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Progress progress progress!

July 30, 2009

Progress has been the hot topic for me in the past few days.  First I re-read a number of Ran Prieur’s essays1 after he posted a link in a thread on his forums2, then I posted the scan from Lies My Teacher Told Me, and today I couldn’t help but think about it.

Riding my bike home today I realized something—nothing surprising, just a realization.  That realization: Almost everyone in this society who professes a belief in progress and feels that progress is a good thing, is either lying to themselves about what progress means or they know, unconsciously, that they don’t believe in it and they just can’t admit it to themselves.  I’ll try to explain what I mean.

First: I think one of the biggest lies about technology is that it makes people’s lives easier.  Technology (at least the complex technology of industry) is not used to make our lives easier or more comfortable, although surely some could argue that “improvements” have been made in some ways, but to further increase production.  This is a paradox that is recognized in economics3, but it should also be easy to see in our everyday lives.  Everyone has heard the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” and I think this displays exactly what I mean.  Instead of being content with our lives as they are—we’re healthy, sometimes happy, and not worrying about where we’ll get our next meal or if our water is clean, which is more than can be said for many people on other parts of the planet—we want more! more! more!  I’ve got a house, but I want a bigger house!  I’ve got a car but I want a faster, more expensive car!  One that recognizes my voice and only responds to me!  I’ve got a boat but I want another boat, one that I can not only fish off of but live on!  And so on.

Even though it’s easy to see through, the lie is still told.  We are told, and we believe, that our lives are easier, more comfortable, better in every way than those of our primitive, barbarous, stupid ancestors who died at the age of forty.  Of course anthropologists disagree; Peter Farb, anthropologist and author of Man’s Rise to Civilization (which I’m about two thirds of the way through as I write this), is quoted in the pages I posted yesterday, saying “Despite the theories traditionally taught in high school social studies, the truth is, the more primitive the society, the more leisured the way of life.” And unlike impoverished modern humans, our “primitive” anscestors usually did know where their next meal was coming from and that their water was clean, because the landscape was healthy and the animal populations weren’t completely decimated.

My realization was that almost nobody in modern industrialized societies is in favor of a more leisured way of life—but the exact opposite.  If people really believe the lie of progress, and that technology, especially the complex technology of today, makes our lives easier, then they would all be in favor of doing nothing and just enjoying the fruits of our past labor.  But nobody, conservative or liberal, will say it’s OK to sit at home all day, every day, watching Internet porn and playing Xbox.  You cannot be a freeloader; you must be a productive member of society; you must produce in order to consume.  If we really had it good—as good as we’re supposed to have it, as good as we’re told we have it—then kicking back and doing nothing would be seen as an ideal, not activity deserving of scorn.

Don’t misinterpret me.  I don’t think sitting around all day and doing nothing is an ideal lifestyle; in fact, it’s boring, unfulfilling, and lonely.  But then I’m not a believer in progress.  Unlike the believers of the lie known as progress, I don’t think spending one’s whole life producing and consuming products for the sake of The Economy is a healthy lifestyle, and I think if they were honest with themselves they would also see that neither extreme is desirable.  This is what I think is ideal: A life in which we are in touch with our wants and needs, in which we have something to do with fulfilling our needs, and in which we do not kill ourselves (or anyone/anything else) in pursuit of our wants.  This kind of lifestyle keeps a person balanced and sane while still providing them with much leisure time, but not so much as their health (physical and mental) is affected badly.  Sitting around being fed by machines, therefore, is not ideal, and neither is working ourselves to death in the name of The Economy.

Edit, July 31: I realized last night that I didn’t even post the main idea in the way it came to me.  My point is this: If progress is such a good thing, and the point of progress is to make people’s lives better, then why does everyone work so damn hard, and why are they so harsh on freeloaders who are living an easy life?  But if it’s not, then what is everybody working so hard toward?  What is the goal?  If the goal really is to make people’s lives better and more comfortable, then why don’t people actually relax and enjoy?  If that’s not the goal, then what is it? It seems senseless to just produce for the sake of producing, especially if we don’t see the benefits of it.  Perhaps most importantly of all, there is an entire class of people who are reaping the benefits of progress, who are freeloading, and nobody is criticizing them for it.  And why not?  Because they’re the ones running the whole damn thing, and if you open your mouth they’ll shut you up, or, better yet, fire you.

