A Cleveland train running over the Cuyahoga River throws off sparks from its fly-wheels. The sparks land white hot in the river below.
The river, however, doesn’t swallow these sparks. They don’t land harmlessly on the water. Instead, the river ignites:
Rivers used to burn in this country. It’s odd and scary, but true.
But the 1969 fire did more than throw smoke on downtown Cleveland. It helped create a national impetus for environmental control. It was in that era that the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were passed, and environmental protection agencies at both the federal and the state levels were created.
We, of course, are still having the conversation about conservation, especially with climate change so high in the national consciousness. But Progress was made. We are better than we were before
Progress is the idea that life will be better for our children than it is for us. It is the idea that the inevitable march of technology, of social justice, of economic power, will lead to better, more free lives than were available for our ancestors.
This also rests on the bedrock idea that life was terrible before society. That things began, as Thomas Hobbes put it, with:
no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
That’s weird, though, when you think about it.
Small children understand sharing before anyone tells them about it. They understand fairness. They want to help each other.
But what about agriculture? Surely that was Progress. There’s no way food could be more abundant and predictable in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which predominated before agriculture. Hunting and gathering would be a lifestyle exposed to famine and want.
While it is difficult to understand ancient societies, which left no written records, there are a few ways we can determine which type of society afforded a better life. First, we can look at societies that are still hunting and gathering, and we can look at the remains of those ancient hunter-gatherers.
On both counts, the evidence for Progress is shaky.
To the first point, hunter-gatherers didn’t work nearly as many hours as we do. The ones still around only work between 20-40 hours a week; sometimes they work as little as 12. Work itself was different as well. Because hunter-gatherer work is so varied and requires knowledge and creativity, it seemed less like work and more like play. Work was not toil to them. Most living hunter-gatherers don’t even have a word for it, and even when they do, they use it to describe interactions with outsiders, not their own labor.
These societies that still exist are also much more egalitarian and less stratified than their agricultural counterparts. It is only with the excess that agriculture produces that we see the rise of classes:
Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.
This makes a great deal of sense, when you think about it. Today, our world is dependent on only 150 species of plants; half the world’s food calories come from only three of them, none of which can supply all the nutrients a person needs. The hunter-gatherer had a much more varied diet, one that was much more healthy and less prone to famine. Agriculture can support far, far more people, but does so at a lower quality of life for those people.
When I first read Diamond’s article, my first instinct was to point to all our technology as proof of Progress. We can communicate at light-speed. We can read things for free written the world over.
But these improvements don’t mean necessarily our lives are any improved than those of our ancestors better. Any technology will bring you a benefit and a drawback.
A car gives you freedom, but creates the commute. A standardized shipping container will bring you goods efficiently, but will clog society with cheap goods. Even our first cities were only bearable because they could make beer.
It’s taken as a matter of course that Progress is real, and almost inevitable. Knowing all of this, though, can we say that Progress is real? Perhaps a better question, though, is why is it so surprising that Progress might not be real?
It’s because Progress is, like many of our other ideas about life, a meta-narrative. If you want to understand what’s going on in your head, understanding what they are, and why they endure, is key.
To be continued in Part II…