Monday, 30 May 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 2: BAU and The Religion of Progress

In my last post I talked about our growth and consumer based industrial society (Business as Usual, BAU), the people who are working to oppose it (Crunchies) and the woo (pseudoscience) involved in that sort of binary thinking, on both sides. Having brought up pseudoscience, I went on to discuss science as the only reliable way we have of knowing things about the material world (nature), and looked at the spectrum of ways that people do look at nature, noting that BAU and Crunchiness are at two extremes. I finished up by promising to look deeper into those two positions in future posts. Today I'll be talking about BAU.

On the surface, BAU is very practical and down to earth, interested only in what works—the farthest thing from woo. Its proponents would have us believe that they use exactly those reliable thinking tools I talked about in my last post, and proceed as indicated by science and reason. They have to a great extent co-opted science into their ideology, convincing us that their ideology is not just completely supported by science, but really is science, period. Of course, if you are allowed to pick and choose results, you can make science say anything you want.

They would also have us believe that everything is going fine with BAU and our industrial civilization is the best way to live, really the only way anyone would want to live. While they do acknowledge that there are some minor problems with the way BAU is working at the moment, they are sure that a little tinkering should fix them up in no time. And even if the big problems that I am always going on about are real, technology can no doubt be developed to solve them before it is too late.

Underneath that optimistic wallpaper, though, there are some pretty big cracks. Rather than being purely rational, BAU is based on the religion of progress. Supposedly, humanity is special—not strictly a part of nature like other species. Because of our intelligence, and our ability to evolve culturally as well as genetically, we have a clear destiny which places us on a path from the caves to the stars. Limits are something we are made to transcend via technology, not to live within. And however bad our current situation, we can always trust that things will improve, if not for us, at least for our children.

"What's so bad about that—what's wrong with progress?" you may ask. Or more pointedly, "what have you got against progress, Irv?"

I have nothing particular against things getting better, which must surely be what one means when talking about progress. What I am against is "progress as a religion", which involves several problematical ideas:

  • Progress is predestined.
  • Progress must continue, regardless of the consequences and despite any limits we may encounter.
  • Progress occurs in one direction, along a single path. If you don't like where progress is taking us, the only alternative is to move in the other direction, "backwards".
  • Cultures which are not part of BAU are "undeveloped", and that is a bad thing. Their only option is to start moving forward along the path of progress, to begin "developing" and eventually become "developed".

In the developed and developing world, all of us (even Crunchies) are immersed in a culture that worships progress, where those ideas are so obvious that we aren't even aware of them as such. It's like water to fish. I am no different, and I have to work hard to even consider the idea that progress may not be taking us to a good place. But I have done so and I would invite you to join me for a moment and have a closer look at those ideas and where they lead.

First, predestination.

The thing is that the belief in predestined progress is a religion. In North America, it seems to me that the majority of main stream Christian churches are little more than fronts for the religion of progress. For those folks, I guess that means progress is predestined by God. Health, happiness and success in business/work are the rewards of the faithful.

For those of us that aren't religious, though, the word "predestined" seems to mean that the nature of human beings, or perhaps more precisely, of human societies, is to progress. If you want to remain a true believer in progress, it's probably best not to look too closely at what "progress" means. But it's pretty clear that within BAU, it means that the human population grows and attains an ever higher level of material prosperity, comfort and convenience. Since health these days is maintained by the fruits of modern medical science and happiness consists (or so we are told) of ever increasing material prosperity (the fruit of success in business/work), this isn't very different from how the religious (Christian) folks see things. Not surprising, since we are talking about the religion of progress.

But let's take a more skeptical look at this. Is progress really part of human nature?

This idea is based on our ability to pass on advances via language—to evolve culturally as well as genetically. We've had this ability for two to three million years and during all but the last bit of that period, progress has been very, very slow. Cultural evolution during that period led to a wide variety of fairly stable small scale societies adapted to the many environments we encountered as we spread across the surface of the earth to every continent except Antarctica. About 10,000 years ago agriculture was invented in a handful of societies across the world, and the pace of progress in those societies "picked up" to just very slow (one less very).

