Progress

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We all mean something a little different when we say the word "progress." SolSeed stands for a vision of progress that includes both the material (building spaceships, terraforming planets) and the spiritual (becoming better people). Another way to say this is that we seek progress in both Knowledge and Wisdom. It's interesting to compare this idea of progress with others and try to describe the relationships among them. Below is a chart that attempts to organize these ideas, along with descriptions of each of the terms used on the chart.

Contents

Summary

In the modern world, most people believe in progress. But not everyone has the same definition of the word. There's technological progress, a process without limit, and economic progress, defined by some as growth without limit. There's social progress toward equal rights and respect for difference, and ecological progress toward a healthy planet and a sustainable civilization--defined by some as a steady state in which further progress becomes unnecessary, and by others as a stable base for continuing but cautious innovation. And there's backward "progress" toward supposedly superior ways of living from some past golden age.

Each of these forms of progress is promoted by specific ideologies, and implies at least one possible destiny for humanity. This chart lays them all out in relation to one another:

The chart

Destinies.png

Descriptions of terms

Material Progress

Capitalism is the dominant economic system in today's world, defined by the production, trade, and consumption of products (and services) by entities in economic competition. To satisfy paying customers, each producer always seeks to ensure that supply of a given product meets but doesn't exceed demand. This decentralized decision-making process supposedly makes it much easier to avoid wasted resources than in a centrally planned economy, though it does allow rich consumers to be as wasteful as they like. Efficiencies in production usually lead to increasing quantities of goods manufactured to meet the growing demand from growing populations, as well as to increase the wealth of the already wealthy. Competitive pressures also motivate suppliers (usually companies or corporations) to continually search for new ways to attract customers, driving technological innovation. In practice, it is mostly the younger, smaller companies that develop the most innovative new products, while many larger corporations focus on fighting any shift in the political environment that might threaten their existing business models. Because of its focus on freedom to buy, sell, and trade as each economic actor sees fit, capitalism tends to arise in democratic societies. However, multinational corporations often find it easier to employ workers in autocracies, because such workers typically lack the rights to a safe workplace, paid sick time and vacation days, etc, and respecting those rights is expensive for the employer. This and similar trends lead to the criticism that capitalism focuses too much on material progress, and not enough on social equity or ethical treatment of the poor.

Libertarianism, as practiced in America, is an ideology built around the mythos of the creative individual who drives material progress and needs no help from anyone. This individual is most commonly portrayed as male and atheist, perhaps because women are seen as generally not interested enough in progress, and religion and spirituality are too focused on helping others and being part of something larger than oneself. Libertarians do believe in equal opportunity for all, so they aren't as commonly associated with overt racism as other American conservatives, but they tend to buy into the idea that the poor are basically lazy, because "anyone can pull him/herself out of poverty with enough hard work." This belief, coupled with the disproportionate numbers of minorities among the poor, leads to some implicitly racist conclusions. Libertarians are true believers in free markets, free trade, and a role for government as minimal as possible. In the libertarian view, almost any government action has the effect of distorting markets and limiting freedom. Libertarians have little patience for the concept of morally or ecologically "appropriate" technology; for example, you will find far more advocates of nuclear power among their ranks than supporters of wind or solar energy. They view reason as the ultimate guide for human behavior, and show little interest in social behaviors other than trade.

The Technological Singularity is a libertarian vision of human destiny based solely on accelerating technological progress; singularitarians believe such progress will eventually reach a quasi-infinite rate. Descriptions of the Singularity often feature people becoming "transhuman" by replacing their flesh with cyborg limbs or "uploading" their minds into virtual reality, often resulting in increased intelligence. In another commonly discussed scenario, artificial intelligences (AIs) outcompete or merge with humans and become the next phase of evolution. Many singularitarians profess to feel no regret at the predicted demise of the human race at the hands of its smarter (though not necessarily wiser or more moral) successors.

A Virtual "Heaven" would be a computer-simulated replacement for the material world whose immortal "uploaded" inhabitants could reshape it at will, creating individually tailored paradises. Again, descriptions of this vision often leave out detailed discussions of morality or social order, presuming that each individual can interact with others in whatever way he/she/it prefers, except that actual harm to another individual would be prohibited by the nature of the system.

The Extropian Plague is my admittedly biased description of a libertarian vision for humanity's future in space (or that of its AI offspring). Presuming that our desire for more material and energy resources will keep growing forever, extropians foresee civilization expanding until it appropriates all the solar energy that falls on Earth, and importing material resources from other celestial bodies when they are depleted here. In turn, each human colony on another world would repeat the cycle of depletion, demanding still more colonies to send extra resources inward (leaving even less for those colonies' own use). Extropians see this vision as positive, because of the massive potential for creative human (or "posthuman") activity when population and energy use are allowed to increase without limit. I see it as a wave of thoughtless destruction spreading out from Earth, demolishing any alien life that gets in the way of its desperate quest to meet exponentially increasing resource demands.

