August 8, 2013

Getting Out Of The Progress Trap

"The idea that growth is infinite is the Big Lie of our times. Yet we still believe it because we find it extremely hard to shed the idea that progress is an inherent good."
- Ronald Wright

Over the past few years the common understanding of progress has been turned on its head. The notion that we will always have a bigger, better, more glittery life is beginning to tarnish as reality sets in. Rather than being the beneficiaries of progress, we are now caught in its steely grip.

And ours legs are turning gangrenous.

Unfortunately the response of most people, including our leaders, is to ignore the blood, the swelling, and the pain, and carry on dragging the trap behind them. Why?

Author Ronald Wright studies such things, and thinks he knows. He has shown that humanity has stumbled from one progress trap to another over the past 10,000 years. We get caught when our technological innovations create conditions or problems that we are unable to foresee - or are unwilling to solve.

It happens when our neat stuff like spears, agriculture, cars and GMOs turn around and bite us in the ass with unintended consequences.

Wright thinks we ignore the evidence of these consequences when we become aware of them for two reasons.

First there’s "a cynical propaganda campaign extremely well funded by the people who have a vested interest" in business as usual. For example, the Koch brothers funding of climate change denial so they can keep their petro-pipeline empire flush with damaging, yet profitable, hydrocarbons.

Next is that "there is a very willing audience among people who don’t care, don’t know the facts, or can’t be bothered to look at them. People want to believe that they can just go on expecting the high consumption North American lifestyle forever, because that’s kind of American - and Canadian - dream they were promised."

Environmentalist George Monbiot argues that we ignore when we get trapped because an environmental catastrophe like climate change is like death - our current actions and the resulting consequences seem so far away in the future that we become very adept at not seeing it, and not dealing with it.

Like not making the connection between smoking cigarettes and death.

"The human failing," Monbiot says, "is that we're pretty short-term in our approach. If we're well fed now, or if we see a particular issue coming at us right now, that's the thing we concentrate on."

The only way you can continue smoking, or a high consumption lifestyle, is if you ignore the facts and the building evidence around you. Like it or not, sooner or later (and probably sooner) the party will be over.

So how do we extricate ourselves from the trap?

Neither of the authors quoted are optimistic about human nature evolving quickly enough to overcome our tendency toward denial in order to tackle our most pressing issues. Having said that, both remain hopeful regardless of our evolutionary shortcomings.

Monbiot's hope lies in politics and our ability to organize mass movements.
"To me, hope lies in the political dimension, in our effectiveness as citizens and our rediscovery of the motives that drove our political ancestors - the people who created the mass movements which got us democracy in the first place, which ended slavery, which ended colonization and imperialism and all the other things which have been great advances for humankind. 
If we could do it in the past when life was much more oppressive, and we had far less leisure time, and we had far less money and all the rest of it, we should be able to do it today."
Historian Ronald Wright thinks it crucial that we end immediately any divisive talk of it being about "the economy VS the environment" as is the case in Canada today. Or that the problems that technology created will be solved with more technology.

Wright knows that humans across the ages have discovered that without a healthy, functioning environment there can be no economy, no civilization.

He also knows that North American style consumption is a major environmental threat that needs to be addressed:
"If we stopped the higher levels of consumption from getting out of control, there is enough for everybody to squeak through in a sort of modest prosperity, modest decency of life. The problems are political. They are problems of distribution."
I find it very hopeful that good people such as these are speaking out and waking people up to point out the appendage clamped on to their lower extremity.

'See the trap? Let's remove it together. I promise you will feel better in the long run.'

It is crucial that we help each out of the maze of traps that litter our paths. The consumption trap. The wage slavery trap, the debt trap, the time-stress trap.

Let's pry open the gold plated jaws of unchecked progress, pull our legs out, and run free toward a new definition of progress, and a better world.


  1. Thank you for a very sobering and hopeful review of these two thinkers.

    "The problems are political. They are problems of distribution."

    Truth! The lie I often encounter with those who do not take the time to investigate and learn the truth is that we need to produce more food to feed the world. The implied argument then is that we need more "technology" to keep up the our exploding human population. Wrong. We have the resources to feed everyone on the planet, with more to spare. It is not about supply; it is about power and who holds it.

    Keep your good posts coming!

    1. Erin, I was first exposed to the work of Ronald Wright when I read his amazing book "A Short History of Progress". It is a little book with BIG ideas that really puts things into perspective.

      I like Monbiot's conclusion that grass roots folks can make changes, and that to do so we will need to join together in a mass movement. Again.

      It is time to push back in a major way right here in N. America, and in the UK and Australia. We need to push back everywhere that consumer capitalists rule over our lives by tempting us with shiny things and restricting the viability of saner alternatives.

      Thanks for the encouragement!


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