“The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress.” Thus begins this article in The Atlantic, titled “Is ‘progress’ good for humanity?”. Well if you have to ask the question…
This article appeared very promising, but then two paragraphs found midway through the piece forced my eyes—so very tired from all the rolling lately—to muster up the energy for one more glance upward. Together, they sum up both the critique and my critique of the critique (namely, that it’s far too weak):
Advocates of sustainability are not opposed to industrialization per se, and don’t seek a return to the Stone Age. But what they do oppose is the dubious narrative of progress caricatured above. Along with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they acknowledge the objective advancement of technology, but they don’t necessarily think that it has made us more virtuous, and they don’t assume that the key values of the Industrial Revolution are beyond reproach: social inequality for the sake of private wealth; economic growth at the expense of everything, including the integrity of the environment; and the assumption that mechanized newness is always a positive thing. Above all, sustainability-minded thinkers question whether the Industrial Revolution has jeopardized humankind’s ability to live happily and sustainably upon the Earth. Have the fossil-fueled good times put future generations at risk of returning to the same misery that industrialists were in such a rush to leave behind?
…When we take these trajectories into consideration, the Industrial Revolution starts to look like something less than an “undivided blessing.” It begins to look like, at best, a mixed blessing—one that resulted in technologies that have allowed many people to live longer, safer lives, but that has, simultaneously, destroyed global ecosystems, caused the extinction of many living species, facilitated rampant population growth, and wreaked havoc on climate systems, the effects of which will be an increase in droughts, floods, storms, and erratic weather patterns that threaten most global societies.
How can one not be opposed to “industrialization per se” and still talk about sustainability, let alone a morality based on a respect for the living world? How?
And of course—of course—we don’t want to return to the Stone Age. Because it’s either iphones or stones. There are no other technological scenarios available to us. Come on, be real. Live in the real world here. If you think modern technology is making our lives worse, then you’re just being downright silly.
Note that the author is attempting to debunk that very kind of false dichotomy in the same article (“Those who criticize industrial society are often met with defensive snarkiness: ‘So you’d like us to go back to living in caves, would ya?’ or ‘you can’t stop progress!’”), but still must insist that we “advocates of sustainability” are not too radical; we still promote the violent and forced extraction of resources at the expense of entire ecosystems for the production of unnecessary gizmos solely for the entertainment of an insulated elite—we’re not crazy. Just tell the real story of the destruction of our only habitat, that’s all we ask. Extra points for quoting Thoreau.
The Industrial Revolution, after all, is but a “mixed blessing,” and a mixed blessing is still a blessing, right?