is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute
There is nothing in human nature or human history to justify the idea that we are progressing morally as a species. Technology, industry and scientific progress have nurtured, protected and enhanced life, but they have also brought us industrial slaughter, the economic exploitation and abuse of globalization, and the steady destruction of the ecosystem - the water, air and climate patterns - that sustains the human species.
There is always a dark side to human progress. Both individuals and societies make moral advances, but they also make moral reverses. We are not moving toward a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere. The tools change. We do not.
All the signs in our present world point to a coming anarchy, a massive dislocation of populations that will result from ecological devastation, pollution, overpopulation, and wars fought over dwindling natural resources. Science, which addresses these looming disasters, has largely become a tool of the military-industrial complex or corporations that seek only profit. It serves, like human knowledge, the ambitions of human beings, some of which are good and some of which are bad.
New technologies that are potentially threatening - such as genetic modification of organisms and nanotechnology - are being unleashed with little understanding of their impact on the biosphere. The global population, expected to jump from 2 billion to 8 billion or 9 billion in fewer than 150 years, means that, if left unchecked, we will no longer be able to sustain ourselves, especially as nations such as China seek the consumption levels of the industrialized nations in Europe and North America.
Nearly two-thirds of the life-support services provided to us by nature are already in precipitous decline worldwide. The old wars of conquest, expansion and exploitation will be replaced by wars fought for the basic necessities of water, air, food and sustainable living conditions. As we race toward this catastrophe, scientists continue to make discoveries, set these discoveries upon us, and walk away from the impact.
The belief that science and reason will save us, however, makes it possible to ignore or minimize these looming catastrophes. We lunge toward disaster, trusting blindly that the god of science and reason will intervene. It is difficult to accept a world where things do not move forward and will most probably get worse. We prefer to believe we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of advancement, rather than creatures trapped in the irrevocable limitations of human nature.
The idea of inevitable progress places us at the center of creation. It permits us to exalt ourselves above others. It projects our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is morally irresponsible. It averts our eyes from reality and places our hopes in an absurdist faith.
That malformed theology is fed to us by many scientific rationalists (for whom science has become a kind of god) and a variety of religious fanatics. But it bears little connection with reality. Such utopian ideals have doomed civilizations in the past, enticing them to destroy those who do not agree and to chase after impossible dreams even as societies collapse.
The myth of collective moral progress is a form of self-delusion. It permits us to believe we can, through religion or science or reason, reform human nature. It chooses to ignore that we control little, even within our own lives, that our most important decisions are often made by others, or motivated by unconscious forces we cannot articulate. Human societies will never achieve what we as distinct individuals have failed to achieve: complete consciousness and control of ourselves and the world around us.
The ancient Greeks, like Hindus and Buddhists, saw our individual and collective histories as cyclical. We live, they believed, in alternating stages of hope and despair, of advancement and decay. This is a more accurate understanding of human existence. To acknowledge the purposelessness of history, to refuse to endow it with a linear march toward perfection, is to give up the comforting idea that we are greater than those who came before. It is to accept our limitations and discard delusion. It is to accept that the frightening, irrational urges of human nature, while they can be tamed and controlled, will never be conquered. It is to become human.
If we choose to become human, we can discard utopian visions, fed to us by deluded rationalists and religious dreamers, and begin to cope with the world as it is, not as we want it to be.