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High on Progress: What Will be Left When We Finally Come Down?

WHY HAVE WE come to assume that "progress" is always good? The Nazis' treatment of Jews progressed toward their final solution. And many individual Jews followed a line of progress: get an ID card, move to a ghetto, get on a cattle car, arrive at a camp, work at the camp, go to a gas chamber, get put in an oven, rise as smoke, fall as ashes.

A stalker can progress from one stage to another, beginning with e-mails, then phone calls, then moving to the victim's community, then haunting places the victim might go, then showing up at the victim's home. Cancer can and usually does progress. Addictions, including cultural addictions, can and often do progress.

That's not to say that progress can't be good. A friendship or romantic relationship can progress as surely as can an abusive relationship-the affection you feel growing with time, leading to a deep familiarity and comfort as the relationship matures.

In a lot of cases, progress is good for some and bad for others. For the perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust, the technological progress that made possible more efficient ways to kill large numbers of human beings was "good," or "useful," or "helpful." From the perspective of the victims, not so good. For the perpetrators of the United States Holocaust, the development of railroads to move men and machines was "good" and "useful" and "helpful." From the perspective of the Dakota, Navajo, Hopi, Modoc, Squamish, and others, not so good. From the perspective of bison, prairie dogs, timber wolves, redwoods, Douglas firs, and others, not so good.

In 1970 Lewis Mumford wrote, "The chief premise common to both technology and science is the notion that there are no desirable limits to the increase of knowledge, of material goods, of environmental control; that quantitative productivity is an end in itself, and that every means should be used to further expansion." Mumford asked the same question that so many of us ask, which is, Why on earth would a culture do so many crazy, stupid, destructive things? His answer cuts through the typical cornucopian garbage: "The desired reward of this magic is not just abundance but absolute control." Mumford knew-as we all do-that there was no hope in proceeding "on the terms imposed by technocratic society." He didn't think change would be easy, saying that it might take "an all-out fatal shock treatment, close to catastrophe, to break the hold of civilized man's chronic psychosis." He was not optimistic: "Even such a belated awakening would be a miracle." 


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