Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Progress

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On Progress 

When we were children in school, and (for some of us) even students in college, we were taught and even believed that we were in an extraordinary era of "progress".

But we should by now have come to realize that this "progress" was clearly along several directions.

If we consider, for instance, the degree of biological diversity on the planet or the degree of cultural diversity within our species, then clearly the "progress" made over the past century has been in the direction of decreasing both of these diversities.

Since the viability of the biosphere is dependent on its biological diversity, and that of our own species is dependent also on our cultural diversity, it follows that the progress in these two areas has also been towards greatly decreasing the chances of survival of our ecosystems and of our own species. This is so even if we only consider our prospects through the next few centuries.

The current ecosystems might be replaced by or transition to degraded substitutes, and our own species might also, for a while, experience something similar. However, in the latter case (that of our own species), the direction in which we are making progress seems to be towards extinction or near-extinction in the not-too-distant future, with extreme suffering in store for most of us en route to that.

Such a fate would perhaps be only fitting, since we have also been the prime movers in the recent extinctions of countless other species.  This has taken place in a time-span perhaps shorter than those of most of the great mass extinctions of the past. These ancient mass extinctions, as recorded in our planet's sedimentary rock layers as part of its fossil history, followed impacts by comets or asteroids or eruptions from super-volcanoes that rapidly altered, over decades or centuries, ambient conditions on most of the planet's surface.

So perhaps what should be taught in today's schools is that we are heading, ever faster, towards multiple catastrophes unless we take individual and collective action. The main thing we can do to avert or diminish these disasters is to slow production and consumption. Unfortunately, our economies are dependent on maintaining and increasing the rates of production and consumption.

This is what is touted by economists and governments as indicators of "growth", what drives corporate profits and government revenues and, let it be said, gives many workers and small businesses their incomes.

These incomes could be received directly from jobs or contracts that depend upon these corporate profits and government revenues, or they could be obtained indirectly from consumers who spend part of their own incomes on purchases, rentals, etc.

Increasingly, the sector that profits most from all of this activity is the financial sector--the banks and investment firms, along with the insurance businesses associated with these. Of every dollar or rupee that we produce through our labor (or even take home as pay) it would be interesting to figure out how much, on average, goes to a bank or other financial institution.

While human labor is still the fuel, interest from debt, along with rent, are the gears and crankshafts of our economic engines.

Some might point to fossil fuels and other energy sources as the more basic fuel, along with the labor of living plants that gather energy from the sun and so power the flows through the food webs on which we are still as dependent as ever for survival.  But human labor, physical and mental, remains essential even in the utilization of these and other natural resources.

Of course, the labor of those who do not work at paid jobs, but carry on those perennial human activities without which none of us would have survived even the first few months of our lives, will never be counted by economists and financiers.

Unless we figure out a way to get out of this economic trap, preferably without causing great hardships for ordinary folk, we seem doomed to continue on this path of "progress".

Most of the movement that many would agree has constituted progress that they consider positive and meaningful can be traced back to those advances in science and technology which have been put to what we consider good use. Of course, for every one such positive effect, one could find, perhaps, one or more that are negative.  "A better world through chemistry" had once been the advertised promise.  The reality turned out to be rather different.

Nevertheless, in the realms of public health, medicine and more, there have been advances that have been beneficial--at least for many humans.  However, increasing pollution, climate change, land scarcity, drainage of resources and capital, wars driven by globalized economic forces and made even more horrific through technology--and much more--have negated much of the benefit accruing from the kinder applications of science and technology.

Another area, in which many will agree there has been some positive movement, is in the social domain, where there has come to be some recognition of past and current injustice and unfairness.

In the economic realm, progress had been made, over the course of the last century, in advancing the rights of workers to a greater share of the wealth they produce. This had only been possible when workers were able to gain more political power. And this was not won easily or quickly.

But we have seen, over the past several decades, a global push back against even that advance, concomitant with the loss of whatever little political power workers and their political organizations had gained.

Other species will never, of course, have any power over human politics and economics, except through whatever voice may be gained by environmentalists and whatever political and economic power those who are affected directly by the loss of species might be able to exert.

The parallel loss of so many of our human cultures, including the accelerating loss of languages and even of entire language families, seems also almost unstoppable, given the fact that the people affected have been relentlessly displaced, scattered and reduced in number, with little or no power or influence over the great juggernauts that drive our economies and our species on their tracks of relentless "progress".  Many of us seem to have less regard for the fate of entire populations of our own species than we do for those of some others that we now suddenly favor after having driven them to near extinction.
The question that should be asked of those who still tout human "progress" remains the same as always, except that it is increasingly more urgent: "Towards what?"

Arjun Janah
2016  January 26th, Tue.

Brooklyn, New York