It’s hard to overstate the extraordinary merging of events in Europe that led to the Industrial Revolution exploding in the mid-1800’s. There was of course at least 200 years of prior scene setting, across the sciences, philosophy and political arena’s. In say the year 1600 the so-called Renaissance was really the project of barely a few hundred elite individuals, located in a handful of European cities. (The fact of individuals like Leibniz were inventing to core of modern calculus, or Kepler determining the nature of orbital mechanics, while literally their next door neighbours still lived in a world of superstition, violence and often shocking cruelty is something that always intrigued me, and stands as an object lesson in humility.)
But such intellectual flowerings had occurred before, the Classical era being the most obvious instance, and similar events can be found scattered across the pages of history, but none went on to dominate the entire planet, and the reasons are not especially obvious.
Even why it was initially located in Europe and not say India, China or Africa are still the subject of considerable debate. Personally I still think Jared Diamond’s attempt in Guns, Germs and Steel remains one of the more coherent efforts, but he isn’t without his critics either. Diamond argues that it was essentially due to an accident of geography, biology and climate. But regardless of it’s narrow origins, the remarkable outcome has been an almost inexorable extension of human development and social progress across the entire planet.
Yet at every step in this process there has been vociferous resistance, a repeated versioning of apocalyptic alarums. Early in the process we had Malthus telling us that we would collapse because of population, Marx because capitalism, and numerous Victorian authors writing of the ‘infernal engines’ of industrialisation, culminating in the hugely popular works of Tolkien. And indeed the first crude manifestations of the Victorian era industrialisation were intolerably dangerous, inefficient and ugly. Yet despite the obvious deficiencies progress incomes were slowly rising, housing and public health improved, consumer goods became available to mass markets, railways and reliable ships made travel possible, literacy slowly became universal, professions such as nursing, teaching, engineering, medicine and law started to flourish. Police forces were established to reduce crime and violence, and political systems became more adept at policy and regulation. Nothing was of course perfect, but ordinary people could sense their lives were improving … and this more than anything else was sufficient to overcome the naysayers, even through two catastrophic world wars.
Post WW2 saw an enormous acceleration of the process. The US-led world trade order meant virtually all nations this side of the Iron Curtain could participate in trade and development. The collapse of the colonial empires signaled a new era in nation building, and the prospect of a global order. Oil became cheap and abundant, wartime technologies rapidly found new applications in civilian life. The abject failure of the marxist projects in Russia and China demoralised the anti-capitalists, NASA put humans on the moon, and for around three decades until the late 60’s the capitalist/industrialist paradigm was an unchallengeable success. So much so that it forgot to examine the fault lines in it’s assumptions. Vietnam and the US race riots, the counter culture revolution, second wave feminism were all symptoms of a culture with very shallow, materialist roots.
And within corners of academia the apocalyptic Malthusian thinkers adapted. Unable to challenge the economic order directly they chose to morph their ideas into post-modernism and environmentalism. Both had important things to say; post-modernism challenged the unexamined self righteousness of a dominating Euro-centric cultural order, while environmentalism rightly pointed to industrialisation’s failure to account for it externalities.
The environmental argument first revisited Malthusian population arguments, yet by 1968 demographers knew that human population growth had already peaked and was destined to decline. Then they argued for different limits, that we would exhaust mineral and oil resources, or that we would run out of environmental ‘sinks’ for our waste streams. The most important of these ideas was of course the limits on CO2 in the atmosphere.
The post-modernists started more quietly, making the valid point that reality does not privilege any one cultural narrative over any other. That because our limited human intellects have no direct access to absolute truth, therefore all narratives are limited, selective and ultimately self-serving. That in essence all culture is a construct intended to serve the interests, privileges and powers of the people who promote it. And thus the entire edifice of ‘progress’ has been built on nothing but a castle of deceptions and exploitation; an argument intended to delegitimise the notion of progress itself. Hence the title of this essay.
And since the 1970’s there has been a strong counter current movement built on these two ideas that has insisted either this progress has been achieved at a price to the planet we cannot afford to pay, or that what we have purchased was nothing but shoddy self-delusion. Both asked legitimate questions, both applied an entirely justified scrutiny to the dominant social and economic order, both posited apocalyptic outcomes if they were ignored, yet neither offered any solution beyond a poorly qualified demand that if ‘progress’ had such bad outcomes, it must therefore be dismantled. Or alternatively after passing through a crisis, some utopian reshaping of the disorganised rubble would become possible. (That both strands of apocalyptic thinking have degenerated into multiple camps of extremists is not very surprising, neither ever had any satisfiable end-point to their demands.)
Yet for all of it’s manifest shortcomings the great beast lumbered on, seemingly impervious to the increasingly shrill cries of those insisting that it was trudging toward an abyss. And this past year has in retrospect given us glimpses of what that precipice might look like, the great fossil fueled evolution of humanity, with all that it has brought us for good and ill, may well have finally reached it’s innate limits. We enter into a wholly unprecedented demographic inversion with ageing populations, game changing technical innovation slowed or stalled, and politically we’ve tried marxism, fascism and neo-liberalism … and none of them have proven useful either.
My thesis so far is that reaching back into the past, to try and solve the new problems of our present, while not always unreasonable, fails when confronted with the novel and unknown.