Friday, June 11, 2010

Questioning "Progress" and the Poverty of our Imagination

by Charles Hugh Smith


How much revolutionary progress has actually been made in the past 50 years? What has been lost? These are questions one rarely encounters in the marketing-controlled media.

Much of what we define as "progress" isn't so much a series of astonishing advances as it is marketing to persuade us that a loss is actually an advance.Indeed, by some measures, we might be considerably poorer than the marketing machine would have us believe. Various statistics are shunted forward to "prove" that we live longer and better now than ever before. Marketing loves quantifying life, because statistics can be deployed to "sell" candidates, ideologies, gizmos and complete "lifestyles." Independent thought is anathema to the media/marketing machine.

But ultimately, what we call happiness or fulfillment are only loosely connected to all the things that we are told constitute our current "progress." And the corrollary to these metrics of progress is that any reduction in consumption necessarily means misery or a "Mad Max" Darwinian struggle in which the hyper-violent survivors fight over the broken shards of a "progress" which failed.

We are certainly poverty-stricken when it comes to imagining a future that is unlike the present but is not a "Mad Max" doomsday scenario where fierce gun battles are fought over the last can of apple sauce in the city and the dead are strewn as thickly as in old photos from Civil War battlefields.

We have no problem imagining this nightmarishly violent "future" because we've seen it played out hundreds of times in films and TV shows. As to alternatives other than Mad Max--sorry, violence and tawdry sex sells, so that's what we produce, distribute and broadcast.

Astute reader Laura I. recently submitted this refreshingly direct and thought-provoking commentary on the entire notion of "progress."

I enjoyed your entry So What's the Point? very much. You mention, "We also need to imagine some alternative futures to sudden, complete breakdown of the social, energy and political status quo."

I totally agree with you. My interpretation of this alternative future is to get back to pre-1950's level of energy consumption and standard of living. Since I wasn't alive then, I always fear that I sound incredibly naive when I mention this time-period, but for me it represents the ideal of what we can achieve without over-burdening our resources.

I used to talk with my grandparents often about their childhood and life then and feel I have a somewhat accurate picture of what life was like. For instance, my relatives lived on farms and grew most of their own food. They also made many of their own sundries (soap, tools etc) or bartered with neighbors. They also shared labor with neighbors to conquer larger tasks. You only had a few outfits for clothes (there wasn't closets full) and most of these you made yourself or someone in your family made for you.

There wasn't always a lot of food. Both my father and mother mention dinners consisting only of crackers. It wasn't fancy but they didn't starve. (Ironically there were much more nutrients in the diet then since people still ate organ meats, there was more local variety of fruits and vegetables).

If there was electricity it was only for lights and a few simple appliances (no TV, internet, computer games, cordless phones, air conditioning, clothes drier). You went to town rarely. You didn't own a car. If you liked music you played it yourself on an instrument or learned to sing. Many generations lived under one roof until it was possible to afford to build another house.

Sure life was a lot harder back then. It was a lot harder to put a meal on the table. There was a lot less time/money to enjoy the luxuries we take for granted today (higher education, movies, eating out, vacations). There was no social safety net, no pension or social security, no nursing home in which to deposit your mother or father. They were your family, you took care of them until they died.

My husband's parents are in their 80's now as is many of his aunts and uncles. When I talk to them about their childhoods and youth, they don't mention how deprived they were. How awful it was, how they had to do so many chores and had so little food and so few clothes. They speak with fondness of how they used to wrestle with their father when he came home from work. You can see the bittersweetness of those moments in their faces as they simultaneously recall their happiness along with the realization those days are long gone.

Could it be that togetherness is what is truly essential to life, once our simple requirements for food and shelter are fulfilled? If we have that, don't we really have everything we need despite what our consumerist society would have us believe?

As a scientist I reflect on all the advances we've made in medicine and science since the 30's and I find myself asking the same question, "so what?". So we went to the moon, what did we gain from that? So we built a hydrogen bomb-- that's proven to be really useful. So we figured out how to make fertilizer and pesticide and ruin most of our farm land in the process. Antibiotics, what I consider to be one of man's greatest accomplishments since the 30's, we have likewise squandered to a point that they will no longer be effective and resistant strains of bacteria already run rampant in our hospitals.

Researching medical discoveries and common practices during the 30's, it is astounding the amount of progress that was abandoned in favor of less efficient, less successful, more energy intensive forms of treatment and diagnoses. For instance, a doctor used to be able to judge your state of health simply by feeling your pulse. How many doctors can do so today? Most of the technological marvels we use today (our cars, factory machines, our phone, a light bulb) are little changed from what they were 100 years ago. Sure we may have made them less efficient, less environmentally friendly (here's lookin at you, fluorescent light bulb), more diverse in appearance and more energy intensive but is that really progress?

