On Progress As Human Destiny

by Usha Alexander

[This is the tenth in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. The previous part is here.]

On February 18, 2021, NASA landed Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. Perseverance is the latest of some twenty probes that NASA has sent to bring back detailed information about our neighboring planet, beginning with the Mariner spacecraft fly-by in 1965, which took the first closeup photograph. Though blurry by today’s standards, those grainy images helped ignite widespread wonder and fantasy about space exploration, not long before Star Trek also debuted on television. By the 1970s, science-fiction storytelling was moving from the margins of pop-culture into the mainstream in film and television—and so followed generations of kids, like myself, who grew up expecting off-world adventurism and alien encounters almost as much as we anticipated the invention of video-phones and pocket computers and household robots, as our conceptual bounds for the human story were pushed ever farther outward.

And so much of our expectation has come true. Smartphones and Zoom calls and Roombas are just the most mundane examples of how our techno-fantasized future has manifested in daily life. There’s promise of even more to come, as cultural forces continuously work to realize not only our imagined technotopia of flying cars and jetpacks, but even to seek out those elusive alien encounters. Perseverance rover is, in fact, a robotic astrobiologist: its purpose on Mars is to seek out direct signs of alien life—microbial fossils, if not living microbes themselves. But even should the Martians disappoint us by their absence, information gathered by Perseverance is still intended to help us make that next “giant leap for mankind”: human colonization of Mars. What was until quite recently still generally regarded an outlandish notion seems now widely accepted as the obvious next chapter in our human Manifest Destiny. Indeed, the more we know about the unsuitability of that cold, airless, radiation-beleaguered rock, the more we seem inspired to conquer it.

Meanwhile, a rich ecosystem of high-tech wonderworks has been created here on Earth, in support of all this space adventurism: vast reservoirs of monetary funds; a steadily flowing pipeline of brilliant scientists and bold adventurers, who share the dream; massive networks of accreted infrastructure, including giant telescopes, prodigious computer resources, cutting-edge research laboratories and suppliers across countless fields of expertise, and I-don’t-even-know-what-all-else. NASA itself, Earth’s most elite astronomical research and engineering institution, is a crown jewel of human achievement, still thriving more than half a century beyond its initial impetus of the “international space race” to enter a world of international cooperation on this new frontier. Fueled by the ingenuity-oriented culture of the wealthiest nation in human history, it’s now accelerated by multi-billionaire, science-fantasist allies, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Humanity appears to be progressing well along what seems our ordained path of discovery and dominion; from our present vantage, the scope of human potential can only leave one awestruck.

On the same day that Perseverance plunged its wheels into the cold Martian dust, in the same proud country that sent it there, millions of people were gripped in a struggle for bare survival. A blast of polar air had plunged southward across much of North America and for several days the temperatures barely broke above freezing. As the southern state of Texas was beset by these Earthly temperature extremes—warmer than any night on Mars—its energy infrastructure failed. Freezing gas lines and a cascade of other failures shut off power and deprived millions of homes of heat and cooking facilities for days. A water treatment plant quit, prompting instructions for people to boil city water before drinking it—though how people without power were to accomplish this went unsaid. In any case, water pipes ruptured in many households, leaving some with no water supply at all, only ice frozen along ceilings, walls, and floors. Shops remained closed or out of stock of essential supplies, as people ran out of food. Hundreds of people died, some directly due to cold exposure, some in car crashes on the icy roads, some as a result of desperate attempts to warm themselves by idling their car engines or lighting kerosene cookstoves without adequate ventilation. The people of the planet’s wealthiest, most technologically innovative society were left without the resources or the know-how to withstand conditions that their ancestors would have considered quite ordinary.

