Progress in what?

Image: João Nitsche

Humanity admits itself powerless before its own creations

This article alludes to the recent speech by French President Emmanuel Macron who justified his decision to introduce 5G very quickly in France, despite protests from various sectors of society, saying that the alternative would be “to go back to the oil lamp and live like the Amish ” americans.

There are things that are so obvious that no one sees or mentions them - and he who reminds others of them seems to babble banalities. This, however, is not a good reason not to say them. The current debate over 5G networks and 'progress' is a good example, with its cartoonish injunctions about choosing between 5G and the 'oil lamp'.

The first question one should ask, with a simple dash of common sense, is: progress in what? Nobody celebrates, for example, the 'progress' of Covid! Progress must improve human life.

There are, then, two main types of progress: technical progress, which consists of a growing domination of nature by man, and progress that we could call 'moral' or 'social': human relations become better, less violent, more supportive, more 'inclusive'.

From the beginning of the discourse on progress, the relationship between these two forms has been uncertain. It is often assumed, as a matter of course, that technical progress automatically leads to moral progress; others, especially on the left, bet more on social progress, but consider that the improvement of material conditions is its indispensable basis and that only technical development can ensure such improvement.

A government cannot defend the adoption of new technologies as an end in itself: it must always intend that they will make everyone's life more beautiful. However, there is no necessary relationship between the two forms of progress: you can have a great technological development combined with a moral regression, as was the case with Nazism, but also a social progress that is not concerned with technical development, as he defended Jean-Jacques Rousseau, most anarchist currents, and also various religious discourses (like the Amish!).

In recent decades, especially, society has become aware of the fact that technological solutions, even where they lead to undeniable advances, almost inevitably bring undesirable effects. This is known from experience, even before any 'impact study' or 'risk assessment'. For this simple reason, whoever proposes the use of a new technology as an answer to a problem should always demonstrate that we could not obtain the same effect or solve the problem in question. PULL make use of technologies, therefore, taking less risks.

E, voilà, the second invisible evidence. Before allowing us to watch videos even in the elevator or go by plane to visit another metropolis every weekend, progress had, above all, this noble vocation: to reduce unnecessary suffering. “Let no child go to bed hungry”: this is how we were able to define the minimum objective of human progress.

But how to get there? By technical or social means? Today, the vast majority of human suffering is not caused by 'nature' but by the organization of social life. It should, then, be much easier for man to change what depends on himself than what depends on nature. What man has done, he can – in principle – undo.

Thus, to put an end to hunger in the world, it would possibly be enough to cultivate all agricultural areas using small multipurpose farms, avoid monocultures for export, not give benefits to farmers so that they cease to be so, do not play the ' agricultural surpluses in the sea, and, on the other hand, no longer support regimes that export peanuts to buy weapons.

Impossible, they will answer, it's beautiful but it's utopian: world trade would collapse, western consumers would not accept giving up their hamburgers, and investments and jobs would suffer. If the social order is untouchable, we are in the business of altering nature: we invent pesticides and genetic manipulation, chemicals and gigantic machines, with the aim of creating an enormous mass of agricultural products, but in terrible conditions.

It is apparently easier to break up the smallest unit of a living being, the genome, than to expropriate a fruit company; easier to create thousands of synthetic molecules than to accept Monsanto's bankruptcy; easier to invent seeds self-sterile than taking consumers away from their Big Macs.

Another example: one of the main causes of both pollution and rampant energy consumption is the daily transport between the workplace and the home of a considerable part of the population. This problem is now worldwide, and it is evident that it has a lot to do with the cost of housing in large cities, and therefore with real estate speculation.

But tackling this problem at its root would mean attacking sacrosanct private property: and right now it's easier to extract oil on the other side of the world and send it through pipelines, or to turn to nuclear power. Uranium fission appears to be easier to master than Total or Exxon shareholders.

What's more: many people, desperate to have a child 'naturally', resort to assisted procreation – which, however, generates major problems of all kinds. Certainly, the fertility rate has dropped a lot in recent decades and this is most likely related to the excessive presence of chemical synthesis products in our environment – ​​but facing its causes is much more complicated and comes up against too many interests and habits, in all social levels.

It is more worthwhile, then, to surrender to technological solutions, however dangerous they may be. It is one of the great paradoxes of our time: what is social, therefore man-made, is considered natural, and therefore absolutely immutable. The 'laws of the market', the 'international competition', the 'technological imperatives', the 'need for growth' seem much more inalterable than the law of gravitation. Whoever proposes its change passes, in the best of cases, for an innocent person, if not for a terrorist.

On the other hand, the limits that nature actually imposes on man (for example in the form of insects that also want to eat cultivated plants, or the fact that the human body is mortal and does not have the gift of ubiquity) are considered as if they were social: always provisional, waiting for 'a solution to be found', whatever the cost.

Thus, humanity admits itself impotent before its own creations. Is this fate inescapable? Or can she organize herself in a different way?

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy, and author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra).

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published on the portal Mediapart.

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