Wednesday, July 18, 2012

We Are Changed by What We Change (Slight Return)

Paul Kingsnorth:

Wright is a very thoughtful writer and this is a very interesting and analytical book – it’s not at all a piece of tub thumping. He’s examining the myth of progress. I don’t mean myth in the sense that it’s a lie, I mean in the sense of the guiding story that our civilisation lives by. Wright says that all civilisations live by myths, that we all have stories that we believe in about the way the world is. One of our myths is the idea of progress – that things always get better and that we are moving in a step-by-step evolutionary process towards a better life. In some ways that is true. We can look back over the last 100 years in the western world and see that medicine, science and technology have got better and we have more democracy. So we can look at these and say progress is real. But if you look at the big sweep of human civilisation over the last 10,000 or 15,000 years, then progress is a lot more bumpy. It goes up and down.

The really interesting thing about Wright’s book is his examination of why what we regard as progress happened in the first place. He finds that more often than not it’s an accident, and what we regard as a deliberate step forward to a new and better form of society is often actually something that’s done in order to make up for a mistake that happened before. He sees progress as a series of traps which, far from improving life for everybody, just force us into this machine – this strange civilisation which goes faster and faster. And as it does so, it eats up all its own natural resources, creates a society which grips its citizens tighter and tighter, and needs more and more economic growth until at a certain stage it all collapses and the process begins again.

It's interesting to consider every so often the fact that so much of what we call progress, whether cultural, political, or technological, has only occurred in the last 200 years. And yet, we constantly act as if this tiny little slice of history is representative of anything essential to existence, and we expect it to continue indefinitely. I don't see questioning it as being fatalist, though—we can't help but act, and there's no salvation to be found in trying to live in some equally mythical harmony with nature, either.