Notions of Progress
Let's rethink who has benefited from these narratives, who has not, and whether we still have a chance to make things better
Examples of progress are all around us. I carry in my pocket a computer that gives me access to almost all the existing knowledge in the world. That same device allows me to instantaneously connect with my daughter, currently over 7,000 miles away. I can flip a switch and light my kitchen. If my heart gives out, I can get a new one. I can fly in the sky and travel almost anywhere on the planet. Nearly everywhere I may go, I will meet people who know how to read.
The world is a wonder. Let’s not doubt it. The creative power of humankind has yielded a modern world that’s safer, richer, more connected, more mobile, and full of opportunity for more people than our ancestors could have imagined.
If I lingered on this notion of progress, mine would be a happy tale. What a beautiful picture to draw, what a happy lullaby I’d sing for the children. Of course, the story of progress is not so simple, especially when you consider what it took to make the world we know—who was included, and who was excluded and mercilessly broken.
In a moment, I will share that story of history. But first, I can’t help but comment on our present day: How strange it is that many of the same people who have eaten the fruits of progress are determined to not just keep the rewards for themselves, but make life poorer for everyone else. It’s as if they haven’t learned a thing—or, worse, only learned that their path forward depends on making the path of others more treacherous and painful.
What does it say about progress when a man is convinced the arrival of people of color means his world will be taken away?
What does it say when a man is determined to strip away the rights of all women to decide the fate of their own bodies?
What does it say when a man claims to care about the value of life, then votes against funding to get mothers baby formula to feed their infants?
What does it say when a man knows his country suffers an epidemic of gun violence, but believes the answer is more guns and less restrictions on their use?
What does it say when a man has benefited from the existence of democracy, but is determined to hasten its demise—and even seems to delight in its destruction?
Several weeks ago, I had an interesting challenge: I was given five minutes to speak about 500 years of history, rethinking narratives of progress and time. Here's what I said:
Consider a few of the overarching narrative notions that have ruled the last 500 years: The Age of Exploration and Discovery. Manifest Destiny. The Industrial Revolution. The Dawn of America as the World’s Greatest Economic Power. The Modern World.
These are narratives—rooted in values and ideas about society and people and driven with urgency of time. They have inspired men (particularly men) to pursue new lands and give shape and power to the Euro-American project; to build and expand empires; to imagine and create the modern world; and to enable what they saw as the growth of civilization. These are among the narratives that propelled the idea of progress—a forward-moving march toward what they saw as a better world and the potential of infinite economic growth.
Fast forward to the present, where we find extraordinary levels of literacy, dramatically increased lifespans, and technological advances that give virtually everyone access to global communication and knowledge.
But we can also gaze back across a history of bloodshed and genocide, a history of subjugated people and destroyed cultures, a planet despoiled by rising CO2 levels, environmental degradation and over-consumption of resources. We can see how this march toward progress and the promise of better was only for some people—it left out large swaths of the world, with populations struggling with and understandably aggrieved by the inequalities and injustices of the practices and systems these over-arching narratives perpetrated and perpetuated.
Let’s look at some of these narratives—necessarily in quick snapshots—and then to the present and future. We’ll begin just over 500 years ago.
The year is 1493, the year after Christopher Columbus returned to Spain. Alexander VI issued a papal bull granting and justifying Spanish colonialism—the "right" of the Spanish monarchy to occupy the newly discovered Americas, to convert the indigenous populations and, in short, to spread Christian civilization throughout the New World.
Consider the words of Richard Hakluyt, a 16th century writer, promoting the British empire and North American settlement: “For to prosperity no greater glory can be handed down than to conquer the barbarian, to recall the savage and the pagan to civility, to draw the ignorant within the orbit of reason.”
1845—Manifest Destiny was coined, insisting that the United States is destined by God to expand its dominion and spread its emerging system of capitalism and democracy across North America. This drove territorial expansion and justified the forced removal of the native populations.
1860—The first Industrial Revolution, starting in Britain with mechanized spinning in the 1780s, then the growth of steam power and iron production after 1800, spurred demand for cotton globally, which fueled the slave trade and forced labor. By the beginning of the American Civil War, over a third of the Southern population was comprised of enslaved people—nearly 4 million humans.
20th Century—The same increasingly industrialized, urbanized, globalized modern world—which brought skyscrapers, electricity and recorded sound; planes, trains and automobiles; and the belief in man’s capacity to have dominion over nature—this "modern" world also brought WWI and WWII, the deaths of over 100 million humans, the world-altering atomic bomb and environmental degradation on a massive, deadly scale.
Forward march? Progress?
The narratives that propelled nations and people forward also yielded extremes of exploitation and brutality, death and destruction. We surely can add Russia’s mass atrocities in Ukraine to raise serious doubts about the notion of progress and the arc of history bending toward justice.
Those who choose to look can now see this clearly, and the peoples who suffered from this history are rightfully demanding to be seen and heard. Now, confronted with the existential threat of climate change, we do have a chance to be smarter and more inclusive.
There is a growing question as to whether the climate crisis portends an apocalyptic end of times—maybe soon, maybe many decades from now, or maybe right now. For all those who wonder about this question of time—when might this shattering apocalyptic fate happen—remember that many indigenous populations that faced genocidal destruction centuries ago recognize they’re already living in a post-apocalyptic world.
And they (and others who care) have much to teach us—about how to live differently in relationship to the natural world, indeed, about how to rethink our choices and live better in the decades to come. Maybe now is the time to design a new narrative of progress—one that is inclusive, understands the benefits of our diversity as a species, and incorporates the realities of our endangered planet.
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