The history of civilization has seen a number of innovations completely change the human way of life. Each major change creates enormous real wealth, but also comes at a great cost to health and well-being.
For example, the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural way of life created a giant leap in food security, and enabled us to build large, permanent, useful buildings, villages, and cities. The existence of currency and trade centers allowed us to become more specialized in our work, leading to greater efficiency and higher quality goods.
The cost was a degradation in human health from a grain-based, low-nutrient diet, reduced leisure time, and the introduction of institutionalized inequality via property rights, slavery, systematic oppression of women, and other nasty traditions that we see much less of in pre-agricultural societies.
With the invention of artificial fertilizer, we get even greater food security but out-of-control population growth and the mass-destruction of pristine ecologies in order to create more farm land.
Industrial mass production allows us to enjoy inexpensive technological products, and to live in large cities where the per person cost of infrastructure plummets. At the same time, industrialized mass production creates the potential for dehumanizing labor conditions, massive accumulation of capital by the elites, nutritionally empty processed foods, the creation and use of weapons of mass destruction, and environmental destruction and pollution from mining and production.
A picture was painted of the “dark satanic mill” where children as young as five and six years old worked for twelve to sixteen hours a day, six days a week without recess for meals in hot, stuffy, poorly lit, overcrowded factories to earn as little as four shillings per week.
– from Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution
Personal computing devices and the internet magnify the power of our brains, enable instantaneous global communication, and provide ubiquitous access to most of the world’s knowledge. At the same time the computing age contributes to social isolation, sedentary lifestyles and obesity, overstimulation of dopaminergic pathways and “brain numbing” via the many types of “porn” (info, news, social feeds, game, sex), and boring jobs where everyone sits looking at screens all day. Paul Graham discusses some of these trade-offs in his insightful essay The Acceleration of Addictiveness.
Can we call this halting, “one step forward, two steps back” style of cultural evolution “progress”?
I think we can. Somehow, life is getting better for most human beings, at least according to intellectuals like Steven Pinker, who argues persuasively in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature that humans are now slaughtering and enslaving each other much less than in any other time in history (Genghis Khan, for example, killed relatively more people than Hitler in proportion to world population). I’m also persuaded by the work of Hans Rosling, who notes that life expectancy, infant mortality, and other measures of quality of life have been improving for decades, and not just in “developed” countries.
The reason that life gets better, albeit generally and unevenly, is because human beings actually troubleshoot the vast problems that each technological disruption introduces. We create systems, institutions, and traditions that inoculate us, to some degree, against the physical, psychological, and social pathologies introduced by each major “improvement” to human civilization.
“Cultural clawbacks” might be a good name for these fixes, via which human beings reclaim some good aspects of previous technological eras while retaining the benefits of the modern technologies and infrastructure systems. Some examples include:
- the invention of republics and democracies redistributes power as a response to feudal/warlord systems that often arise along with the introduction of agriculture
- labor movements rehumanize the lives of workers, and protect labor, to some extent, from being utterly exploited by industrial production systems
- birth control and family planning provide an alternative to unchecked population growth due to abundant food supplies (agriculture and artificial fertilizer)
- the natural/organic food movement provides an alternative to highly processed, nutritionally-empty, “Franken-food”
- the Paleo movement provides a modern alternative to both industrial (processed) and agricultural (grain-based) diet and lifestyle
- cooperative and provision-based economic models are an alternative to economic models based on the accumulation of capital and subjugation of labor (sharing/non-zero-sum success vs. winning/zero-sum success)
- Social Democracy (highly progressive taxation plus well-funded public services such as healthcare and education) is one possible fix for the drastic unevenness in demand/compensation level for different skill sets in modern economies (bad programmers make more money than genius poets, etc.)
- peer-to-peer sharing and production and “pirate values” is an antidote to monopolistic control of the means of production and distribution channels (which results in price gouging, planned obsolescence, and dead-end tech paths)
What, exactly, is getting “clawed back”? In the most general sense, quality of life, and imbalances of power. After any massive technological innovation or shift, quality of life plummets, and power concentrates.
If this is the case, why “progress” at all? Why not stick with previous technologies, traditions, and lifestyles that generally provides a better quality of life?
There are several reasons. In many cases, the previous way of life is no longer sustainable (some human tribes moved to agricultural only because they had killed off all the megafauna). In other cases a new technology might present such massive short-term economic benefits (like cheap production, or food security) that the long-term costs (pollution, worker exploitation) are ignored or overlooked.
Not every cultural clawback or attempt is progressive in nature. Most reactionary and fundamentalist movements are also attempts at “going back” to a previous way of life (real or imagined). The Third Reich glorified aspects of ancient history and idealized pre-industrial social structures. The Taliban would like to take the world back to the 12th century (AK-47’s and IED’s excepted).
