Progress – the biggest and primary ambition of human civilization throughout history. To achieve progress in technology, science, arts, philosophy and other fields is a means of driving forward and improving the very aspect of human existence. While there are obvious benefits to technological advancement, there are also complicated challenges in which civilization is at the mercy of its own human ingenuity. This essay will analyze the progress traps explored by the film Surviving Progress and examine historic tendencies in order to determine whether current civilization is in a state of progressive decay. The rapid technological advancement of the modern era has created an unparalleled level of complexity and reliance on technologies which has created a trap for civilizational development and can become self-destructive.
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The documentary highlights three distinct progress traps, hunting, farming, and the expanse of civilization. Hunting which was the first method of gathering food and resources began with the beginnings of humanity. However, eventually, tools and ingenuity allowed to hunt more animals and save some of the food. Eventually, someone figured out that driving a herd of mammoths off a cliff will be even easier and provide tremendous amounts of food, but it inevitably resulted in waste and overconsumption since the hunter-gatherers of the time had no capabilities to preserve the food. It was a progress trap since it drove hunting to take away from nature than was required for survival, and eventually, the herds of mammoths would run out, leading to their extinction.
Similarly, farming, undoubtedly a beneficial invention that allowed humans to settle down and begin to form civilizations. Farmland was rich in minerals and fertile until humans began to adopt more expansive and invasive farming practices. It led to rapid depletion of soil and erosion, the surplus of natural capital was eventually depleted, and certain regions became barren for centuries. The final progress trap of civilization itself is based on the concept of expansion. Civilizations and their populations continuously grow, resulting in more resources and land. As industrial output grows, cities expand, and it seems that this is positive and natural growth. However, it becomes a trap as civilizational expansion leads to overtaking of farmland and an unsustainable vacuum of resources which leads to revolution and collapse once supplies are scarce.
Historically, civilizations have risen and collapsed, usually in environments that have provided the natural resources for their existence. However, as the civilization grew, the natural capital was depleted with the available technologies at the time, and eventually, the civilization collapsed. The Roman Empire was arguably one of the biggest and powerful civilizations in ancient history. However, the reasons for its collapse were relatively simple and perhaps preventable. For years, the Roman Empire built its dominance over the region and stripped many of its territories of wealth and productivity to pay off debts. Eventually, the Roman system itself turned from a state-owned enterprise to a collection of private estates. At the same time, ecological problems arose as the Italian soil faced significant erosion resulting in decreased harvests that in turn led to social unrest. The Roman Empire was an example of the concentration of wealth at the top in which progress essentially meant the aggressive collection of capital without any means of equitable distribution to other members. The primary lesson is that a concentration of wealth and power in one small group of people and financial class is detrimental to civilization as a whole since there is no intelligent long-term disposal of this wealth (“Surviving Progress”).
A similar scenario occurred with the Mayan civilization, also a complex and dominant power in its region for hundreds of years. Historians note that significant investment was made into creating palaces and temple precincts which benefited the nobility, and the peasantry was largely excluded from there. The social contract between the majority of the regular population and its leaders began to break down, both in the Roman and Mayan civilizations. The people had become disenchanted with the nobility who were the top 10% collecting the wealth while the bottom 90% continue to go deeper into debt owed to this financial and political royalty (“Surviving Progress”).
The lesson that Wright and Hudson attempt to demonstrate is that the economic structure of civilizations past and present is unsustainable. No matter the economic or political system, in a progress-based society, there is an inherent strive for greater wealth, which results in the division of the top 10% have the majority of the wealth that out lapses the bottom 90% by tremendous amounts. This leads to populations having limited access to adequate education, medicine, or living standards while the environment around them is depleted and their rights are taken away. It creates a perfect storm of conditions for civilizational collapse which often begins with social unrest.
Using the contexts of historic progress traps and collapsed civilization examples, it can be argued that the current state of civilization is essentially repeating similar errors, perhaps at even a greater scale. Ronald Wright identifies progress traps as improvements and progress through technology and human behavior which seemingly offer benefits in the short-term, but upon reaching a certain scale, they become unsustainable and cause a disaster (“Surviving Progress”). The modern world is inherently a globalized civilization, and it is depleting the natural capital not just by taking necessary resources for survival but destroying the environment to fuel the technological progress and affluent overconsumption lifestyle that more than a third of the world demands. The economic demands of said progress are driving modern civilization into the similar patterns of historic civilizations of overdrawing natural resources and creating extreme wealth disparities. Unlike previous civilizations which encompassed only a specific region at most, with other civilizations arising in other parts of the world to ensure stability, the modern society is inherently tied together in one extended globalized civilization, and any catastrophe will affect everyone on the planet.
