The Story of Progress

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Below is a chapter from my upcoming book Humanity Is Beautiful: A New Story For A World On Fire. Paying members can follow along and watch the book emerge and evolve as I write it. View the Table of Contents of this “living draft” here.

The Story of Decline pervades much of today’s social discourse throughout the Western world. For many of us, this story has become so ingrained that it appears self-evident.

But The Story of Decline has not always been a popular story. It was not the story of the explorers setting out to the Americas or immigrants arriving on Ellis Island or the astronauts on Apollo 11. It was not the story of the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution. It is not the story of the “American dream” or China’s economic emergence over the last several decades.

These moments were all a part of an entirely different story that dominated much of the Western world throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries: The Story of Progress.

The Story of Decline tells of our fall from wholeness, harmony, and purity into decay, corruption, and wickedness. The Story of Progress is in many ways its inverse. It tells of humans’ (or Western culture’s) rise from the lowly savagery of our origins to modern society’s civility, refinement, and moral goodness. It is the story of the ascent of humankind from barbarism to civilization.

It goes something like this:

For much of our history, humans have been beasts – wild animals embarrassingly similar to the other, lower forms of life on Earth. We lived in trees. We ran around naked without shame. We ate raw meat. We ate one another like savages. We engaged in primitive, naive practices like rain dances, shamanism, and superstition. We were utterly unremarkable and unsophisticated.

But eventually, we stole fire from the gods and broke through our lowly origins. Since then, human history has been one long ascent to an eventual Utopia. We’ve created wondrous, paradigm-shattering technologies. We’ve endeavored to all corners of the Earth, the depths of the oceans, and the vast reaches of space. We’ve split the atom and decoded our genome. We’ve created civilization itself.

Our goal now is to spread our dominion as far and wide as possible. We must tame as much of the wild world as we can. We must tame all the wild, bestial, lowly elements within ourselves. We must continue expanding ever outward, pushing ever forward, rising ever upward.

Some day, we will bring this wild jungle of a world into our control, finally bringing order to the chaos all around us.

The Story of Progress underpins much of humanity’s behavior over the last few centuries: the technological and productivity advances of industrialization, the endless conquests of colonialism, capitalism’s relentless quest for material wealth and efficiency, transforming wild ecosystems through human engineering, and on and on.

This story is perhaps most succinctly summarized in Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous line: “God is dead.” Humanity’s incredible ascent to power has made God – or anything that is mysterious and beyond our understanding – obsolete. We ourselves have become God. We are the moral and intellectual authority in the universe. We hold dominion over the Earth.

We are the ones who will create Heaven from this Hell we sprouted from.

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