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Held Hostage by Progress

The continual recycling of repeatedly failed predictions in the peak oil community, the theme of last week’s post here, is anything but unique these days. Open a copy of today’s newspaper (or the online equivalent), and it’s a safe bet that you’ll find at least one op-ed piece calling enthusiastically for the adoption of some political, military, or economic policy that’s failed every single time it’s been tried. It’s hard, in fact, to think of any broadly accepted policy in any dimension of public life today that can’t be accurately described in those terms.

Arnold Toynbee, whose sprawling study of historical cycles is among the constellations by which this blog navigates, pointed out quite some time ago that this process of self-inflicted failure is one of the standard ways that civilizations write their own obituaries. In his formulation, societies thrive so long as the creative minority that leads them can keep on coming up with new responses to the challenges the world throws their way—a process that normally requires the regular replacement of the society’s leadership from below, so that new leaders with new ideas can rise to the top.

When that process of replacement breaks down, and the few people who still rise into the ruling class from lower down the pyramid are selected for their willingness to go along with the status quo rather than for their commitment to new ideas that work, what was once a creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority, which rules by coercion because it can no longer inspire by example. You can tell that this has happened to your society when every crisis gets met with the same stereotyped set of responses, even when those responses clearly don’t work. That happens because dominant minorities identify themselves with certain policies, and with the social roles and narratives that go with those policies, and it takes much more than mere failure to shake those obsessions loose.

The resulting one-track thinking can go very far indeed.  The ideology of the Roman Empire, for example, copied the theological vision of Roman Pagan religion and projected it onto the world of politics. Roman Pagans saw the universe as a place of chaotic powers that had to be subjected to the benevolent rule of a cosmic paterfamilias by way of Jove’s thunderbolts. Roman social thought understood history in the same way, as a process by which an original state of chaos was bashed into obedience by Rome’s legions and subjected to the benevolent rule of the emperor.  For much of Rome’s imperial history, that model even made a certain amount of sense, as substantial parts of the Mediterranean world that had been repeatedly ravaged by wars beforehand experienced an age of relative peace and prosperity under Roman rule.

The problem was simply that this way of dealing with problems had little relevance to the pressures that gutted the Roman Empire in its final years, and trying to apply it anyway very quickly turned into a massive source of problems in its own right. The endless expansion of the Roman military required by increasingly drastic attempts to hammer the world into obedience imposed crippling tax burdens across Roman society, driving whole economic sectors into bankruptcy, and the government responded to this by passing laws requiring every man to practice the same profession as his father, whether he could afford to do so or not. Across the dying empire, whenever one extension of centralized imperial authority turned into a costly flop, some even more drastic act of centralization was the only thinkable option, until finally the whole system fell to pieces.

Modern industrial civilization, especially but not only in its American expression, is well on its way to this same destination by a slightly different road. Across the board, in politics, in economics, in energy policy, in any other field you care to name, the enthusiastic pursuit of repeatedly failed policies has become one of the leitmotifs of contemporary life.  I’d like to focus on one of those briefly, partly because it’s a classic example of the kind, partly because it shows with rare clarity the thinking that underlies the whole phenomenon. The example I have in mind is the ongoing quest for fusion power.

Scientists in the US and something like a dozen other countries have been busy at that quest since the 1950s. In the process, they’ve discovered something well worth knowing about fusion power:  if it can be done at all, on any scale smaller than a star—and the jury’s still out on that one—it can’t be done at a price that any nation on Earth can possibly afford.  The dream of limitless cheap fusion power that filled the pages of gosh-wow newspaper articles and science fiction stories in the 1950s and 1960s is thus as dead as a sack full of doornails. Has this stopped the continuing flow of trillions of dollars of grant money into round after futile round of gargantuan fusion-power projects? Surely you jest.

Thus fusion researchers are stuck in the same self-defeating loop as those peak oil mavens who repeat the same failed prediction for the umpteenth time in a row, in the serene conviction that this time it’ll come true.  They’re approaching the situation in a way that prevents them from learning from their mistakes, no matter how many times the baseball bat of failure whacks them upside the head. In the case of the fusion scientists, what drives that loop is evident enough:  the civil religion of progress and, in particular, the historical mythology at the core of that religion.

Fusion researchers by and large see themselves as figures standing at the cutting edge of one important branch of techological progress. Given their training, their history, and the cultural pressures that surround them and define their work, it’s all but impossible for them to do anything else. That’s what has them boxed into a dead end with no easy exits, because the way progress is conceptualized in contemporary culture is fatally out of step with the facts on the ground.

