Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Progress as Modern Mythology

by John Michael Greer

The Last Wizards (December 01 2002)

A common theme of modern thought, repeated endlessly in popular nonfiction and cocktail-party chatter, claims that myths are entirely a thing of the past: that our present culture has managed to leave myths behind, and we no longer have any myths of our own. This is not always presented as a good thing. Indeed, just as the death of myth has been proclaimed far and wide, its absence has been loudly mourned. "Amythia", the pathological lack of myths, has been diagnosed as the root cause of any number of modern sociological and psychological evils. <1>

The irony here is not a small one, for whatever else may be at the root of our many problems, a myth shortage is not. The loss of belief in the central myths of Christianity and Judaism, on the part of most educated people in the Western world, did not happen because people stopped believing in myths. It happened because a new and more appealing myth seized the collective imagination of the West and, as myths do, restructured the universe of human experience in its own image.

The name of this new myth, the myth that has dominated the imagination of the Western world for some three hundred years, is Progress. Most modern people - even, for the most part, those who cling to the symbols of older mythologies - believe that history is defined by a vast onward and upward movement from the ignorant wretchedness of a subhuman past to the godlike grandeur of a Promethean future. We assume that, all things being equal, newer ideas are more likely to be true than older ones, and old beliefs are not merely made unfashionable but disproved by the sheer passage of time. We expect our grandchildren to have better lives than ours, just as we believe that most of us have better lives than our grandparents, not through any particular virtue but through the simple fact of the passing years.

The irony reaches a razor edge when, as so commonly happens, those who affirm this intensely mythic narrative see it as nothing but plain sober fact, and imagine themselves completely free of myth - even suffering, pathetically or heroically as the case may be, from having abandoned the comforts of myth for the cold realities of the world as it actually is. The tale of the emperor's new clothes has been turned on its head: the modern emperor, convinced of his own perfect nudity, trips and stumbles over the folds of the gorgeously embroidered robes he has convinced himself he is too wise to be wearing.

* * * * *

Many people, and readers of this essay will likely be among them, may reject with some heat the claim that the idea of progress is a myth. A thought experiment may therefore be useful to show something of the intensity with which people relate to that myth, and suggest its foundational role in current thought.

Imagine, then, that the entire modern faith in progress turns out to be based on a short-sighted historical misunderstanding. The period since 1500 CE was shaped, let us say, by two chance events with staggering but temporary results. First, the European nations discovered North America, South America, and Australia, shoved aside the native inhabitants, and ruthlessly exploited their untapped resources and unplowed soils. Second, deposits of coal and oil buried within the earth in the distant past were discovered, and exploited just as ruthlessly. The result of these two events was an extravagant economic boom lasting five hundred years. Imagine that this alone made possible the rise of industrial society and the development of the modern world.

Before the coming of this half-millennium of exuberance, despite a variety of technological and social shifts, human life had changed very little since the Agricultural Revolution. The daily life of people in medieval Europe or Sung dynasty China was not much different from that of the people of ancient Egypt or Sumeria four thousand years before. Thus progress, in the modern sense of the word, is not a basic reality of human existence but a phenomenon of the last five centuries, dependent on conditions that are rapidly fading away.

Today, there are no spare continents to exploit - we are already exploiting them all - and a soaring world population and a hungry global industrial system are rushing to extract the dwindling supplies of coal and oil that made industrial society possible in the first place. The entire structure of our modern economy and society is dependent on unlimited growth, backed by ever-increasing extraction and use of fossil carbon for fuels and raw materials, yet both the world itself and the global supply of fossil fuels are finite. Assume, for the sake of the experiment, that none of the proposed replacements for fossil fuels produce enough net energy to support the extravagant energy use required by an industrial society. <2> Thus as fossil fuel supplies dwindle and population levels keep climbing, our world faces a future that is not the ever-ascending triumph imagined by so much science fiction, but a difficult descent back to the world as it was before 1500, with no real prospect of going beyond that in the foreseeable future. <3>

To imagine this view of history as a reality is to confront the momentum of the myth of progress head on; it can be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Take a moment to do so: picture the last five centuries of "progress" as a brief, lavish, never-to-be-repeated boom that is about to end forever. Imagine industrial civilization winding down, advanced technologies gradually abandoned for lack of energy and scarce raw materials, and the scientific discoveries of the recent past reduced to historical curiosities as the resources needed to put them to use stop being available. Crumbling nation-states and resurgent local cultures burn through the last reserves of fossil fuels in an attempt to cushion the descent into a new Middle Ages; most people return to subsistence farming or craft work, while a dwindling intellectual class struggles to market its knowledge to anyone who will keep it fed and clothed. Imagine the footsteps of human beings on the surface of the Moon slowly fading into legend. Imagine the stars forever out of reach.

If your immediate reaction is that this can't possibly happen, set that belief aside, and imagine that it does. If your second reaction is that people will somehow inevitably find a way to get progress back on track, set that belief aside as well, and imagine that they don't.

