The Progress Trap

Some of you may find this interesting.

Sounds interesting, despite repeating the fallacy of “…and then people were farmers.”

From the article:

Thus in the early stone age, improved hunting techniques caused the extinction of many prey species. The only viable alternative, agriculture,’

As a lot of you probably know, this is not true. Shift to agricultural modes of production has occured in a lot of different ways and very often with force from already agricultured societies.

There’s not really any archaeological evidence to suggest that agriculture was a solution to over-hunting and these kind of theories comes mainly from the researchers’ or scholars’ own bias. Instead of actually looking at what the evidence can tell, one tries to project contempoary humans’ behaviour (in this case, explotation and destruction of natural ressources) onto these prehistoric people, who are supposedly the ‘natural’ state of being. And then, one has suddenly proved that our current society is in fact not insane, because we are just doing what we’ve always done.

Maybe the rest of the book and research is interesting and sensible, but to me, it seems like the author took ecplanations that fitted with his theory, rather than the other way around.

 Saying that agriculture was the "only viable alternative" is definitely an oversimplication, but maybe the fault is in the Wikipedia editor.  I have not read Ronald Wright's book, but I do think that his point about the danger of societies becoming obsessed with technology and using it in ways that prove detrimental is valid.  The escalation of technology without thinking of the long-term implications is something that I see as a pattern in faltering human societies.  That being said, I don't think the use of technology inherently [b]has[/b] to lead to complete destruction of natural resources. 

  Just about every known human society (and even some other species) uses some form of tools or technology.  It's only when technological "progress" becomes the defining motivation of life that societies get into trouble.  Richard Wright seems to be saying this can happen in ANY human society without its members even realizing it.  They can sort of just go on "auto-pilot" in pursuit of an undefined and unattainable goal, whether it's "more comfort" or "bigger buildings."

The view that civilization is insane is sort of what this author seems to be getting at when he consults neuroscientists about “technocratic rationalism.” But other societies could be susceptible to this “temporary insanity” given the right circumstances. The ones that reflect on the interdependency of life and keep a sustainable (but not neccesarily technology-free) balance would be the most “successful” in the long run, and this is the culture the author says we need to recreate. Even if his explanation is simple, I think the message is helpful to the “beyond civilization” movement.

First of all, ai see it didnt get corrected, so here ai am to do so ;): the Overkill Hypothesis has never had a shred of evidence to support it - instead the Overchill (ai think its classified as a theory?) has much more credibility. This says that the largest factor by far in large mamal extinction (prior to modern civ.) was the rapidly alternating periods of hot and cold climate that large animals could not adapt to fast enough. Any increace in deaths because of humans may or may not have had anything to do with it.
Second, as far as mai knowledge goes, the conditions right for agriculture are extremely rare and only were met in a few places and only reletively recently as far as climate. These conditions (at least for widespread agriculture) are not likely to be met again for dozens of thousands of years - post civilization’s collapse. See the Thirty Theses for more indepth explanation. (

Yeah, I was going to comment on the assumption of “overkill” as well. But I think I’ve found an even more glaring problem - the assumption that societies of all kinds strive for “progress”. It’s my understanding that for the vast majority of human history, people were completely uninterested in “progress”. As long as their lives worked (they were surviving), they just lived.

The whole concept of “progress” implies a striving for something that one does not have, or to become something that one is not. In other words, it implies a fundamental dissatisfaction with one’s current life. It also implies a desire to constantly acquire more (wealth, goods, whatever) if one is talking about progress in the physical sense.

I thought that the notion of “progress” was pretty much limited to civilized life, fueled by the practical reality of having to constantly seek out new resources, territories, and people to exploit and subjugate. I know in our modern life this notion of “progress”, ambition, striving for achievement (personally, financially, hierarchically, etc) has been enshrined as the primary goal of life. Honestly, this seems like a classic example of someone imposing their own cultural values on other cultures, probably because those cultural values are unconscious, unexamined, and therefore believed to be universal - just the way everyone thinks.

Richard Wright seems to be saying this can happen in ANY human society without its members even realizing it. They can sort of just go on "auto-pilot" in pursuit of an undefined and unattainable goal, whether it's "more comfort" or "bigger buildings."

