Tag Archives: progress

Sleeping with the seasons

Getting up in the dark is one of the things I find hard about this part of the year. I’m invariably sluggish, rising at the call of the alarm clock, and reluctant to face a day that hasn’t really shown up yet. In summer, I become a much earlier riser, often active by six. It’s not about indolence or failure to be a morning person, my body resents getting up in the dark.

Of course this whole business of having to get up in the dark to go to work and school is relatively modern. Back before electricity, before gas lighting, and street lighting and the industrial revolution, people more usually got up with the light, because there wasn’t much point doing anything else. Only in emergencies or those few lines of work calling for overnight vigil, would people be getting up before the sun.

It’s a fine example of the double edged nature of progress. Yes, having energy for lighting makes it possible for us to do so much more. And what do we do? We work longer hours. We work night shifts. We haul reluctant teenagers up at times their bodies are especially clear just aren’t a good idea. We live by clock time and not by the inclinations of our own bodies.

If you don’t have modern artificial light, there’s not much work you can do in the near darkness of firelight, and you need good quality candles to be able to read, or do any of the more fiddly crafts. In the absence of light, winter evenings must have been a time of conversation, music, storytelling, or just gazing absently into the fire. Progress means we can now each sit in a brightly lit room and stare at the screen of our choice to find out what everyone else’s evening meal looked like. I’m not sure in what way this counts as progress, I am increasingly confident that we are no better off for these uses of our technologies.

This morning I had the luxury of being able to rise with the light. It creates a more relaxed pace. I work more effectively when I feel settled in myself, starting later can mean getting more done. However, our culture has little interest in effective work, or efficient, or clever work. What we celebrate is hard work and lots of it, where putting on the lights to work longer is simply the way it has to be. Where being ever less natural is seen as a virtue. These are things we need to be questioning.

Progress and Decay, Ravens and Druids

The Throng, by Tom Brown, for The Raven’s Child.

We tell all kinds of stories about the shape of human history, but without a doubt its the progress and decay narratives that dominate. Back when I was working on Druidry and the Ancestors, I included a chapter about these kinds of stories, but at that point I was still seeing the progress and decay narratives as two distinct things. (The chapter still stands, this is a development, not a rethink)

My current working theory is that they are inter-related; aspects of the same underlying experiences. The more complex our civilization (progress) the more remote we feel from nature (decay) the more liberal we are (progress) the more decadent we are (decay) etc. Which story you see depends entirely on whether you see things as getting better or worse as a consequence. For many, technology is all about progress, for others, it’s the decay of the environment.

It’s an incredibly binary way of thinking, that doesn’t reveal itself as such if you’ve signed up for one side or the other.

Tom Sneignoski’s story of The Raven’s Child is an interesting depiction of the decay/progress dynamic. The monstrous Throng are a culture of great power, able to conquer new worlds and dazzle victims with biological and technological advances. Even within that culture there are voices of resentment, who see The Throng as having fallen into decadence and lost their direction. Those who believe in the decay narrative will work from within to change or even destroy what they have a problem with. Sometimes that can be right – I think it is around the Green movement. Sometimes it has you beheading academics who know that your God wasn’t the first one on the scene.

The Raven’s Child isn’t just about monstery progress and decay issues. The humans in the story are living in the ruins of their former civilization. They are degraded. They are what we fear happens when we fall from grace, fall from progress. To overcome their situation, they need a new kind of progress, on new terms. Because we see both sides of the progress and decay narrative in this story, we also get to see its limitations, and its binary nature. Both are going on at once, in a vast web of things that improve and things that get worse, with what goes where depending on how you view it.

When we obsess about making things better, we can start to get ideas that some things are expendable in the name of progress. Some lives, some landscapes, some species can be sacrificed for the great push forward, and this willingness to pay unreasonable prices for the idea of progress is, I think, what creates the decay scenarios as a side effect. It’s not progress that’s the problem, it’s progress at any cost. It’s progress that pays no heed to who it crushes or what it destroys. This set up in turn creates the impression that only the brutal destruction of the progress-civilization (as with the humans in Raven’s Child) can set things right again. Of course it doesn’t, it just kickstarts new cycles.