Progress, as the word literally means, is continued forward motion in one direction. To believers in the civil religion of progress, that’s the shape of history:  whatever it is that matters—moral improvement, technological prowess, economic expansion, or what have you—marches invincibly onward over time, and any setbacks in the present will inevitably be overcome in the future, just as equivalent setbacks in the past were overcome by later generations.  To join the marching legions of progress, according to the myth, is to enlist on the side of history’s winners and to help the inevitable victory come about just that little bit sooner, just as to oppose progress is to fight valiantly in a misguided cause and lose.

That’s the myth that guides contemporary industrial society, just as the myth of Jupiter clobbering the Titans and imposing the rule of law on a fractious cosmos was the myth that guided Roman society. In the broadest sense, whether any given change is “progressive” or “regressive” has to be settled by good old-fashioned politics, since changes don’t arrive with these labels branded on their backsides. Once a group of people have committed themselves to the claim that a change they’re trying to bring about is progressive, though, they’re trapped; no matter what happens, the only action the myth allows them to consider is that of slogging gamely onwards under the conviction that the obstacles will inevitably give way if they just keep at it. Thus the fusion research community is stuck perpetually pushing on a door marked PULL and wondering why it won’t open.

Of course fusion researchers also have deeply pragmatic reasons for their refusal to learn the lessons of repeated failure. Careers, reputations, and multimillion-dollar grants depend on keeping up the pretense that further investment in fusion research has any chance of producing something more than a collection of vastly overpriced laboratory curiosities, and the field of physics is so specialized these days that shutting down fusion research programs would leave most fusion researchers with few marketable job skills relevant to anything this side of flipping burgers. Thus the charade goes on, funded by granting agencies just as committed to that particular corner of the myth of progress as the researchers whose salaries they pay, and continuing to swallow vast amounts of money, resources, and intellectual talent that might accomplish quite a bit if they could be applied to some less futile task.

The fusion research community, in effect, is being held hostage by the myth of progress. I’ve come to think that a great deal of contemporary science is caught in the same bind.  By and large, the research programs that get funding and prestige are those that carry forward existing agendas, and the law of diminishing returns—which applies to scientific research as it does to all other human activities—means that the longer an existing agenda has been pursued, the fewer useful discoveries are likely to be made by pursuing it further.  Yet the myth of progress has no place for the law of diminishing returns; in terms of the myth, every step along the forward march of progress must lead to another step, and that to another still.  This is why, to glance briefly at another example, efforts to craft a unified field theory out of Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics still get ample funding today, despite a century of total failure, while scores of research projects that might actually yield results go unfunded.

It does no good to science, in other words, to be imprisoned within the myth of endless linear progress. I’ve wondered more than once what modern science would look like if some philosophical equivalent of a SWAT team were to kick down the doors of the temple of Progress and liberate the hostages held inside. My best guess is that, freed from the myth, science would look like a tree, rather than a road leading into infinite distance:  rooted in mathematics and logic, supported by the strong trunk of the scientific method, extending branches, twigs and leaves in all directions, some of which would thrive while others would inevitably fail. Its leaves would spread out to catch as many of the rays of the light of truth as the finite nature of the tree allowed, but if one branch—the one called “fusion research,” let’s say—strayed into a lightless zone, the tree of science would direct its resources elsewhere and let that branch turn into a dry stick.

Eventually, the whole tree would reach its maximum growth, and after a lifespan of some centuries or millennia more, it would weaken, fail, and die, leaving its remains as a nurse log to nurture a new generation of intellectual saplings. That’s the way that Greek logic unfolded over time, and modern science started out its existence as one of the saplings nurtured on classical logic’s vast fallen trunk. More generally, that’s history’s way with human intellectual, cultural, and artistic systems of all kinds, and only the blinders imposed by the myth of progress make it impossible for most people in today’s industrial world to see science in the same terms.

That same logic is not restricted to science, either.  If some force of philosophers packing high-caliber syllogisms and fallacy-piercing ammunition ever does go charging through the door of the temple of Progress, quite a few people may be startled by the identity of some of the hostages who are led out blinking into light and freedom. It’s not just the sciences that are tied up and blindfolded there; nearly all the Western world’s religions share the same fate.

It’s important here to recognize that the myth of progress provides two potential roles for those who buy into its preconceptions. As noted earlier in this post, they can join the winning side and enlist in the marching legions of progress, or they can join the losing side, struggle against progress, and heroically fail. Both those roles are necessary for the enactment of the myth, and the raw power of popular culture can be measured in the ease with which nearly every religious tradition in the Western world, including those whose traditions are radically opposed to either one, have been pushed into one role or the other. The major division is of course that between liberal and conservative denominations; the former have by and large been reduced to the role of cheerleaders for progress, while the latter have by and large been assigned the corresponding role as cannon fodder for the side that’s destined to lose. 

