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Excerpt from Dreams

Progress (p. 161)

From chapter "Progress"

Stop. Let’s talk about progress. We tend to think of it as having intrinsic positive value, but is “progress” always good? The Nazis had a progression in their treatment of Jews, progressing toward their final solution. And individual Jews themselves followed a line of progress: get an ID card, move to a ghetto, get on a cattle car, arrive at a camp, work at the camp, go to a gas chamber, get put in an oven, rise as greasy smoke, fall as ashes. Likewise the United States’ conquest of much of North America had a progression.

A stalker can progress from one stage to another, taking over a victim’s life, beginning with e-mails, then phone calls, then visits, then moving to the victim’s community, then haunting places the victim might go, then showing up at the victim’s home, and so on.

Abusers often follow a predictable progression or escalation of abuse. The enslavement of women forced into the sex trade can follow a predictable progression. Chattel slavery has followed a historical progression, and on the individual level both slavers and the enslaved can often follow predictable progressions, physically, emotionally, and so on. Cancer can progress. Addictions, including cultural addictions, can progress.

Progress can merely mean movement toward some end or goal. And what are the primary goals of technological progress?

Progress can be good. A friendship or romantic relationship can progress as surely as can its toxic mimic, an abusive relationship. Understanding can progress, as, for example, I can attempt to become increasingly aware of and can attempt to increasingly articulate the deep roots of this culture’s drive to control and destroy.

Progress can certainly have mixed results, good for some and bad for others, and can be extremely perspective-dependent. One can of course perceive some progress to be good when it clearly is not. From the perspective of perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust, the technological and engineering progress that made possible the development of more efficient ways to kill large numbers of human beings was “good” or “useful” or “helpful.” Early on, the Nazis found that the mass killing of humans face-to-face (by machine-gunning them or shooting them individually) often took a psychological toll on the soldiers who were doing the killing, manifesting through large-scale alcohol consumption, regret, flashbacks, low morale, reduced efficiency as killers, and so on. So, progressively more sophisticated and abstract ways of mass killing were devised. This technological progress helped the mass murders. This progress was, from the perspective of those perpetrating genocide, “good.” From the perspective of the victims, not so good.

From the perspective of the perpetrators of the United States Holocaust (the one in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not those in the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere), the development of more efficient ways to move men and machines was “good” and “useful” and “helpful.” Railroads, for example, were certainly part of How the West Was Won, or how it was settled, conquered, stolen, or destroyed, depending upon your perspective, your loyalties, and with whom you identify. The building of these railroads was, from the perspective of those whose manifest destiny it was to “fill” the “empty” continent—or the perpetrators of mass violence and theft, however you choose to perceive them—was certainly progress. It was good. From the perspective of the Lakota, Apache, Navajo, Hopi, Modoc, Squamish, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce, Cheyenne, and others, not so good. From the perspective of passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, bison, prairie dogs, salmon, sturgeon, pronghorn antelope, timber wolf, Mexican wolf, Idaho white pine, redwood, Douglas fir, grizzly bear, not so good.

Do we see a pattern?

It’s far too late in the destruction of the planet for people of integrity to reasonably believe in, much less propagate, the myth of scientific and technological progress being beneficial or even neutral in value. After all the atrocities committed to serve technological progress, it is embarrassing that I still have to debunk that religion.

And yet, the cult of technological progress has such a stranglehold over our beliefs and our discourse that we can normally drop off the word “technological” and people still understand our meaning.

In 1970 Lewis Mumford wrote (as George Draffan and I discussed in Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control), “The chief premise common to both technology and science is the notion that there are no desirable limits to the increase of knowledge, of material goods, of environmental control; that quantitative productivity is an end in itself, and that every means should be used to further expansion.”

Mumford’s response to this cult of progress was to insist that “what one must challenge is the value of a system so detached from other human needs and human purposes that the process goes on automatically without any visible goal except that of keeping the corporate apparatus itself in a state of power-making, power-yielding productivity.”

Mumford didn’t dwell on the “tendency of mechanization and automation to form a self-enclosed system” to indicate some minor glitches, which are to be expected in any machine. “The point,” he wrote, “is that the most massive defects of automation are those that arise, not from its failures, but from its indisputable [sic] triumphs. . . .”

