The Myth of Progress: The Paradox of Increased Production

In the past, those who witnessed the marvels of industry and technology believed that those who lived in the future, meaning us, would only have to work a few hours a day to earn their living because these very fortunate people would create machines that would do most or all of the work that was formerly done by human hands, hearts, muscles, and sinews. Although the second part of this proposition, the widespread replacement of human labour by machine production, has come to pass, the first part, that we would all live lives of ease and plenty while enjoying copious amounts of leisure time, has not, except for a small portion of the human population. In other words, although we possess many more things than people possessed in the past, and we can do many more things than people did in the past, the situation in terms of how much time people spend working has not changed significantly. Moreover, the artificial desires, complications, incessant demands, and chemical pollutants and products of modern life have created stresses, yearnings, pressures, dissatisfactions, problems, and illnesses that our ancestors were largely free from.

The costs of speed are not just environmental. We also pay a social and personal price. Remember Henry David Thoreau’s famous dictum, “we don’t ride on the railroad, it rides on us”? For one thing, we work longer hours in a speed society. The more the speed, the less the time. The U.S. standard of living of 1948 could be reproduced in four hours of today’s earning capacity. Life in Stone Age times was even easier. Then, we survived on three or four hours of work a day. According to “P.M.,” the anonymous author of BoloBolo, hunter-gatherers usually had to work only a few hours a day to meet their subsistence needs. Most of their time was used for socializing, ritual, artwork, or just relaxing. “We stuck it out that way for several hundred thousand years,” writes P.M.; “this was a long and happy period[1] compared to the two hundred years of our present industrial nightmare of accelerated industrial ‘progress.’ Utopia is behind us!”[2]

How can we account for this paradoxical result that would have perplexed our ancestors, who envied us our supposedly privileged and physically easy way of life? The answer lies in the organization of society and the dominant models of behaviour. For it isn’t enough simply to be able to produce more; this increased production must also be distributed as widely and as equally as possible in order for the greatest number of people to benefit from the increased productivity of mechanized production over human labour.

The communists and socialists devised one answer to this problem, an answer whose harmful effects are well known due to its tragic failure to fulfill its grandiose promises. They erroneously believed that the ideal society could be created by investing a few individuals with the power to decide what everyone else would do – what they would make or produce, how they would do it, how the products of their labour would be distributed, and other details, such as where they would live, what they would study, the kind of work they would do, the things they would think, believe, and say, and also the things they could not do and say, and so on. They willingly sacrificed human freedom on the rigid and bloody altar of their ideals, which were to create the perfect society based on equality, fairness, and justice for all. The nobility of their aims certainly does not excuse the abject failure of their attempts to refashion society according to their, as it turned out, completely unrealistic beliefs.

Although it would be misleading to generalize about the views of so many different people, I think it fair to say that, if they gave the matter any thought, those who believed that machine production would one day liberate humanity from the need to spend a large part of each and every day working in order to earn a living conceived the important issue of how things would be produced and distributed in a communist or socialist manner.

In contrast to human societies, this is how ant, bee, termite, and wasp colonies operate: workers share the work equally, and those workers that collect food would never think of hoarding it for themselves; instead, they share it for the benefit of all, so that all the members of their colony get their share of the food that is foraged, grown, hunted, or collected, including those that don’t engage in this activity. If these highly-evolved social creatures were able to find an easier way to obtain food and build their hives, mounds, or underground burrows, as we humans have learned to do, then they would make sure that these benefits are equally shared by all the colony’s members. However, as we well known, human societies do not operate in this fashion. Unbridled or laissez-faire capitalism inevitably begets extreme disparities in wealth and income, so that there exist significant differences in people’s physical comfort, health, well-being, and material prosperity. In other words, considered as social animals, we supposedly highly evolved humans are in reality much less evolved than these small creatures. Our human societies would be much better – more equal and orderly, and with less crime, poverty, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, and other serious social problems – if we were able to organize them as the social insects organize their colonies: if, instead of selfishly hoarding whatever wealth that we are able to acquire, while seeking new ways to spend that wealth only on ourselves and the very small number of people we care about, we were to share it voluntarily, as bees and ants do, with all those who are less fortunate, then humanity would be in a far better condition than it presently is.

The unwillingness to share not just the wealth and plenty that are created by modern industrial production methods, but the work that must be done in order to produce that wealth, and so earn a portion of it, explains why, on average, we humans do not work significantly less than people did in the past. As the average output per worker has increased over time, instead of being content with earning and having enough to meet our basic physical needs, many of us have used that excess wealth instead to increase considerably the amount of things we own, as well as to multiply the activities, such as taking vacations, travelling around the world, and eating in expensive restaurants, which we feel the need or desire to perform.

