Pick a topic, any topic, and it’s a pretty safe bet that the collective imagination defines it these days as an irreconcilable divide between two and only two points of view, one of which is portrayed as realistic, reasonable, progressive, and triumphant, while the other is portrayed as sentimental, nostalgic, inaccurate, and certain to lose -- that is to say, as a microcosm of the mythology of progress.
According to that mythology, after all, every step of the heroic onward march of progress came about because some bold intellectual visionary or other, laboring against the fierce opposition of a majority of thinkers bound by emotional ties to outworn dogmas, learned to see the world clearly for the first time, and in the process deprived humanity of some sentimental claim to a special status in the universe. That’s the way you’ll find the emergence of the theory of evolution described in textbooks and popular nonfiction to this day. Darwin’s got plenty of company, too: all the major figures of the history of science from Copernicus through Albert Einstein get the same treatment in popular culture. It’s a remarkably pervasive bit of narrative, which makes it all the more remarkable that, as far as history goes, it’s essentially a work of fiction.
I’d encourage those of my readers who doubt that last point to read Stephen Jay Gould’s fascinating book Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. Gould’s subject is the transformation in geology that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when theories of geological change that centered on Noah’s flood gave way to the uniformitarian approach that’s dominated geology ever since. Pick up a popular book on the history of earth sciences, and you’ll get the narrative I’ve just outlined: the role of nostalgic defender of an outworn dogma is assigned to religious thinkers such as Thomas Burnet, while that of heroic pioneer of reason and truth is conferred on geologists such as James Hutton.
What Gould demonstrates in precise and brutal detail is that the narrative can be imposed on the facts only by sacrificing any claim to intellectual honesty. It’s simply not true, for example, that Burnet dismissed the evidence of geology when it contradicted his Christian beliefs, or that Hutton reached his famous uniformitarian conclusions in a sudden flash of insight while studying actual rock strata -- two claims that have been endlessly repeated in textbooks and popular literature. More broadly, the entire popular history of uniformitarian geology amounts to a “self-serving mythology” -- those are Gould’s words, not mine -- that’s flatly contradicted by every bit of the historical evidence.
Another example? Consider the claim, endlessly regurgitated in textbooks and popular literature about the history of astronomy, that the geocentric theory -- the medieval view of things that put the Earth at the center of the solar system -- assigned humanity a privileged place in the cosmos. I don’t think I’ve ever read a popular work on the subject that didn’t include that factoid. It seems plausible enough, too, unless you happen to know the first thing about medieval cosmological thought.
The book to read here is The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis -- yes, that C.S. Lewis; the author of the Narnia books was also one of the most brilliant medievalists of his day, and the author of magisterial books on medieval and Renaissance thought. What Lewis shows, with a wealth of examples from the relevant literature, is that nobody in the Middle Ages thought of the Earth’s position as any mark of privilege, or for that matter as centrally placed in the universe. To the medieval mind, the Earth was one notch above the rock bottom of the cosmos, a kind of grubby suburban slum built on the refuse dump outside the walls of the City of Heaven. Everything that mattered went on above the sphere of the Moon; everything that really mattered went on out beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, where God and the angels dwelt.
The one scrap of pride left to fallen humanity was that, even though it was left to grub for a living on the dungheap of the cosmos, it hadn’t quite dropped all the way to the very bottom. The very bottom was Hell, with Satan trapped at its very center; the Earth was a shell of solid matter that surrounded Hell, the same way that the sphere of the Moon surrounded that of Earth, the sphere of Mercury that of the Moon, and so on outwards to Heaven. Physically speaking, in other words, the medieval cosmos was diabolocentric, not geocentric -- again, the Earth was merely one of the nested spheres between the center and the circumference of the cosmos -- and the physical cosmos itself was simply an inverted reflection of the spiritual cosmos, which had God at the center, Satan pinned immovably against the outermost walls of being, and the Earth not quite as far as you could get from Heaven.
Thus the Copernican revolution didn’t deprive anybody of a sense of humanity’s special place in the cosmos; quite the contrary, eminent thinkers at the time wondered if it wasn’t arrogant to suggest that humanity might be privileged enough to dwell in what, in the language of the older cosmology, was the fourth sphere up from the bottom! It takes only a little leafing through medieval writings to learn that, but the fiction that the medieval cosmos assigned humanity a special place until Copernicus cast him out of it remains glued in place in the conventional wisdom of our time. When the facts don’t correspond to the mythology of progress, in other words, too bad for the facts.
