Magical thinking about progress won’t save planet Earth

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by Giles Fraser

Perhaps, as never before, we look to the future to deal with the problems of the present. We anticipate future successes, then price them into the challenges of today. Take the recent Paris climate summit, a commitment to reducing global warning to “well below 2C”. As Richard Martin writes in the MIT Technology Review, this figure relies on emerging technologies that are barely proven. Indeed, “barring a major technological advance that is not currently foreseeable, those targets are unreachable”. Even so, we have already anticipated them in cheering the 2C figure. We have placed our faith in something called progress, in the untestable belief that things will always get better.

We do the same with economics. Here progress is called growth. Governments borrow money in the anticipation that the future pie will have grown enough to pay back what has been borrowed, with leftovers. It is not quite true, as David Attenborough has said, that only “madmen and economists” believe in infinite growth. When it comes to the future, capitalism and technology are bosom pals, both assuming that the passage of time, despite the occasional bump, inevitably points us in the direction of continual advance.

But what if economic growth is the source of our worsening environmental problem? What if all this ever-increasing activity is precisely what leads us to burn more fuel, thus further polluting the planet. Oh, let’s not worry too much, the purveyors of progress assure us, the future will sort it out. That’s about as reassuring as putting all our trash in the Tardis and emptying it out over our great-grandchildren.

Back in 1980, the biologist Barry Commoner ran for president against Ronald Reagan. Next to Reagan’s folksy Christian/capitalist optimism, Commoner didn’t stand a chance. A leftwing humanist, he was one of the first to warn about the environmental dangers of our belief in progress. His celebrated four laws of ecology encapsulated the belief that we live on a finite, limited planet:
1 Everything is connected to everything else;
2 Everything must go somewhere;
3 Nature knows best;
4 There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Looking at the technological assumptions behind the Paris agreement from the perspective of these laws, it’s clear there is a problem. For if everything is connected, then a technological intervention in one area may have unintended consequences somewhere else. And if everything must go somewhere, then capturing carbon and pumping it into the ground (or wherever) is just kicking the can down the road. “Nature knows best” is not some romantic fancy – it asserts that the balance of nature has been forged by millions of years of evolution, nature’s own R&D department – and that we tinker with this balance at our peril.

But it’s that free lunch that lures us in. And that’s what progress and growth provide – an alibi for excess. Indeed, they turn excess into a virtue, redescribing our overblown appetites as the engine of greater future prosperity. Growth is the philosopher’s stone that offers to turn all things into gold. But, like all belief in magic – ie the belief in a free lunch – it points to a fall.

That’s a bit rich, coming from a religious man, I hear the sceptics shout. To which I’d reply that if we think the temptation to believe in magic is something that died with popular religion, then it’s scepticism that has died. Indeed, the belief in progress uncritically assumes one of the basic features of a Christian worldview – that time’s arrow always points towards some future paradise. Hegel’s dialectic did much the same. “Things can only get better,” sang the pop group D:Ream, with that arch progress-monger Prof Brian Cox on keyboards.

In the end, this very contemporary faith can’t be disproved by the present. We’ll just have to see how things turn out. As some Christians say, there will be an eschatological verification – or not. As for now, progress is the modern myth that keeps the show on the road and justifies our inflated lifestyles. One more wafer thin mint, anyone?

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