If human beings were truly sensible and rational creatures, then the logical thing for them to do, once they have earned enough money to satisfy their basic needs, would be to cease working and let others, who do not have enough, have the opportunity to work so that they too can earn enough to satisfy their basic needs. But instead, there are many people who compete to see which of them can amass the greatest amount of things and money, more than anyone else, and far more than they need, which has led them to work more and more, to the point that they are overworked, highly stressed, and unhappy, even though some of them have far more money than they can possibly spend, and many of them have more than enough to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, if they only knew how to limit their desires. All this foolishness and unnecessary effort results from our imitative nature, the fact that we care so much about, and are influenced by, the things that we see and hear of other people doing and owning. Clearly, in comparison to other animals, every single one of which is content with satisfying its basic, physical needs, and does not complicate its life with the many artificial desires with which we humans complicate our lives, we are not as sensible, wise, or rational as we flatter ourselves to be.

Mohandas Gandhi wisely and truly declared, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” The result of this incessant desire to increase our standard of living, which in effect means our accelerating destruction of the planet and many of its living creatures, has been to beget a very foolish and wholly irrational competition, which results from the envy and covetousness of the lifestyles of other people, in particular the rich. This is primarily due to the influence of modern mediums of communication like television, photography, advertising, movies, and the Internet, which show people doing or owning many different things, and consequently make their viewers want to do or own these things as well.

Of all the living creatures on the Earth, including all the many creatures that have existed during its very long history, we extremely silly human beings are probably the only creatures that covet things that do not in any way contribute to our survival as individuals or as a species. This is due to our strong innate tendency to want to imitate and conform to the behaviour of other people. In other words, a great many of the things that we want to do, and spend years and years of our lives striving to attain, are only particular instances of the innate human desire to imitate the things we see other people doing and possessing. Hence, as the Buddha taught, it is better not to have these artificial desires, since they do not lead to happiness, for the satisfaction of one desire will lead to, or be replaced by, a new desire, and on and on, leaving us forever dissatisfied, or at most only temporarily satisfied.[3]

Moreover, we should remember that nothing that we humans can create during our lifetimes will endure. Because of our finite and limited vision and understanding, most of us do not realize that all the things we value, including our species’ most cherished edifices, creations, and artworks, will one day return to the Earth from which they arose, to give way to new living or non-living forms and combinations. This has always been the way of the world, destroying and decomposing the old and dead in order that new life may arise from its ruins. It is our foolish attachment to our many impermanent creations and possessions that is presently causing so much harm all over the world.

So what is the point of all this frenetic activity, as we scurry about the Earth’s surface, like the human cockroaches that we have become, trying to do as many different things as possible before we die, visit as many places as possible, and consume as much as possible, while we maximize our destruction and pollution of the Earth because we are so incredibly stupid that we don’t care about the things that are essential to our survival?

The point I am making is that it is entirely possible to live a rich, meaningful, fulfilling, happy, and purposeful life without all this frenetic activity and consumerism that are, in a very literal sense, poisoning the Earth, thereby making it harder and harder for its many other, non-human inhabitants to survive. For it is only by radically changing our way of life, by making it less destructive and more in consonance with the natural cycles and rhythms of the Earth, that we will at last earn the right to call ourselves homo sapiens – the creatures who had the knowledge and the ability to damage and destroy the Earth, but who refrained from doing so because they were wise enough to see that it would lead to their own destruction, as well as the destruction of a great many other living creatures.

[1] There is a tendency among some writers, who have never personally experienced the life of a hunter-gatherer, to romanticize this ancient lifestyle, much as Rousseau romanticized the life of the “noble savage,” of which he was equally ignorant. These writers see all its advantages, such as the freedom, simplicity, communion with Nature, and the physical hardiness it engendered, while they are acutely aware, from personal experience, of the many disadvantages of modern life; but they overlook the many difficulties and disadvantages of the hunter-gatherer’s lifestyle, including the possibility of starvation, attack by wild animals, susceptibility to disease, sickness, and injury, dirtiness, and subjection to cold, rain, and the elements.

[2] In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World by John Thackara, pp. 33-34. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005.

[3] There are numerous instances of this tendency: the man who seeks to seduce one woman after another and, despite his many sexual conquests, is never satisfied; the gourmand who wants to eat at every new restaurant, perhaps travelling around the world to achieve this goal; the woman who constantly buys new clothes and shoes and soon becomes dissatisfied with most of them, which she never wears again; the child who wants, begs, and screams for the latest toy, which it plays with for a short while before demanding something else; the tourist who wants to visit all the countries in the world, and then starts all over again; or the wealthy couple that regularly increase the size of their house, yacht, car, or private airplane, or buy more and more of these things in order to demonstrate to others how rich and foolish they are.