Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Progress

"Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features."
     - Wittgenstein

If you're walking towards a meeting point far away, every step is progress.  But if you happened to take a wrong turn, and now you're getting further from your meeting point, then, until you see the error, you will continue to believe you're making progress when in fact you're getting further and further away from your goal.  You're regressing.

We've taken a wrong turn, but all the inventions and new things for us to play with make it feel like we're still progressing.  And turning our back on them to retrace our steps?  That involves moving backwards, and some might even call that devolving.

So many people link progress exclusively with technology as if we can progress enough that we no longer need nature.  One of my students is pretty certain we don't need to worry about climate change because of the work being done to figure out how to live on Mars.  After we completely destroy the oceans and the rainforests, we can just create our own oxygen here, and save the hassle of dragging all that machinery to Mars.

If we could live on Mars, then we can live on Earth no matter how dramatically the climate changes.

But would we want to?

Of course it's not a real choice because only a select few could fit in the habitat being created, and I don't have the kind of bankroll that could guarantee me a spot (not to mention the fact that they better hurry up - we might only have 30 or 40 years before we're in a period of endless wars).

But I counter the premise that this IS, in fact, progress. We're not necessarily happier or wealthier or more satisfied with our lives now that we can carry our phones with us and watch movies on demand.  We're moving and changing so it feels like progress, but it's not clearly better than it was.  It's convenient, and we've gotten used to it, but there's still more to life, particularly when we look at the number of people, animals, and resources exploited so we can continue at this pace. We aren't progressing by continuing to make new crap to buy; we're on a wrong path, but it's so bendy it's hard to tell because we can no longer see our way back.  And we'll never get back to where we were - with horse and buggies and oil lamps.  Progress is a different path with technology in the picture, but without as many things cluttering up the place, without so many distractions from the real world.

And with oceans. And trees.

ETA - Bill Maher gets the Mars problem.

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