An Age Which Advances Progressively Backwards

image from piqsels, CC0

What have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?
— TS Eliot, “The Rock” (1934)

You can’t help but get a terrible sense of déjà vu watching the brutal physical, political and ideological suppression of anti-war, anti-genocide protests that have exploded on American campuses. At least if, like me, you remember the feelings of terror and outrage we felt in our anti-Vietnam War protests, and our environmental protests, back nearly 60 long years ago.

If you ever needed proof that the idea of “progress” is just a western industrial capitalist myth, you can see it in the increasing oppression of all opposition to the US-led Empire all over the world — in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, the Far East, Africa and Latin America, and of course “at home” in the media-abetted censorship, government propaganda, misinformation, and ruination by fear-mongering and character assassination of anyone even potentially in power who defies the Narrative of Progress and the inevitability of everlasting global victory by the Empire over all other political options.

We have learned nothing in that 60 years. We have made no “progress” according to any definition of the word except the increasing concentration of obscene wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. We continue to make the same mistakes, over and over. We continue to deny and ignore the obvious unsustainability of our economic, political, financial and social systems and programs, and the horrific damage they have inflicted and continue to inflict on humans, the more-than-human world, and global ecosystems.

The ideologues continue to double-down on their doublespeak rhetoric, refusing to acknowledge the utter failure of both the public and private sphere to fulfil their sole and ultimate purpose: to serve the citizens of the world and make that world better for all its inhabitants. And we continue to block from public view the atrocities — in political back rooms, on the front lines of wars, in abusive private homes, on factory farms, in the streets filling with ever-more dazed and hopeless homeless people, in our brutal prisons, and in the overflowing and destitute refugee camps and concentration camps teeming with people deprived of even the basic decencies of life — that our “progress” has inflicted on the world.

What will it take? is the rhetorical question often asked about how we can end this age that “advances progressively backwards”. The answer, of course, is that we cannot end it. It is the collective conditioned behaviour of eight billion humans, inevitably headed for a rapid and ghastly collapse. There is no “soft landing” possible, unless you count landing on the broken backs of those in even more precarious situations than ours. There is no salvation waiting, and no possibility of escaping collapse in extravagant New Zealand bunkers, or on absurd spacecraft missions to Mars. We did our best, the only thing we could have done, and now we will pay the price for our excesses and our failures.

Perhaps it’s just nostalgic idealism that has me regretting that, despite all that we knew 60 years ago, and all our shouting from the rooftops about the atrocities of those, and today’s, times, we will be facing this grim future not one iota wiser or more skilled than we were all those years ago. We have learned nothing — these are the words that echo in my brain each night when I go to sleep.

It is not a feeling of dread — I look at the billions of people and trillions of non-human creatures already suffering from collapse, and the only thing I can think is “about time this horror falls apart and ends”.

It is not a feeling of shame — It’s not as if we had any choice in what we have done. And it is not even a feeling of grief — Grief is about loss, and those of us who are going to “lose” in collapse will only lose what we have gained at the enormous expense of others.

It is, perhaps, a feeling of sadness. Not a sadness that it could have been otherwise, but a sadness that it couldn’t have been otherwise. When Eliot wrote the words at the top of this post, the world was mired in an horrific Great Depression and was staring at the imminence of another World War. He saw, I would guess, the lack of “progress” in the world as a sign of human moral weakness, and perhaps he retreated, in his later years, into religion as a form of respite from that sadness.

He didn’t have the benefit of science and more recent history that might have caused him to feel a different sort of sadness: That it is not moral weakness that is the cause of our species’ downfall, but rather an evolutionary misstep that caused human creatures to be forever discontented with what we ‘have’, and always seeking to have more, seeking to find something that can fill the seeming hole, the incompleteness and the insatiable sense of insecurity, vulnerability and precarity of our self-preoccupied lives.

At least, this is the sadness that I feel. There was an inadvertent mistake in the factory that manufactured the ‘Human’ line of products, and unfortunately it’s not fixable. They will all have to be recalled and taken out of service.

It is, of course, for the best. With our ‘line’ out of commission, no longer doing the terrible damage it was, and is, doing due to its ‘unfit’ design, the rest of life on the planet will hopefully recover and flourish, given enough time. Perhaps the earlier that happens, as unpleasant as it will be for all concerned, the better. It’s sad to have to admit to such a colossal failure, especially when the product had such promise, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Happily, no other products subject to the same kind of problems are in the works.

