#Satyajit #Das: Despite #appearances, the idea of #social #progress is a #myth

The world cannot acknowledge the idea that human progress might be at an end or even have stopped. The belief that science, technology advances as well as social and political systems can provide continuous improvement in life of humans is perhaps the most important idea in Western civilisation. Yet attempts to measure the actual progress are oddly vague. In January 2016, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi dispensed with practicalities arguing that “Europe cannot just be a grey technical debate about constraints, but must again be a great dream”.

Thomas Carlyle’s analysis of England in the 19th-century provides a useful benchmark for assessing human achievements. Carlyle was critical of a world “submerged in mamonism”. The undeniable improvement in living standards over the last 150 years is seen as evidence of progress. Improvements in diet, health, safe water, hygiene and education have been central to increased life spans and incomes. The lifting of billions of people globally out of their poverty is a considerable achievement. But many of these individuals only earn between $2 (£1.50) and $10 dollars a day. Their position is fragile, exposed to the fluctuation of health, employment, economic conditions and political and societal stability. As William Gibson observed: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Economic progress also has come at a cost. Growth and wealth is increasingly based on borrowed money, used to purchase something today against the uncertain promise of paying it back in the future. Debt levels are now unsustainable. Growth has been at the expense of existentially threatening environmental changes which are difficult to reverse. Higher living standards rely on the profligate use of under-priced, finite resources, especially water and energy, which have been utilised without concern about conservation for future use.

Current growth, short-term profits and higher living standards for some are pursued at the expense of costs which are not evident immediate but will emerge later. Society has borrowed from and pushes problems into the future. The acquisition of material goods defines progress. The concept of leisure as shopping and consumption as the primary economic engine now dominate. Altering Bob Dylan’s lyrics, the Angry Brigade, an English anarchist group, described it as: “If you are not being born, you are busy buying”.