The interplay between the two sides of the religious spectrum has been made rather more complex by the spectacularly self-defeating behavior of most North American denominations following the Second World War. In those years, a series of wildly popular books—John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, Pierre Berton’s The Comfortable Pew, and others of the same kind—argued in effect that, in order to be properly progressive, Christian churches ought to surrender their historic beliefs, practices, and commitments, and accept whatever diminished role they might be permitted by the mainstream of liberal secular society.  Some of these books, such as Robinson’s, were written by churchmen; others, such as Berton’s, were not, but all of them were eagerly received by liberal churches across the English-speaking world.

The case of The Comfortable Pew is particularly intriguing, as the Anglican Church of Canada hired a well-known Canadian atheist to write a book about what was wrong with their church and what they should do about it, and then gamely took his advice.  Other denominations were not quite so forthright in expressing a death wish, but the results were broadly similar.  Across the board, liberal churches reworked seminary programs to imitate secular liberal arts degrees, abandoned instruction in religious practice, took up the most radical forms of scriptural criticism, and redefined their clergy as amateur social service providers and progressive activists with a sideline in rites of passage. Since most people who go to churches or synagogues are there to practice their religion, not to provide their clergy with an admiring audience for political monologues and lessons in fashionable agnosticism, this shift was promptly followed a steep plunge in the number of people who attended services in all the liberal denominations. Here again, the logic of progress made it all but impossible for church leaders to learn the lesson taught by failure, and most liberal denominations have remained in a death spiral ever since.

Meanwhile, conservative denominations were busy demonstrating that the opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea. Panicked by the global expansion of Communism—you rarely heard that latter word in American public discourse in the 1950s and 1960s without the adjective “godless” tacked on its front end—and the sweeping social changes triggered by postwar prosperity, the leaders of the conservative denominations moved as eagerly as their liberal counterparts to embrace the role that the myth of progress offered them. Along with William F. Buckley and the other architects of postwar American pseudoconservatism, they redefined themselves in opposition to the progressive agenda of their time, and never seemed to notice that they were so busy standing against this, that, and the other that most of them forgot to stand for anything at all.

The social pressure to conform to stereotypes and resist progress in every sense drove the weirdest dimension of late 20th century American Christian pseudoconservatism, the holy war against Darwinian evolution. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the luminous poetry of the first chapter of Genesis must be treated as a geology textbook, nor is a literal reading of Genesis mandated by any of the historic creeds of the Christian churches. Nonetheless “Thou shalt not evolve” got turned into an ersatz Eleventh Commandment, and devout Christians exercised their ingenuity to the utmost to find ways to ignore the immense and steadily expanding body of evidence from geology, molecular biology, paleontology, and genetics that backed Darwin’s great synthesis. That and such sideshows as the effort to insist on the historical reality of the Noah’s ark story, despite conclusive geological evidence disproving it, crippled the efforts of conservative Christians to reach outside their existing audience.

The conservative denominations never quite managed to discard their historic beliefs, practices and commitments with the same enthusiasm shown by their liberal counterparts, preferring to maintain them in mummified form while political activism took center stage; still, the result was much the same.  Today, the spokespersons for conservative religious denominations in America speak and act as though reinstating the mores and politics that America had in the late 1940s has become the be-all and end-all of their religion. In response, a growing number of former parishioners of conservative denominations have withdrawn into the rapidly growing Home Church movement, in which families meet in living rooms with their neighbors to pray and study the Bible together. If that trend accelerates, as it appears to be doing, today’s conservative megachurches may soon turn into cavernous spaces visited once a week by a handful of retirees, just like the once-bustling liberal churches across the road.

The hijacking of religious institutions by the competing civil religion of progress has thus turned out to be a disaster on both sides of the political divide.  The distortions imposed on religion, once it was taken hostage by the myth of progress, thus correspond closely to the distortions imposed on science during its own imprisonment by the same myth. As the civil religion of progress begins to lose its grip on the collective imagination of our time, in turn, both science and religion thus will have to undergo a difficult process of reappraisal, in which many of the mistaken commitments of recent decades will need to be renegotiated or simply abandoned. Harrowing as that process may be, it may just have an unexpected benefit—a negotiated truce in the pointless struggle between science and religion, or even a creative rapprochement between these two distinct and complementary ways of relating to the universe. I’ll discuss these possibilities in next week’s post.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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