What Wright doesn’t seem to realize (or acknowledge) is that people don’t just subconsciously begin to pursue progress - as a cultural ideal, it happens for a reason. I.e. civilization. Therefore, it would not be correct to assume that it could happen (or has happened) to any, or even all, cultures. Unless, of course, he is talking about civilizations exclusively, but that doesn’t seem to be the case since he was talking about hunter-gatherers making species go extinct.

I also found it interesting that the article said:

In the contemporary context, unabated oil consumption in a time of climate change is seen as an illustration of the problem; sustainable development is a solution.

The very phrase “sustainable development” implies progress, so it would seem that the question is not so much whether progress is desirable or not, but rather (taking progress as a given) what form that progress should take.

I think instead the question is: progress or sustainability. Logically, development and progress seem inherently unsustainable. Progress takes a society out of a sustainable balance and therefore will lead to collapse - the only alternative is to cease “progressing” and to return to a state of dynamic equilibrium. In other words, cease striving for something more, and to return to a state of simply being.

Unless I’m totally misinterpreting the theory, of course. :wink:


Jessica, I pretty much agree with you that there is an assumption in alot of civilized minds that “progress” is inevitable, and that a eventually every culture was destined to “evolve” into civilization. I do think this is a very untrue assumption, and that most of modern civilization has actually been spread forcefully from its agricultural beginnings in the Eurasian continent. However, I also don’t want to ignore the possibility that some other isolated tribal cultures may have began “technological escalation” independently without outside influence.

 I used to think that it was impossible for "progress pursuit" to happen subconciously, but I have a more cautious view after reading books by Jared Diamond, and observing human nature in my life.  Of course the "Overkill Hypothesis" is mostly nonsense because most agriculture would be impossible to consciously invent and develop within one generation in reaction to food shortages.  However, in [i]Guns, Germs and Steel[/i], Jared Diamond made a pretty convincing argument that some cultures did "happen" upon agriculture just by foraging the preferred and more highly fruitful plants and leaving their seeds in waste piles.  After being returned to year after year, these plant species eventually evolved to become "crops".  Sometimes these developments led to a more sedentary lifestyle, and for some reason, they sometimes led to a chiefdom and subsequent hierarchy.  In [i]Collapse[/i], Diamond described how competitive escalation in the building of stone monuments led to the complete deforestation of Easter Island.

 Again, I'm not saying that these steps are inevitable and that the only path that humans tend to take is "progress", but that sometimes when given any sort of "gift" of power, humans are selfish even to the point of their own demise.  I really don't think that non-civ humans are exempt from this behavior, but I do think that the remaining non-civ cultures don't reward it like civilization does.  If there is no "protective value" in a culture that recognizes that "progress" is worse than "simply being", then that culture may be susceptible to internal or external selfish impulses.  This what I find important in this "Progress trap" idea because it seems to show that any sustainable culture should hold the preservation of the community and eco-community above all other values.  I believe a sustainable society needs to self-consciously "shun" internal and external notions of progress in order to prevent another hierarchy from emerging, much like the Amish shun practices of technological vanity.

I have not read this author, and we may or may not be correct about his false assumptions of “progress,” but to me the general point he is making is on track to a better understanding of why some people get caught in the trap of civilization and how we can convince them that it is illogical and harmful. I feel that this is important in case the 30 theses is incorrect in the assumption that civilization will not be able to re-emerge after its collapse or change.

“Sustainable Development” to me only implies progress if the product isn’t truly sustainable. Human needs and wants are always present but don’t always have to be unsustainable. Just because you build a house or plant a crop or use a technology doesn’t automatically make that practice unsustainable. I would agree that to a certain point “striving for more” is inherently unsustainable. But to me, the problem is not simply that things are being built, but that the values behind development are concerned with going “beyond” real needs.

I would agree that to a certain point "striving for more" is inherently unsustainable. But to me, the problem is not simply that things are being built, but that the values behind development are concerned with going "beyond" real needs.

This reminded of the essential role that advertising plays in capitalism, of constantly creating false “needs” in order to drive consumer spending. Capitalism actually requires this for its existence, because without constant economic growth (which requires consumption), it would collapse.

Civilization is unsustainable precisely for recisely for this reason. Civilization does not concern itself merely with building things to provide for people’s actual needs, but in fact requires building things for imaginary needs.


Exactly :wink: