Every civilization the world has ever seen has had its period of vigorous growth; of arrest and stagnation; then, decline and fall. True, our own civilization is more advanced and moves quicker than any preceding civilization. But so was Roman civilization in its day. That proves nothing about its permanence unless it is better in whatever caused the ultimate failure of its predecessors.
In truth, nothing could be further from explaining the facts of universal history than this theory that civilization is the result of natural selection. It is inconsistent with the fact that civilization has arisen at different times, and in different places, and has progressed at different rates. If improvements were fixed in man’s nature, there might be occasional interruption, but in general, progress would be continuous. Advance would lead to advance, and civilization would develop into higher civilization. It is not merely the general rule, but the universal rule, that the reverse is true. The earth is the tomb of the dead empires.” – Henry George
The above excerpt was taken from a book written by Henry George entitled, “Progress and Poverty,” originally published in 1879. Within 30 years of its publication, “Progress and Poverty” had outsold all other books except the Bible, and was more popular even then Shakespeare. The writings of George were a prescient warning of a growing obsession with progress that would only worsen in the years to come. Today, growth is so built into our business models that we rarely question the need of it. The expectation of progress is so ingrained in our collective psyche that stasis seems completely out of the question, even if we already have all of our needs met.
As a kid, I never questioned the labeling shouting to me from the isles of the grocery store “New and Improved!” I didn’t ask myself if the object needed any improvement to begin with, or if my experience with it had been adequate for its purposes all along, or even if those so-called improvements were actually just pure ridiculousness. I wanted the new one, whatever it was. Maybe, you say, those questions would have been a bit much for a six year old staring at a packaged pink toothbrush sporting a new and improved handle, but those early experiences are exactly how it seeped into my psyche so pervasively. Progress was always new and shiny and just a little bit out of reach. Nowhere did I see the lineup of yesterday’s new and improved objects. Things like a sad shiftless gray bin of toothbrushes that had handles of less than optimal quality, the sorry old owners with carpel tunnel syndrome from simply trying to do their duty and reach their molars, but I’m sure I believed they existed.
Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.
Unnecessary “improvements” are pretty harmless when they are applied to things like toothbrushes and shampoos, but are they always so harmless? How about when they are applied to larger things like livelihood, family, and community? If we were given the choice to view versions of community next to each other, how many of us would choose this shiny new version of cellophane-wrapped community over the one that existed previously? Is it actually an improvement? Let’s compare, just for a moment. . .
Not very long ago, people were forced to live in one space. They didn’t have access to a variety of cheap transportation. Work, home, and friendships, were most often deeply intertwined. This forced lack of mobility enabled them to be known in a way that grew in breadth and depth with time spent living closely with those around them. They had “sides”, moods, phases. And, I imagine, even though I don’t have the experience, that the complexity of personas that age seems dogged to bring us, would find some respite in the anchor of the trusted perceptions of the others living close to you. This family, community, wouldn’t be too easily swayed by your temporary “phases” and “moods” because they would hold the expanse of your life’s narrative in mind when they viewed you. People around you wouldn’t see only one of your phases of growth, they would see the totality of your growth and development up until that point.
In contrast, we now have rigid “spheres” that we live in. Home, work, school, friends . . . and often the people we have to be in those arenas offer us no comforting overlap. Venn commonalities between the spheres would be largely limited to a few basic traits that anyone, even someone just bumping into you for the first time, would be able to discern about you. Visualized on paper, the modern self would look more like a series of small personality circles eschewing from the larger circle of your true self at the center. We are well versed and familiar with expectations to keep our spheres separate. It isn’t professional to unload your personal experiences or emotions at work, it isn’t good parenting to “bring your work home,” etc.
Today, people operating in different facets of your life often only know the small sphere they see and aren’t able to connect it back to the larger core of you. Modern community generally only allows us to see the partial roles we each play. The fallout of this isn’t only the way we are misunderstood because we aren’t wholly viewed, it’s that we know we won’t be wholly viewed. This makes us tiny islands of “professional”, “parent”, “friend”, and so forth. This bifurcation causes us to have to constantly reach into our internal closets for the appropriate clothes and then iron the life out of them as our real entirety, our “whole” self, is kept like some laborious and unwanted secret.