Other examples could be multiplied endlessly, starting with the wholly fictitious flat-earth beliefs that modern writers insist on attributing to the people who doubted Columbus, but these will do for the moment, not least because one of the authors I’ve cited was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful evolutionary biologists and the other was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful Christians. The point I want to make is that the conventional modern view of the history of human thought is a fiction, a morality play that has nothing to do with the facts of the past and everything to do with justifying the distribution of influence, wealth, and intellectual authority in today’s industrial world. That’s relevant here because the divide sketched out at the beginning of this essay -- the supposedly irreconcilable struggles between a way of knowing the world that’s realistic, progressive and true, and a received wisdom that’s sentimental, nostalgic, and false -- is modeled on the narrative we’ve just been examining, and has no more to do with the facts on the ground than the narrative does.
The great difference between the two is that neither medieval cosmographers nor late 18th century geologists had the least notion that they were supposed to act out a morality play for the benefit of viewers in the early 21st century. Here in the early 21st century, by contrast, a culture that’s made the morality play in question the center of its collective identity for more than 300 years is very good at encouraging people to act out their assigned roles in the play, even when doing so flies in the face of their own interests. Christian churches gain nothing, as I pointed out in last week’s post, by accepting the loser’s role in the ongoing squabble over evolution, and the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that have gone into the creationist crusade could have been applied to something relevant to to the historic creeds and commitments of the Christian religion, rather than serving to advance the agenda of their enemies. That this never seems to occur to them is a measure of the power of the myth.
Those of my readers who have an emotional investment in the environmental movement might not want to get too smug about the creationists, mind you, because their own movement has been drawn into filling exactly the same role, with equally disastrous consequences. It’s not just that the media consistently likes to portray environmentalism as a sentimental, nostalgic movement with its eyes fixed on an idealized prehuman or pretechnological past, though of course that’s true. A great many of the public spokespersons for environmental causes also speak in the same terms, either raging against the implacable advance of progress or pleading for one or another compromise in which a few scraps are tossed nature’s way as the engines of progress go rumbling on.
According to the myth of progress, those are the sort of speeches that are assigned to the people on history’s losing side, and environmentalists in recent decades have done a really impressive job of conforming to the requirements of their assigned role. When was the last time, for example, that you heard an environmentalist offer a vision of the future that wasn’t either business as usual with a coat of green spraypaint, a return to an earlier and allegedly greener time, or utter catastrophe? As recently as the 1970s, it was quite common for people in the green end of things to propose enticing visions of a creative, sustainable, radically different future in harmony with nature, but that habit got lost in the next decade, about the time the big environmental lobbies sold out to corporate America.
Now of course once a movement redefines its mission as begging for scraps from the tables of the wealthy and influential, as mainstream environmentalism has done, it’s not going to do it any good to dream big dreams. Still, there’s a deeper pattern at work here. The myth of progress assigns the job of coming up with bold new visions of the future to the winning side -- which means in practice the side that wins the political struggle to get its agenda defined as the next step of progress -- and assigns to the losing side instead the job of idealizing the past and warning about the dreadful catastrophes that are sure to happen unless the winners relent in their onward march. Raise people to believe implicitly in a social narrative, and far more often than not they’ll fill their assigned roles in that narrative, even at great cost to themselves, since the alternative is a shattering revaluation of all values in which the unthinking certainties that frame most human thought have to be dragged up to the surface and judged on their own potentially dubious merits.
Such a revaluation, though, is going to happen anyway in the not too distant future, because the onward march of progress is failing to live up to the prophecies that have been made in its name. As noted in an earlier post in this sequence, civil religions are vulnerable to sudden collapse because their kingdom is wholly of this world; believers in a theist religion can console themselves in the face of continual failure with the belief that their sufferings will be amply repaid in heaven, but the secular worldview common to civil religions slams the door in the face of that hope.
The civil religion of Communism thus imploded when it became impossible for people on either side of the Iron Curtain to ignore the gap between prophecy and reality, and I’ve argued in an earlier series of posts that there’s good reason to think that the civil religion of Americanism may go the same way in the decades ahead of us. The civil religion of progress, though, is at least as vulnerable to that species of sudden collapse. So far, the suggestion that progress might be over for good is something you’ll encounter mostly in edgy humor magazines and the writings of intellectual heretics far enough out on the cultural fringes to be invisible to the arbiters of fashion; so far, “they’ll think of something” remains the soothing mantra du jour of the true believers in the great god Progress.
