What Is Progress and Are We Progressing?

Tolstoy farming

Tolstoy farming

We call ourselves progressives, but what is progress? Five years ago my book An Age of Progress? was published. Note the question mark. The book’s subtitle was Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces.

After analyzing the century’s main forces in eight chapters, I focused in the ninth and final chapter on the central question of the book: Was it an Age of  Progress? Having recently read some of the writings—poems, fiction and non-fiction—of Wendell Berry, the question seems as pertinent to me as ever.

Consider these quotes from Berry’s 1999 essay “The Failure of War”:

  • Scientific and technological progress has made war ever more terrible and less controllable.
  • Progress in war, progress in technology, and progress in the industrial economy are parallel to one another—or, very often, are merely identical.
  • It is easy to see the similarity between this accounting of the price of war and our usual accounting of “the price of progress.” We seem to have agreed that whatever has been (or will be) paid for so-called progress is an acceptable price. If that price includes the diminishing of privacy and the increase of government secrecy, so be it. If it means a radical reduction in the number of small businesses and the virtual destruction of the farm population, so be it. If it means the devastation of whole regions by extractive industries, so be it. If it means that a mere handful of people should own more billions of wealth than is owned by all of the world’s poor, so be it.
  • The most comprehensive vision of human progress, the best advice, and the least obeyed:
    “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.

I began the final chapter of An Age of Progress? as follows:

In the 1860s the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy accused historians of muddled thinking when they wrote of progress.  Emphasizing the dazzling array of new technologies—in print, transportation, communication (railroads, steam engines, telegraphs, and the like) —historians seemed to assume that such developments necessarily contributed to improvements in the overall welfare of individuals and nations.  But Tolstoy was convinced that “progress on one side is always paid back by retrogression on the other side of human life.”  For him the growth of cities and newspapers, gas-lighting, railways, and sewing machines, all were either regressive developments or not worth the cost of destroying forests and peoples’ sense of simplicity and moderation.   Whether Tolstoy was right or wrong about the effects of such developments is less important than the questions his criticism prompts.  What is progress?  How is it to be measured?  Tolstoy himself equated it with an overall improvement of wellbeing, which is perhaps as good a definition as any.

When I wrote these words I was not yet familiar with Berry’s writings. After reading a wide sampling of his vast number of works, I am struck by his similarities with Tolstoy, especially the “late Tolstoy” of his last three decades. The two writers share a love of the land, of the rural over the urban, and of physical labor and “good work.” They are both critical of the mistreatment of minorities, and of war, capital punishment, and much of the behavior of upper classes, governments, and Christian churches, but they are great admirers of Jesus Christ.  

Although Tolstoy died in 1910, when consumer culture was still in its infancy, he still wrote:

 As there is no end to the caprices of men when they are met, not by their own labor but by that of others, industry is more and more diverted to the production of the most unnecessary, stupid, depraving products, and draws people more and more from reasonable work.  And no end can be foreseen to these inventions and preparations for the amusement of idle people, especially as the stupider and more depraving an invention is—such as the use of motors in place of animals or of one’s own legs, railways to go up mountains, or armored automobiles armed with quick-firing guns—the more pleased and proud of them are both their inventors and their possessors.

 His opposition to “motors in place of animals,” may seem quaint and simply wrong-headed to many of us today, but so too did Berry’s 1987 essay Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer. It began, “Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations, which I do not admire. I hope to become less hooked to them. In my work, I try to be as little hooked to them as possible. As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper.”

But back to “What Is Progress?” and was the 20th century an “Age of Progress”? If we accept Tolstoy’s idea of progress as an overall improvement of wellbeing—an approach compatible with Berry’s—then we need to ask ourselves whether on a global scale at the end of the twentieth century people were better off than at the beginning of it.  Berry’s writings suggest that they were not, that the century produced more losses than gains in global wellbeing.

Wendell Berry and President Obama

Wendell Berry and President Obama

My own assessment in my 2008 book was more mixed than Berry’s. I believed that we had become better off in a number of ways as a result of scientific, technological, and economic progress and achieving greater freedom. I cited improvements such as longer life spans, greater literacy, shorter work weeks, and declining global poverty rates. As an individual living with a heart stent, a metal partial hip replacement, and a computer and Kindle screen before me for many hours each week, I would indeed be ungrateful if I cursed all modern technology. But I also appreciated many of the freedom gains of the twentieth century.

Thanks largely to decolonization many of the world’s countries are no longer colonies of imperialistic powers. In Africa, for example, there were only two free countries in 1900; today there are more than 50.  Religious and ethnic minorities, women, gays, and workers also made important gains in obtaining more freedom, and organizations like the United Nations increasingly spoke out in behalf of Human Rights.  

In regard to environmental, moral, and cultural progress, however, I was much more doubtful. Like Berry, I shared the view (as he put it) that “we are destroying our farmlands, our forests, our water sources. We are polluting the air, the water, the land.” I included a chapter in my book detailing the environmental damages of the twentieth century. Nor did I think that we had made much moral or culture progress, writing that “by the end of the century, it was indeed evident how difficult it was for people’s prudence, wisdom, and morality to keep pace with technological change.”

Reading Wendell Berry has led me to rethink my evaluations of twentieth-century progress. And I intend to read more of his works. Perhaps my balance sheet will shift even more to the negative column since he so skillfully points out what we lost during the past century. But on the last page of my book I included the following paragraph:

walter moss

Walter Moss

The state of the world in the 1990s and beyond can be viewed from the pessimistic perspective of books such as Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy [two books I had mentioned earlier] or from the more optimistic viewpoint of someone like Nelson Mandela.  In the midst of his 27 years in prison, he gave the name Zaziwe, meaning “Hope” to one of his granddaughters, and continued to believe that “man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”  His hopeful dynamism and wise leadership helped create a nonracial democratic system in South Africa without resorting to a bloody revolution or civil war.

Despite Berry’s many wise words, it seems appropriate in this week following Mandela’s death to remember his inspiring hopefulness. 

Walter G. Moss

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