The Folly Of Progress

American Progress by John Gast, 1872

There is no evolutionary concept of ‘progress’. There’s just adaptation. A crocodile is no more ‘progressed’ than a bee, nor has a human made more progress than a dinosaur; they’re just adapted to different environments. As Charles Darwin didn’t say, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Evolution of temperature in the Post-Glacial period at the very end of the Pleistocene, according to Greenland ice cores

Humans have been able to sustain the illusion of progress only because things haven’t changed that much. We think the ground is solid beneath our feet and it actually isn’t. In the long run, it’s literally shifting. The ‘Enlightenment’ of some dusty old white dudes gave them the illusion that the physical laws of the universe were knowable and could be manipulated at will. They missed the actual Enlightenment of the Buddha, where he saw that all things are impermanent and the only constant is change.

Humans have A) lived in a relatively stable environment and B) found a one-time inheritance of fossil fuels from our ancestors. Blithely burning the latter has obliterated the former, destroying the stable environment we measure all progress against. We’re like children that found their father’s gun. It’s fun for a while, but rarely ends well.

This isn’t even the first time life has completely fucked up the thermostat. The photosynthetic ancestors we’re blithely burning did it with their oxygen emissions 2,3 billion years ago. We are simply reversing the process and thinking we’re gods, the most progressed creatures ever. We’re not. We’re just tomb robbers, digging up and despoiling ancestors who were much more powerful than us.

Because humans arbitrarily mark history into a false waking (the Enlightenment) and sleeping (everything else) we miss the point entirely. Car go fast, wow, while the road crumbles beneath our feet. Because we divide history into the real stuff (history) and whatever else (prehistory), we lose the plot. We’re so proud of our advancing technology just as dinosaurs would have been so proud of their plumage, and it’s all as ultimately irrelevant. Because we divide understanding up into isolated subjects (economics, biology), we make rapid progress in the things we measure, and lose the things we do not. Like the very climate we are adapted to. And so we lose it all.

As the physicist Tom Murphy says in his inestimable textbook:

The delirious ascent in energy and resource use witnessed over the past few centuries has been accomplished via the rapid, accelerating expenditure of a one-time inheritance of natural resources — a brief and singularly remarkable era in the long saga of human history. It has produced a dangerously distorted impression of what “normal” looks like on this planet. The fireworks show on display today is spectacular, fun, and inspirational, but also exceptionally unusual. Just as a meteorologist somehow born and trained within a 15-minute fireworks display likely cannot make useful predictions about weather and sky conditions over the next week, we are ill-equipped to intuitively understand what comes after the present phase. (Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet)

The broad idiocy of the day is that burning things doesn’t make it hot, killing things doesn’t make them dead, and that we can just ‘progress’ away from all consequences, all the way to Mars. We’re idiots. We think we’re the most advanced species ever—much more advanced than those dumb bugs and dinosaurs (birds)—and yet we fuck ourselves in a few hundred years while they’ve been happily reproducing for millions. As Shakespeare said,

[Human] Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I’ll repeat it again. Evolutionary progress does not exist. There is no concept of straight-line progress on an X-Y graph because the lines keep moving. If—like anaerobes—you adapt to a low-oxygen world and your aerobic cousins start farting out massive amounts of O₂ then all of your billion years of dominance go to shit. These emissions almost killed aerobic life also (freezing the Earth down to the equator) and it took millions of years for them to figure out how to balance the thermostat. To adapt. That’s the point of survival, not growing forever, which is just cancer.

The Dawkinsian delusion of the day is that humans have intelligence and that this the same thing as adaptiveness. Whatever our problems are, we can build something and work our way through them. This is a very cartoonish, Paw Patrol view of the world. The common Yuval Noah Hariri (Sapiens) view of the world is that colonialism was a bit of an oopsie, but who cares, we got science, and progress, and we’re headed in the right direction. This is part of the hubris baked into science itself—the idea that knowledge is understanding and that more knowledge is just good—and this just isn’t true at all.

The underlying premise of science and its handmaiden technology is that early humans were primitive and we’re better now because we have antibiotics and cars. But we only need antibiotics because we live in such concentrated filth and cars kills us as bad as any large predator. The idea that us ‘moderns’ are so much smarter than the indigenous is just evolutionary idiocy. Remember, the measure of survival is not abstract progress, it’s adaptation. Those ‘primitive’ societies lived in adaptive balance for thousands of years while ‘advanced’ society is about to smoke the whole planet in a few centuries. Who’s backwards now?

The scientific philosophy of more more more knowledge is not innocuous, it doesn’t suddenly just become noxious when applied to technology. The philosophy of science is in itself the problem. As the Native American philosopher Brian Yazzie Burkhart says,

From the perspective of Western philosophy, it is generally thought that more knowledge is always better… There seems to be no way for a Western philosopher in this mainstream tradition to claim that things we can know we should not know.

But in American Indian thought, and for that matter in many non-Western systems of thought, such an idea is not problematic. In these ways of thought, the assumption is not already in place that more knowledge is always better or that we ought always to have more of it. From the American Indian perspective, our knowledge is not limited since we have as much as we should. (American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays)

The idea of more being better—even more knowledge—is the root of consumption and collapse. The collapse comes through technology, but it comes from science and Anglo-European philosophy. We can’t just ‘follow the science’ out of this predicament, who do you think drilled all the oil and made all the plastics? Scientists. Science is precisely how we got into trouble, not the way out of it.

This is hubris of science is that because we can draw things on a Cartesian plane and manipulate them, we understand them. This is the hubris of humanity, saying “I think, therefore I am,” and thus excluding most of creation from existence. Where do you think this leads? We have made 2D graphs of ‘progress’ go up while obliterating the 3D earth. We still understand this problem as just CO₂ (ie one graph) and think that by switching to ‘renewable’ technology we can continue fucking up the 800 other graphs that are also cratering. We have no concept of the whole because our science—unlike old religion and ‘superstition—gives us all the power of gods with none of the reverence for anything above us. And so the sky burns like the wings of Icarus.

It all comes from the fundamental fallacy of progress and the deep misunderstanding of adaptation. We—like the land dinosaurs—have happily lived in a world of greater and greater complexity, ignoring the little asteroids of pollution we rain upon ourselves. We laugh at the dinosaurs despite them A) not going extinct (birds) and B) having a much longer run than us. There is more time between a T-Rex and a Stegosaurus than between a T-Rex and an iPad. The dinosaurs didn’t fuck themselves, but our even more powerful ancestors that first harnessed the sun actually did, hence we’re not even unique in our destructive capacity.

The microbes that first captured the sun are the fossil fuels we burn, thinking all that energy just comes from our brilliance. They had to painfully learn how to rebalance the thermostat and live in adaptation to their environment, not wild-ass freedom, producing and consuming as much energy as they felt like. And yet we disdain these great ancestors as dumb bacteria, rob their tombs, and call it progress. What are we doing? We completely miss the point of survival (adaptation) and in the ‘progress’ make complete asteroids of ourselves.