Visionaries Who Look to the Past

January 03, 1995|By WALTER TRUETT ANDERSON

Berkeley, California -- Few people seem to be entering the new year -- let alone facing the new millennium -- with hope. The opinion polls and the media reflect a sense of apprehension, an erosion of confidence that things are getting better.

This is a remarkable state of affairs when you consider how important the belief in progress has been in America's history. Until recently it was the dominant and unifying force in the political life of Western civilization, a true secular faith.

The religion of progress dates from the mid-18th century when European intellectuals, their minds on fire with new ideas, began to proclaim the inevitable march of human betterment. The young French philosopher Turgot, generally considered the founding father of the doctrine, gave a public lecture at the Sorbonne declaring that humankind ''advances ever, though slowly, toward greater perfection.'' His ideas had an electrifying impact, inspiring many others including Thomas Jefferson, and took on a new dimension after Darwin's ''Origin of Species'' showed progress as a driving force in all organic life.

The belief in progress was so fervently embraced that the only real controversy it provoked was about which form of progress people should subscribe to. Religious progressives believed things were getting better because God personally guided the course of history. Secular progressives said it was mainly due to human ingenuity and the application of rational thought. Statist progressives believed governments should take an active part in leading the march of progress. Laissez-faire progressives thought governments ought to get out of the way and let individual enterprise work its magic for the betterment of all.

The Cold War was, among other things, a battle between two theories of progress -- capitalist and communist. Its collapse has taken the steam out of both sides. Neither ideology seems to be successful in eradicating misery and poverty in the world, and that makes it very tough going for faith in progress -- which is based on the proposition that life improves not just for the fortunate few, but for everybody.

But undoubtedly the greatest single factor in the general erosion of the old faith has been the rise of environmental concerns, focusing attention on the dark side of technology and development. You can't be aware of pollution, overpopulation, soil erosion and species depletion, and still believe that the course of human affairs is simple onward-and-upward betterment.

Now, faith in progress is not even politically correct. ''Progress'' is an embarrassing word, like ''Negro,'' that you either don't use at all or use in an ironic way to show that you don't really mean it. Many intellectuals and young people subscribe to the belief that all large-scale human endeavors must fail, that science and technology cause more problems than they solve, that our best hope is to shift into reverse gear and get back to low-tech pastoral society. It used to be an act of dissent to argue against faith in progress; now it is a way to conform.

You find this new ideology in the press, in the writings of intellectuals and activists, in the universities and the foundations. Undoubtedly the most-quoted magazine article of 1994, Robert D. Kaplan's Atlantic Monthly essay ''The Coming Anarchy,'' forecast a future of ecological disasters, plagues, wars, depleted resources, crime and breakdown of social orders everywhere.

The popular magazine Utne Reader recently featured 100 ''visionaries,'' most of whose visions are of stopping economic growth, getting back to the farm, bashing technology and generally deploring what the magazine calls ''the homicidal hubris of industrial-postindustrial civilization.''

The trouble with the old cult of progress was that it deliberately blinded itself to the costs of change. The trouble with the new cult of no-progress is that it can too easily become self-fulfilling prophecy. It gives up on science, gives up on institutions -- ultimately, gives up on humanity. The people the Utne group regards as optimists are the ones who see nature somehow healing the wounds caused by human striving.

It's time for a course correction -- not back to the narrow-minded boosterism of the past, but onward to a mature vision that combines hope and determination with a realistic recognition that the future is going to include stunning scientific and technological advances, lots of industry, lots of people, lots of striving, big cities and large organizations.

Learning, not simply linear betterment, is what progress is about. It involves costs, mistakes, pain, and occasionally unpleasant information. The human race is making a lot of progress, and will continue to do so. While we're at it, we need to make some progress in our thinking about progress.

Walter Truett Anderson, author of numerous books on politics and the environment, writes for Pacific News Service.

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