Think about what the human situation looks like from the perspective I have just outlined. People will still live and love, create works of literature and art, strive to understand the world and make it a better place, in such a future history; they will simply do so in a series of cultures closely tied to the cycles of nature and the needs of a subsistence economy. Does a permanent end to progress nonetheless make the long story of human existence meaningless? For many people nowadays, it does. If you are among them, and work through the thought experiment given above, you will have felt the power of progress as a living myth.

* * * * *

A myth, as this example suggests, is a narrative that gives meaning to the world. Every culture and every person has a collection of such narratives, and the particular set of narratives that count as myth often differs widely from culture to culture - and even, within a culture, from person to person. The forms taken by mythic narrative can vary dramatically, as we have seen, and the gods and heroes of traditional myth need not appear at all. The myth of progress has Homo sapiens as its hero and the pedestrian prose of history textbooks as its literary medium. It is not the only recent myth to take on such a form; the grand myth of Marxism had a similar collective hero, the international proletariat, and an even less appealing prose style as its expression.

In responding to these narratives, then, questions of form mislead. Another pitfall must also be skirted. This is the common bad habit of using "myth" to mean "mistaken belief". A legacy of the Christian struggle to keep classical myth as a literary resource while preventing it from becoming a religious resource, this habit is remarkably widespread. A writer who corrects misunderstandings about some subject, for example, can expect to be praised for "dispelling myths" about it. Even the idea that handling toads can give one warts is called a myth - though it's hard to imagine anyone using that belief to give meaning to the world!

Thus the most common modern response to the identification of a current belief as a myth is to insist that it cannot be a myth, because it is true. Some of my readers may have had exactly this reaction to the discussion of the myth of Progress earlier in this chapter: progress has happened, therefore it cannot be a myth. But the relation of fact to myth is a subtle one, and it's precisely the tendency of myth to highlight certain things - and obscure others - in the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world of facts that gives myth much of its power.

To say that progress "has happened" is, after all, to massively oversimplify the complex history of our species. Leave out, for a moment, the five hundred year boom that began in 1500. Looking over the tapestry of human history before that, decline and collapse played as large a part in the overall pattern as progress and development, and vast stabilities dominate the background. The slow improvement in certain kinds of human tools, which modern historians now use as a basis for their mythic tales of progress, was balanced by an equally gradual process of environmental degradation throughout the then-civilized world.

Compare any given century to any other; the majority of people alive in the later century were not necessarily better off than those in the earlier one - indeed, there's an equal chance they were worse off, even though they may have had slightly more complicated tools at hand. Nor do the five centuries of industrial exuberance that define our modern image of the world always triumph in such comparisons. The prosperity of middle and upper classes in modern Europe and America has always rested on a vast industrial and colonial underclass whose conditions of life, in objective terms, are considerably worse than those of medieval peasants or Roman slaves.

Presenting the past as a tale of progress - or, for that matter, as a tale of anything else - thus requires the evidence to be selected and shaped with great care. Assuming that progress must inevitably continue into the far future takes faith, in something close to the religious sense of the word. Defining it as the central theme of human existence crosses that boundary, as most myths do, and makes progress not merely a myth but the central dogma of our society's most popular and least discussed religion.

There is a tendency to react to discoveries of this sort by insisting that one should abandon myth in order to get at a "true" perception of the world. A moment's reflection is enough to show the absurdity of this suggestion. As human beings, we experience and interpret the universe through human mental structures; there is no Archimedean point of objectivity that allows us to get outside our humanity and the ramshackle arrangement of sensory, neurological and psychological structures with which evolution has equipped us. The act of inner storytelling that gives meaning to the world through mythic narratives is a central part of our cognitive equipment, an inescapable part of being human. We cannot experience the world, even for an instant, without experiencing it through some myth.

Yet we are not simply slaves of myth. If we can only experience the world in mythic terms, it remains true that we are not bound to any one particular set of myths. We can replace a dysfunctional myth with another that allows for a more useful understanding of the world. We can, in fact, choose our myths. Yet the implications of such a choice are not small.

* * * * *

Consider a year, not too far in the past, when the promise of limitless improvement woven into the myth of progress seemed on the edge of being fulfilled. An exhausting period of international conflict had ended a decade before, followed by much talk of the dividends of peace and a new era of global cooperation. Technology was reshaping the American economy from top to bottom, bringing sharp increases in productivity. In response, stock markets soared to unprecedented heights. Pundits insisted that a new economic era had dawned, the business cycle was over for good, and the old rules were no longer valid. People across America became convinced that buying stocks, especially in industries linked to the new technologies, was a ticket to limitless wealth.

The year was 1929.