Then a few hundred years ago the pace of progress began to accelerate dramatically. Looking back on this, those who believe in the inevitability of progress conclude that we finally got our act together and began to realize our potential. Many would credit much of this to the Enlightenment and the technological advances that came with it. I would say they are confusing cause and effect.

Something changed, for sure, but what? In the period leading up to when the change started, European society had just about run out of empty land to expand into and had maximized its use of the energy available from biomass (mainly firewood). Then the "New World" was discovered with great expanses of "empty land" and vast as yet untapped resources. Not long after this, coal began to replace firewood and heat engines (burning coal) began to replace muscle power.

And yes, a great deal of progress came about as a result of these changes. It probably was in some sense "inevitable" that this would happen, that some culture would eventually undergo the changes that European culture did. But this was progress driven not by destiny or human nature, but by the consumption of finite and non-renewable resources. The Enlightenment (while no doubt a good thing) was an effect of this progress, not the cause.

Now we find ourselves in the position of having already filled up essentially all the empty land on this planet and reaching the point of diminishing returns for fossil fuels. It appears that this period of progress will be of limited duration and is already starting to falter.

This is what makes me say the religion of progress is just woo. And the worst kind of woo, since it holds out the hope of continued progress which distracts us from the reality of our situation and the challenges we need to face up to.

Next, the necessity of continuing progress, regardless of the consequences.

BAU defines progress as increasing material prosperity and equates this to economic growth. This is a wonderful thing since there is money to be made in that business. For the financial industry this is literally true, since this industry creates money as debt to allow rapid economic growth. And growth must continue in order for the loans to be paid back with interest and the businesses involved to continue operating profitably. In order for economic growth to continue natural resources are consumed and pollution and waste (the by-products of the process) are created, both in ever greater quantities.

Unfortunately, we live on a finite planet, with strictly limited natural resources and limited sinks to absorb pollution and waste. BAU propaganda would have us believe that this is not so, that technology will always give us a way to surmount the limits we face. But the fact is that, in BAU, progress must continue because anything else is bad for business in the short run, and what happens in the long run isn't a concern in the short run.

BAU propagandists hold up examples of technology enabling continued growth, such as the success we've had in refining ever more depleted ores to get the metals we need and in getting oil and natural gas from deposits that formerly weren't economically accessible. We are told that when one resource runs out we will always find another to substitute for it.

There is even a movement, "eco-modernism" dedicated to this kind of approach.

Ted Trainer, a de-growth advocate, has this to say in an article debunking eco-modernism:

"Central to this sort of thinking is the claim that the economy can be “decoupled” from nature, from resource demands and ecological impacts. That is, technical advance can enable output and consumption to go on growing, presumably forever, while resource demands and ecological impacts are reduced way down to tolerable levels."

Sometimes all you have to do is hear a program's goals so clearly stated to realize how bizarre they really are and how unlikely their success really is.

Clearly, eco-modernism is more BAU woo. It seems very likely that the consequences of continued economic growth will be more unpleasant than we are willing to accept. But accept them we must, since there is no way to change the direction the BAU is headed. Or so it seems.

Then, the idea that progress is one dimensional.

If we object to any of the negative consequences of progress we are told that we can accept progress and go forward to better things or turn away from progress and go back (presumable to worse things), but those are the only choices. That is why Crunchies are painted as "dirty hippies" who want to go off grid and forego the benefits of modern society. It is even true in many cases, since having grown up in BAU society, it is very hard even for Crunchies to imagine any other alternative. It's no wonder that it is difficult to imagine change in other directions, when we have no clear examples of such and are continually told it is not possible. But this does not mean that such change is truly impossible, just that BAU desperately wants us not to head in any such direction.