Edit, Feburary 5, 2010: This edit is basically for one specific YouTube user that I forwarded here from the video version of “Environmentalism as Morality” that I put up, but also something I figured I could tag on to the end just ‘cuz.

Imagine that two cultures peacefully coexist with one another: one civilized and technologically advanced, the other a culture of traditional indigenous people, who some might call “primitive.”  Imagine the civilized live in a city (duh) while the indigenous live in a village, and the city and the village are separated by, oh, I don’t know, let’s say ten miles.  Have that imaginary situation drawn out?  Good.  Now, given the inherent growth of civilization, or cities to be more exact4, let’s see what the situation is in a number of years (the exact number of which doesn’t really matter).  Let’s say that somewhere in between two settlements—let’s say three miles from the indigenous village, seven miles from the civilized city—there arises a dispute about (a) which people of which culture get to occupy the land on that exact spot and (b) which people of which culture get to use the materials and foodstuff found at that spot.  Who get’s it?  Since it is closer to the indigenous community, and falls within the bounds they have traditionally occupied outside of the strict villiage limits, they feel that they have a claim to it.  But since the city-dwellers need the extra space to grow more food, build more machines, and since the land has been unchanged for many years and since the indigenous people “haven’t been doing anything with it,” they feel that they have the right to it.  Who’s right?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the indigenous community is right, by every logical and moral argument anyone thinks to make.  It’s their land and their food and their resources, and they get to keep it, say the laws of the Universe.  Let’s say that meanwhile the city continues to grow.  In a number of years they come back to the same spot and say, “OK, you’ve had this land long enough, and now we need it, so let’s make a deal.”  But the indigenous community doesn’t want to make a deal: it’s their land and they want the land, not any money or machines or “comforts.”  After a few attempted negotiations, let’s say the civilized city folk get sick of these backward indigenous people hogging up the land when they don’t even need it.  Let’s say a few years go by.  Let’s say the civilized city folk have had enough, and they approach the indigenous community leaders with an ultimatum. “Give us this land in exchange for what we are willing to offer your people for it,” the civilized tell the indigenous, “or else we will have no choice but to fight you for it.”  Let’s say the indigenous community refuses to give the civilized the land.  Let’s say they fight over it.

Who wins?

I’m pretty sure most of the objections arise from this paragraph:

I want the Universe and Life restored to the state they were in before humanity hijacked evolution. If others don’t agree, this doesn’t matter; they don’t have to share my view of the world. But there is a caveat: If those who disagree with me follow the path they are on, those who share in my belief won’t be able to continue existing. We aren’t actively trying to destroy those who disagree with us, but they are. We are, therefore, literally at war—and we’re on defense. This is a war they are winning. This is a war that, if we refuse to fight, they will win.  This is not a moral argument, but an argument simply for the continued existence of diverse peoples.  But if the people of one dominating lifestyle are permitted to continue on as they are living, the end of all who oppose them—or just don’t agree with them—is surely imminent.

The objections make sense, of course, because I wrote it in a way that is intentionally somewhat inflammatory.  The objections make sense, but the reactions don’t necessarily.  Moving on….

Most of the critics of my “Environmentalism as Morality” video will no doubt claim that they don’t want to live in a world with constant expansion or violent oppression, and therefore the civilized folks in the situation just outlined aren’t an adequate representation of them.  They aren’t the enemies in this war I mention.  Personally I think this is a load of bullshit, but for the sake of argument, let’s suppose they are right.  You could still apply the above in two ways: the first alternate way is to change out the indigenous folks for peaceful civilized folks that just want to improve the human condition; the second is to add a third group—so we have indigenous, peaceful civilized, and growth-oriented (domineering) civilized—and then play out the situation again.  This time the growth-oriented folks approach both the indigenous tribe and the peaceful city folk, but the results for both are the same.  Follow this to its conclusions and you see exactly what my point is.

Think about it dudes.

Notes and Links

  1. How to Drop Out: criticism and response
    Seven Lies About Civilization
    Don’t Fear The Singularity
  2. Moneyless Man Living in Cave at (Link goes directly to Ran’s post, but the rest of the thread is an OK discussion, at least in parts.)
  3. Jevons paradox at
  4. More quotes, personal philosophy, and civilization at OMG MY BLOG

More quotes, personal philosophy, and civilization


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