Cold and snow aren’t unheard of in Texas even in living memory; Texans would have faced a cold snap of similar intensity about once a decade, until they reduced in frequency since the 1990s. Perhaps the oddest thing about that spike of frigid weather in Texas is that, on the same winter day, climate change caused by global warming—a direct consequence of our dominant models of prosperity and development, underwritten by the mass burning of fossil fuels—brought colder temperatures to Dallas, Texas than to Anchorage, Alaska, where the temperature was unseasonably warm. And the successful touchdown of Perseverance rover on Mars, as people froze to death in the American southland, threw into sharp relief the meanders and contradictions in our story of Progress.

Most readers of this essay will share in the contemporary narrative of Human Progress. How far we’ve come from those apocryphal days when life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” How certainly we’ve rescued ourselves from Nature’s red tooth and claw. How rationally we’ve devised our shared social contract. And how inevitably all this was achieved by the Divine Spark of our human ingenuity, guided in the modern age by the Invisible Hand of the Market. In retelling this story, the neoliberal optimism industry of today frequently reminds us that life for most people is better now than it’s ever been: Levels of abject poverty have plummeted over the past fifty years. The ranks of middle-income earners have swelled, globally. Life expectancy, literacy, access to clean water, healthcare, security, democratic voice—all have steadily gained ground.

But it bears mentioning that in enumerating all these triumphs of our modern world, the standard for comparison never stretches back more than four or five thousand years, and never looks beyond statist societies. But this frame of reference, from urban centers during the mid-Holocene up through the world of about seventy years ago, was, arguably, the deepest nadir of our collective human experience, when famine, plague, war, bondage, and tyranny—all of which ills are advanced by the conditions created in agriculturalist/industrialist urban societies, and were previously only narrowly known—were at or near their apex, as monarchical/oligarchical models of civilization were advancing across the globe. By these measures, any other chapter of the human story may shine in contrast, but we never look beyond for comparisons of wellbeing. It’s almost as though the vast expanse of human prehistory, through which we flourished for nearly the whole of our time on Earth, just doesn’t count. We presume our pre-urban ancestors were at best miserable, squinting through the fog of their cramped imaginations, tragically having not yet worked out the grandness of our human destiny. We scoff gently at their shortsightedness. How is it that they were so embarrassingly slow to recognize their own potential and get on with the program of more efficiently dominating the environment and pulling it into the service of the human development project? We find it a wonder that it could take some three-hundred thousand years to move on from their brutal, wasted lives spent cowering in caves to finally get on with the right business of corralling commoners into ploughing the land and serving bread to the priests—a mere first step in the long march of Human Progress. Most of us accept this characterization of our benighted prehistoric experience without question, even though, on the face of it, it makes little evolutionary sense.

Image of crude oil fractions and some of their uses.

The standard hagiographies of the present status quo also generally neglect to mention that it was nothing other than the mass burning of fossil fuels and use of their associated petrochemicals that finally raised us up from the socioeconomic nadir of the mid- to late-Holocene urbanites and created the relative ease and plenty that’s increased for most people over the past seventy years, during the Anthropocene. Fossil fuels have provided humanity with an energy surplus that takes on the heaviest burdens of labor across all fields of endeavor, thereby lifting the yoke of bondage and drudgery from billions—from enslaved peoples forced into farmwork to “housewives” grinding grain and pounding laundry. By enabling the mechanization and industrialization of manufacturing and mining, fossil fuels also boosted the extraction and use of all other raw materials. Crude oil itself supplied an entirely new class of chemicals, cheap raw materials from which to generate novel synthetic products—plastics, paints, polyester, asphalt, industrial solvents, lubricants, fillers, dyes… and more—for previously unimagined uses at unthinkable volumes of scale. Petrochemical products have also massively spiked agricultural crop yields through their generous application as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides—aka, the Green Revolution, or modern industrial farming. Indeed, fossil fuels and their associated materials are the very essence of what we like to call Progress; without them, there would be no Perseverance rover, NASA, giant telescopes, Star Trek television series, or much of anything else we daily encounter in our modern lives.