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However, most don’t view progress in the context of society or economics, but rather scientific and technological advancements that have come to redefine humanity. The past few decades have seen tremendous breakthroughs in various scientific fields and technological capabilities. For example, the human genome and synthetic biology are seen as revolutionary and expected to be the foundation of future technology that ultimately solves humanity’s biggest problems, ranging from replacing fossil fuels to providing clean water and food, to addressing health issues. However, it becomes a progress trap in several ways. First, to make this technology work on a scale that actually impacts the world is challenging and far from reality currently. Second, it gives tremendous power, a manner of “playing God” which also requires significant responsibility.
Finally, the solutions are not applicable to resolving the primary problem of the modern civilization living in a materialistic society that consumes an extraordinary amount of resources, money, territory leading to evident shortages and destruction as a result of overinflated consumption. It is a progress trap since humanity is relying on this technological progress to solve its problems with governments and enterprises promising new methods of continuing this consumption and level of production through technology, but neither is realistic and fails to resolve the underlying issues which are human behavior in itself. It is human nature to want more to ensure stability and resources since the time of the hunters’ gatherers (after all, the human brain has not biologically evolved much since that time), but at some point, civilization took a wrong turn and it has shifted accumulation of resources into unreasonable territory that has little regard for nature and fellow human beings.
Since the release of the documentary in 2011, it can be argued the situation was only exacerbated. The environmental challenges are worse than ever while the socio-economic divide and debt are skyrocketing. The U.S. national debt is rising at a trillion dollars per year, driving the belief that society can consume and borrow from the future while supporting an unsustainable short-term lifestyle. Ironically, the human understanding of economics, nature, and science has only evolved as many in the academic community are providing dire warnings to leaders and policymakers, that the planet is on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, the population only continues to increase exponentially as a large majority of the world is being overwhelmed, stripped of biodiversity, and converted to resources which fuel consumerism and wasteful behavior of the affluent population of the Earth (Wright).
In a capitalistic society, technological innovation mostly occurs when it is backed by financial gain. A significant number of firms in a variety of economic sectors choose to innovate only taking into account their competitors and the profitability of such innovation. This large share of firms determines the evolution of technology in the macroeconomy, and this ultimately influences economic growth (Marsiglio and Tolotti 293). Meanwhile, the current geological epoch is more often referred to by scientists as the Anthropocene, the domination of humans of all events on the planet. The dramatic increase in energy accessibility and information has always driven civilization, but the most recent one in the past 50 years completely transformed the way humans live and consume. The simultaneous increases in the population, energy and pollution output and information being generated and digitized are accelerating the timeline of civilizational development, progress, and eventual collapse. While making a change is possible by creating an egalitarian global society with low emissions and a new lifestyle and way of thinking, it is highly unlikely given the status quo and increasing ideological divides (Lewis and Maslin 8-10).
It is difficult to comprehend, and apocalyptic predictions have always been taken with a grain of salt. However, the consequences, let it be economic, social, or environmental are already evident, but humanity is unwilling to resolve them in light of unprecedented economic growth and investment in future technologies that are meant to create solutions, despite it being possibly too late when technological progress reaches scale, particularly in regard to environmental preservation.
Historic examples of progress traps and civilization collapses have been shown to have similarly emerging patterns. The modern globalized society tied into one single civilization, tremendous disparities and divisions among classes and nations, and unprecedented overconsumption of resources are creating the perfect conditions for collapse. Meanwhile, reliance on technological breakthroughs as a means of resolving the issues and allowing for this overinflated consumerism behavior creates a progress trap that civilizations have rarely faced before. Unfortunately, this should be a wake-up call to humanity, because unlike previous times in history, there will be little opportunity to recover, and in some respects, such as environmental degradation, humanity is at a point of no return.
Lewis, Simon L., and Mark A. Maslin. The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene. Penguin UK, 2018.
Marsiglio, Simone, and Marco Tolotti. “Endogenous Growth and Technological Progress with Innovation Driven By Social Interactions.” Economic Theory, vol. 65, 2016, pp. 293-328, Web.
Surviving Progress. Directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, First Run Features. 2011.
Wright, Ronald. “Ronald Wright: Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?” The Tyee. 2019, Web.