“Progress is not the mere correction of evils. Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something still better.” - Edward Filene
For human beings, knowledge has always contained the hope for our future. It is a natural evolutionary driver; it is the informational DNA that gives us an existential advantage over all other creatures. Why? Because we presume that progress is a derivative of knowledge. If we acquire enough information, if we learn enough about ourselves and the world around us, if we disentangle the mysteries of the universe, we will set ourselves on some course of Utopian immortality.
“The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than both the two world wars of the last century.”
But one only has to look at our recent past to question the evidence of this premise. One of the famed cases in human existence is the civilization that occupied Easter Island. In Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, he gives a concise anthropological account of the rise and fall of Easter Islanders. They provide a closed experiment, a mini-civilization that illuminates many of the lessons of human folly. The downfall of their civilization was a complex mix of resource plundering, environmental degradation, rigid hierarchy, unquestioned religious beliefs, and an uncontrolled population boom. Many of these behaviours were manifested in the creation of “moai” – the stone giants that still stand there today as monuments to human hubris. The perpetual creation of “moai” led to a clear-cutting of trees, inefficient calorie use, and the continual need to create more and more human life in order to sustain the sheer ambition of creating more monuments. Wright characterizes the Easter Islanders behaviour as “ideological pathology” – the relentless pursuit of a singular mode of behaviour steeped in unwavering belief.
Easter Island Versus Modern Civilization
It may seem anachronistic to compare Wright’s account of Easter Island with John Gray’s account of modern capitalism in his book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. However, the parallels betray a common human thread that is undeniable in its pattern and pathos. One of the upshots of Gray’s argument is that “The lesson of history is that we don’t learn our lessons.” The experiment of laissez-faire capitalism has failed in every market they have ever been implemented in with huge tolls on human life and wellbeing. (For a more journalistic account of these failures around the world, see Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine). Even if we look at less extreme examples of laissez-faire capitalism – say Canada or the UK – we see similar patterns of failure. As discussed in a previous article on Re-evaluating What We Value, we have learned from the field of happiness economics and other disciplines that this pursuit of modern capitalism has not only failed to produce quantitative success, it has also failed qualitatively. We are no happier today than we were fifty years ago, even though we have doubled wealth per capita in the West. Anti-depressant usage in America has almost doubled in the last ten years – increasing from about 13.3 million people to 27 million people taking prescribed medication for symptoms of depression (Archives of General Psychology). The self-help industry in the US alone is valued at over $12 billion. These patterns of anxiety, depression, and self-loathing are replicated in most other western countries (see Tim Kasser’s The High Price of Materialism).
Infinite progress, finite resources
As if the human toll was not enough, the parallels with our way of life and Easter Island play themselves out to a much higher magnitude in the realm of environmental degradation. Since the early 1900’s, the world’s population has multiplied by four and its economy – a rough measure of the human load on nature – by more than fifty. The results have been catastrophic. Every summer, an area of ice six times the size of California disappears in the Arctic. It is estimated that by 2050 there is a very high probability that the Arctic will completely disappear. This will be the biggest and fastest change to the Earth’s surface ever caused by human influence.
“We may be able to carry a load of ten billion people on the planet by 2050, but the diminishing returns are already manifestly apparent in our resource stock, our levels of life satisfaction, and our rising levels of inequality. The question arises: how do we break this path-dependency of being self-replicating organisms that eventually destroy our surrounding and ourselves?”
The evidence is abounding that the speed of this influence is accelerating and that we have no way to fully understand its ramifications. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest twelve months, the warmest six months, and the warmest April, May, and June on record.
The UK’s Stern Review, the government’s nationally commissioned research report into the economics of climate change, has validated the fact that we are on path to increase the planet’s temperature to four degrees Celsius by 2050. That temperature rise results in a 50% loss of all the biodiversity on this planet – that’s half of all animal and plant life in the world. Even if we adhere to all the report’s recommendations (which calls for a 90% reduction in carbon by 2050), we are still mitigating for a two degree Celsius rise in temperature, which equates to about a 30% extinction rate. We all understand the notion of an ecosystem, its fragility, its interdependence with other species in that system. This mass extinction will not be isolated to the natural world. We have already started to see the advent of climate change refugees fleeing from environmental hot spots like parts of South Asia. As Stern morbidly points out, “The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than both the two world wars of the last century.”