And so, with similarly conspicuous silence, the cheerleaders of Progress always fail to tally its costs, which have accrued in the form of catastrophic biodiversity loss; global warming; multiple forms of pollution at overwhelming scales in the air, sea, and soil; and the perturbation of planetary carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles leading to the fundamental destabilization of Earth’s only human life-support system. All of these outcomes are every bit as real and significant as the happier statistics we usually hear repeated, and produced by precisely the same engine we call Progress. Yet, despite the shallowness of its narrative, the celebratory story of Progress has only grown more pervasive, circumscribing our field of vision, making it perhaps one of the most seductively powerful stories ever told.

It bears asking what it is we’re actually presuming, when we build our plans and policies and future dreams on the firmament of this heady story. What are we really assessing, when we speak of Progress? In describing it, we typically cite advances in medicine, communications, education, provision of excess food and energy, and the spread of neoliberal economies and political systems. Progress seems to refer to some combination of the invention of new technologies, plus our collective accumulation of material wealth (stuff) and particular forms of knowledge.

However, we conveniently forget its shadows. While many of us revel in technology and consumption (which largely caters to needs and fancies continuously inflated by capitalism to ensure its own survival), in doing so, we also leave most people behind, unable to participate in the same plenty. For the same technologies and consumption also ceaselessly fuel new wants and status anxieties. They have accelerated social change and dislocation, creating new winners and losers across ever-renewing digital and socioeconomic divides, contributing to the perilous fracturing of social cohesion and individual mental health. Hyper-production of material excess and disposable goods have reduced cultural value systems to algorithmic exercises in pandering to the basest human impulses. Hyper-consumption of cheaply pleasing foodstuffs has also led to new forms of malnutrition and lifestyle diseases. And while we enthusiastically direct our ingenuity toward inhabiting alien worlds, we have failed utterly to be competent stewards of the world we belong to. While we invest in inventing complex and expensive technologies to support the most essential needs of human life in off-world contexts—air, water, food, and shielding from cosmic radiation—we’ve not succeeded in adequately maintaining the clean air, water, and food that the Earth system once provided us nearly for free; we’ve even come perilously close to disabling the layer of atmospheric ozone that protects us from radiation. While we glorify our knowledge and ability, commitment and potential, we systematically diminish the plenitude, capacity, and integrity of living systems on Earth. While we exercise greater power over our planetary systems, we demonstrate ever more egregiously that we lack the wisdom to use it prudently.

None of these concomitant and no less relevant aspects of the human story square at all with our celebrated narratives of Progress. Is Progress even meaningfully real? And if it is real, what is—or could be, or should be—its aim?

The Perils of Progress

Could it be that progress actually has a limit, beyond which it becomes self-defeating? (It may sound preposterous to our technotopia-tuned ears, but systems theorists have shown that complexity, itself, may be a self-limiting feature of systems that overexploit their resources. And since, I think, it’s fair to suggest that there’s a strong correlation between technological intensity and social complexity, it’s perhaps reasonable to wonder if this might play a role in our present global predicament.) Might we even be completely wrongheaded about what, in fact, constitutes meaningful progress? 

Consider, for example, two emblematic or foundational concepts embedded within our idea of Progress: growth and efficiency. Both of these, as commonly understood, are unquestioningly taken as markers of Progress. And yet both are also known to grease the tracks leading to a breakdown of the biosphere. If the biosphere breaks down, so too will any human system residing within it, meaning that both growth and efficiency have actually proven to be engines of disaster every bit as much as they are what we perceive as Progress.

Chart showing 9 planetary boundaries for sustainability, indicating that at least 3 have already been breached.In our neoliberal world, growth—especially economic growth—is touted as the cure for all ills. And there is a religious blindness surrounding the absurdity of this idea. It has become taboo to remind ourselves of the obvious fact that natural limits do exist for all functioning systems—let alone to point out that humans have, in fact, exceeded the natural limits of ours, along many parameters. Literally nothing grows forever. Nothing can grow or expand forever, least of all living systems, like organisms or populations—including societies and their economies.

Belief in the eternal growth of economies by any means presumes that raw materials are endlessly renewable and that pollution dissipates at least at the rate of economic growth. There are those who, in a remarkable feat of magical thinking, imagine that economic growth can be “decoupled” from resources and waste products, but nothing in the human experience has suggested this is remotely possible. How does a capitalist economy grow, if it’s not by consuming more? And what is to be consumed but resources? “Decoupling” is a fantasy, even if we shouldn’t call it that when it’s discussed in the halls of the academe or at the tables of global power brokers.

It was pointed out more than a century ago that increasing efficiency in the use of a particular resource doesn’t decrease our dependency upon the resource, but rather increases the demand for it, a phenomenon referred to as Jevon’s Paradox. Although, in a capitalist system, where the whole point and purpose is to extract and consume more and then more and then some more—to perpetually grow—it doesn’t seem to me the least bit paradoxical; it seems to follow quite straightforwardly from the inherent logic of capitalism and its demands for growth.

And then there is the unfortunate phenomenon that technological solutions to perceived problems often generate more problems than they solve. The effects of those follow-on problems are usually delayed by sufficient time-lags, thus offloaded onto later generations, or simply dumped onto poor people, such that the emergent problems might be unforeseen or willfully ignored by those endorsing the new technology. This phenomenon, sometimes called the progress trap, seems to occur very markedly wherever technology is employed as a means to override natural limits on the sustainable extraction of a resource—such as fish we like to eat or the regenerative capacity of a landscape—or wherever technological innovation is pursued primarily in the service of near-term enrichment by a small group of actors and, in any case, without regard to the real costs borne by others, human and non-human, including despoliation of the commons.

Perhaps the most vivid example of attempts to override natural limits is seen in the advent of increasingly intensive farming technologies. All over the world, non-agricultural* peoples, including forager-farmers, had mastered an understanding of their environments and devised how to work sustainably within their cycles of regeneration. Combining various modes of nomadism, rationing, fallowing, intercropping, pruning with fire, composting/manuring, hunting/fishing/gathering proscriptions, human population regulation, and other means of stewardship of their living environment predicated on an understanding of active reciprocity with the land and its plants and animals, many societies had innovated techniques to increase their environment’s capacity to support human flourishing up to its sustainable limits. But wherever people lost their perspective of humanity beholden to a greater Earth system of which they’re a part, wherever they lost their value for the reciprocity inherent in that relationship, they might begin to extract without concern for natural limits or long-term consequences and enter a progress trap. They counted themselves successful as they extracted surpluses and their population swelled. But a growing population meant that last year’s surplus became this year’s want. They found themselves committed to more intensive extraction, decade upon decade, requiring continuously evolving technologies and greater inputs of energy (manual, animal, fossil) to wrest from their exhausted land more than it could naturally produce and sometimes less than what they had put in. If their only answer was to further intensify farming (as we’ve done over the past several thousand years across the planet), they found themselves in a feedback loop spiraling toward devastation.

