Human progress as economic bubble

During recent attempts at some deep thinking about politics, civilization and history, I have pondered the long term and how present dysfunction might be little more than “reversion to the mean.”

An expectation of general progress, or of a fair society which lasts, seems hard to square with the long arc of history. My own impression is that after developing basic civilization thousands of years ago, humanity did not really “advance” much until the past 300 or 400 years.

The advances since then have included some spectacular transformations, at least for lots of people. Long lifespans, food to eat, medicine which works, flourishing science and arts.

Yet the systems powering industrial civilization are ecologically unsustainable—that’s just a plain fact—and while its product is an anomaly within human history, to date, resource burnout is not. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse explored a pattern of civilizations building prosperity upon unsustainable foundations.

What if all industrial civilization—powered by toxic fossil fuel combustion and internally resistant to alternatives despite many decades’ notice of the need—is just one more unsustainable bubble?

Yesterday, Slate reported on some similar speculation by David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth.

Through the Wallace-Wells climate change–focused lens, industrialized society is a tragedy in which we thought we had built something enduring while really, we had just exploited fossil fuels into a temporary mirage of an empire that would end up drowning the rest of the world. The harshest criticism of the book is directed, somewhat surprisingly but certainly satisfyingly, at tech giants and America’s current accommodation of the moral corruption that powers Silicon Valley. “That technology might liberate us, collectively, from the strain of labor and material privation is a dream at least as old as John Maynard Keynes,” he writes, and yet it is “never ultimately fulfilled.” Instead, we watch “rapid technological change transforming nearly every aspect of everyday life, and yet yielding little or no tangible improvement in any conventional measures of economic well-being.” This chapter (called “The Church of Technology”) is largely a rebuke of the idea that “technology will save us,” a refrain often grasped as a means of allowing us to carry on with our destructive habits without feeling too bad.

More on this to come, I’m sure.

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