Nonetheless, history points up the reliability with which one era’s unquestioned truths become the next era’s embarrassing memories. To return to a point raised earlier in this sequence, the concept of progress has no content of its own, and so it’s been possible so far for believers in progress to pretend to ignore all the things in American life that are blatantly retrogressing, and to keep scrabbling around for something, anything, that will still prop up the myth. In today’s America, living standards for most people have been falling for decades, along with literacy rates and most measures of public health; the nation’s infrastructure has been ravaged by decades of malign neglect, its schools are by most measures the worst in the industrial world, and even the most basic public services are being cut to Third World standards or below; the lunar landers scattered across the face of the Moon stare back blindly at a nation that no longer has a manned space program at all and, despite fitful outbursts of rhetoric from politicians and the idle rich, almost certainly will never have one again. None of that matters -- yet.
Another of the lessons repeatedly taught by history, though, is that sooner or later these things will matter. Sooner or later, some combination of events will push cognitive dissonance to the breaking point, and the civil religion of progress will collapse under the burden of its own failed prophecies. That’s almost unthinkable for most people in the industrial world these days, but it’s crucial to recognize that the mere fact that something is unthinkable is no guarantee that it won’t happen.
Thus it’s important for those of us who want to be prepared for the future to try to think about the unthinkable -- to come to terms with the possibility that the future will see a widespread rejection of the myth of progress and everything connected to it. That wasn’t a likely option in an age when economic expansion and rapid technological development were everyday facts of life, but we no longer live in such an age, and the fading memories of the last decades when those things happened will not retain their power indefinitely. Imagine a future America where the available resources don’t even suffice to maintain existing technological systems, only the elderly remember sustained economic growth, and the new technological devices that still come onto the market now and then are restricted to the very few who are wealthy enough to afford them. At what point along that curve do the promises of progress become so self-evidently absurd that the power of the civil religion of progress to shape thought and motivate behavior breaks down completely?
It’s ironic but entirely true that actual technological progress could continue, at least for a time, after the civil religion of progress is busy pushing up metaphorical daisies in the cemetery of dead faiths. What gives the religion of progress its power over so many minds and hearts is not progress itself, but the extraordinary burden of values and meanings that progress is expected to carry in our society. It’s not the mere fact that new technologies show up in the stores every so often that matters, but the way that this grubby commercial process serves to bolster a collective sense of entitlement and a galaxy of wild utopian dreams about the human future. If the sense of entitlement gives way to a sense of failure or, worse, of betrayal, and the dreamers wake up and recognize that the dreams were never anything more than pipe dreams in the first place, the backlash could be one for the record books.
One way or another, the flow of new products will eventually sputter to a halt, though at least some of today’s technologies will stay in use for as long as they can be kept functioning in the harsh conditions of an age of resource scarcity and ecological payback. A surprisingly broad range of technologies can be built and maintained by people who have little or no grasp of the underlying science, and thus it has happened more than once -- as with the Roman aqueducts that brought water to medieval cities -- that a relatively advanced technology can be kept running for centuries by people who have no clue how it was built. Over the short and middle term, in a world after progress, we can probably expect many current technologies to remain in place for a while, though it’s an open question how many people in America and elsewhere will still be able to afford to use them for how much longer.
Ultimately, that last factor may be the Achilles’ heel of most modern technologies. In the not too distant future, any number of projects that might be possible in some abstract sense will never happen, because all the energy, raw materials, labor, and money that are still available are already committed twice over to absolute necessities, and nothing can be spared for anything else. In any age of resource scarcity and economic contraction, that’s a fairly common phenomenon, and it’s no compliment to contemporary thinking about the future that so many of the grand plans being circulated in the sustainability scene ignore the economics of contraction so completely.
Still, that’s a theme for a different post. The point I want to raise here has to do with the consequences of a collective loss of faith in the civil religion of progress -- consequences that aren’t limited to the realm of technology, but spill over into economics, politics, and nearly every other dimension of contemporary life. The stereotyped debates introduced at the beginning of this post and discussed in more detail toward the middle will be abandoned, and their content will have to be reframed in completely different terms, once the myth of progress, which provides them with their basic script, loses its hold on the collective imagination. The historical fictions also discussed earlier will be up for the same treatment. It’s hard to think of any aspect of modern thought that hasn’t been permeated by the myth of progress, and when that myth shatters and has to be replaced by other narratives, an extraordinary range of today’s unquestioned certainties will be up for grabs.
That has implications I plan on exploring in a number of future posts. Some of the most crucial of those implications, though, bear directly on one of the core institutions of contemporary industrial culture, an institution that has derived much of its self-image and a galaxy of benefits from the historical fictions and stereotyped debates discussed earlier in this post. Next week, therefore, we’ll talk about what science might look like in a world on the far side of progress.