Better considerations of the real costs of our often imaginary progress, might be the better outcome.

Misleading tales of progress

It’s common, especially in political narratives, to tell tales of progress. At the moment, increased material wealth and increased GDP are the focal points for such stories. More stuff and more cash means we are better off, and better off is by definition, a good thing. However, if we told the story of bodily fitness, mental health or happiness, the picture might look a bit more complicated. If we tell the story of our environment it becomes a tale of abuse and degradation, not gain.

The stories we tell as communities shape who we think we are, where we think we’re going and how we feel about that. This is one of the reasons politicians favour progress narratives, because these affirm them as successful leaders. It’s also a big problem for Greens because we’re looking at the environmental picture and wanting to frame ‘progress’ as sustainability and long term viability. To do that we need everyone to consume less, which according to the dominant narrative, means we want the exact opposite of progress which would be A Bad Thing because we’ve all agreed that progress is A Good Thing.

Poverty causes suffering. Our current era is not short of financial poverty, there’s a shocking amount of it internationally. People who cannot afford to eat and live, rather than the ‘ciabatta line’. In the narrative of economic progress, somehow this is acceptable collateral damage. I think there’s a kind of economic Darwinism at play that says ‘survival of the richest’ and assumes those who cannot accumulate wealth do not deserve to survive. Never mind that the accumulation of wealth is so inextricably linked to the existence of poverty. Our narrative of progress seems to be telling people that it is ok to exploit others for personal gain and then deny all responsibility for their suffering.

In practice there is no grand thrust forward, no heroic stride into the better and brighter future. Some things get better for some, and worse for others. We might think of cars as progress, but we also need to consider the numbers of people and creatures killed and injured by them every year, and the damage of air pollution. The internet may be technological progress, but socially it may be a disaster as we raise the ‘look down’ generation who do not go out much.

Progress narratives are alluring. We want to feel like we’re winning and getting better and that the future will be even better and this makes us exceedingly vulnerable to anyone who has a progress narrative to sell us. We don’t want to be anxious or uneasy or feel like we’re in trouble, and this inclines us to be collectively deaf to those who point out the problems. They’re scaremongering, we feel. It won’t be that bad. The politician who can make us believe it’s all going to be fine tends to get our votes. We want business as usual and the glorious march of progress and even when the things we can see with our own eyes don’t square with the story, we cling to the story all too often.

If we took more interest in the outcomes, we might be more willing to suffer some short term discomforts for the sake of getting things right. Ultimately, our current progress narrative is going to deliver us the exact opposite of progress – climate change and international crisis. We need some new stories.

The march of progress (and where is takes us)

The mainstream west understands progress in terms of technological advancement and increased material wealth. It is held as a self evident truth that these two things are good, and desirable. They go with economic growth and increased GDP and are understood to be how we overcome poverty and improve quality of life for everyone. This is why it’s very hard to even start a conversation about alternatives – we have a culture that believes in material growth and consumption as its primary means of salvation in this lifetime, and its grand hope for improving the future for generations yet to come.

Thus is causes horror and alarm when The Green Party talks about zero growth economy, shrinking the economy, reducing material wealth. There’s a knee jerk, fear based reaction to all of this, because if material progress is good, not seeking material progress must be bad.

So what are we getting, for our great march of progress? What have we marched to, and where does the road lead? Yes, most of us now have more material wealth and comfort than the average mediaeval noble.  We have increased life expectancy. We also have an obesity epidemic, social fragmentation, isolation, lack of resilience, loss of skills, increasing inequality between the richest and poorest and a crisis in mental health. There is no clear correlation between improved material comforts and improved quality of life. I would argue that the high stress, over stimulated, depression and anxiety inducing modern lifestyle is no kind of progress at all. As air pollution takes an increasing toll on life, those life expectancy gains are dwindling for many, too.

The march of progress pollutes our drinking water, the air we breathe and the soil that feeds us. It depletes habitat for all living things, and takes beauty out of the world. The mental health of humans is directly affected by contact with nature. So the more forests we cut down, the more open spaces we cover in tarmac, the more harm we do ourselves. It’s a funny sort of progress, when you stop and think about it.

