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The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progres

The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progress

Those who oppose change, even in a single category of life, are often labeled as enemies of “progress.” In the modern era “progress” has become a catch-all word to describe every technological change by the proponents of that change. Thinking people will agree that not all change is progress. But it is striking how infrequently most people actually oppose technological change when it comes.

Often the technological change is billed as a “solution” to a problem created by a previous technological change that was billed as “progress.” The proliferation of air filtering technology comes to mind. I am not opposing air filtering technology, only pointing out that it is not a step forward but rather at most a step sideways to make up for another supposed step forward.

It is logical to assume that making progress toward one’s destination is a good thing. After all, if we have a goal, doing things which allow us to reach that goal seems positive. But this does not touch on the question of whether the goal itself will amount to progress once we get there.

One further thing to note is that “progress” in our modern technical society is almost always defined by others for us. Some corporation, inventor or software genius comes up with a new gadget or process that is then sold as an “improvement” on our current way of doing things. We don’t get to vote on these “improvements.” They are foisted upon us whether we want them or not. This is done partly by exploiting the networking effect. To wit, when everyone you know has a smartphone, they will pressure you to get one because they “need” you to be able to receive their text messages.

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Economic Decay Leads to Social and Political Decay

Economic Decay Leads to Social and Political Decay

If we want to make real progress, we have to properly diagnose the structural sources of the rot that is spreading quickly into every nook and cranny of the society and culture.

It seems my rant yesterday (Let Me Know When It’s Over) upset a lot of people, many of whom felt I trivialized the differences between the parties and all the reforms that people believe will right wrongs and reduce suffering.

OK, I get it, there are differences, but if the “reform” doesn’t change the source of the suffering and injustice, it’s just window-dressing that makes the supporter feel virtuous. Want an example? Let’s take the the “cruel and unusual punishment” for drug-law offenders, many of whom are African-American males whose lives are effectively hobbled by felony convictions and long sentences in America’s Drug War Gulag.

You want a “reform” that actually gets to the root and solves the source of the injustice? It’s simple: decriminalize all drugs and recognize drug use as a medical and social issue rather than a criminal-justice / Gulag issue. But that won’t happen because too many people are making too much money off the Gulag, which is now a public and private-prison Gulag.(Other advanced nations have had success with this structural change. Maybe we could learn something from their examples?)

If you’re not ready to demand the full decriminalization of all drugs, then you’re not really interested in solving the problem; you’re just seeking virtue-signaling “reforms” that don’t upset the power structure. And since any real solution necessarily disrupts the power structure benefiting from the status quo, all the painless “reforms” are ineffective.

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‘Factfulness’ may calm you down, but won’t change our ecocidal trajectory

‘Factfulness’ may calm you down, but won’t change our ecocidal trajectory

Here and there people have been referring to author Hans Rosling’s idea of “factfulness” as an antidote to gloomy thinking about the trajectory of the human enterprise. Rosling writes:

[T]he vast majority of the world’s population live somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated. Perhaps not on every single measure, or every single year, but step by step, year by year, the world is improving. In the past two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled. Although the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.

“Factfulness,” it seems, relies on nothing more than drawing attention to a narrow set of facts. Yes, we have made tremendous progress for humans taken alone. The problem with such assessments is that they leave out how that progress was purchased. While Rosling does not deny climate change, profligate resource consumption or toxic pollution, he does not see that they are the pillars upon which the so-called “progress” we’ve achieved rests and not mere side-effects.

I agree with Rosling that the daily flow of news does not provide an accurate picture of our true trajectory. While the media may overplay the negative news about human well-being or at least give the wrong impression, it vastly underplays the damage that human dominance has inflicted on the biosphere. And, it reliably ignores the relationship between continual growth in consumption and population and that damage.

As I have written previously, the definition of “world” is crucial in the phrase “the world is getting better.” Most of the cheerleaders for our current system focus on humans alone who make up only a fraction of “the world.” Those cheerleaders fail to understand that the shortcomings of the current system will not be remedied by doing more of the same. The health of the biosphere will not get better with greater and greater emissions of  greenhouse gases or more deforestation or more soil erosion, all integral to the “progress” of humans under the current system if we’re going to keep adding population and raising living standards.

