The myth of progress and why it’s holding us back

We need myths. “Myth” doesn’t mean “untrue story,” as the headline writers usually assume. In its strongest sense, myth means “a story we live by.” Or a “master narrative,” as the post-modernist crowd puts it.
City of the future past
Myths, we got ’em. “Free enterprise.” “Manifest destiny.” “Equal opportunity.” “Horatio Alger.” These are some particularly American narratives. Another favorite, not just with Americans, but one that has sustained most of Western society since The Enlightenment, is the notion of “Progress.”

Progress. There’s a whole book in that one — its history, its roots in Christian theology, its pairing with popular ideas of evolution, even its pervasive effect on language. The basic credo of Progress is simple: tomorrow will always be better than today.

If we say that something is “outdated,” it’s another way of saying “it’s bad.” If we say something is “more modern,” it’s another way of saying “it’s better.” A politician will never be contradicted when calling for the need to “go forward.” Nobody blinks when a science buff refers to “more evolved” species.

In the same way, a technophile might describe the prospect of using lower-energy technologies as “going back to the 19th century.” Obviously, this can’t be literally true without time travel — rather, it’s poetic license issued by the Progress narrative.

The recent reintroduction of horse-drawn rubbish carts in France, for example, will surely attract ridicule in some circles as being the work of Luddites and technophobes. This in spite of the fact that the move was simply pragmatic, a rational response to actual circumstances.

The point is not whether to be phobic or philic about technology. Technology is neutral; it’s a way to help us adapt — in the same way that evolution functions as just a series of successful adaptations to new conditions. Whether or not the result is considered “higher” or “more advanced” has no bearing on the success of it. What matters is how well a given adaptation helps a given critter to get along in its changing environment.

Here’s the thing about Progress: it was only a very particular set of circumstances that allowed us to establish the Progress narrative, shaped as it was by 250 years of fossil-fueled industrial civilization. So wowed were we by the pattern of steady improvements our industrial-age science and technology are so good at, we somehow generalized this special kind of progress into a full-blown paradigm that we’ve cheerfully applied to society at large, if not to most of the human condition.

Unfortunately, those particular circumstances are undergoing a fundamental change. With oil in decline now, and coal not much later, the days of cheap and abundant energy are on the way out, and with them, the essential premise of our industrial, consumer-centric culture.

So-called substitutes for fossil energy will surely come along, but barring the miraculous, they will be neither cheap nor abundant. Believers in technological progress will dispute this loud and long, but to the best of my understanding, the arguments are quantitatively improbable, sometimes to the point of sounding like nothing so much as a brave attempt to bargain with the passing of an era. Our belief in Progress has served us so well for so long that it’s almost all we know, or want to know.

What we don’t know is a new way to break some old habits. For the last two-plus centuries, our favorite means of adaptation has always boiled down to one trick: some variant of “scale up and apply more power.” Now we’re faced with not being able to use that trick any more. Trouble is, we’re not accustomed to thinking outside the energy-intensive box. We’ve forgotten that technology isn’t always about fancier ways to burn energy.

More to the point, we can’t cope with the possibility that tomorrow might in fact be worse than today. Our myth of Progress forbids it. It’s outright heresy.

Within that forbidden realm, though, lie the adaptations that we need to make in order to bring us through the coming energy descent successfully and decently. The sooner we get to it, the better, of course — although it may mean embracing a more suitable story than Progress before much can really happen.

It appears, then, that tomorrow may well bring us a lot more walking, a lot fewer cars, and plenty of time for weeding the potato patch — a tomorrow worse than today, in some ways. But on the upside, there’ll be a lot more walking, a lot fewer cars, and plenty of time for weeding the potato patch. And that, you might say, is the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *