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.
The archaeological record that we have of early humans showed that they took care of the sick and aged. They gave proper funerals for their brothers and sisters that died. They made art.
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.
Jared Diamond, the author of the above quote, uses the fact that the remains of the ancient elite indicate their superior health, in terms of bone lesions caused by disease, superior height, and fewer cavities than the common people. He uses the same tactic to speak of the difference between hunter-gatherers and early farmers, relaying that modern Greeks and Turks still have yet to recover their former pre-agricultural height.