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The Real New Deal

The Real New Deal

Wassily Kandinsky Succession 1935

While we’re on the issue of the Green New Deal, here’s an article by Dr. D. with an intro by Dr. D., one he sent me in the mail that contained the actual article, and that I think shouldn’t go to waste. I hope he agrees.

Waste being the key term here, because he arrives at the same conclusion I’ve often remarked upon: that our societies and economies exist to maximize waste production. Make them more efficient and they collapse. 

Ergo: no Green New Deal is any use if you don’t radically change the economic models. Let’s see AOC et al address that, and then we can talk. It’s not as if a shift towards wind and solar will decrease the economic need for waste production (though it may change the waste composition), and thus efficiency is merely a double-edged sword at the very best. 

Here’s Dr. D. First intro, then article:

Dr. D: [..] of course there are a thousand things I can say, but I wanted to make just this one point:  that the economy as we know it is prohibited from contracting by its own system structure.  One thing I couldn’t expand on is that I believe it is almost entirely unconscious.  People like AOC, the Aspen Ecological Center, these people have in the back of their minds “What is possible” and “how things are done” and “can I sell this or will people turn away.” 
As I say, the idea of saying, “Everything will be perfect, just live like a Zen Monk” is a non-starter.  Why, I don’t know, as it’s very pleasant and quite provable. 

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Is the “world” actually getting better? Depends on your definition of “world”

Is the “world” actually getting better? Depends on your definition of “world”

A frequent critique of the daily news flow is that it is filled with negative events. This is partly a product of the human nervous system. We react very quickly to perceived threats and more slowly to hope of gain or pleasure. Editors and reporters know what will grab people’s attention which is why the old adage—if it bleeds, it leads—still applies.

There are, of course, heartwarming stories about miraculous recoveries from illness and injury, rescued animals, and saintly persons doing amazing charitable acts. And, then there is a sub-genre of the feel-good story which I’ll call the you’ve-been-living-in-opposite-land-things-are-actually-getting-better story.

Now as an antidote to the relentless negativity of the news, this kind of story gets attention. And, sometimes we need to be reminded, for instance, that life expectancy continues to rise, child mortality continues to decline, and smoking remains in decline. Humans are capable of making progress by certain measures.

“By certain measures” is the key phrase because what we typically measure when we say that things are getting better are measures of human well-being. Those who tell us not to fret about the doomsday predictions of environmentalists very craftily conflate two categories: the state of the natural world and the state of human well-being by telling us that the “world” is actually getting better.

Well, “world” in its primary definition means the planet. Other definitions are narrower and some include only humankind. If you are not paying attention, you will miss this sleight-of-hand used by apologists for the destruction of the natural world who tell us that the “world” is getting better—while carefully omitting any mention of the natural world or cherry-picking a few narrow and misleading trends concerning the environment.

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‘Enlightenment Now’ rationalizes the violence of empire

Through an impressive array of data and visual metrics, Steven Pinker’s most recent book, Enlightenment Now, presents a fiercely optimistic portrait of the achievements of the human race.

Pinker uses stats and charts to show how, as one reviewer put it: “Wars are fewer and less severe, homicides are down, racism is in decline, terrorism is a fading fad, democracy rules, communicable diseases and poverty are on their way out.”

Pinker claims that technocratic progress — based upon the ideals of the Enlightenment (science, reason and liberal humanism) — has made humans happier, healthier and less violent than ever before.

His brand of popular science, rooted in the superiority of mankind, seems to appeal to the masses. An experimental psychologist at Harvard University, Pinker has been included in lists like “100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy and “The Top Most Influential People in the World Today” by Time.

Recent critiques have been made of Pinker’s latest work. However, few have explored Pinker’s implicit defence of empire and colonialism: the violent exploits in the name of Eurocentric understandings of “progress.”

I believe Pinker’s mechanical understanding of environmental problems in the age of climate change and massive species loss to be irresponsible. As a postdoctoral scholar of critical socio-ecological theory, I feel it is important to counter the data offered in Enlightenment Now, which aims to demonstrate how our world is less violent, less environmentally destructive and less poor than ever before.

We need to counter Pinker’s view with a broader understanding of what our relationship to nature and to each other has been within the context of Western “progress.”

Rationalizing colonial violence in the name of “progress”

Pinker implicitly rationalizes historical colonial violence and ecological destruction as invariable consequences of advancements towards greater emancipation as human beings.

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Breaking the chains of delusion -Technological progress mythologies and the pitfalls of digitalization

When it comes to technological development, I often hear the words: What can be done will be done – sooner or later. Many people think that technological development follows a path directed by quasi-natural laws that head into one and only one direction – called “progress” – which is: to use more technology, more complex technology, more expensive technology, more powerful technology. Now, if this were true, if everything that is technologically feasible will be done one day, humankind and the planet are finished. The detonation of thousands of nuclear warheads and the unleashing of artificial killer creatures manufactured by synthetic biology would wipe out life on earth. Sooner or later.

Technology as mythology

However, this narrative of quasi-automatic, unstoppable, mono-directional development of technology belongs to the realm of mythology. Which technology is developed and which is not, which is used and which is not, all of this is based on decisions made by people, decisions that could look quite different. Let’s take the automobile system as an example. It is perfectly feasible to organize efficient mobility in cities without cars. The technologies for this have existed for more than a hundred years. But it is not done. And there are reasons for this. It is also perfectly doable, to feed the whole world with organic peasant agriculture, and much better than today, to save 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by that and dramatically reduce fresh water use. The technologies for this have existed for a long time as well. But it is not done. And there are also reasons for it. It is also easily doable to communicate over large distances without buying every year or every second year a new pocket computer that is consuming huge amounts of resources. The reasons why this is not done are the same as in the other two examples.

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Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why.

Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why.

It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By falsely tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim.

In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, published earlier this year, Steven Pinker argues that the human race has never had it so good as a result of values he attributes to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. He berates those who focus on what is wrong with the world’s current condition as pessimists who only help to incite regressive reactionaries. Instead, he glorifies the dominant neoliberal, technocratic approach to solving the world’s problems as the only one that has worked in the past and will continue to lead humanity on its current triumphant path.

His book has incited strong reactions, both positive and negative. On one hand, Bill Gates has, for example, effervesced that “It’s my new favorite book of all time.” On the other hand, Pinker has been fiercely excoriated by a wide range of leading thinkers for writing a simplistic, incoherent paean to the dominant world order. John Gray, in the New Statesman, calls it “embarrassing” and “feeble”; David Bell, writing in The Nation, sees it as “a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history”; and George Monbiot, in The Guardian, laments the “poor scholarship” and “motivated reasoning” that “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.” (Full disclosure: Monbiot recommends my book, The Patterning Instinct, instead.)

In light of all this, you might ask, what is left to add? Having read his book carefully, I believe it’s crucially important to take Pinker to task for some dangerously erroneous arguments he makes. Pinker is, after all, an intellectual darling of the most powerful echelons of global society.

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Closing the Gap between the Science and Politics of Progress

Global politics is based on an outmoded and increasingly destructive model of human progress and development. Can science change a dire situation?

‘My view of human progress has stayed surprisingly constant throughout my presidency. The world today, with all its pain and all its sorrow, is more just, more democratic, more free, more tolerant, healthier, wealthier, better educated, more connected, more empathetic than ever before. If you didn’t know ahead of time what your social status would be, what your race was, what your gender was, or your sexual orientation was, what country you were living in, and you asked what moment in human history you would like to be born, you’d choose right now.’ Barack Obama, President of the United States 2009-2017

It is unusual for a national leader to articulate his worldview in this way. Nonetheless, Obama’s view of progress is one that is, broadly speaking, shared by politicians and governments throughout the developed world and beyond (partly framed here by the ‘identity politics’ that characterises political debate today). The view reflects the dominant or orthodox model of development.

However, this model is increasingly at odds with what science tells us about the world. It is not that the specific achievements are wrong, but that they are incomplete, and so present a false picture of progress. The growing gap between the conventional view and the realities of people’s lives helps to explain the widespread public disquiet in many countries and its political consequences, evident in growing political volatility and extremism.

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Technology and Its Discontents

Tucked within the pages of the January issue of the Agriview, a monthly farm publication published by the State of Vermont, was a short survey from the Department of Public Service (DPS). Described as an aid to the Department in drafting their “Ten Year Telecom Plan”, the survey contains eight questions, the first seven of which are simple multiple-choice queries about current internet and cell phone service at the respondent’s farm. The final question is the one that caught my eye:

“In what ways could your agriculture business be improved with better access to cell signal or higher speed internet service?”

Two things are immediately revealed by this question:

(a) The DPS believes that the only possible outcome from faster and better telecommunication access is that things will be “improved”.

(b) If you disagree with the DPS on point (a), they don’t want to hear about it.

A cynic might conclude that the DPS is only looking for survey results that justify decisions they’ve already made, and that’s probably true. But the department’s upbeat, one-dimensional outlook on technological change is actually the accepted norm in America. In his book In the Absence of the Sacred, Jerry Mander points out that new technologies are usually introduced through “best-case scenarios”: “The first waves of description are invariably optimistic, even utopian. This is because in capitalist societies early descriptions of new technologies come from their inventors and the people who stand to gain from their acceptance.” [1]

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have made an art of utopian hype. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, one of high-tech’s most influential boosters, gave us such platitudes as “personal computers have become the most empowering tool we’ve ever created,”[2] and my favorite, “technology is unlocking the innate compassion we have for our fellow human beings.”[3]

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The Golden Rule of Technological Progress: Innovation Doesn’t Solve Problems, It Creates Them

The Golden Rule of Technological Progress: Innovation Doesn’t Solve Problems, It Creates Them

Image from RealPharmacy

See that thing up there? It is an autonomous security robot, something that’s becoming fashionable nowadays. Obviously, for every problem, there has to be a technological solution. So, what could go wrong with the idea that the problem of homeless people can be solved by means of security robots?

There is something badly wrong with the way we approach what we call “problems” and our naive faith in technology becomes more and more pathetic. And now we are deploying security robots all over the world. Surely a “solution” but it is not so clear what the problem is.

The story of this silly robot made me think of a post that I published a few months ago where I stated what I called “the golden rule of technological innovation: “innovation doesn’t solve problems, it creates them”. And the more I think about that, the more I think it is true.

From “Cassandra’s Legacy”, May 24, 2017

The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to “RethinkX”. That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 

Decades of work in research and development taught me this:

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 
Which I could call “the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation.” There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean?

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Geopolitical Tensions Are Designed To Distract The Public From Economic Decline

Geopolitical Tensions Are Designed To Distract The Public From Economic Decline

Tracking geopolitical and fiscal developments over the past several years is a bit like watching a slow motion train wreck; you know exactly what the consequences of the events will be, you try to warn people as much as possible, but, ultimately, you cannot reverse the disaster. The disaster has for all intents and purposes already happened. What we are witnessing is the aftermath as a forgone conclusion.

This is why whenever someone asks me as an economic and political analyst “when the collapse is going to happen,” I have to shake my head in bewilderment. The “collapse” is here now. It is done. It is a historical fact. It’s just that not many people have the eyes to see it yet, primarily because they are hyper-focused on all the wrong things.

For many centuries now, elitists in power have understood the value of geopolitical distraction as a tool for controlling the masses. If you examine the underlying motivations behind the majority of wars between nations regardless of the era, you will in most cases discover that the power brokers on both sides tend to be rather friendly with each other. In fact, monarchies and oligarchies are historically notorious for fabricating diplomatic tensions and conflicts in order to force populations back under their control.  That is to say, wars and other man-made conflicts give the citizenry something to react to, instead of hunting down the establishment cabal like they should.

One of the greatest illusions of human progress is the notion that most conflicts happen at random; that there are two sides and that those sides are fighting over ideological differences. In truth, most conflicts have nothing to do with ideological differences between governments and financial oligarchs.