In short, progressive cultural clawbacks …
- integrate the benefits of modernity with whatever aspect of life they are trying to reclaim from the past
- distribute power and wealth instead of concentrating it
- increase choice instead of limiting rights and freedoms
- persuade instead of coerce
- have flexible and evolving objectives that arise from discussion and debate, instead of dogmatic inflexible ideologies handed down from a single charismatic leader
Let’s take the anti-light pollution movement as a micro example. In every way this movement is a progressive cultural clawback. Some people who live in cities (like myself) would like to see more stars when we look up at the sky. We advocate for hoods on streetlamps to direct light downwards (where it’s need for safety and navigation) and not upwards (where it does nothing except obscure the celestial view). We’re trying to reclaim an aspect of life that was freely available to everyone in pre-industrial, pre-urbanization eras — that’s the cultural clawback aspect of the movement. What makes it a progressive movement is that it’s persuasive instead of coercive, integral (we’re not trying to get rid of streetlights altogether), and the benefit our movement would provide would be available to everyone, not just a select few. There is no single leader to the anti-light pollution movement, and generally people involved are open to all kinds of ideas regarding how to reduce light pollution.
In contrast, the Luddite movement (British textile workers who destroyed mechanized looms in an attempt to protect their way of life) used coercive means (sabotage and destruction), and did not attempt to integrate or synthesize their objectives with the reality of industrial production. Their cause was sympathetic (protecting their livelihoods), but they were doomed from the beginning, just as an enthusiastic urban astronomy club would be doomed if they started sawing down lampposts to enhance their view of the heavens.
Sometimes hard-earned rights and protections fall victim to propaganda campaigns by elite power groups, and are rolled back (or clawed back). The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 (which regulated the banking industry, including separating commercial and investment banking), was largely rolled back in 1980 as part of Reagan’s banking deregulation plan.
Banking regulations were enacted after the Great Depression to protect us against power abuses, wealth grabs, and out-of-control insane risk-taking by banks. These regulations were a progressive cultural clawback; retain the positive innovations of the modern banking industry (such as wide-scale loan-making) and Wall Street (provide start-up capital, spread risk, provide investment opportunities) while dampening some of the wild speculative activity that could bring the U.S. economy to its knees if too many banking bets went bad. For many decades these regulations more-or-less worked. Since they’ve been rolled back, we’ve experienced one capital bubble (and subsequent crash) after another. Obama had a chance to re-enact the Glass-Steagall Act (a bill sponsored by John McCain), but he went with the more lax Volker rule instead. Obama really missed the boat on banking regulations. Maybe I should have voted for McCain.
Wait, did I just say that? However you look at it, there’s no way to vote against Goldman Sachs. The banking industry has got both the Democrats and Republicans in their pocket, for the most part.
Still, the cultural clawback movement known as Occupy Wall Street may yet lead to some kind of re-regulation of the banking industry. People around the world are mobilized, banks are treading on thin ice with consumers, and cracks are showing in the command-and-control channels that the power elite rely on to suppress dissent.
Does Progress Exist?
History is messy. I don’t think my “cultural clawback” model applies to everything, but for me it’s a useful lens.
Technological change happens. Human societies change radically as a result. Some of these changes are good, some are disastrous. The fast-moving, brilliant tyrants (“Masters of the Universe“) among us (who are sometimes the same people as the visionaries who created the changes in the first place) capitalize on the disruption as as means to gain (and thus concentrate) vast amounts wealth and power.
Eventually, the slow-moving, thoughtful, but slightly dense majority (I include myself in this group) realize that something big has happened, and that not all the changes benefit the good of the many. We push for sensible reforms and projects (cultural and/or legal), and we eventually win because there are so many of us. That’s why, as Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker note, quality of life around the world continues to gradually improve, despite massive problems wherever you look.
So “progress” might actually be a real thing, but it includes massive detours and back-tracking. Unchecked concentrations of wealth and power and extremist ideologies (which tend to go hand-in-hand), lead to war, the destruction of food and wealth creating systems, and eventually environmental destruction, starvation, and genocide.
The best thing we can do, as citizens, is to constantly push for changes that reduce the negative effects of technological and societal innovations, while retaining the benefits.
In the coming weeks I’ll be looking at specific examples of movements which embody the spirit of progressive cultural clawbacks, such as advocates for the Tobin Tax (which seeks to dampen currency speculation), and the Open Source Ecology project (which seeks to provide an option to centralized industrial production).
Hard Crash or Continued Evolution?
I’m cautiously optimistic about the long-term future of humanity. I could be wrong; it’s within the realm of possibility that civilization itself is a gigantic Ponzi scheme, and that we will hit hard resource walls that we will be unable to dodge via technological and cultural dexterity (the Peak Oil hypothesis). To me these scenarios seem unlikely; we have enormous amounts of headroom when it comes to food and energy production. There are vast reservoirs of food, energy, and materials production that have been barely tapped (like producing food within cities, decentralized energy production, solar energy, creating energy from trash, mining landfills for materials and fuel, etc.).
While the long-term outlook for humanity is bright, local crashes and disasters are inevitable. Cities, regions, and entire countries can experience collapse and chaos due to planning failures, income inequality and corruption (which deteriorates the social fabric), environmental destruction, and natural disasters. Since we all live in local areas, we’re all vulnerable. What we can do, as citizens, is to energetically create and protect systems that enhance quality of life, improve the environment, provide opportunity, and increase equality and freedom within our communities.