Civilization as a pyramid scheme
One of Wright’s central tenets upon examining the failure of past civilizations is that all human civilization is essentially a pyramid scheme. They thrive only when they’re growing. They gather wealth to the centre from an expanding periphery, which may be the frontier of a political and trading empire or a colonization of nature through the intensified use of resources. He concludes that such civilizations are therefore most unstable at their peak when they have reached maximum demand on the ecology. The reality is that complex systems inevitably succumb to diminishing returns, and often collapse.
The anthropologist Marhsal Sahlins has shown that despite our belief that hunter-gatherers were primitive creatures that lived a brute, short Hobbesian existence; they in fact were the “original affluent society”. His evidence shows that hunter-gatherers had significantly higher caloric intake than we originally presumed, they worked less than four hours a day, and they had stable social structures. With the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of farming, we actually locked our selves into a more brutish existence. Although we could sustain more people, we were less mobile, we worked significantly harder, we consumed less calories, etc.
This replication of the ‘pyramid scheme’ Wright refers to is evidenced today in our modern system of global capitalism. We may be able to carry a load of ten billion people on the planet by 2050, but the diminishing returns are already manifestly apparent in our resource stock, our levels of life satisfaction, and our rising levels of inequality. The question arises: how do we break this path-dependency of self-replicating organisms that eventually destroy their surroundings and themselves?
Our current inflection point
Wright believes that ‘We are Ice Age hunters, only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever, but seldom wise.” As an anthropologist examining the history of humanity, one can understand how Wright reaches this conclusion. But what Wright forgets to consider is that we as a species have the ability for self-reflection, the accumulation of new knowledge, the technology to distribute that information, and an ability to shift our modes of thinking from short-term to long-term in a way that our hunter-gatherer forebears and even recent civilizations of the past could not.
Wright himself admits that the “the greatest wonder of the ancient world is how recent it is.” No city or monument is much more than 5,000 years old. That is only about 50 lifetimes of 100 years (i.e. life years) that have been lived since the civilization began. This entire period only occupies a mere 0.002% of the 2.5 million years since our first ancestors sharpened a stone.
We are a young species that has the ability to course-correct its future. The informational DNA that we pass down from one generation to another has become even more potent and more crucial given the exponential nature of cultural growth. As hackneyed as the term exponential is – the graph itself has become a modern cliché – it is the only notion that can define the pace of our society’s growth. With these great leaps in complexity and growth of knowledge, also comes the ability to diffuse and apply that knowledge in new ways. Daniel Dennett has described memes – ideas that spread genetically – in a similar way as we describe informational DNA. He states, “What makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes – thanks to the lifting cranes of our memes.” We must use the abundance of information we have to fundamentally change our consciousness around the realities of our current system. We must not only pay heed to the distant past of Easter Island, but also to the failed economic experiments of laissez-faire capitalism and the short-termist material acquisition that has defined our world since the Industrial Revolution.
This does not mean that we will be able to achieve some post-materialist or post-consumerist world over night. But we should be actively questioning the shibboleths and dogmas of Enlightenment-era thinking that have failed to produce the kind of progress we once aspired to. We should engage in a form of “synaptic pruning” where we reexamine and recalibrate our values, motives, and ways of living. We should explore a return to simplicity in light of new learnings in economics, psychology, neuroscience, etc. We should explore a return to community now that we understand the effects of atomization and fragmentation on modern society. We should embrace a new “ethics of custody” that allows us to return to nature rather than maintain our mechanistic distance from our environment. This process of consciousness and knowledge-application is what will differentiate us from our Ice Age brethren, the fatalist predictions of misanthropic sages, and the historical determinants of our past.