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The Illusion of Progress

The Illusion of Progress

This is precisely what you’d expect of a self-serving elite that was desperate to cloak the unhappy reality that the relative few are benefiting immensely at the expense of the many.
The core narrative of politics everywhere is progress, i.e. “moving forward.” If progress isn’t being made, politicos and the system are failing.
In the past, “progressive” movements sought to advance both social and economic opportunities for marginalized groups.
For a variety of reasons, social progress has been decoupled from economic progress.
In broadly disintegrative eras such as the present, the stagnation of economic opportunity is masked by redefining progress in purely social terms: progress is defined as the social advance of a marginalized populace into the mainstream.
When the marginalized populace is comprised of many millions of individuals, social progress and economic progress are mutually reinforcing dynamics: opportunities for social advancement in the mainstream created economic opportunities, and vice versa.
Now that social/economic progress has lifted the major marginalized populaces–ethnic and religious minorities, gays–substantially into the mainstream, those remaining marginalized populaces are modest in size. Estimates of the trans-gender populace, for example, are generally less than 1% of the total population.
The marginalized groups’ advances that are markers for “proof of progress” have decoupled from economic advances. Few if any social-justice promoters of trans-gender rights, for example, claim any economic gains will accompany this social progress.
The reason why social progress has been effectively decoupled from economic progress is that the woeful lack of economic progress for the bottom 90% proves financial progress is now limited to an elite comprised of Oligarchs, Nomenklatura, the Technocrat Class and a relative handful of entrepreneurs.
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Retrotopia: The Far Side of Progress

Retrotopia: The Far Side of Progress

I got lunch at the little café across the street from the Capitol, and then went to talk to Melanie Berger and a dozen other people from Meeker’s staff. We had a lot of ground to cover and I’d lost two and a half days to the flu, so we buckled down to work and kept at it until we were all good and tired. It was eight o’clock, I think, before we finally broke for dinner and headed for a steak place, and after that I went back to my hotel and slept hard for ten hours straight.

The next morning we were back at it again. Ellen Montrose wanted a draft trade agreement, a draft memorandum on border security, and at least a rough draft of a treaty allowing inland-waterway transport from our territory down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and points south, and she wanted them before her inauguration, so she could hit the ground running once her term began. I figured she also meant to announce them in her inauguration speech and throw the Dem-Reps onto the defensive immediately, so they’d be too busy trying to block her agenda to come up with an agenda of their own.

The Lakelanders knew about the proposals—they’d been briefed while my trip was still in the planning stage—and they were willing to meet her halfway, but they had a shopping list of their own.  The trade agreement in particular required a lot of finagling, so the Restos wouldn’t shoot it down when it came up for ratification by the legislature, and I had to weigh everything against what Montrose’s people and the legislature in Philadelphia would be willing to tolerate.

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Can We Afford the Future?

Can We Afford the Future?

Broken road image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

As a child of the 1950s I grew up immersed in a near-universal expectation of progress. Everybody expected a shiny new future; the only thing that might have prevented us from having it was nuclear war, and thankfully that hasn’t happened (so far). But, in the intervening decades, progress has begun to lose its luster. Official agencies still project economic growth as far as the eye can see, but those forecasts of a better future now ring hollow.

Why? It’s simple. We can’t afford it.

To understand why, it’s helpful to recall how the present got to be so much grander (in terms of economic activity) than the past. Much of that story has to do with fossil fuels. Everything we do requires energy, and coal, natural gas, and oil provided energy that was cheap, abundant, concentrated, and easily stored and transported. Once we figured out how to get these fuels out of the ground and use them, we went on history’s biggest joy ride.

But fossil fuels are depleting non-renewable resources, and are therefore subject to declining resource quality. Oil is the most economically important of the fossil fuels, and depletion is already eating away at expectations of further petroleum-fed progress. During the past decade, production rates for conventional oil—the stuff that fueled the economic extravaganza of the 20th century—have stalled out and are set to drop (according to the IEA’s latest forecast). Between 2004 and 2014, the oil industry’s costs for exploration and production rose at almost 11 percent per year.  The main bright spot in the oil world has been growing production of unconventional oil—specifically tight oil in North America associated with the fracking boom. But now that boom is going bust.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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