It's been said that a man’s religion is the thing he can’t bear to have questioned. If there’s any truth in that old saying, the idea that faith in progress is a religion has a great deal going for it. Over the seven years this blog has been appearing, I’ve discussed any number of controversial issues and made plenty of proposals that contradict the conventional wisdom of our times; none of them has fielded me as many spluttering denunciations as the suggestion that belief in progress is the most important civil religion of the modern industrial world.
A commenter on one of the many other sites where my posts appear thus started off his critique of last week’s post with a shout of “Why bear with this?” Since I doubt anybody’s holding a gun to his head and making him read The Archdruid Report, he’ll have to answer his question himself. Still, his furious outburst is a useful reminder of one of the distinctive features of the belief systems we’re discussing; however subtle and closely reasoned their intellectual sides happen to be, they reach right down into the deepest places of the human heart, and draw on powerful and unreasoning passions.
Civil religions and theist religions alike have motivated believers to die for their faith and to kill for it, to make tremendous sacrifices and commit appalling crimes. Not many human motivations can equal religion as a driving force, and I don’t know of any that reliably surpass it. When people push past the limits of ordinary humanity in any direction, good or evil, if it’s not a matter of the love or hate of one human being for another, odds are that what drives them onward is either a theist faith or a civil one.
This is among the core reasons why I’ve launched into an exploration of the religious dimensions of peak oil, and why I’ve begun that with a study of the most distinctive feature of the religious landscape of our time: the way that belief in the invincibility and beneficence of progress has come to serve an essentially religious role in the modern world, permeating the collective conversations of our time. It’s also a core reason why that exploration will continue over the weeks to come, because there’s much more that needs saying about the contemporary faith in progress, the historical mythology that underlies it, and the distortions it imposes on nearly all of our society’s assumptions about the future.
It’s important, to begin with, to pay attention to the ambiguities wrapped up in the modern conception of progress. When people think or talk about progress, by that name or any of its common euphemisms, there are at least three different things they can mean by it. All three share the common presupposition that history has an inherent tendency to move in a particular direction, that movement in that direction is a good thing, and that human beings can and should contribute to that forward movement toward the good; it’s the dimension of human life in which the movement is believed to be taking place that marks the distinction between these different meanings of progress.
The first version of progress is moral progress: it centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is toward increasingly ethical human relationships and social forms. These days, especially on the leftward end of society, this version of progress is usually framed in political terms, but its moral thrust is impossible to miss, as its proponents inevitably frame their arguments in terms of moral absolutes, virtues and vices. At its best, the ethical stance of the contemporary mainstream Left in America and Europe is one of the few really original moral philosophies to develop in modern times, with a distinctive focus on the virtues of equality, social justice, and kindness, all understood and pursued primarily on a collective rather than an individual level; at its worst—like all philosophies, it has its less impressive side—it becomes a self-righteous cant, by turns saccharine and shrill, in the service of the craving for unearned power that’s the besetting sin of all modern moralists.
You can see the faith in moral progress in action any time people insist that some proposed social change is an advance, a move forward, away from the ignorance and injustice of the benighted past. Even when this sort of talk is cheap manipulative rhetoric, as of course it so often is, it’s the faith in moral progress that gives the manipulation power and allows it to work. Think about the implications of “forward” and “backward” as applied to social changes, and you can begin to see how deeply the mythology of progress pervades contemporary thought: only if history has a natural direction of flow does it make any kind of sense to refer to one set of social policies as “progressive” and another as “backward,” say, or to describe the culture or laws of one of the flyover states despised by the coastal literati as “stuck in the 1950s.” It’s the faith that history moves in the direction set out by a specific definition of moral progress that gives these very common metaphors their meaning.
That’s only one of the three things that faith in progress can choose as its focus, though. The second is scientific and technical progress, which centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is toward increasingly complete human knowledge and domination of the cosmos. In theory, it might be possible to conceive of scientific progress without a corresponding increase in technical power, or vice versa; in practice, at least in the minds of those who interpret progress along these lines, the two are rarely separated. As Francis Bacon argued in the first gray dawn of the scientific revolution, the value of knowledge concerning nature is the power that results from that knowledge; investment in the production of scientific knowledge is almost universally justified by talking about what the resulting knowledge will let humanity do to the world.