Again from the same article by Ted Trainer:

"This world-view fails to grasp several things.... There can be many paths towards many end points, and we might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to. In addition we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernisation takes us, and with respect to some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further. Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough...."
"... we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, furniture, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. Modernity is a whole package we move further towards or retreat from and you must take the bad with the good. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Why on earth can’t we design and build societies that embody the good ideas and ways humans have figured out over thousands of years, taking some from high tech arenas and some from hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., that we thrive best in small face-to-face communities)?"

It seems to me that the path a society follows is determined largely by what it does with its surpluses. BAU's path is one dimensional path because in BAU there is only ever one thing to be done with a surplus—invest in more "progress" and make sure the profit from that goes to the investors and those who are in charge of things. But in fact there are many choices, which one we choose is determined by what we think is important and this can lead us in many different directions.

And lastly, cultures outside of BAU are undeveloped and need to progress.

The picture we are given of the remaining non-BAU cultures is a very negative one, focusing on all the things we have that they don't. I can recommend Jared Diamond's book "The World Until Yesterday" for a more balanced treatment of life in traditional societies.

And to borrow some ideas from Daniel Quinn, as expressed in his book Ishmael it seems that during those 2 to 3 million years before the invention of agriculture people were evolving genetically while their societies evolved culturally and the result was something that worked. Of course I am not saying that these societies were perfect or even particularly "nice" from our modern viewpoint, but they did provide their members with just enough of what they needed, both materially and in the more "spiritual" sense of having a "place"—worthwhile work which contributed to the group they lived in, and lifelong security provided by the group they lived in.

Note that I am not talking about the sort of societies that arose with the invention of the state not long after the invention of agriculture. These societies mark the beginning of BAU, and I find there is little good to be said of them. Although the argument can be made that in some ways, even those societies were better that the way most of us live now. If you are a North American, compare the number of days you get off work in year with a serf in medieval Europe. You may be surprised to find yourself on the short end of the comparison, though admittedly, most of his days off were church holidays.

Still, it is very hard to get away from the idea that positive change must be in the direction that BAU defines as progress. Surely, the people in those "primitive" societies would be better off if we could help them to progress.

Well, maybe not. An honest look at BAU makes it clear that the fruits of progress aren't very evenly spread around and that the promise of things getting better is, for the majority of people (or even their children), an empty one. If you don't already have a secure position in the upper levels of BAU, your prospects here in the early twenty first century aren't very good.

But beyond BAU's failure to deliver the fruits of progress as promised, there is the plain fact the BAU's kind of progress may not be what is really needed for us to live happy and fulfilling lives. Yes, it is true that if you are struggling just to get by, some improvement in your material prosperity will make life better for you. But once you have just enough, further increases yield diminishing returns, until eventually we find ourselves officially part of the rat race and begin asking if it is all really worth the effort.

To sum up all this talk about the religion of progress, it is the third religion that I have embraced and then been forced to abandon when confronted with reality.

It turns outs that I have somewhat more to say about what's wrong with BAU, so my next post will cover that, and then I'll finally go on with a closer look at Crunchiness.

Thanks to my son Dan for ideas and inspiration.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have always believed that necessity is the the mother of invention. i.e. we have something that we would like to be better e.g.
- we are concerned about global warming so we want a fuel that emits less carbon
- we are tired of bending over to sweep the floor, so we want a broom with a longer handle
We would not have these inventions or improvements unless there was a need. I suppose there is a second element that we believe we can make improvements.

But I have met so many people in my lifetime who do not wish to make improvements because a) they can not see anything wrong with the status quo or b) they do not believe that things can be improved.

So anytime they see someone trying to make improvements, they throw out an anchor to stop what you are doing.

I think Corporations are full of these people who resist change but they normally are not in positions of power. Corporations give power to people who can see the benefits of change so the Corporation keeps changing and improving in spite of the fact that the majority of the people in the Corporation resist change and prefer the status quo.

But when you retire from the Corporate world, you then enter a world that is ruled by people who resist change. Look at the Kincardine Council that has wrecked Bruce Telecom because they resisted improvements. You will find this everywhere in regular life and I advise you to get used to it.

Mike Smith