Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Questioning Progress

Good article in the Atlantic Is 'Progress' Good for Humanity?
The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress.

The story tends to go something like this: Inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world. Fueled by the optimism and scientific know-how of the Enlightenment, a series of heroic men—James Watt, Adam Smith, William Huskisson, and so on—fought back against the stultifying effects of regulated economies, irrational laws and customs, and a traditional guild structure that quashed innovation. By the mid-19th century, they had managed to implement a laissez-faire (“free”) economy that ran on new machines and was centered around modern factories and an urban working class. It was a long and difficult process, but this revolution eventually brought Europeans to a new plateau of civilization. In the end, Europeans lived in a new world based on wage labor, easy mobility, and the consumption of sparkling products.

Europe had rescued itself from the pre-industrial misery that had hampered humankind since the dawn of time. Cheap and abundant fossil fuel powered the trains and other steam engines that drove humankind into this brave new future. Later, around the time that Europeans decided that colonial slavery wasn’t such a good idea, they exported this revolution to other parts of the world, so that everyone could participate in freedom and industrialized modernity. They did this, in part, by “opening up markets” in primitive agrarian societies. The net result has been increased human happiness, wealth, and productivity—the attainment of our true potential as a species.

The idea that the Industrial Revolution has made us not only more technologically advanced and materially furnished but also better for it is a powerful narrative and one that’s hard to shake. It makes it difficult to dissent from the idea that new technologies, economic growth, and a consumer society are absolutely necessary. To criticize industrial modernity is somehow to criticize the moral advancement of humankind, since a central theme in this narrative is the idea that industrialization revolutionized our humanity, too. Those who criticize industrial society are often met with defensive snarkiness: “So you’d like us to go back to living in caves, would ya?” or “you can’t stop progress!”

Narratives are inevitably moralistic; they are never created spontaneously from “the facts” but are rather stories imposed upon a range of phenomena that always include implicit ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. The proponents of the Industrial Revolution inherited from the philosophers of the Enlightenment the narrative of human (read: European) progress over time but placed technological advancement and economic liberalization at the center of their conception of progress. This narrative remains today an ingrained operating principle that propels us in a seemingly unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology, because the assumption is that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.

But what if we rethink the narrative of progress? What if we believe that the inventions in and after the Industrial Revolution have made some things better and some things worse? What if we adopt a more critical and skeptical attitude toward the values we’ve inherited from the past? Moreover, what if we write environmental factors back in to the story of progress? Suddenly, things begin to seem less rosy...
The article then lays out the fact that air and water is now poisonous, and the climate is changing. This is from a book on sustainability, so it doesn't even point out things like the statistic this week that someone takes there life every 40 seconds around the world. Progress! The author concludes:
When we take these trajectories into consideration, the Industrial Revolution starts to look like something less than an “undivided blessing.” It begins to look like, at best, a mixed blessing—one that resulted in technologies that have allowed many people to live longer, safer lives, but that has, simultaneously, destroyed global ecosystems, caused the extinction of many living species, facilitated rampant population growth, and wreaked havoc on climate systems, the effects of which will be an increase in droughts, floods, storms, and erratic weather patterns that threaten most global societies.

All of this is to say that the simple-minded narrative of progress needs to be rethought. This is not a new idea: In fact, critics of industrialization lived throughout the Industrial Revolution, even if their message was often drowned out by the clanking sounds of primitive engines.
This article, Is Progress Bad? is a critique of the article from the economics priesthood from a blog called Growth Economics, so you can imagine the biases here. Of course, the above article is tantamount to questioning God and the Pope in the fifteenth century, so of course the Cardinals of the economics profession must leap to the defense lest people begin to question the one true faith.

He argues that there is no assumption of moral progress in material progress, which I find rather laughable. Of course this is implied by the economics profession, even if they rarely phrase it that way. As the article points out, this assumption is implicit in economics. And he argues that future progress will fix all the problems caused by past progress:
What’s his real argument, then? Let me take a stab at summarizing it. After the Industrial Revolution, bad things happened in addition to good things. Caradonna thinks those bad things are particularly bad, and thinks we should give up some of the good things (gas-powered cars) in order to alleviate the bad things (global warming).

Okay. Great. I’m with you Prof. Caradonna. Seriously, I’m in for a carbon tax and expanded spending on alternative energy R-and-D. I want to drive around either an electric car, or one powered by hydrogen, or using gas produced by algae that actually pulls CO2 from the atmosphere. But the idea that economic growth – progress – is somehow the enemy of that goal is misguided. To paraphrase Homer Simpson: “To economic growth, the cause – and solution – to all of life’s problems”. Economic growth created the conditions that allowed us to alleviate evils like starvation and infant mortality while at the same time giving us more clothes, better housing, faster ways to get around, means of communication, Diet Coke, and gigantic-ass TV’s. It also bequeathed us technologies that heat up the atmosphere. And that sucks. But it sucks less than starving.
"The cause of and solution to all life's problems." Perhaps he does not realize that The Simpsons is a comedy, and that line is supposed to be a parody* Of course the narrative of progress is used to justify all sorts of things, from putting everything behind a fence and slapping a price tag on it (private property), unrestricted wealth growth at the top, extreme inequality, and productivism as the central feature of human existence.

To say that eternal growth and consumerism are going to actually help the environment is rather laughable. As Wikipedia put it, "Productivism or growthism is the belief that measurable economic productivity and growth are the purpose of human organization (e.g., work), and that 'more production is necessarily good'. Critiques of productivism center primarily on the limits to growth posed by a finite planet and extend into discussions of human procreation, the work ethic, and even alternative energy production." In fact, the critique is simply that growth is not going to solve those problems of alienation, environmental destruction, poverty, and social disintegration. In fact, it won't even solve hunger or lack of material resources, since it causes population to expand to the new level of resources.

* Some have argued that Adam Smith's term "invisible hand" was intended as parody.

1 comment:

  1. The economist's blog is truly awful. I made the mistake of reading the comments, which have now made me want to go and punch someone. But you're entirely right in your criticism - it's absolutely absurd to claim that there isn't a huge moral redemptive vision at the heart of capitalist economics.

    I've posted a link to this blog before but you should have a look at today's post at which covers some of the ways which people define and measure (or fail to measure) progress. You may find it (and the posts to come) interesting.


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