And what do we do, with the amazing technological progress we’ve made? We sit in traffic queues and we watch television programs in which other people pretend to do exciting things. We do less that is real, less that has inherent meaning, less that gives us chance to be heroes, or saints, or whatever your calling may be. We spend more time investing in imaginary people doing pretend things. Are we living fuller, richer, more rewarding lives as a consequence of all our progress, or are we struggling to pay the bills and spending most of our free time on escapism?

Where are we marching to?

Because we do have a choice, and we do not have to accept the assumption that all new technology and all material posessions are unquestionably good. We need to be more discriminating, more selective, more willing to question the benefits and costs. Forever marching forward on the grounds that forward is good is a very weak strategy, especially if there’s no attention paid to what you march towards. With climate change, habitat destruction and species extinction on the rise, as we destroy the very resources we depend on, the march of progress seems intent on marching itself right over a cliff.

The trouble with revolutions

I’ve read enough to know that largely revolutions don’t work. Rally the troops, get all excited, kill some people, burn something… and end up with some new despotism with an unfamiliar face. I’ve read a fair bit of autobiography around China’s cultural revolution, the rush of enthusiasm, the hope, the bitter betrayal that followed. It doesn’t seem so far from the wild optimism and brutal bloodshed France went through. Wild, desperate attempts to seize power and make it all better quite often don’t.

Which when you’ve a revolutionary streak, is not happy news.

Fast revolutions don’t work. What is born in anger and brutality, is not likely to evolve into enlightened progress. I’m not someone who believes that the ends justify the means. If you look at history, it seems obvious to me that how you do a thing really informs what you get at the end. Violence begets violence. That which we build out of hatred, anger and resentment will not serve to warm our hearts much in the future.

The best revolutions are slow and quiet. They sneak in. I think about passive resistance and quiet acts of non-cooperation. A little civil disobedience can go a long way. Or wilful obedience. Sometimes nothing can be more subversive than doing as you were told. Precisely and literally. And not doing anything else.

We need change. I’m reading articles in newspapers about how the world is run to benefit the 1% who have the most, a UK education minister blaming feminism for the rising gap between rich and poor. We live in a system that is designed to serve the wealthy. We are playing a game where they make the rules, design the board, own all the pieces. Guess what? The game is rigged. We’re shown the few who sing, act or dance their way to fleeting fame and fortune to keep us believing that anyone can get out of the gutter if they’re young, attractive and lucky. It nourishes our illusions.

It’s not the physical poverty we need to tackle in this country at least. Compared to our recent ancestors, most westerners are obscenely well off. Our poverty lies in our lifestyles, how we feel. What use is money if you are miserable? What good is it playing a game you cannot win, to serve the needs of an elite few?

I’d lay good money if enough of us got angry we could storm the banks, burn a few politicians, put someone new on the throne. Give it a little while for the shine to wear off, and we’d find ourselves in the same system with a new set of faces under the hats of the elite. That’s not progress. Being the person on the throne is not a win, and only when we recognise that can we start to change the rules of the game. It’s only while we aspire to be like the people who seem to have everything, that we remain slaves of their system. Once you stop wanting to be them, its possible to rethink everything.

I want to live in a fair and sustainable world, where need is considered more important than greed, compassion is not equated with weakness, and money is not political power. I want to live in a world where beauty matters more than the bottom line, where quality means more than a quick buck. I want a whole different reality from the one we’ve got.

I am not alone.

Reading blogs and newspapers, seeing the growing disquiet amongst people all over the world, I know there are a lot of folk out there hungry for change. No dramatic uprisings. No bloodletting. No putting a new despot on the throne this time. What we need is a quiet revolution. It starts on the inside. It starts inside our own heads. It is the act of rejecting assumption and trying to figure out how things ought to be. And then, through small action, through personal choice, through our day to day choices, going after that vision of a better world. Throw away the unwinnable game. Chuck out the rules of the few designed to keep the many on a leash. Dream of something better.

Clap your hands if you believe in revolutions.

Clap quietly.