To see the core features of a religion in starkest terms, it’s often useful to look at its most extreme forms, and the faith in scientific and technical progress is no exception. The example I have in mind here is the Singularitarian movement, which claims that sometime soon—Singularitarian prophet Ray Kurzweil has set the date as 2045—the unstoppable onward march of progress, bootstrapped by the creation of artificial intelligences far more powerful than any human mind, will accelerate to infinity. All the dreams of science fiction, from starflight through immortality to virtual sex with Marilyn Monroe, will become realities, and humanity will achieve something like godhood—unless the hyperintelligent computers decide to exterminate us all instead, that is.
There are plenty of things worth discussing about the Singularitarian religion, but the one that’s relevant to the present theme is the wild misunderstanding it imposes on the nature of scientific knowledge. A large portion of the discoveries of science, including many of its greatest achievements, can be summed up neatly by the words “you can’t do that.” If an all-wise supercomputer could be created at all—and it’s far from certain that one could be—it’s entirely possible that it would sort through the sum total of human science and technology and say to us, “For beings of such modest mental capacities, you’ve done a good job of figuring out what can be done with the resources available to you. Here are some technical tricks you haven’t worked out yet, but starflight, immortality, sex with this Marilyn Monroe person? Sorry, those aren’t possible; you’ll have to go on living without them.” What’s more, it’s entirely possible that it would be right.
Even outside the Singularitarian faith, though, you can count on either blank incomprehension or furious disagreement if you suggest that there might be things that scientific and technological progress can’t achieve. Those of my readers who have been in the peak oil scene for any length of time will have learned that the most common dismissal they’ll get, when they try to suggest to the rest of the world that betting the future on infinite resource extraction from a finite planet is not a bright idea, is some variation on “Oh, I’m sure they’ll come up with something.” The “they” in this overfamiliar sentence are of course scientists and engineers; the mere fact that “they” have been trying to come up with something in this particular case for well over a century, and success is still nowhere in sight, does nothing to dent the really rather touching faith that today’s popular culture places in their powers.
Scientific and technical progress, then, plays a massive role in the modern mythology of progress. It's equalled if not exceeded by the third kind of progress, economic progress, which centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is to ever greater levels of economic abundance, however that abundance may happen to be distributed. The belief that ongoing exponential economic growth is normal and beneficent, and that anything else is abnormal and destructive, is perhaps the most widely accepted form of the mythology of progress in contemporary life, not least because most people like to imagine that they themselves will benefit from it.
Open the business section of any newspaper, turn the pages of any economics textbook, scan the minutes of any meeting of any business corporation in contemporary America or most of the modern world, and you’ll get to see a faith in economic progress as absolute and unthinking as any medieval peasant’s trust in the wonderworking bones of the local saint. In the mythic world portrayed by the prophets and visionaries of that faith, economic growth is always good, and comes as a reward to those who obey the commandments of the economists. The fact—and of course it is a fact—that obeying the commandments of the economists has by and large brought more disaster than prosperity to the industrial world’s economies for decades somehow rarely enters into these reverential thoughts.
In recent years, to be sure, faith in economic progress—that is, growth—has come under fire from two sides. On the one hand, there’s the small but gradually expanding body of ecologists, economists, and other scholars who point out the absurdity of perpetual economic expansion on a finite planet, and document some of the ways that an obsession with growth for its own sake produces a bumper crop of problems. On the other, there’s the less coherent but far more widespread sense that economic progress doesn’t seem to be happening the way it’s supposed to, that standards of living for most people are declining rather than improving, and that economic policies that have been sold to the public as ways to fix a troubled economy are having exactly the opposite effect. Even so, most of the critiques coming out of this latter awareness, and no small number of those belonging to the former class, assume that growth is normal, and fixate on how that supposedly normal state got derailed.
Moral progress, scientific and technological progress, and economic progress: those are the three forms that progress takes in the minds of those who put their faith in it: if you will, the three heads of the deity of the Church of Progress. It’s crucial to keep in mind, though, that these three visions of progress often intertwine in complex ways in the minds of believers. To many mainstream American liberals in the late 20th century, for example, the limitless progress of science and technology would guarantee equally limitless economic growth, which would make it possible to abolish poverty, provide equal opportunity for all, and fulfill the hopes of moral progress without requiring any of those who already had access to privilege and economic abundance to give up any of these things.
