The history books in our schools tell us that scientific and technological advancement have freed us from boredom, ignorance and oppression; from drudgery and repetition; from dirt, disease and malnutrition.
Let’s briefly examine these assumptions about what “progress” has achieved, and consider where we go from here.
Freedom from boredom, ignorance, and oppression
To be free from boredom, ignorance and oppression, first we condemn our children to approximately two decades of mind-numbing “education” during what should be the free-est years of their lives. (Education, depending on how it’s conducted, can either be liberating or it can restrict children’s thinking and experimentation to such an extent that most of them forget how to think for themselvesi.)
“So long as our kids get the 3R’s and plenty of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) drummed into them,” we might think, “they won’t be disadvantaged.”
Next, we enshrine a screen in every home; even in every room of every home; even in the car! (Because, now that we have all this leisure time thanks to technology, we need something to fill it with.)
Numbed by popular media, programmed for consumption to support a never-ending-growth economy, we adults send our kids to good schools and exhort them to work hard and earn good grades so they’ll get good jobs, while we keep our own noses to the grindstone and our feet on the treadmill.
We’re sure that once the mortgage is paid off and the cars and screens are upgraded, THEN we can start having fun.
Freedom from drudgery and repetition
School prepares children for their working lives.
But when school comes with too many rules and regulations and not enough individual initiative; too much testing, grading, and not enough room for intrinsic motivation, the outcome is very often adults who will spend most of their lives attending to someone else’s drudgery.
School also prepares children to specialise in a particular career. Careers in science or technology are particularly desirable because they put people at the forefront of “progress.”
Careers in science and technology also tend to pay more than “common” pursuits like growing food, or “frivolous” pursuits like the arts.
Some specialists find their true vocation and engage in empowering, meaningful service that makes the world a better place for all of us.
But many specialists find themselves trapped in a career that becomes drudgery, feeling unable to make a change because they have to keep paying the mortgage.
Freedom from dirt and disease
To free ourselves from dirt and disease, we’ve severed our connections with nature. We’ve declared war on the ecosystems we need and love, and on the very microbiomes that our health depends upon.
In place of dirt and disease we have entire supermarket aisles devoted to perfumed, toxic cleaning products. Along with these new standards of cleanliness, we have superbugs and antibiotic resistance, degenerative and man-made diseases, immune disorders, environmental illnesses.
Freedom from malnutrition
When science and technology gave us industrialised agriculture, vast monocultures replaced diverse family farms and community-scale food productionii.
A few high-yielding, heavily input-dependent varieties of crops replaced hundreds or thousands of locally adapted, pest-resistant food-producing species. Animals suited to factory farming crowded out dozens or hundreds of heritage breeds. Priceless inter-generational food knowledge was all but lost in a single generation.
Millionsiii of unique, circular, ecologically-stable, place-based food production systems disappeared.
They were replaced by one precarious, standardised, linear global food industry.
In place of malnutritioniv we now have obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, allergies, food intolerances, behaviour problems, and monstrous food wastage in the developed world, while “undeveloped” peoples who can no longer practice their traditional food production suffer shocking rates of starvation and undernourishment.
What happened to our sense of purpose and autonomy?
The assumption we made about development and modernisation was that we would be freed from difficulty and discomfort; inconveniences would disappear and life would be easy. In a sense, we were right – at least for the privileged among us.
But it turns out that we need difficulty and discomfort. We need nature – all aspects of nature (not to pit ourselves against, but to ally with). We need each other (social media is not the same as social cohesion).
And, paradoxically, we need to need all these things. Without need and the drive to meet it, there is no growth, no meaning, no purpose.
Turns out that using our own hands and our own initiative to meet challenges, to work with nature and each other to feed, care for, and entertain ourselves, are essential to a sense of personal power and autonomy. Such work builds our capacity to be in service to something larger than ourselves. Something really worthwhile.
Without that something really worthwhile, life itself becomes drudgery.
Which is why, besides the degenerative diseases that accompany modern lifestyles and the immune disorders that deliverance from dirt has given us, despair, depression, isolation and mental illnesses also stalk us in this modernised age of loneliness.
Stepping in the right direction
I’m not proposing that we throw away our laptops and go back to cooking over an open fire (except sometimes, just for fun).
But we are, individually and collectively, re-considering the roles of technology and science in our lives, re-building our capacity to do for ourselves, and making more conscious, self-directed choices.
Those are steps in the right direction.
i I think education is crucial, especially for disadvantaged girls and women. What I’m opposed to is the mind-numbing, initiative-destroying effects of rigid, compulsory curriculums, excessive testing and grading, and extrinsic motivation via rewards and punishment.
ii In case you’d like some further reading on industrial agriculture vs family-scale food production, check out “Home Gardens – a promising approach to enhance household food security and well-being,” or “Family Farms – feeding the world, caring for the earth,” or “Permaculture and the Myth of Scarcity,” or “Food and Permaculture.”
iii I don’t know how many family or community sized, place-based food production systems were lost or damaged in the industrialization of agriculture. But the report Who Will Feed Us? estimates that up to 5.5 billion people, or around 70% of the world population, still rely on what it calls the “Peasant Food Web” – small, place-based food production systems.
iv Malnutrition is itself a product of industrialization; indigenous peoples worldwide enjoyed good health until modern manufactured foods replaced their traditional diets.