Eliot’s poetic gesture — “empty hands and palms turned upwards” — would seem a gesture of resignation, of helplessness, or maybe an appeal to a higher power. Or maybe it is just a shrug, of acceptance.

Many years ago I suggested, rather arrogantly, the adoption of a different gesture of acknowledgement and recognition of other people who understand and accept, without blame, the inevitability of civilization’s collapse. That now strikes me as more than a bit elitist. I’d be content, I think, just to witness more and more people coming to understand and accept collapse, without blame — to be able to see everything that transpires from this context of everything inevitably falling apart, through no one’s fault.

That’s not stoicism, though, or anything approaching ‘grace’. It’s just perspective, really, with perhaps a suspension of reactivity, on the basis that, in the long run, none of it matters. It’s all just playing itself out the only way it could, and we’re just in the stands, barking helplessly. Maybe we can condition each other to bark less loudly, less aggressively, more with resigned sadness than annoyance and indignation and outrage at what cannot be helped or avoided.

I smile at myself, now, wondering if my writing might contribute, a bit, to this happening. It is impossible, it seems, for us to completely give up the idea of “progress”.

He says, barking apologetically.

This entry was posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to An Age Which Advances Progressively Backwards

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    Well said. My only disagreement is with the implication that all humans will be “taken out of service”. The horrors coming, including nuclear war most likely, won’t be enough to wipe out all humanity. There will still be sufficient breeding pairs scattered around the world to keep our species going through the long recovery.

    Fortunately for all species, including our own, this fossil-fuel-powered exponential pulse of human population and environmental destruction will never happen again.

  2. Mary says:

    I think that you and I have had this conversation before. The unique features of humans that get us into trouble are the combination of bipedalism, thumbs and our imagination. We are not taught from the get go that what goes on in our heads is not real!

  3. FamousDrScanlon says:

    Misstep? Sounds like there was a plan or path laid out and we went off course. Who knows. I do not believe we have the entire story of evolution yet.
    Paths as in someone or thing has walked it before applies to evolution in certain contexs.

    “.. evolution is a “tinkerer, not an engineer.” – Francois Jacob

    Evolution Only Thinks About One Thing, and It’s Crabs

    Crab-like body plans have evolved independently at least five times. Biologists are still trying to figure out why.

    “In 1989, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed a thought experiment: What would the world look like if we turned back time and replayed the evolutionary tape? “I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again,” he concluded. Maybe not. But crabs might.

    Evolution just can’t stop creating crabs. Believe it or not, the flat-and-wide body plan has evolved at least five different times. The process is called carcinization, and it’s inspired comics, memes and entire subreddits.

    Still, biologists don’t know why crabs keep evolving. Figuring it out would satisfy the online masses, sure, but it would also be a step toward solving other important scientific mysteries. For instance, why some species share evolutionary paths while others forge unique ones (looking at you, platypus).”

    The thing is, even without humans, planet earth is still a bloody fucking MEAT GRINDER, 24/7. It was grinding before humans evolved and it will continue grinding until the last life forms are fried. Humans have unique abilities that has allowed them to grow and grind up other life forms, and sometimes themselves, on a never seen before, per capita scale.

    Once we are gone the handle on the meat grinder will still turn trillions of times per day.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Heh: Looking at the structure of the crab, what it reminds me most of is a robot — hard protective shell, arms that retract. Nature seems to have found amazingly durable models that are either extremely hard, like the crab, tortoise and crocodile, or extremely soft, like the jellyfish, sponges and tardigrades. An interesting question is why we haven’t found fossils of crabs dating back beyond a relatively recent 200,000 years. I’m guessing they date back much earlier, and we just haven’t found them yet.

    Stephen once estimated the likelihood of anything like vertebrates emerging from the primordial soup to be 1 in 60 million.

    I have started to appreciate the marvels of evolution a lot more since I stopped looking for answers “why” things evolved as they did. We can never know, and there is no need to know.

  5. Ray says:

    Maybe the biggest mistake of all was the invention of the evolutionary ridiculous concept “progress” and then believing that it was worth striving for.
    Poor humans couldn’t know at the time that the structures that evolution produces, operate in an ever changing environment that also comprises the behaviour of all the other structures.
    God help anybody who tries to make some “progress” in such a set-up.
    The shelf live of the concept “progress” has expired long ago but for some strange reason almost everybody still hopes to make some “progress” in their miserable existence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.