Zen and the Art of Progress Trapping


I watched a very thought-provoking film the other night called Surviving Progress – it is loosely based on a book called A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright. I recommend it to absolutely every person, particularly those under the age of 25. The film lays a very convincing case for the idea of ‘progress traps’. To quote from the film’s website, progress traps are “alluring technologies [that] serve immediate needs, but ransom the future”.

An example is given of a Neanderthal man who learns to hunt and kill a mammoth. Then he works out that with 2 or 3 mates, they can hunt 2 or 3 mammoths at once, which equals more food. Then, as human populations increase, they realise that a whole bunch of them can hunt a whole herd of mammoths and drive them over a cliff, killing them all at once…and that’s the progress trap.

The idea has enormous credence, and you don’t have to look far to realise that most of our current (‘western’-associated) society revolves around such traps – biofuels, fast food, nutritionism, mobile phones, self-serve checkouts, coal seam gas, uranium, you name it.

‘Progress’ connotes betterment or improvement, particularly of human society – but who has decided that these things are ‘better’? Being ‘better’ implies that what came before was worse – and that is ultimately a subjective decision.

However, I’m not quite sure about the term ‘progress trap’. Without being facetious, what exactly is being trapped? You can’t trap progress, because by its own ‘forward’ nature, it would no longer be progress…which, I suppose, is sort of the point – technologies that were initially considered progressive have now become destructive. Still, it cannot be a trap, because we humans are still careering forward (in terms of technology)…we’re just heading in the wrong direction, with the wrong goals driving us. Maybe ‘progress illusion’ might be more fitting?

Or maybe it’s that Progress, that duplicitous hussy, has set a trap for Us…and we have fallen into it, hook, line and sinker.

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© Manu Saunders 2012

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