The Myth of Human Progress

Picture: Steve F-E-Cameron (CC)

Chris Hedges writes at Truthdig:

Clive Hamilton in his “Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change” describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward, as the draft report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee illustrates.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress”have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in ‘A Short History of Progress’ the ‘progress trap.’ We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

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41 Comments on "The Myth of Human Progress"

  1. “Nothing, perhaps, ever got nowhere with so much fascinating ado.” – Alan Watts

  2. I for one do not resist the idea of climate change – notice it is no longer global warming; curious – I dispute the cause of it, and the proposed solution. Isn’t it time we quit buying into the Free Market crap of Friedman? Our SUVs are not guilty, but corporate pollution is. Also you have to factor in the fact that the entire solar system is warming, and neither of the previous are guilty of that. The evidence of what is wrong is all around us and you would have to limit yourself to what the T.V. lets you hear not to see what is really going on.

    Trading carbon credits is a scam as surely as a game of three card Monty, slight of hand and a way to avoid the solution not address it.

    • The solar system isn’t warming, only some of the objects in it, and the sun has has been in a cooling trend for the last couple of decades.

      • Which would explain my “curious” statement in my comment about the name change. When you say “some of the objects”, I take that to mean that more than just the SUV laden planet of Earth is warming?

        • Yep. A few of the objects are warming, but most aren’t. Some are getting colder.

      • actually the last 16 years, but the earth is warming and cooling at the same rate as mars.

    • You again? I still don’t have a fucking clue what you natter on about.

      • That’s alright, if one here or there doesn’t get it that is an acceptable loss that we can live with. I would get the Crayola crayons out and draw you a picture but the comment section of YouTube does not support such a thing. If you turn off the T.V. and put down that beer it might be a little easier for you to follow along.

      • Saw this and thought about you buddy.

        I may be wrong, but I may be right. If I am wrong you are either quite dim or you have been living under a rock, one.

        • You sure are funny, Private Pyle.

          • Hey, you fired the first shot, Hasbro. If you would debate the evidence instead of attacking the other debater you would gain a lot more respect. Tell ya what; why don’t you join ATS ( and try your tactics there and watch what happens.

  3. Climate has been changing since the earth was formed, how arrogant to think we have the power to stop it.

    • BuzzCoastin | Jan 20, 2013 at 10:10 pm |

      if wee have the power to create it
      wee have the power to stop it
      most of what passes for human progress
      are actually attempts at humanity’s suicide

      • We did not create it! That is the point.

        • BuzzCoastin | Jan 22, 2013 at 12:34 am |

          the argument that wee didn’t cause “global warming” is valid
          given the data as wee know it
          however, the plus side of taking responsibility is
          a better use of resources, with less eco impact

          and the historic temperature data
          doesn’t obviate the need for a more sustainable approach to the use of resources

          • How would you suggest we take responsibility for something we have no control over? “Global warming” ended 16 years ago and we are now in a cooling cycle. Unless you know how to control the sun we can only roll with the changes.

          • BuzzCoastin | Jan 22, 2013 at 12:47 am |

            you’re taking the cliche “global warming” too literally
            and you’re also arguing about bullshit minutia

            the real peril facing humanity is a lack of sustainable practices
            and because of the “global warming” scare
            WalMart, Campbell Soup & Tyson Chicken are in the bio-waste to energy business
            and why humanity is trying to break it’s addiction to oil
            & the US Army just installed the largest solar energy array in the world
            who gives fuck whether the facts back up prudent actions?
            I’m kewl with people doing the right thing for the wrong reasons

          • Fossil fuels are plentiful and solar is generally a waste of money. I do like the Idea of trash burner plants for electricity, that is practical and it works.

          • BuzzCoastin | Jan 22, 2013 at 7:12 pm |

            maybe on your planet fossil fuels are abundant
            here on Earth we experienced peak oil a decade ago
            & on this planet:
            solar energy can return your investment in 4 years
            while working for 15 to 20 years & you can sell the excess
            alternative energy makes up about 30% of the US energy supply
            and not surprisingly
            trash burning is the least eco-friendly way
            to utilize organic “waste” for energy
            change the moniker to jcdolt

          • Such brilliant name calling, After Solyndra and numerous other solar companies going bankrupt despite taxpayer trillions being wasted on them, you would thing the average person would realize how impractical solar energy is for most applications. As an electrician (hence the jcvolt) I have removed more solar systems than I have installed because they are unreliable. As for fossil fuels, the US alone is capable of producing enough to sustain itself for the next hundred years operating on the false assumption that the earth is not creating more. All this green propaganda is making Al Gore a very wealthy hypocrite.

          • You need to educate yourself on the breakthroughs in solar technology that have been made in the last couple of years. Many of them have been posted here on disinfo, so just do a search. Solar is getting both more practical and cheaper all the time.

          • Maybe someone should educate all the bankrupt solar companies.

          • How many are there? And how many successful ones?

          • I can only name the ones that took money from taxpayers and still went bankrupt

          • And yet you don’t name them. Any besides Solyndra? Because referring to an exception with plurals like it’s an example of the rule is misleading.

          • BuzzCoastin | Jan 22, 2013 at 8:58 pm |

            I’ve have friends using solar arrays for over 30 years
            I also know people completely energy independent
            I’ve lived completely off the grid for years at a time
            your knowledge of the state of the art alternative energies is deficient & out of date

            so you can pay $10 a gallon for fuel if you’d like
            eat chemically treated food and
            imbibed the Homeland Kulture of oil
            I’ve opted out of that madness

          • Also, please cite evidence that the Earth is creating oil as fast as we are using it.