Spiritual Progress

Socialism is an economic system characterized by a greater emphasis on cooperation than competition. Its opponents tend to define it as state control of industry, which eliminates capitalist competition and forces central governments to try to figure out how much of each commodity to produce. Proponents claim this is just a transitional step to true socialism, characterized by worker control of the "means of production." These two descriptions become unified under the still theoretical true-Communist system of governance, in which "the state withers away" and is replaced by an ill-defined "dictatorship of the proletariat (the workers)." Any form of true socialism will be more concerned for the wellbeing of the people than capitalism, since socialist ideology demands that the system provide "to each according to his/her needs" (a principle that several allegedly-socialist autocratic leaders have been unwilling or unable to implement). Thus, European governments include substantially socialist institutions such as universal state-run healthcare and state-provided food and housing for the unemployed--which, according to opponents, provides an incentive for them to remain unemployed. However, true socialism would also include a requirement of the people that they contribute to the system "from each according to his/her abilities," meaning that anyone capable of work should be working. In the theorized eventual absence of socioeconomic classes, a company-sized unit of workers would also be required to collectively act as their own employer and contribute to its economic decisions; workers in today's employee-owned corporations already do this in a representative fashion, by electing their board of directors. This group decision-making process would likely tend toward caution and slower material progress than under capitalism.

Communitarianism is my term for a group-focused ideology with a more human feel than the better-known term "collectivism," which evokes for me an insect-style absolute autocracy with all individuality subsumed under the vision of the autocrat. Members of a healthy community are individuals, but the modern community-building movement is all about group dynamics that often resemble local-scale socialism. Resources like food and tools should be borrowed, lent, and freely shared among community members, whether according to specific needs or just to be neighborly. All community decision-making should include everyone capable of participating, with the possible exception of those who have no stake in the decision at hand. The central vision is to bring out and enhance the supposed natural goodness of people, a moral and spiritual endeavor far more than a material one. Communitarianism does have a more technology-oriented counterpart focused on the formation of virtual communities with members scattered across the globe, but most communitarians agree that such online "community" is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Permaculture is a communitarian vision of human destiny based on ecological sustainability as well as caring for people. "Give everyone a fair share of the surplus" is one of its three core ethics, a clear variant of "to each according to his/her needs." Following from the communitarian ethic, permaculture values group decision-making and local-scale, slow and cautious solutions over those that become "too big to fail." Permaculture spawned the Transition Towns movement, which advocates a plan for resilient sustainable communities capable of weathering the "energy descent" from our profligate fossil-fuel-based society to one that has run out of oil and sworn off coal. The assumptions behind Transition Towns don't include any large new sources of energy, and there is actually a focus on relearning older technical skills, such as nonindustrial farming and sewing clothes. Permaculture itself, though, is not so much in favor of reversing material progress as indifferent to it.

Anarcho-Primitivism, by contrast, is the view that people's inherent goodness has been corrupted by civilization itself, which inevitably devastates both societies and ecologies. Thus, according to anarcho-primitivists, the only way to bring out this inner goodness again is to dismantle civilization entirely and return to the Stone Age, or at least the rosy picture of it painted by Marshall Sahlins in his article "The Original Affluent Society," which asserts that hunter-gatherers lived in the midst of near-constant abundance and worked only a few hours a day to harvest what they needed, which they then shared out freely and fairly. Note that at the tribal level, "anarchism" really just means the same kind of group decision-making that takes place in a Transition Town or a more direct-democratic version of the modern employee-owned corporation.

Spiritual Transcendence is difficult to describe, but the essential idea is that there exists a spiritual equivalent of the singularitarians' materialistic "transhumanism." While singularitarians largely ignore the possibility of increased wisdom and moral development for their predicted trans- and posthumans, these aspects are the entire focus of spiritual transhumanism. No specific program to improve people spiritually is dominant, but aspects of it may range from yoga and meditation to developing more nurturant parenting styles and overhauling our education system.

Backward Progress

Autocracy is the blanket term I'm using to describe all forms of government whose leaders rule without the consent of the governed (monarchy, dictatorship, feudalism, military juntas, etc). Their lack of checks and balances makes decision-making in autocracies swift, but their typically repressive policies tend to stifle both material and social progress. There are exceptions to this rule, of course--modern China's quasi-Communist dictatorship has succeeded in driving an unprecedentedly rapid economic ascendance, and almost any European nation can cite examples of reasonably benevolent monarchs. But from a modern perspective, having your nation's policies toward its citizens determined by the luck of the draw (especially drawing from a monarchy's inbred gene pool) is abhorrent, and the trend toward democracy highly beneficial. One partial exception to this view is the theory of the unitary executive, which some American conservatives use as justification for the removal of some of our democratic system's checks on the power of the executive.

