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Progress and expansion: stories that undergird our civilization

6.1. 2008 Posted By: Tim Nafziger 63 Times read

06/01/08 at 11:31 PM

This is a much delayed second part to my review of What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, from last December. In the first part I looked at four major limits that our world is running up against: species extinction, climate change, population explosion (of humans) and mass extinction (of everyone else). But how did we end up here? The short answer: blind faith in progress.

I first became aware of the “myth of progress” in high school when I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, a novel about a gorilla teaching a single student. Sounds like a sketchy plot? It’s mainly just a vehicle for challenging the ideas that we humans are the pinnacle of evolution. For me, it was a new idea. You mean this world isn’t just here for us? I’d never really thought about the way this idea underlies everything we do.

What a Way to Go includes interviews with Quinn and other thinkers with similar questions and ideas:

  • Can we constantly increase our economy and our consumption forever?
  • Should be other criteria than “will people buy it” when adopting new technology?
  • We have been operating in a fantasy world of no limits, obsessed with the idolatry of control over every aspect of our world.
  • Science gives us the power to dominate, but does not tell us how to limit? it.
  • Our western culture operates under the basic assumption that our culture is the best available and any alternative is worse.

One story in the movie that stood out was an imaginary land with 12 Tribes living together in peace in which one tribe develops weapons and imperial ambition and tries to take over territory from a neighboring tribe. The tribe they are attacking has three basic options:

    • run away, with the result of the imperial territory expanding
    • submit, with the result of the imperial territory expanding
    • take up weapons themselves to resist, with the result of imperial culture expanding, because whether they win or lose, they will have adopted the stance of the aggressor.

Our culture is the one that grew out of this situation. In war after war, one culture either improved on their attackers tactics, lost or ran away. The net effect created what Daniel Quinn calls “taker culture,” and with it cities, kings, organized warfare and most importantly, it’s obsession with acquisition and expansion.

The salvation narrative of expansion and progress is what drives so much of our energy and culture today. It is not to be confused with hope, though it sometimes masquerades as her. It promises that giving up our bikes for cars will give us the good life. That giving up farms for factory jobs will make everyone better off. That planes are better then trains. It is the idolatry of gods who save us through worship of technology and science.

What’s the alternative? What is the answer? One of the things What a Way to Go specifically refuses to do is give us a simple answer that we can go away with satisfied. Instead, it suggests some very general ideas like interdependence with the community of life, integrating ourselves with the earth rather than seeking to control it and building an ark of relationships around us to help us survive and imagine other ways. We need to begin to recognize the way the narrative of progress dominates so much of our life in unconscious ways if we are going to begin to heal ourselves and our world.

Some Critiques of the Film

Since I wrote the first half of the review, I’ve had a number of conversations with my sister about the effectiveness of the film. When we watched it together she walked out after the first hour, which focuses on a deluge of end of world scenarios. She argued that these apocalyptic scenarios are overwhelming and lead to despair and paralysis rather then action and hope for change.

While the deluge approach is debatable, one clear major failing was that no people of color were interviewed in the documentary. The filmmakers missed a wonderful opportunity to hear voices from outside the dominant culture.

Despite these two shortcomings, I highly recommend this film.

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