer, Babylonia, Egypt, other regions all proclaiming these debt cancellations and the effect was to make a clean slate so that society would begin all over again.

What was absolutely new in the Roman Empire was irreversible concentration of wealth at the top of the economic pyramid, and that’s what progress has meant ever since. Progress has meant: ‘You will never get back what we take from you’. That’s what brought on the Dark Age and that’s what’s threatening to bring in the Dark Age again, if society doesn’t realize that if it lets the wealth concentrate in the hand of a financial class, this class is not going to be anymore intelligent in the long-term in disposing of the wealth than their predecessors were in Rome or in other countries.

Today, the oligarchy is running things. They would rather annul the bottom 90% right to live than to annul the money that’s due to them. They would rather strip the planet and shrink the population and be paid rather than give up their claims. That’s the political fight of the XXIst Century.

Simon Johnson

The term oligarchy just means a small group of people who’ve got a lot of political power based on their economic power.  We like to think of the United States as being much more democratic, much more spread out in terms of who has the power. And an oligarchy is something that’s usually associated with relatively poor countries. But that view has to be updated, because we’ve got an essential part of that problem, that structure, in the U.S. today.

The people who’ve got all this economic power are in the financial sector, Wall Street, which uses its power to buy influence in Washington to get more deregulation, so to get more of the playing field shaped in the way they want which is no government intervention, no restrictions on what they do.

Ronald Wright

What you can see towards the end of the classic Maya period is the enormous amount of effort being put into building palaces and temple precincts that are controlled entirely by the nobility and from which one imagines the peasantry was excluded, just as the ordinary folk are excluded from gated communities in many countries today.  People at the bottom were becoming more and more disenchanted with the rulers as they felt [the breakdown of] the social contract that had once existed.  The rulers [had been perceived as] the mediators between the gods and themselves, and would help them get good weather and good crops and all of that.  Rulers losing touch with the people who they claim to represent is a pattern I think we can see a lot in the modern world now.

DEBT PUSHERS

Margaret Atwood

Rich countries lend a so-called developing country a big whack of money. Debt is incurred on behalf of people who have nothing to do with it, that don’t know anything about it. Then they are expected to pay, pay the price, by scraping off their livelihood, turning it into money and giving it to somebody else.

Kambale Musavali

The number one costs for foreign lending through some of the multilateral institutions such as IMF or World Bank is the death toll on the continent.  We can look at the support of dictators that took place nearly 40 years — from 1960 until 1997.  [A dictator is] given humongous loans. Now the Congo has a 14 billion dollar debt. It’s been structured in a way where the people do not benefit and the human cost is so high.

You know, in the Congo, we’ve had 6 million deaths since 1996.  The population didn’t have access to medical services, didn’t have access to adequate education or living wage. And it continues until today.  How could the money given to Congo have benefited the people?  Simple.  Use some of the funds to make sure that there are strong institutions within the country that will protect against human rights violations and so many other issues that we face. But these funds are not used for that because whenever it’s loaned, it is dictated specifically what projects you have to use it for.  And mainly it is usually mining projects to get access to our resources.

DIGGING HOLES

Michael Hudson

You can relate the destruction of the rain forest in Brazil directly to the Wall Street and London financial sector. The story begins in 1982, when countries couldn’t pay their debt anymore. And the result is that the Latin American countries, generally, stopped paying, because they said, ‘We’re already paying all of the balance of payment surplus we have to the banks. We don’t have any money to import to sustain living standards, we don’t have money to import to build new factories and to pay the debt’. So the International Monetary Fund, at that point, said, ‘Don’t go bankrupt, you have an option. You can begin to sell off the public domain; you have plenty of assets to sell to pay us. You can sell off your water rights, your forests, your subsoil mineral resources, you can sell us your oil rights.

And so, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries began to sell off their resources to private investors. And the private investors bought these resources on credit.

They’re cutting down the rain forest, they’re emptying out the economy, they are turning it into a hole in the ground to repay the bankers. That’s the financial business plan, that’s how it ends up. Because the bankers can always take their money and begin digging holes in another country and emptying out that country. That’s the global financial system.

