Modernity and the myth of progress

One of the fundamental beliefs of modernity is the belief in progress.  According to modernity, all manners of things can undergo an endless progression of expansion, improvement, and growth.  Knowledge, technology, the economy, social systems, and our selves are all capable of a never-ending process of improvement.  Such a notion is, however, a culturally-conditioned belief and not a given fact.  In most societies in the world for the vast majority of human history, people believed that the world underwent cycles of growth and decay or that it held to a tenuous equilibrium capable of catastrophic disruption.  Things might improve, but usually only through dramatic divine intervention in apocalyptic or eschatological ways.  Such beliefs accorded with human experience in which life was fragile and unlikely to improve dramatically.

It was only with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that belief in unlimited progress became wide-spread.  This belief in progress certainly has much to recommend it, as it is responsible for (and caused by) the dramatic increase in life expectancy and standard of living that the human race has experienced over the past several centuries.  Nevertheless, there are also darker sides to the belief in progress.  I would like to point out two such downsides today: unsustainability and the stigmatization of non-growth.

Some forms of progress have no inherent limits.  Is there a limit to how good of a person I can be or how much I can love God and neighbors?  No.  So, pursuit of sanctification is an enterprise that is probably a sustainable one.  For many other processes, though, there are real limits to how much we can achieve.  Finite resources, the laws of physics, and other forces mean that some forms of progress cannot go on forever.  Yet modernity’s myth of progress proclaims that they can, setting up the conditions for dramatic crashes between our expectations and way of living and these limits.

I find the myth of progress as it is incorporated into capitalism to be the most potentially tragic instance of this problem.  Capitalism depends upon growth.  The economy must grow (at something like 3% annually) and individual corporations must grow (usually at much more than 3% annually) or bad things happen: unemployment, price inflation, takeovers, lack of investment, etc.  To grow, capitalism demands more workers, more resources, and more markets.  Yet to have more workers, there must be more people.  More people and the demand for more resources eventually bump up against very real limitations on the amount of resources in our world.  There’s not only a finite amount of fossil fuels, but also of many important minerals, to say nothing about the question of food production.  There are also a finite number of markets in the world.  Once Coke has entered all of the countries of the world and displaced their traditional beverages, where then will its growth come from?  We need to question the myth of progress and instead develop economic and social models that seek sustainability and not endless growth lest we set ourselves up for disaster.

The other problem with the myth of progress is that we stigmatize instances in which we do not see progress occurring.  Humans often think in binaries, so if you are not growing, then you are declining.  If you’re not going forward, then you’re going back.  Since progress is the goal (and an achievable goal for all in all manner of areas), anything but great progress is seen as great failure.  Instead of looking at decline and decay as part of natural processes, we are convinced that they only occur as the result of great failures (moral, intellectual, volitional, etc.) on the part of those involved.  This even spills over into how we treat the aged, sick, and dying in American culture.  We shunt them away from sight, for they have failed to keep progressing, and we do anything we can to avoid being like them.  Yet age, sickness, and death are all instances in which decline is natural and perpetual youth and life are an illusion.  Thus, we stigmatize those who are involved in declining enterprises, be they companies, churches, social movements, or even people’s bodies.  While I’m not going to say that decline is a good or even necessarily a neutral thing in all cases, I think it’s in many cases at least less of a bad thing than we think it is.  Only by learning to recognize and selectively reject the myth of progress can we come to have a more human and compassion attitude toward those who are not progressing.


David Shane posted on December 27, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I think morality is another one of these areas where people just assume we are naturally progressing (and expect that progress may be made). For example, I’m not sure what you believe personally, but regarding homosexuality, I think you could sum up many people’s beliefs as “our backward ancestors thought it was wrong, but we realize it’s morally fine, because we’ve progressed.” (You probably realize that that reasoning is just bad history – plenty of our ancestors thought it was morally fine – but I do think that is the modern position of many.)

Marc Kandalaft posted on March 19, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Hello I really liked your post.
I shared it on my FB page and here are some of the reactions if you’re interested :
Marc K

David W. Scott posted on March 19, 2013 at 7:48 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I appreciate you sharing the resulting Facebook conversation with you. Your comment about whether everything that we currently regard as progress will still be seen the same way in a million years (or even 1,000 years) is very apt.
Thanks again for sharing,

Denice Mcmains posted on January 11, 2018 at 4:37 am

Very interesting points you have noted , regards for posting . “Pleasure and love are the pinions of great deeds.” by Charles Fox.

nigel posted on October 24, 2018 at 5:47 am

Hi David, I just found your blog while searching for critiques of progress. I have borrowed (and, of course, credited) your concluding sentence for a presentation I am doing as part of Masters in Integrative Psychology. I really like the whole blog – many thanks

nigel posted on October 24, 2018 at 5:48 am

That should read, “integrative psychotherapy” rather than “integrative psychology”

David Scott posted on October 24, 2018 at 9:24 am

Nigel, I’m glad that you found my writings interesting and useful! I wish you the best in your program.

David Howe posted on March 19, 2019 at 3:09 pm

I am aware of a number of books which suggest that progress is not all that its cracked up to be.

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright borrows a definition of progress that goes something like this: there is a pattern of change that is discernible in history, that change has a direction and is forward, and that change is always for the betterment of humans. Wright then describes various “progress traps” humans have encountered throughout our prehistory and history. Recent progress traps include nuclear weapons. When weaponry can destroy the world, that’s too much progress and is a progress trap. Ditto for greenhouse gas emissions that have created climate change.

Tom Wessels’ the Myth of Progress explains why progress is contrary to Earth Systems Science, the science which climate scientists use to sort out direct measurements of the Earth to determine how the Earth system works in the present, use proxies to determine how it worked in the past, and use computer models to predict future climate. Wessels’ argument is that the Earth System, itself, is the largest system on the planet, and as such, it, set limits on every component or subsystem within the Earth System. Thus, economic growth is a subsystem of the Earth System and has limits set by the Earth System. Yet, the US continues to to espouse growth economics as the only way to structure an economy.

William Cotton, Jr.’s book Overshoot explains how the Earth has a carrying capacity for various land uses. Human population has grown so large and our life styles have become so lavish that each new generation now applies pressure on the Earth carrying capacity of about twice that of each previous generation. He calls humans Homo Colossus. He explains that prehistoric humans sustainably extended the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans by the “Takeover” method, i.e., by taking over the Earth’s carrying capacity for other species for human use. Humans then recently proceeded to unsustainably increase our population by the Draw Down method, i.e., drawing down limited resources to expanded both our numbers and lavish life style. Furthermore, modern medicine has also increased our numbers with no increase in carrying capacity. We are in a state of overshoot, i.e., we have overshot the Earth’s carrying capacity for the currently human population given how we use the Earth.

Catton’s book Bottleneck is also useful.

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