The End of Progress

Looking to the past to reinvent the future.

| Spring 2018

  • "Whale Bus" depicted a French artist's idea of what life might be like in France in the year 2000. This and the following four illustrations were produced by French artists for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris.
    Photo by The Retro Future
  • "A Very Busy Farmer" depicted a 21st-century French farmer at the controls of his fully automated farm.
    Photo by The Retro Future
  • "aerial fireman" imagined a 21st century where french firefighters utilize winged backpacks.
    Photo by The Retro Future
  • "Electric Scrubbing" wasn't too far off the mark with this Roomba-esque contraption.
    Photo by The Retro Future
  • "at school" put a technological twist on learning by osmosis.
    Photo by The Retro Future

MOST PEOPLE in the industrial world believe that the future is, by definition, supposed to be better than the past, that growth is normal and contraction is not, that newer technologies are superior to older ones, and that the replacement of simple technologies by complex ones is as unstoppable as it is beneficent. That’s the bedrock of the contemporary faith in progress. This faith remains unchallenged by most people today, even though the evidence of our everyday lives contradicts it at every turn.

Most of us know perfectly well that every software “upgrade” these days has more bugs and fewer useful features than what it replaced, and every round of “new and improved” products hawked by the media and shoveled onto store shelves is more shoddily made, more loaded with unwanted side effects, and less satisfactory at meeting human needs than the last round. Somehow, though, a good many of the people who witness this reality, day in and day out, still manage to insist that the future will be, or at least ought to be, a paradise propped up by perfectly functioning machines, in which all the latest clichés about the future will inevitably come true. That the rising tide of technological failure might be something other than an accidental roadbump on the way to utopia — that it might be trying to tell us something that, by and large, we don’t want to hear — has not yet entered our society’s darkest dream.

Meanwhile, as problems mount and solutions run short, the contemporary faith in progress drives a common insistence that it’s never too late to save the world. No matter how troubling the signs on the horizon, no matter how many predictions of impending trouble have turned into descriptions of troubles we’re facing here and now, it’s astonishingly rare for anyone to notice that we’re past the point where it makes any sense to sit around talking about how somebody ought to fix things one of these days.

The events of our time, though, show no particular interest in waiting until we get around to dealing with them. At least three factors at work in today’s world — peak oil, and more generally the peaking of global production of fossil fuels; the ongoing failure of alternative energy technologies to replace fossil fuels; and the accelerating pace of anthropogenic climate change — are already having a major impact on the global economy and, increasingly, on other aspects of human and nonhuman life as well.

Those issues could have been faced and dealt with as soon as it became clear that they were going to be problematic. In every case, there were straightforward fixes available, and if they had been put into place as soon as the facts showed that trouble was on its way, the necessary changes could have been made gradually, without overturning the whole structure of society. But that’s not what happened. Instead, obsolete policies stayed frozen in place while the opportunities for constructive change slipped past.

Now the bill is coming due.

4/23/2018 9:15:39 AM

There is nothing new or particularly technological about cost externalization. The utopia of small producers that Greer describes never existed: instead, costs were externalized onto the ladies and gentlemen of the poor, colored, and/or foreign persuasion, and of course they still are. Wage slavery is better than chattel slavery by far, and oppression is better than murder, if we must choose.

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