This is the second of my series of four talks on progress.
The first describes its origins. Human life is unsatisfactory but our lives have been designed, by some kind of god, with potential for improvement. Sometimes we go forward, sometimes we go back, but the world has been designed for the possibility of a better life for everyone.
The improvement is characteristically moral, political and spiritual. It’s about accepting our environment but changing human behaviour. It’s in many faith traditions including the Bible and the teaching of Jesus.
In the Middle Ages a different belief was dominant, and many people still accept it. This is the belief that history is divided into stages, with sudden jumps. First God created a perfect world. Then came the Fall, when the serpent tempted Adam and Eve. Then Christ defeated the Devil by dying and rising again. The next stage will be the return of Christ at the Second Coming. All the changes took place at these critical moments: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Second Coming. In between them, church leaders often taught that life carried on unchanged. It’s a much more fatalistic view of history. It tells you there is nothing much you can do to change anything this side of death.
Modern secular culture has revived the idea of progress but has given it different content.
Here I describe the dominant ideas today, technology and economics. Next week I look at alternative versions and how recent commentators have disputed the whole idea.
When environmental philosophers ask why our society has been so willing to destroy the environment they usually point to a change in European attitudes best expressed by the government minister Francis Bacon 400 years ago.
By Bacon’s time it was obvious that there was gradual change. Science and technology were developing. So he turned upside down the traditional medieval theory of the Fall. The traditional theory was that when Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden ate the forbidden fruit they made humanity sinful but left nature unaffected. Bacon said the Fall spoiled nature but humanity still had power to recreate the original perfection by means of science and technology.
Later on the idea was secularised. Science and technology were going to give us progress in dominating nature but God was nothing to do with it. There never was an original Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. There never was an original perfection.
This changes the story. As long as you believe it’s a matter of putting right what has gone wrong, it’s a limited project. Once day you’ll complete it. Job done.
But if there never was an original perfection to re-establish, there is no end point. Progress through science and technology has to be never-ending.
This is where we are today. In the name of progress, we artificialise our lifestyles more and more. We are constantly excited by the latest inventions while destroying wildlife incomparably more intricate and essential. Sun and rain, photosynthesis and pollination, are just accidental products of unthinking, impersonal laws of nature; but the latest mobile phone is a triumph of technology and billions are spent advertising it. At the same time we all know that however good the latest mobile phone is, there has to be something wrong with it because next year there will be an even better replacement.
The cult of economic growth began later, in the 18th century. Until then economics was a branch of ethics. It was about what people morally ought to do with their money.
18th century intellectuals began to believe that just as scientists could predict the behaviour of physical things by studying the laws of nature, they should also be able to predict human behaviour by studying the laws of human nature. From then on, economists have hoped that by working out the laws of economic behaviour they could make us all richer. Economic growth.
Here’s the economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, at the height of the Depression:
When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease … But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.
That was his view in 1930. When I studied economics in the 1970s they were still arguing about it. They agreed that a lot of people were very poor and needed help. But if you take from the rich to give to the poor, the rich will object. They are powerful. Instead, if you can make the whole country richer, then you can give to the poor without taking from the rich. That was the logic.
More recently, especially since the financial crash of 2008, this theory has been turned upside down. Instead of creating economic growth in order to help the poor, governments take money from the poor in order to maintain economic growth. People who don’t contribute to the economy get demonised – as though the whole purpose of human beings is to help the economy.
So why do we need to keep increasing the size of the economy? From the 1940s to the 1970s we had more of a command economy. Governments would decide what needed to be produced and employ people to produce it. Since the 1970s this has been replaced by market systems. The theory is that individuals should be left free to decide for themselves what they want. So governments leave it to commercial companies to provide whatever people are willing to pay for.
One effect of this change is that, whenever the economy isn’t growing, somebody is going to be put out of work. The free market theory is that governments shouldn’t intervene to find them jobs.
Once again, economic growth first seemed a means to helping people, but has now become the thing that needs to be cultivated whatever the human cost.
These cults of technology and economics are of course hotly debated, and there are different theories about how they contribute to progress. I finish by briefly summarising how they contrast with the early Christian idea of progress I described last week. There are three main differences.
1) Changed content
The earlier version was moral, political and spiritual. It was based on the idea that God has given us a good world to live in, and has designed us to live at our best in particular ways. Progress is about changing human behaviour to bring it into line with our true best interests. Progress is moral, political and spiritual.
When we treat new technologies and economic growth as ends in themselves, we do the opposite. Instead of valuing the environment and changing human behaviour we start with what people want and look for ways to get it by changing the environment.
2) Unlimited imperative
Second, technology and economics have become never-ending imperatives. We want more and more of them, without limit. The need is unlimited. Whenever we are not producing new technologies, whenever the economy isn’t growing, it’s treated as a crisis. So we carry on struggling to maintain them, even when they do more harm than good.
3) Negative worldview
Thirdly, they give us a negative attitude to our environment. When we take it for granted that what we want is the best judge of what we should have, it’s clear that the world around us doesn’t provide everything we want. So we think we have to constantly invent more, produce more and consume more.
When we thought of the world as God’s gift to us, the natural environment was our guide showing us how God calls us to live and to make progress. The natural environment has now become the enemy, the very thing we have to overcome as we progress towards we are not sure what. Humanity against the environment.
The first time I heard someone say ‘You can’t stop progress’ must have been about 50 years ago. Then, it was usually supposed to be a good thing. Now, when I hear it, it usually takes the form of a lament.
What’s your experience?
1) What are the good things about modern technology and economic growth? What are the bad things about them? What are the future possibilities we most hope for, and most fear?
2) What does progress mean to you?
3) If you could change the environment where you live and work, what changes would you make?