So complete a fusion of the three modes of progress was once standard. Read any of the vast supply of self-congratulatory literature on progress churned out by popular presses in 19th century Britain or America, for example, and you can count on finding all three twisted tightly round one another, with the supposed moral superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization serving as the linchpin of arguments that claimed to explain the limitless progress of technology and also to justify the extremely uneven distribution of the benefits of economic growth. The 20th century’s ghastly history made such moral claims a good deal harder to make with a straight face, and so versions of the faith in progress popular in recent decades often avoid the moral dimension and focus on the other two forms of progress.
Far more often than not these days, as a result, the mainstream American version of faith in progress fixates purely on the supposedly unstoppable feedback loop between scientific and technological progress, on the one hand, and economic growth on the other, while moral progress has been consigned to bit parts here and there. It’s mostly on the left that faith in moral progress retains its former place in the blend—one of the many ways in which the leftward end of the American political landscape is significantly more conservative, in the strict sense of the word, than those who call themselves conservative these days—and even there, it’s increasingly a fading hope, popular among the older generation of activists and among those who have moved toward the fringes of society and mix their faith in progress with a good solid helping of its erstwhle antireligion, the faith in apocalypse: it’s from this unstable mix that we get claims that the morally better world will arrive once evil, and most of the planet’s population, are blown to smithereens.
It’s by way of this latter process, I think, that faith in moral progress tends to pop up in the literature of peak oil, and even more often in conversations in the peak oil scene. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times that someone has suggested to me that if industrial civilization continues down the well-worn track of overshoot and decline, the silver lining to that very dark cloud is that the rigors of the decline will force all of us, or at least the survivors, to become better people—“better” being defined variously as more ecologically sensitive, more compassionate, or what have you, depending on the personal preferences of the speaker.
Now of course when civilizations overshoot their resource base and start skidding down the arc of decline toward history’s compost bin, a sudden turn toward moral virtue of any kind is not a common event. The collapse of social order, the rise of barbarian warbands, and a good many of the other concomitants of decline and fall tend to push things hard in the other direction. Still, the importance of faith in progress in the collective imagination of our time is such that some way has to be found to make the future look better than the present. If a future of technological advancement and economic growth is no longer an option, then the hope for moral betterment becomes the last frail reed to which believers in progress cling with all their might.
To many of my readers, this may seem like a good idea; many others may consider it inevitable. I’m far from convinced that it’s either one. For more than thirty years now, the conviction that progress will somehow bail the industrial world out from the consequences of its own bad decisions has been the single largest obstacle in the way of preventing more of those same bad decisions from being made. How many times have we all heard that economic growth was going to take care of resource depletion and environmental degradation, or that scientific and technical advances were going to take care of them, or that a great moral awakening—call it the rise of planetary consciousness, or any of the other popular buzzwords, if you wish—was going to take care of them. As it turned out, of course, none of those things took care of them at all, and since so many people placed their faith on one or the other kind of progress, nothing else took care of them, either.
Nor, for that matter, is faith in progress hardwired into the human psyche. It’s a specific belief system with distinct and well-documented historical roots in the Western world, and most other people in most other places and times have had beliefs about the future that contradicted it in every particular. There have been many cultures in which history was held to have an inherent tendency to move from better to worse, from a Golden Age in the past to an age of darkness and horror somewhere in the future, and individual and collective hope focused on the possibility of holding onto the beneficent legacies of the past as long as possible in the teeth of decline. Nor are these the only options; there have, for example, been many cultures that saw time as a circle, and many more for whom time had no direction at all.
It’s quite common for people raised in a given culture to see its view of things as normal and natural, and to scratch their heads in bewilderment when they find that people in other places and times saw things in very different ways. Modern industrial civilization, for all its self-described sophistication, is no more exempt from this custom than any other human society. To make sense of the future closing in on us, it’s going to be necessary to get past that easy but misleading habit of thought, to recognize that the contemporary faith in progress is a culturally specific product that emerged in a highly unusual and self-terminating set of historical circumstances, and to realize that while it was highly adaptive in those circumstances, it’s become lethally maladaptive now.
To understand these things, in turn, it’s going to be necessary to dig down to the foundations of modern industrial culture, and grapple with one of the core cognitive frameworks our society—like every other—uses to make sense of the inkblot patterns of the cosmos. For want of a better label, we’ll call this framework the shape of time. We’ll talk about that next week.
*******************My longtime readers may be pleased to learn that New Society Publications is now offering a 20% discount on prepublication orders for Green Wizardry, the book that came out of the series of posts on Seventies-era appropriate technology I posted here in 2011 and 2012. This project took a little longer than my previous New Society books, but I think you’ll find it was worth the wait.