Mumford asked the same question that so many of us ask, which is, why on earth would a culture do so many crazy, stupid, destructive things? His answer cuts through the cornucopian garbage we’re all handed (and garbage it is; of what use are cool computer games on a planet being murdered?): “The desired reward of this magic [of automation, and more broadly, progress] is not just abundance but absolute control.”

But you knew that already. Only “innocents,” to use Mumford’s over-generous word (I would say “psychopaths,” or maybe “the living dead”), could consider a “completely automated world society” to be the culmination of human evolution (all of evolution took place so we can watch television?). Instead, those of us with any sense at all recognize that the sort of automated future that the progress that civilization promises (or rather threatens) “would be a final solution to the problems of mankind, only in the sense that Hitler’s extermination program was a final solution for the ‘Jewish problem.’”

We all know this in our bodies. Some of us even know it in our heads. Mumford commented in 1970 that, “The notion that mechanical and scientific progress guaranteed parallel human benefits was already dubious by 1851, the year of the Crystal Palace Exhibition, and now has become completely untenable.”And yet in 1933 the title of the World’s Fair in Chicago was The Century of Progress. The slogan over the gate? “Science explores, technology executes [certainly in more ways than one], man conforms.”This was during the Great Depression, that colossal glitch (but not failure) of the machine’s economic system. In 1933 the unemployment rate was peaking at 25 percent (something’s dramatically wrong with a system where three out of four people are working their lives away, yet the economic system still falters) and farmers were dumping milk while people starved. Technology was executing, but some men weren’t conforming.

Mumford wasn’t wildly optimistic about the future. He knew—as we all do—that there was no hope in proceeding “on the terms imposed by technocratic society . . . [with] its plans for accelerated technological progress, even though man’s vital organs [and the rest of the world] will all be cannibalized in order to prolong the megamachine’s meaningless existence.”

He knew also, “The ideology that underlies and unites the ancient and modern megamachines is one that ignores the needs and purposes of life in order to fortify the power complex and extend its dominion. Both megamachines are oriented toward death; and the more they approach unified planetary control, the more inescapable does that result promise to become.”

He didn’t think change would be easy, saying, rightly enough, that it might take “an all-out fatal shock treatment, close to catastrophe, to break the hold of civilized man’s chronic psychosis. Even such a belated awakening would be a miracle.”

And of course today most people have not awakened from the cult of progress. Even with the world being dismembered before our eyes, nearly all public figures—from public leaders to public environmentalists to public intellectuals—continue to be members and servants of the cult of progress, the cult—to finally (for now) complete building this cult’s name—of scientific, materialist, instrumentalist, mechanistic, managerial progress. Or maybe we should just call it the cult of control, or better, the cult of enslavement.

For those who benefit from it, progress is about improving their material lifestyle (temporarily, until progress kills the world) at the expense of those they enslave, steal from, or otherwise exploit. For everyone else, it is about loss.

Progress. Just today I read that in vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean, there is forty-eight times as much plastic as phytoplankton, up from five to ten times as much just a few years ago.

Progress. One million migratory songbirds die every day because of skyscrapers, cell phone towers, domesticated cats, and other trappings of modern civilized life.

Progress. At least 200 species are driven extinct by this culture every single day. The rates are going up. The modern mass extinction has barely begun.

Progress. A half million human children (and untold nonhuman children) die every year as a direct result of so-called debt repayment from so-called third world countries (the colonies) to so-called first world countries (the center of empire, the industrialized nations, the nations that have undergone progress).

Progress. Studies have shown a strong positive correlation between regions in Africa that have resources valuable to industrialized nations and warfare.

Progress is polar bears swimming hundreds of miles to ice floes that have melted away, till finally they can swim no more.

Progress is nuclear weapons, depleted uranium, and “drones” piloted from an office in Florida that can kill people in Pakistan. Progress is the ability to kill at a great distance. Progress is the ability of fewer and fewer people to control more and more people, and to destroy more and more of the world.

Progress is moonscapes in Alberta, from tar sands extraction.

Progress is moonscapes in West Virginia, from mountain top removal.

Progress is moonscapes the world over, from clear-cuts, mining, the release of industrial effluents, agriculture.

Progress is pipelines across Alaska.

Progress is dying oceans.

Progress is the complete takeover and pollution of the world.