Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Now, on the other hand

Having celebrated the wonderfulness of the modern age in my last post, I am now compelled to ponder the converse: we progress by traveling up the edge of a knife. The great advances in public health and lifespan touted by Dr. Fauci, and Stephen Pinker's recent widely noted assertion that we have entered an age of comparative peacefulness and non-violence, the recent gains in prosperity in the vast populations of Asia, the emergence of relative stability and democracy in Latin America and the particularly notable improvements in Brazilian economic and civic life -- these and other developments have given renewed credence to the thesis that human history is inherently progressive.

My master's thesis was title "Which Way is Up? Social Welfare and the Ideology of Progress." Back then (1978 to be exact) I questioned that claim. It was of course a central tenet of Marxism and continued to be essential to later Soviet Communist though, derived from German philosophical strands that also informed Nazism. (Non-identical cousins if ever there were.) And, perhaps a bit ironically, it is strongly associated with modern conservatism (viz. Robert Nisbet) and neo-liberalism alike (which emerged after 1978 but still).

The environmentalist and countercultural movements that shaped my thinking at the time, of course, were deeply skeptical of the essentiality of progress. I had no doubt but that the Enlightenment was a big step forward but I feared that it had given us command of great forces that we lacked the wisdom to wield responsibly. History is obviously progressive in the sense that over generations we accumulate knowledge, understanding of the universe, and technological prowess, although a surprisingly large percentage of people militantly reject one or more of these blessings. But whether that adds up to a better world for humans to live in is a question worthy of debate.

I will have more to say on this question of progress. It is a useful frame, I think, for pondering our current predicament.


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