Regressivism is the ideology that held sway in the West for most of recorded history. Its core tenet is that, due to humanity's supposed inherently evil nature, things are getting inexorably worse and have been throughout history, so that the best insights into how to live can be found by looking to some past "Golden Age." In the field of governance, this means various forms of autocracy and empire, with the one exception of Greece's experiment with direct democracy (open to all male citizens of certain city-states). In the field of economics, it often means abandoning both capitalism and socialism in favor of earlier economic forms. Note the subtle difference with anarcho-primitivism: there is little if any talk among fundamentalist Christians, for example, of somehow spitting out the Apple and returning to the Garden of Eden. Humanity is "fallen," and that's that.

Collapse is a generic term for any vision of human destiny involving a natural or supernatural catastrophe that destroys civilization, the human race, or the world. Some apocalyptic myths, such as the Book of Revelations, portray the End Times in an ultimately positive light, at least for those worthy enough to go to Heaven. And some anarcho-primitivists may view the coming ecological collapse as a cloud with a bright silver lining, the chance for surviving humans to revert to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But for the most part, this destiny is about doom, gloom, death, and destruction, and is to be avoided if at all possible.

Warring Tribes are a staple of post-apocalyptic fiction, reflecting the regressivist view about the evils of human nature. The image is of a desolate world with even the few survivors reduced to killing each other over the few resources that are left.

Theocratic Feudalism is a form of autocracy peculiarly suited to a post-collapse world in which some technology and large-scale social structure survives, but resources are very scarce--presuming you buy into the regressivist claims about human nature. Having demonstrated their innate tendency toward self-destruction, the story goes, people will need to submit to divine guidance as they did before the advent of secularism. In other words, we're talking about a return, not to the Stone Age, but to the Middle Ages.

Sustainable Progress

Democracy is any form of government in which a large fraction of the people participate, directly or indirectly, in governance. Generally speaking, a larger fraction is better; the achievement of voting rights for African-Americans and women are rightly viewed as advancements of democracy. This is because the basic aim of democracy is moral: government should do what is right for the largest possible number of people. Freedom is highly valued in democracies, so the right government "action" often consists of leaving people alone to pursue happiness, creativity, and innovation however they see fit (as long as they don't impinge on the rights of others). Direct democracy, in which the people actually vote on policy decisions, is only feasible at small scales or with relatively tiny subsets of the policy questions considered in any given timespan. Representative democracy has the advantages of scalability and the tendency for elected policymakers to have a better understanding of what a specific policy will actually accomplish, but it suffers from a tendency of those representatives to abuse power when their constituents are not active enough in holding them accountable. This issue and others, such as the "tyranny of the majority" problem, suggest that democracy is probably not the best possible form of government--but those who have a reasonably high opinion of people's ability to help determine what's best for them find it to be the best system we've invented so far.

Progressivism is an ideology holding simply that everything can be improved. For example, there are ways to reduce corruption in democratic governments and make them more responsive to their constituencies, and their social programs can be reformed to embrace the capitalist principle of eliminating wasteful spending. Meanwhile, capitalist corporations can become more moral by including the well-being of their local communities and ecologies as part of a "triple bottom line" along with profit, and they can become more democratic by adopting the basically socialist practice of employee ownership. These examples show that true progressivism is agnostic as to methods of achieving progress, except for the criteria that while material progress is generally desireable, it should proceed in ways that are beneficial rather than harmful to people, society, and nature.

Starfaring Civilization is the SolSeed term for a progressivist vision of human destiny in which material and spiritual progress proceed in harmony with each other. The central example of this is the project of expanding life's domain by growing new biospheres on dead worlds, thus ensuring both our own survival and that of myriad other species even if a cataclysm destroys complex life on Earth. But there are many other examples of socially and ecologically beneficial technological projects that fit this vision, including the present-day practices of green building, industrial ecology (using industrial "waste products" as fuel for other industrial processes), and biomimicry (technology that imitates the "engineering" methods of nature, with its combination of high efficiency and abundance).

Physical Transcendence is the logical extension of material progress into the realm of the mind/spirit. Philosophers often posit a duality of mind/spirit and matter and suppose that the one could theoretically be separated from the other. This is probably impossible in practice, but some futurists have envisioned a close equivalent in which consciousness is transferred into coherent energy patterns which could explore the universe at will, free from the constraints of material bodies, but usually retaining some ability to affect the material world. Note the difference between this vision and that of virtual "heavens," which involves an abandonment of the real universe and, as a starfarer would say, a shirking of our moral duty to protect life and help it grow beyond Earth.

Eudaimonic Society is, ironically, an ancient Greek concept of an ideal social order that promotes eudaimonia or "human flourishing." This establishes a clear focus on morality but does not neglect material advances that increase the general welfare, as spiritual transhumanists sometimes do. I use this concept partly to demonstrate again that progressivism is willing to draw concepts from any part of my diagram that are conducive to progress; that is, just because progressivism intends to make the future better than the past doesn't mean all ideas from the deep past are useless. Even Sahlins's concept of a leisurely hunter-gatherer lifestyle, merged with modern medical and computing technologies, could represent a form of eudaimonic society if it provided an improvement in connection with nature and provided more space for creative endeavors. This is just one of a potentially infinite sea of ideas for societies where humans would flourish more than they do today.

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