Friday, May 3, 2013

Our Chances of Adapting to the End of Progress are Not Good

One of the others is of particular importance to our broader theme.  If you happen to live in a society that has stumbled across an energy source of unparalleled abundance and concentration, a source so rich that the major economic challenge faced over the course of three centuries is that of finding enough ways to use it to replace human muscle power and the other, far more limited energy sources of less lavishly supplied eras, then a vision of time as endless progress is going to be your most adaptive choice.  That’s arguably the main reason why belief in progress has become so deeply entrenched in the collective imagination of the industrial world:  for more than three hundred years, much more often than not, it worked.  During that era, those people, companies, and nations that gambled on progress by and large did much better than those that bet their money and other resources on stasis or decline.

As the fine print says, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and a shape of time that was highly adaptive to some particular set of historical conditions can become maladaptive when the conditions suddenly change. Ancient Greece went through such a shift, beginning a century or so after Hesiod’s time, as the reopening of trade routes closed since Mycenae’s fall made it profitable for Greek farmers to turn hillside acreage over to olive orchards and vineyards for the export trade. By the beginning of the sixth century, as Greek wine and oil flooded markets across the eastern Mediterranean and brought a corresponding flood of hard currency and imported goods back home, Hesiod’s harsh but functional views stopped being relevant, though it was many years more before that lack of relevance was really processed by the Greeks. Another millennium passed before the old pattern repeated itself, and the civilization of classical Greece stumbled down the curve of decline and fall toward a dark age that Hesiod would have recognized at once.

The central theme of this blog, in turn, is that the same sort of transformation is happening in our own time, but in the other direction.  The shape of time that governs nearly all contemporary thinking in the industrial world, the vision of perpetual progress, was adaptive back when ever more abundant energy supplies were being extracted out of mines and wells and poured into the project of limitless industrial expansion. The end of the age of cheap abundant energy, though, makes that shape of time hopelessly maladaptive, and a galaxy of assumptions and ideas founded on faith in progress are thus well past their pull date.

Since most people in the modern industrial world aren’t even aware of the role that faith in progress plays in their thinking, their chances of adapting to the end of progress are not good—and certain habits of thought the civil religion of progress has inherited from older theist religions make the necessary adaptations even harder than they have to be. We’ll discuss those next week. - John Michael Greer

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