One of the most important barometers of wealth, in my own private view, is our ability to identify and implement options. But how many of us have the ability to identify our options or go about implementing them? We have no menial capability to design or build anything. And even less curiosity to learn and little ability to process and comprehend. If you don't believe me, take a random poll and ask people how they would go about fixing a sock with a hole in it. Ask them if they have ever even thought about how they would fix the sock. Where have we gone as a civilization?

I'm sure most people won't agree with me, I'm sure I will be out-classed and out-gunned by all sorts of historians and doctors and economists and scientists and teachers. Good for them. Call me an idiot, but I'll take 1930's America over stone knives and bear skins (or the 2030's) any day!

And one more point I would like to make, if I may, my father grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. My mother grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. Both were very poor. My father seemed to have it much better though in terms of variety/nutritional value of the food he ate, vs what my mom was able to eat. And my mother has already passed on (of numerous maladies caused by poor nutrition and smoking) and my Dad is still in great health (despite smoking and heavy drinking for much of his life).

While it does vary widely from person to person, it does seem to indicate that the more food we grow ourselves is the better off we will be in terms of health, which is all the more reason to start gardening and raising animals now.

Thank you, Laura, for questioning our concept of "progress" since the 1930s. Let's stipulate that antibiotics, rural electrification, rail transport, and similar advances made in the early 20th century revolutionized life for the better.

The question here is how much revolutionary progress has been made since then, and how much current "progress" is the result of hype rather than substance.

Correspondent K.R. offered a commentary on how we respond to emergency and the potentially self-fulfilling characteristics of Hollywoodland "collapse."

I am also dismayed by the widespread failure of imagination that fosters an apocalypse-or-nothing point of view. Sale of ammo suggests that large numbers of people are afflicted by this. But that shouldn't surprise us because the American media diet (Hollywood et al.) only offers sensational apocalyptic nightmares such as 'The Road'.

As in Russia, certain elements may finally cease functioning over night, but the collapse (a terrible word) will be glacially slow, and everyone will have time to adapt. Nearly everyone instinctively knows what to do, and how to behave. Every natural disaster has proved this over and over. The government typically proves to be the wrench in the works.

Fear is not an unusual response to the prospect of massive change, but I think there will be time for reasonably intelligent people to pass through that stage into a more useful view.

The real danger may be people hopped up on the apocalyptic scenario and armed to the teeth acting in ways that tend to be self-fulfilling. But I expect this to be minimal, and sort itself out. The government's ability to enforce the will of the Elite is another matter.

But again I believe that the innate goodness of the Americans in the military will win out. Down the road a military dictatorship is a possibility, and these are rarely relinquished. But any central leadership configuration's power will be limited by energy. I realize that there are powerful, under-the-radar factions in the military, and one of these is based on an apocalyptic religious theme.

One more wild card. There are too many wild cards to allow our proclivity for prediction to function in any useful way. So instead, perhaps we should find our center and trust. Reality has always beaten any media effort in entertainment value, but this is especially true today. The clumsy spin, blatant propaganda, and government gyrations have taken on an absurd cosmic comic quality equivalent to the best mature George Carlin routines.

Efforts like your blog are extremely important oases of sanity and support. Your site first came to my attention with a link to The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States. Excellent work Charles. My thoughts and best regards are with you.

Thank you for the kind words, K.R.

None of like to think of ourselves as brainwashed by Hollywood and the Mainstream Media, and our resistance to the idea that all that repeated imagery and narrative has directed our conception of the world is evidence of our discomfort with our vulnerability to marketing and propaganda.

It is exceedingly difficult to wean oneself from the images presented by Hollywood and the MSN as "real," "important," and most insidiously, "proof" that the Status Quo is the best thing ever, and thus so are the Elites controlling and marketing that Status Quo.

As always, my first recommendation is turn off the TV other than for quality films and a small handful of PBS-grade shows. Turn off the Internet at some point in the day and go do something in the real world. Don't take your cellphone (unless you are an emergency first responder and it's your job to be on-call 24/7), iPod, etc.

Limiting exposure to media noise and distraction is not a cure-all for lack of independent thinking, but it's a step in the right direction. So is reading deeply of history and informed commentary (please scan our hundreds of recommended books and films for reading/ viewing ideas.)

Maybe the Status Quo really is as wondrous and sustainable as advertised. But we should independently examine that narrative through the lens of cui bono (to whose benefit?), rather than just passively accept it whole-cloth as "true."

Consider these provocative quotes which were recently submitted by longtime readers:

"Just look at us. Everything is backwards; everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the major media destroy information and religions destroy spirituality." Michael Ellner (submitted by Gene M.)

"The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second." John Steinbeck (submitted by Ken R.)



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