The irony of progress

However else it may be defined, it is generally agreed that a (if not the) major feature of modernity is the pervasiveness of the myth of progress. According to the progress myth, progress will be attained in a definite, concrete form as the continuing dialectic (and, in some forms, utopian end) of history if “we allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world. Progress enables us to acquire the technological power necessary to control that world and bring about the ultimate human goal: economic affluence and security” (from Brian Walsh, Subversive Christianity, Seattle, WA: Alta Vista College Press, 1994, pp. 39-40).

While the progress myth has come under fire in the 20th century, it clearly lives on in discourse regarding things like “making the world safe for democracy” and “bringing prosperity to underdeveloped nations”. Economic affluence through free-trade (neoliberal) economics and democratization have become intrinsically linked, and the juxtaposition of the two with neoconservative imperialism is just one example of the horrific possibilities of such a marriage. For exhibit one, see the aftermath of the attempt to turn post-American-conquest-Iraq into a “free trade paradise”, which might have had more to do with the explosion of unrest in the country than any other single factor (see this excellent article by Naomi Klein).

The discourse of progress is alive and well in the speeches of newly-inaugurated President Obama, albeit in some different ways than now former President Bush. The one thing that has certainly not changed, though, is the statement of faith that the United States is in some way a blessed nation charged with a divine mission to be a beacon of freedom, justice, and prosperity to the whole world. Obama drinks deeply from the well of America-the-Promised-Land.

My purpose in this post is not to criticize Obama per se, but I think it’s important to realize that despite the promise of change some things fundamentally have not changed – notably the public presentation of faith in the myth of progress, and faith in America as the driving engine of global progress (though the question is never asked – at what cost?). There is, however, a certain irony in this idolatrous faith.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that his grandchildren would be able to experience a life beyond economic necessity. John Dewey believed that the visionary application of science and technology would cause the desert to bloom like a rose. Neither of these conditions has come to pass; indeed, quite the opposite has happened in both cases. Economic anxiety is at its highest point in decades, with the current generation projected to be the first in quite some time (possibly hundreds of years) to not fare, on the whole, better economically than its parent generation. And the former hotbeds of science and technological development, the cities and industrial centers, have become or are fast becoming post-industrial wastelands.

Those city centers that have seemingly reversed these trends have done so by engaging the post-industrial economy by expanding the service-sector, increasing the emphasis on consumption, rather than production, and by creating “arts districts” that are little more than microcosms of the consumer economy providing barely-subsistence labor for advertising and other corporate-controlled “creative” enterprises. In the long run, these transitory economic schemes hailed as “new urban developments” are likely to cause more damage than good as the “consumer goods” that must be shipped into these places for consumption by shoppers (who are increasingly less likely to be able to afford them or be inclined to purchase them, given the current economic climate), create their own ripple effect of environmental, as well as labor and other human rights disasters on a global scale.

This is the grand irony of the progress myth: that it promises a glorious future through worshiping the idols of scientism, technicism, and economism, and yet the very fruits of that worship undercut the possibilities of the very future it promises us. Moreover, the problem is far from “just economic”. The dominant economic systems in place have a huge cost in human terms and in terms of damage done to the creation. I do not believe it is a stretch to call the results of the current economic empire ecocide, and possibly also genocide. The fruits of progress have not been increased prosperity; rather they have been turmoil resulting in conflict and “terrorism” (conditions the “war on terror” ironically reinforces), the Damoclean sword of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, and the increasing murder of God’s creation, the destruction of earth and depletion of resources, and despoliation of nature. This is a murder in which Christians have often all-too-willingly participated.

The myth of progress in its economic manifestation requires constant growth (and indeed the concrete systems in place supported by the myth will collapse without it – that is the real danger of recession). This requires a planet with finite resources to provide resources for infinite growth, while the profit motive supports increasingly wasteful use of those very resources (think “planned obsolescence”). While the nations of the world have been aware of the environmental crisis for some time, it has increased, not decreased over that time, particularly over the past couple of decades when awareness has drastically increased. This should not surprise us, as “an expansionary economic ethic necessarily destroys the earth.” An economics that “knows nothing of contentment, of ‘enough’, necessarily sacrifices the environment (and especially the environment of others) iin order to satiate its greed. It is powerless to do anything else” (Walsh, p. 43).

Deficit financing and environmental destruction go hand-in-hand – both destroy the prospects of the future. “A progress-oriented, future-facing society is robbing its own grandchildren of a healthy future” (Walsh, p. 44).

In light of this, what can be our response? With the false hope of progress revealed to be empty and destructive, the only solution can be to turn to the God of creation, the God who lovingly formed the earth, to whom all the earth belongs and everything that is in it – to turn from our faith in idols that destroy and do not save, and to prophetically engage the culture with grief and contrition, but also with hope that God will be who God has said he will be, and that God will make good on the promise that all things are being made new (Rev. 21:5). I refer you at this point to the essay linked at the top of this blog entitled “Prophetic” in hopes that it will stimulate your thinking. I’m also still asking the same questions as I was in this piece I wrote over 2 years ago. In light of the need to diagnose our current problem as not just a political, economic, or ecological problem, but primarily as a spiritual problem, one that persists in large part because of the enculturation of the church and its failure to live prophetically, I think it’s appropriate to close this post with the words of the Ash Wednesday collect.

Almighty and merciful God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent;
create in us new and contrite hearts,
so that when we turn to you and confess our sins
we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness;

through Jesus Christ our Redeemer
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

May God give us imaginations to live prophetically in this time, and in the time that is to come.

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One Response

  1. Your point about Obama and the dialectic of America as the world’s great hope is spot on. While I found myself getting wrapped up in the sheer exuberance of the moment, I also reminded myself that this is but a man, and a human one at that, who shares the same ideological base as the previous “leader of the free world” (just different formulations of it).

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