In short, the current variety of progress has left us alone with ourselves for the majority of our experience.
Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made.
As a modern culture, we are surviving because we are most adapted to our environment. The catch is, we are also actively creating that environment. An environment that is increasingly removed from the nature and community that was home to our ancestors. Have we stopped often enough to ask ourselves if we even like the environment that we’re creating? Do these advancements actually increase our happiness and well-being?
The reality is, so little free time is offered in the adult world that I often don’t even know how to use it well when I have it. I imagine the hours or minutes I have available and then I see them as this large digital clock counting down to when I have to get back to the grindstone of paying for food and housing with the hours of my days, like people have always done. Only, we don’t do it the way people have always done. People used to be able to be at home with their families when it was too dark outside to work and they often worked together during the day, growing food or making clothes, raising their children. Now someone else grows our food, makes our clothes, and raises our children, so we can have all the pleasure of spending our days commuting long distances to work where we spend our days in mostly solitary concrete buildings. Then, we can commute back home to finish working on things there until we fall asleep for a little while before repeating it the next day.
I don’t want that though, I want the old version of community. I want honest and lasting relationships with people that live near me. I want to see people that know me, can visualize the girl I was years ago, anticipate my sense of humor, and remember meaningful conversations they’ve had with me during life’s milestones, all while I am doing simple things like buying food at the grocery store. In short, I want what civilization had many years ago. I want the leisure of a life lived mostly with friends and family. Today, somehow, that basic human existence sounds like pie in the sky hippy talk.
So, how do we get back there?
The difficulty is, progress is also sold to us as the way out of the problems it has created. If you don’t have enough time with family it’s probably because you’re being too lazy and not making enough money to have the super-relaxing free time that richer people have! So, work more! Go to school more! Don’t sit there and think about it, seize the working hours while the sun doesn’t shine in those buildings! Don’t you want to be happy? Don’t you want to take care of your family?
I would like to protest. But I probably won’t. Sometimes, often really, I envision the happiness of packing only our most important things in small boxes and beginning life with my family in a beautiful hovel somewhere. Growing potatoes and flowers, eating bark, whatever, just as long as it affords a life of simple enjoyments and slow reflections together (As a side note, I think this daydream must resonate with a lot of people or this tiny-house craze wouldn’t exist).
But then, I remember things like our teeth. I think, “Good God, I forgot about our teeth!” Every time, something like this is what stops my daydream. The kids’ teeth will fall out and abscess, maybe even fall out and then abscess, and it will be all my fault. Now that peaceful self I envisioned moments ago just looks like some slack jawed let-your-kids-teeth-fall-out person.
Like most everyone else, I want to take care of my children. I have to worry about whether they need spacers put in during the next orthodontic appointment or whether they need them taken out, about whether they’re getting enough social interaction, enough academic rigor, enough of whatever it is that might enable them to fully experience life when they get older. In short, I have to keep buying-in because the progress oriented lifestyle is the only viable option around.
If we are to teach our children that the value of life is in the process, then a prescription of harried lives in preparation for retirement has to stop. Maybe the only way to speak against this iron harness of progress is to enjoy idleness as often as we can with our children. To be outside with them even though there are dishes to be done inside. To play for a few more hours even though there is more education to be had, more money to be made, and we still have so many other responsibilities.
Progress 2.0 will meet the same rubbish-heap end that all of the progressions of the previous empires met. Although, progress during other eras didn’t destroy the earth to the same extent, but that’s another thing. The point is, all growth eventually runs out of steam. Until it does, I don’t know any way through these daily pledges to the work ethic of Sisyphus. This glorification of busyness, regardless of its quality or measurable value. I can’t see past the present that has parents scrambling out of the house at 7 am each morning, toting children to live the majority of their lives away from them.
I only know that there is nothing new and improved about what I want. I want basically the same things humans have wanted throughout the history of civilizations. Maybe, just maybe, this time the way to progress will be found by looking backwards instead of forwards.
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