Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Short History of Progress

I just got 100% on my latest Sociology quiz! It took me less then 3 minutes (we are given 30 minutes), and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of reading/studying. I think I have found my sweet spot in the world of academia. Don't get me wrong, I still consider myself a generalist.

Since I have more time than excepted, I'll take this time to some of the mind blowing stuff I have been learning. In the first book we read, A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright explores the development of society since the beginning of time (as far as he can deduce scientifically). I will share two of my favorite quotes.
"Palaeolithic hunters who learnt how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress. Those who learnt how to kill 200 - by driving a whole herd over a cliff - had made too much. They lived high for a while, then starved." (pg 8)
This is exactly the destructive type of infinite economic growth which the American dream is built on. The Federal Reserve Board put consumer debt at $1.98 trillion in October 2003, up from $1.5 trillion three years prior. This figure, representing credit card and car loan debt, but excluding mortgages, translates into approximately $18,700 per US household. When we are faced with these number plainly, it is staggering. We as Americans buy even more then our means allow. Our selfish desire for bigger, better, faster, more powerful, in every aspect of society is not an unfamiliar to the history of mankind, only escalated since the industrial revolution.
"The Roman circus, the Aztez sacrifices, the Inquisition bonfires, the Nazi death camps - all have been the work of highly civilized societies. In the twentieth century alone, at least 100 million people, mostly civilians, died in wars. Savages have done no worse. At the gates of the Colosseum and the concentration camp, we have no choice but to abandon hope that civilization is, in itself, a guarantor of moral compass." (pg 33)
It has been said (by Jared Diamond) that the worst mistake in the history of the human race was the development of agriculture. At first glance, our 21st century minds process this statement not only as irrational, but simply absurd. In fact when first individual who intentionally placed a seed in the ground not only opened the flood gates for a population growth explosion, but also a flood of corruption. As the first early communal societies started to employ agricultural, individuals were enabled to hoard resources, own property, and exercise corrupt power over others who had less and dreamt of more. "With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curses our existence" (From Diamond's essay The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race).

The perverted use of agriculture by early societies is the same as mankind's response to an ever growing list of so called progress traps throughout history. Agriculture is merely an example which effectively demonstrates the utterly unforeseen consequences and often unrecognized nature of humanity. As individuals, our gaze has never been free from the temptations of material wealth. Throughout history we have been selfish with our time, skills, resources, and power. As one anthropologist, who spent his life studying the earliest known societies, concluded “have been self-serving throughout the millennia.”

I think about this in relation to Biblical account of creation in Genesis. How it correlates with the fall of man is fascinating! Think about God's command that man would now have to toil/work the soil for their survival, that they would no longer be able to live easily in balance with nature. How much of this stemmed out of a corruption of out nature; our selfishness, greed, pride, envy... Think about that in relation to the secular/historical account of how agriculture came to be and how they view it's role in the development of society.

We jump at the chance to feed our selfish nature. The more we indulge in it, the harder we destructively pursue after it without ever achieving anything of lasting satisfaction. We are in a race against ourselves, and historically, we are losing. With every step that is taken, a new set of problems is revealed in our ever widening foot print. Within each of us is a vicious cycle that has been a self perpetuating cancer of selfishness; a cure must be found or it will be the end of us.

We must seek an understanding that is outside ourselves.

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