This Faith in Progress

Every culture has some distant place in space or time where it parks its dreams of a perfect world, and ours is no exception. Devout Christians in the Middle Ages imagined a heaven somewhere off beyond the outermost sphere of the sky, where angels and blessed souls sang in perfect harmony in the presence of God, far from the discords of life in the lowly world of matter. Centuries before, the ancient Greeks sang of a Golden Age somewhere in the distant past when fields sprouted crops without human labor and the world was at peace under the rule of the old wise god Kronos. We have our heaven and our Golden Age, too, but unlike most other cultures we put ours in the future, and tell ourselves that we’re moving closer to Paradise with every day that passes. Other cultures put their faith in gods or stars or cosmic cycles; we put ours in progress.

It’s not going too far, I think, to call belief in progress the dominant religion of the modern world. For most people nowadays, what matters about our past is that it’s a story of progress, a vast upward sweep from the brutal squalor of a primitive past to the Promethean splendor of a science-fiction future out among the stars. In the modern imagination, the present is by definition bigger and better than the past, just as the future will by definition be bigger and better than the present. For believers in progress, to call something “new” is to define it as “better,” while what’s old is by definition inadequate.

The intensity of our faith in progress can be measured by the way we play down the achievements of past peoples in order to make ourselves look better and smarter—for example, popular history books still insist that most of Columbus’ contemporaries believed the world was flat, even though this fable has been disproved countless times. The future is still more subject to distortion in the name of the myth. Even those people who believe that the story of progress will shortly come to an apocalyptic finale insist that our civilization’s end will have brighter fireworks and louder explosions than any before it.

To use the word “myth” for our belief in progress, though, is to court misunderstanding, since most people nowadays think that a myth is a story about the world that isn’t true. Other cultures had myths, the modern claim goes, but we don’t; we have facts. You can even find books insisting that the modern world suffers from “amythia,” a pathological lack of myths. Our word “myth,” though, comes from muthos, a Greek word that originally just meant “story.” Early on it came to be used for the most important stories, the ones people tell to explain who they are, where they come from, where they are going, and what powers guide them on their way and give the journey meaning. The Greek myths did this for the ancient Greeks, Christian theology did this for the Middle Ages, and faith in progress does it for us. The fact that a handful of countries have experienced quite a bit of progress in the last few centuries doesn’t prevent progress from filling a mythic role. Far from it, the myth of progress—like all myths—only has power over the human mind because believers can point to examples where it actually worked.

Every myth encodes its own values and its own agenda, and the myth of progress is no exception. To believe in progress, in the modern sense of the world, is to believe that history has a predetermined direction that leads to us. Pay attention to the way that people use historical periods as a way of classifying other people’s cultures as inferior—for example, saying that hunting and gathering peoples in the Third World are still in the Stone Age, or that the Muslim world is still in the Middle Ages, while only the industrial countries are actually in the 21st century. Of course this is nonsense, but it’s nonsense with a purpose. Admitting that hunter-gatherers and Muslims are just as much part of the 21st century as the industrial societies, as of course they are, strips the industrial world of its claim to be the logical culmination of history. You could as reasonably say that the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert are the culmination of history—and there’s some point to the claim, as their way of life is a good deal more durable than ours.

To believe in progress, then, is to believe that whatever trajectory our civilization happens to have followed is the right one, since it is clearly more advanced and therefore better than the paths taken by less progressive societies, and that for the same reason we ought to do even more of whatever we’ve been doing. Faith in progress thus provides powerful justifications for the status quo, whatever that happens to be, and it allows any attempt to choose a different trajectory for our civilization to be dismissed as “going backwards,” which to believers in progress is the one unforgivable sin.

The myth of progress also implies that whatever industrial civilization happens to be good at doing is the most important thing human beings can do, and whatever we aren’t good at doesn’t count. This belief remains fixed in place even as the details change. In the 19th century, for example, many believers in progress pointed to the western world’s literature, philosophy, music, and art as evidence that it was more advanced and therefore better than anyone else. 20th century literature, philosophy, music and art all slipped well below 19th century standards, but 20th century science and technology passed the previous century’s mark, so inevitably people today point to our science and technology as proof that we are more advanced and therefore better than anyone else. Like most faiths, in other words, belief in progress chooses its own evidence and provides its own justifications.

All this has an important role in driving the predicament of industrial society, because the dead end of dependence on rapidly depleting fossil fuels can’t be escaped by going further ahead on the path we’ve been following. Almost without exception, the technological progress of the last century will have to shift into reverse as its foundation—cheap abundant petroleum—goes away, and most of the social and cultural phenomena that grew out of petroleum-based technology will go away as well. I’ve argued elsewhere that the downside of the Hubbert peak will force a return to 19th-century technology, and the slower exhaustion of coal and other nonrenewable fuels will complete the process of reversion, returning the western world to something like the technology and society it had before the industrial revolution began in the first place.

What will happen to the faith in progress in an age of obvious technological regress, whencars and computers and footsteps on the Moon all belong to the departed glories of the past? No doubt some diehards will claim that whatever the cultures of the deindustrial age happen to be good at is what counts, and therefore further evidence of progress. We’ve already seen the first wave of that among green-tech proponents who argue that their technologies are more advanced and more progressive than alternatives. Still, I doubt many people will keep the faith. The religion of progress has maintained its hold for the last three centuries because it has delivered on its promises, filling our lives with technological marvels wondrous enough to distract us from the cost to our world, our communities, and ourselves.

When the parade of wonders stops, then, the impact on deindustrializing cultures may be immense. If, as I’ve suggested, progress is the unrecognized religion of the industrial world, the failure of its priests to produce miracles as expected could plunge many people into a crisis of faith with no easy way out. Peoples of the past, stripped of faith in their traditional religions in one way or another, have responded in many different ways: some have launched revitalization movements to renew the old faith, some have embraced newly minted visions of destiny or traditions imported from abroad, and some have simply huddled down into themselves and died. Which of these reactions turns out to be most common may have drastic effects on the way the history of the deindustrial age works out.