David Suzuki

Economics is so fundamentally disconnected from the real world it is destructive. If you take an introductory course in economics, the professor, in the first lecture, will show a slide of the economy, and it looks very impressive, you know, raw materials, extraction process, manufacturer, wholesale, retail, with arrows going back and forth. And they try to impress you because they think, and they know damn well, economics is not a science, but they’re trying to fool us into thinking that it’s a real science, it’s not. Economics is a set of values that they, then, try to use mathematical equations and all that stuff, and pretend that it’s a science. But if you ask the economist: in that equation, where do you put the ozone layer, where do you put the deep underground aquifer as a fossil water, where do you put topsoil, or biodiversity? Their answer is, ‘Oh, those are externalities’. Well, then you might as well be on Mars: that economy is not based in anything like the real world. It’s life, the web of life that filters water in the hydrologic cycle, it’s microorganisms in the soil that create the soil that we can grow our food in. Nature performs all kinds of services, insects fertilize all of the flowering plants, these services are vital to the health of the planet. Economists call these externalities … that’s nuts!  Conventional economics is a form of brain damage.

Jane Goodall

Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn’t make sense. It’s a pattern that is bound to collapse. And we keep seeing it collapsing, but then we build it up because there are these strong vested interests, we must have business as usual. And you know, you get the arms manufacturers, you get the petroleum industry, the pharmaceutical industry and all of this feeding into helping to create corrupt governments who are putting the future of their own people at risk.

ESCAPING THE TRAP

Stephen Hawking

We are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. If we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy, we should make sure we survive and continue. If we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries, our species should be safe. We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years.

Vaclev Smil

We have to use less.  People are renting storage spaces which they will never access in X amount of years, to store the junk which they cannot store in their 5,000 square foot homes, right?  The poor need more, there is no doubt about this, there is no discussion there. If you are an average village somewhere in Rajastan or Punjab or Nigeria, you need more, period.  Human decency compels you to say these people need more, more clean water, more basic food, more education for their children.

Jane Goodall

Brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.

The Planetary Brain

Robert Wright

It is imperative that we make further moral progress, that we get more and more people to acknowledge the humanity of one another, or it will be bad for pretty much everyone. If we don’t develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we’ll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don’t get too bad, because if they do it’ll come back to haunt us.

It’s easy now to see a giant social brain, or “planetary brain” because it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it looks so much like a nervous system, you can’t miss the analogy.

The bad news is that the enlightenment is sometimes hard to come by because of human nature, because we’ve got these kind of animal minds, designed for a very different environment, facing novel problems, so the enlightenment part is going to require some real education and reflection and self-discipline.

Ronald Wright

We have to reform ourselves, remake ourselves in a way that cuts against the grain of our inner animal nature and transcend that Ice Age hunter.

Now it’s more likely that we’re going to come to grief because of environmental problems. If we do, then that is really nature saying the experiment of civilization is a failed evolutionary experiment.  So it’s up to us to prove nature wrong, in a sense, to show that we can take control of our own destinies and behave in a wise way that will ensure the continuation of the experiment of civilization.

Surviving Progress (2011) A film by Mathieu Roy & Harold Crooks. To purchase your copy:
http://firstrunfeatures.com/survivingprogressdvd.html

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  • Brian

    good stuff, I will watch the film too

  • Duncan_M

    I wholeheartedly agree that we as a nation need to redefine progress, I’ve been noticing more on talk radio that I listen to mostly for news and information about everything really, that so much of the state of our economy and well-being is defined by growing the numbers of everything — growing simply by numbers related to people, money, etc is not necessarily reflective of quality of life and we should stop reducing the quality of our lives to growth and our future at the mercy of it.

  • Jenni_

    I like the hopeful tone of this article and especially Jane Goodall reminding us that we humans are excellent problem solvers

  • http://www.bestwaystosayiloveyou.com Jenni_

    I like the hopeful tone of this article and especially Jane Goodall reminding us that we humans are excellent problem solvers

  • Ryan_D

    I bought a copy of the movie after reading the article, how very interesting and especially that it was hopeful rather than bantering about all that’s wrong , these great people suggest ways we can fix things individually and in communities.