As for the other road to progress traps, it’s not news that neoliberal capitalist incentives have created a disastrous treadmill of innovation and social and environmental despoliation—creating far larger and more complex problems than the cutting edge technologies can solve—mostly to enrich a global elite. We see it in the fracturing of civic life resulting from the disorienting technological disruptions of recent decades, to the distortion of planetary geochemical cycles resulting from industrial farming. It feels like we’re in a race to the bottom of the well of human anxieties and planetary living conditions. The Bitcoin or NFT-art “gold rush” that heavily contributes to global warming in order to pile a few bucks in the virtual purses of a handful of people is but one outrageous example of warped incentives. Even though the self-regarding captains of industry like to keep reminding us that they’re inspired in their work of innovation to “make the world a better place,” I trust none of us here is still falling for that line. And because all the incentives of capitalism—fundamentally predicated on annexing or despoiling separate parts of the Earth system in order to feed its growth imperative—ultimately work directly against the common wellbeing of humans and Earth’s life-supporting biome, I am not convinced that any “solution” to our current environmental crises that arises through capitalist mechanisms or worldviews will prove to be any long-term solution at all, but merely yet another progress trap—at best a series of stopgap, stepwise measures to be taken until we can no longer escape transformative civilizational transitions. If we’re to believe technical solutions arising from market incentives—electric cars or disposable algal plastics or hydrogen-powered airplanes—are the ultimate vision for a sustainable future, the onus of persuasion is upon the champions of capitalist technological solutionism—such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk—to make the case that their latest pet ideas will surely prove an exception to human history.

But knowing these things hasn’t undermined our faith in the story of Progress, certainly not to the point of discrediting it from the mainstream, nor even to the point of discrediting it in most of the minds of those who can hold all of these ideas at once. That is the power of stories. It takes effort to pierce the substance of a deeply entrenched story and earnestly examine what lies beyond, even when—sometimes, especially when—we already have some inkling what other true stories are lurking out there.

Today we know how the planets move, what the stars are made of, and even something of what exists in between them. From the depths of space to the depths of the oceans to the depths of time, we have delved and discovered the outlines of how we came to be here, human beings on this rocky, blue-green, living planet. We’ve watched the molecular apparatuses of living cells, animated only by life itself, go about the work of creation, molecule-by-molecule, under our microscopic gaze. This knowledge—like all knowledge—can enrich us. It can generate wonder and open new doors of understanding into ourselves, how we might live, how we might create meaning.

But the reality is that for all we’ve learned and all we know, we have literally forgotten the most essential thing of all: we have forgotten how to live on this Earth. I mean this in a literal, existential, and ecological sense. I mean that we have lost precious knowledge and wisdom that once sustained our wellbeing, and without it we are destroying the biome that maintains us, rendering the Earth unsuitable for human thriving. And our destruction of our own home is tied directly to the development, expansion, and acceleration of what we today commonly think of as civilization, development, and progress.

But our story of Human Progress is not the only one we’ve always told ourselves. It was invented, through uncountable, incrementally altered repetitions, beginning in a particular time and place. From there, it took over the world. The good news is it still isn’t the only story we have to tell. And, like all stories, it can be revised with new understandings.

[Part 11, Of Gods and Men and Human Destiny]

Notes:

* Agricultural, throughout, refers to societies that are effectively 100% dependent upon farmed plant and animal foods. This is in contrast to the many societies that have been closer to 50% or less dependent upon farmed foods, with foraged foods making up the bulk of their subsistence; here, such societies are included among foragers, including forager-farmers. It should also be noted that in many instances, foragers actively propagate and nurture their preferred plants and animals in “the wild”—within the plants’ or animals’ default forest or swamp environments, for instance, rather than in artificially prepared fields or pens—which is a form of foraging that arguably crosses into low-intensity gardening and pastoralism, but isn’t farming.

Earlier Essays in this Series

1 What We Talk About When We Talk About The Weather

2 A Story Of Fire And Ice

3 Of Wanderers And Nomads

4 Tales From A Changing World

5 Lost And Found In Eden

6 Modern Myths Of Human Power

7 Our Moment On Earth

8 Views Of Future Earth

9 Upheaval And Migration

Images

1. An artist’s drawing of the touchdown of Perseverance rover on Mars. NASA, public domain.

2. A chart showing the different fractions of crude oil and some of their uses. The Oil Drum.

3. A chart showing the 9 planetary boundaries that can’t be breached to maintain sustainability, according to a 2009 Nature paper by Johan Rockström, updated for 2015. At least 3 of them are known to have been breached, already; where we stand on several others remains under investigation.