          • I did not say it was making it as fast as we are using it, just that it is still making it. Some people still think it comes from dead dinosaurs

          • Since it isn’t being made as fast as we’re using it, it’ll essentially run out unless we stop using as much. And since it’s taken the entire history of the Earth to create what we had, we’ll have to drastically cut our usage.

          • Well it’s nice to know you’re thinking ahead. I suppose well leave the investment in renewable energy until we REALLY need it, right? And I guess countries such as Germany and Switzerland are going bankrupt with declining standards of living too seeing as theyre moving towards completely replacing fossil fuel systems with over 50% renewable energy sources in many regions. Sometimes I feel like no one has seen the animatrix…not that it defines a certain future, but outlines possible implications of such shortsighted idealism.

          • Yes they are!! You are just too clueless.

          • Hahahahaha you have got to be kidding.

          • I suppose you would propose that we leech every limited/profitable fuel source from the planet so to keep this fucking mindless crusade of endless production and expansion until we (those who inherit this godforsaken mess) reach a threshold of diminishing resources which will manifest itself in the collapse of every major system of society and the consequent shitfight to establish a viable energy source to replace the mass of energy dependent infrastructure we have pissed out in the name of profit.

            Or we could you know, just prepare for the future now and avoid all of that for future generations. Wait what am I saying, I’ll be dead anyway so fuck whatever happens beyond that.
            People like you and Ted Heistman would have us all just live our merry lives in ignorance of our own choices and their consequences. To be peaceful in your life and to make educated and mindful choices go hand in hand, theres no peace in making choices that go against your better knowledge and intuition simply to satisfy self convenience. Its a complete paradox.

          • Not to disagree with you Buzz, but fossil fuels are plentiful. The idea that they are not is based on a report completed in 1954 and is completely incorrect. If you check out the books and investigations of Greg Palast – who has been investigating oil since Exxon Valdeez you will see that more oil has been found since that report which makes the peak oil scare a fairy tale.

            Also, price is a factor. If oil remains at $50 or above all of Venezuela’s oil – tar oil – is worth extracting.What this does is to give Hugo Chavez more oil than Saudi Arabia which could well shift the power in Oil to our Bolivarian friend.

            The report from 1954 has been used as a tool by the Big Oil folks to explain why we are all over the Mid East yet oil prices have never been higher. It is merely slight of hand to cover them for turning off the spigots instead of opening them up and bringing the price down. They don’t want the price to come down, so they vuse what they have,l incorrect or not.

            The thing is – and most do not know this – back during the Clinton administration Bill and Hugo got together as Bill asked for help. Hugo agreed to keep prices below a certain mark to help us while the lower end of the bracket was fixed so that Hugo’s oil would be economically viable. That was then, but under the Bush administration Hugo was a despotic dictator even though he has won all his elections. Something George Jr. cannot honestly say.

            Still, I agree with you we need to be much more sustainable, even though sustainable is one of those buzzwords that have been programmed into our lexicon for nefarious reasons. I remember when Bush was selected the first time we were still talking about tree-huggers, but no one seems to have noticed the about face and how rapidly it was accomplished.

          • BuzzCoastin | Jan 22, 2013 at 8:48 pm |

            the US military is the largest user of fossil fuels on the planet
            and it s actively moving towards alternative energies
            (it also invaded any unstable oil supply to insure it’s supply)

            most major corporations are now moving towards

            alternative energies and sustainable practices
            if oil is really that abundant, their energy policies don’t reflect that “fact”

            Cuba spent 5 years recoiling from the end of their Russian oil supply
            they obviously didn’t know how abundant the oil was

          • Now the oil is abundant, but it is also corporately controlled. In fact since WWII the CIA in the Mid East has been Big Oil – no one else wanted to go there except the boys from Big Oil. See the book “The Secret War Against The Jews” by Aarons and Loftus. The book is about the Jews but it is also informative about how and why things are the way they are in the Mid East. So while it is a fact, it is a very well guarded fact.

            But I agree with you on the alternative enrgies, trouble is up until now there has only been lip service concerning them, especially from our politicians. In fact since Nixon each president has vowed to free us from foreign energy dependency befor the end of his administration. And we see how that alwasy went.

          • Obviously from my typos I am too sick to do this tonight – I have higher standards. So I am off to fall asleep in fron of a movie.

  4. “Emotional knowledge” that everything is going to turn to shit? Be sad now, so it doesn’t catch you off guard later? Sounds like a bunch of horseshit, to me. Fear Mongering.

    • Being aware and making choices accordingly based on the way you feel about a situation is hardly cause for fear. Yeah I suppose being critical of our current trajectory is cause to loose our freaking minds and give up, darn fear mongering gets me every time.

  5. Everybody is going to die. Everything is temporary So being aware of that is good. Its even a spiritual practice. Western Culture is fatally flawed, even diseased some how, most likely in decline, but that doesn’t mean there is no reason for joy in everyday life. Nobody knows the future. This whole trope just strikes me as emotional manipulation.

  6. Don’t identify with ‘your’ civilization and there will be nothing to lament when it crashes. Raise/plant the food you enjoy eating. Stop worrying about money/debt–you are not your credit rating. But, above all, resist the temptation to engage with strangers who think you owe them something–government and corporate reps included.

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