Seventy years later, the identical scenario happened again, with the identical results. <4> As I write this, the same columnists who announced the arrival of the New Economy a few years back are commenting that the last two years have seen the most drastic decline in stock prices since the Great Depression. Whether the stock market collapse of 2000-2002 results in a Great Recession is anyone's guess at this point, but if it proves possible to avoid dismal outcome, that will come as small comfort to the millions of Americans who invested their retirement funds in stocks and are now left with pennies on the dollar.

Such considerations may seem far removed from the realm of myth, but there is a direct connection. Because myth is a source of meaning, it becomes a framework for understanding and action in the most practical contexts. The myth of progress teaches that old rules need not apply forever, that endless improvement is possible, and that the lessons of the past not only can but must be ignored. In 1929, this way of looking at the world predisposed millions of Americans to believe that the laws of economics had been suspended for their benefit, and money could be had for nothing. In 1999, the same mythic way of looking at the world predisposed even more Americans to believe exactly the same thing. Thus, twice in a century, mythic thinking led most of a nation to mistake a speculative bubble for a new economy, with disastrous results.

The same sort of thinking underlies much of the way Americans, and to a lesser extent people elsewhere in the industrial world, think about many aspects of their future. The assumption, often stated in so many words, is that by the time problems become acute, something will be there to take care of them. When oil begins to run out, SUVs will be able to top up their oversized fuel tanks on hydrogen, or solar-generated electricity, or something more exotic. When bacteria become resistant to every available antibiotic, doctors will come up with new wonder drugs to replace the old. <5> When local or regional ecosystems collapse completely, taking with them natural systems essential to our food and water supplies, someone will think of something. History does not support such rosy optimism; it shows, over and over again, that when people exhaust the resources and degrade the ecological systems on which they depend, their societies collapse. Yet the myth of progress, with its insistence that old limits do not apply, leads to a dangerous blindness to the relevance of past examples of our present mistakes.

The proper response to such expensive follies is not, it probably needs to be repeated, a futile attempt to abandon mythic thinking entirely. We do not have that option; as human beings, we can only think with myths, in much the same way that we can only see with eyes. An option within our grasp, on the other hand, is to take a cold look at the myths we are using to interpret the universe of our experience, and ask whether different myths might serve as more useful cognitive tools.

Today's environmental movement has been engaged in such a rethinking for some time now, with promising if preliminary results. Still, the hold of the myth of progress is a powerful one. Many of those environmental thinkers and activists who have rejected the dream of inevitable progress toward some unparalleled Utopia assume that the only other possibility is inevitable decline toward some equally unparalleled catastrophe. This is simply the myth of progress stood on its head, and it makes it just as difficult to pay attention to the relevant lessons of history.

Thus the environmental movement's recent interest in the traditions and myths of indigenous peoples and the pre-industrial West augurs well for the future. As the history of the idea of progress itself makes clear, myths can be set aside only when others, better suited to the needs of the time, are ready to take their place. It remains to today's environmentalists to recognize the limitations of the myth of progress, and to find myths that can respond to the challenges of the present time.


<1> Among the abundant literature on this theme, see Loyal Rue, Amythia (1989), my source for the term "amythia".

<2> Net energy, the ratio of energy output to energy input, is a neglected but crucial part of the energy picture. No energy source is free; it takes energy to drill oil wells, to mine coal, or to manufacture windmills or nuclear reactors, not to mention to distribute the resulting energy to its end users. Oil has a very high net energy ratio; that is, it takes relatively little energy to extract and transport it, compared to the amount of energy it contains. Most other energy sources are much less efficient, and many of them produce negative net energy; that is, you have to put more energy into the process than you get out. In the modern world, these losses are made good by burning more oil. Thus in energy terms, for example, nuclear reactors - which demand far more energy for their construction, operation, fuel supply, waste stream, and decommissioning than they produce in their operating lives - are essentially very inefficient machines that turn oil (and other industrial fuels such as natural gas and coal) into electricity. Only the fact that these other fuels are burned at mines, factories, construction sites, waste storage facilities, and the like, and not inside the containment vessel itself, has made nuclear power look like an energy source rather than an energy sink.

<3> This is not, of course, an abstract thought experiment; exactly these claims have been made by a variety of researchers since the late 1970s. Despite a good deal of supporting evidence, their viewpoint has been thoroughly ignored - another example of the power of myth to shape human perception. See especially William Catton, Overshoot (1980).

<4> John Kenneth Galbraith's discussion of 1920s market rhetoric in The Great Crash 1929 (1954), far and away the most readable account of the 1929 stock market boom and bust, may be usefully compared with late-1990s rhetoric about the New Economy in this context.

<5> This is a far more pervasive problem than most people realize. See Marc Lappe, When Antibiotics Fail (1986), and Nicols Fox, Spoiled (1998), for an overview.

Druid, geomancer and natural magician, John Michael Greer is the author of several books on occult philosophy and practice. He lives in Seattle. His essay "Progress as Modern Mythology" has not been published elsewhere and is excerpted from a work in process.

Copyright 2002 John Michael Greer.

Bill Totten


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