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Progress and Collapse

Giandomenico Mucci, SJ- La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, May 10th 2022


Among the Enlightenment’s legacy there is an idea that spanned the centuries and penetrated deeply into the mentality of people in the West. It is the idea of progress, the idea of moving toward our cultural, moral and material best, especially thanks to the successes of science and technology. This idea shaped much of modern European history; it nourished hope and political ideologies; it spread trust in the future.[1]

Then came the 20th century and that “magnificent fate and progress” was destabilized by two world wars, the absolute evil of the concentration camps, the Cold War, and the third technological revolution. All this undermined the belief that science and technology would inevitably improve humanity and that the future would gradually become better than the past.

What about today? The whole world is going through worrying years. The economic recession in the capitalist system shows no sign of abating. The emerging economic powers in Asia – China, India, Indonesia – which have been among the driving forces of the world economy, are already revealing problems similar to those that triggered the 2008 financial crisis in the United States. They too are governed by the neoliberalism that, after the collapse of real socialism, works to impose itself as the sole system and philosophy, despite the serious damage it causes in the less developed parts of the world.

Planet Earth, if one focuses on the climate and the environment, raises serious concerns. We see wide-ranging  pollution: water, air, land, melting glaciers, shrinking polar ice caps, rising sea levels, the disappearance of many animal species compromising the food chain. These phenomena are in varying degrees connected with the increase of certain types of diseases, with particular economic repercussions such as those affecting agriculture and fishing, with the scarcity of raw materials, with the rising cost of energy, with the problems of finding and distributing food for a population that is now approaching seven billion.

Moreover, the great human movements from the eastern and southern areas of the world toward Europe and North America give rise to problems associated with the difficult clash of cultures, ethnic groups and religions that are not used to coexisting. As far as Europe is concerned, its values, cultural and demographic crises are well known. Obvious signs of these are abortion, the breakdown of the family, the different types of “marriage,” children ordered on commission, legalized drugs, the recognition of individuals’ rights to do what they want as long as it does not disturb others. The parlous situation of the faith in countries of ancient Christian tradition deserves a separate discussion.[2] In short, the words “progress,” “ the future” and the like do not have the same aura of enthusiasm and hope that have characterized them for so long.

“Such belief had received denials so terrible that it could no longer be offered as a credible anchor. In spite of the undoubted conquests of science – indeed, in part, precisely because of them – the horizon was filled with shadows and the path became a confused tangle. Perhaps nothing like the thought of Heidegger can prevent, for the first half of the 20th century (and later, in Italy, that of Emanuele Severino), the darkening of the horizons, and the consequent, dramatic distancing from an indiscriminate confidence in the scientific achievements of the new times. Technology no longer announced a redemption, but a condemnation. The old positivistic optimism turned over on itself and left an extremely delicate nerve uncovered in the very heart of modernity.”[3]

An obsolete idea?

No wonder, then, that today many people do not give much credit to the idea of progress, considering it a beguiling idea belied by the facts. And many think that this idea does little or virtually nothing to explain the evolution of human history, as its interpretative grid.

Such a clear and definitive judgement is opposed by the more nuanced and balanced judgement of those who are aware of the failures to which the uncritical glorification of the dogma of progress has been exposed, but who have attempted to preserve the value of this idea by applying a distinction to it.

If we refer to cognitive capacities and control of the environment, i.e. the development of thought and technology, it is undoubtedly still meaningful to speak of progress, but human history is not made up only of that capacity and control. If one observes the whole – that is, social relations and their conflicts, economic, political and juridical forms, relations of power, ideologies, religious, artistic and philosophical experiences, moral ideas – it often becomes difficult to speak of progress, because human history also knows catastrophic regressions: one thinks, for example, of those ever-looming abuses of technology that could compromise the very survival of humanity.[4]

In order to achieve an ever greater common good, it is to be hoped that the power of technoscience will be balanced by the strengthening of ethical responsibility and of political and democratic institutions.

A collapse?

We were talking about the possibility of catastrophic regressions, of the collapse of civilization. There are many who fear such a danger, especially among those who have stopped looking at “progress” as a unidirectional process toward an ever better future. Alongside those who deny the danger, there are those who neurotically exaggerate it, those who are discouraged, those who are unable to define the problem. Certainly today there is open talk of a new field of study: “collapsology.”

This is “a field of transdisciplinary scientific research aimed at the analysis and synthesis of data and figures concerning the current complex global situation and the study of the collapse of civilizations, not as a single and inevitable event, but as a series of catastrophic events (hurricanes, industrial accidents, pandemics, droughts…) in a context of progressively destabilizing changes (desertification, pollution, extinctions, climate change…).”[5] And to collapsology we can bring a “collapsosophy,” that is the study of ethical and spiritual issues that can promote a profound change of consciousness that can untangle humanity from the situation in which it is struggling and lead it beyond the mere sphere of technoscience.[6]

The crisis of nature seems to go hand in hand with that of humanity, and therefore it seems necessary to effect a change in worldview that leads to the creation of common goods and the regeneration of the natural world. The overcoming of violent behavior that attacks and ruins nature can contribute to the strengthening of a renewed alliance between humans and nature, between the values that improve humanity and the beneficial alternatives that can heal the damage we have so far done to the world in which our history takes place. This means that an additional dose of wisdom is needed to ward off the specter of total collapse, which would be the most radical form assumed by nihilism, which, in past decades, has been discussed as the inevitable destiny of Western civilization.

Attentive as he is to the ethical and cultural deterioration that accompanies ecological deterioration, the pope, for his part, exhorts us to abandon an irrational faith in progress and to be concerned about what is happening to our planet and its compromised fragility. Science, technology and applied research are a good in themselves; they are resources that promote the integral good of human persons, provided, however, that they respect the limits of their capabilities and abide by the norm of moral values, since they are not morally neutral activities.

With regard to fear and the risk of global collapse, the pope offers us another precise directive: “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.”[7]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 1 art. 8, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0121.8

[1] Cf. M. Ceruti, “Una nuova idea di progresso”, in Il Sole 24 Ore, August 2, 2020, IX.

[2] Cf. G. Meiattini, “L’uovo del serpente”, in La Scala 72 (2018) 77-79.

[3] A. Schiavone, Progresso, Bologna, il Mulino, 2020, 31.

[4] Cf. M. Ceruti, “Una nuova idea di progresso”, op. cit.

[5] See Id., “Se la fine del mondo non è una catastrofe”, in Il Sole 24 Ore, May 31, 2020, VIII.

[6] See P. Servigne – R. Stevens – G. Chapelle, Un’altra fine del mondo è possibile. Vivere il collasso (e non solo sopravvivere), Rome, Treccani, 2020.

[7] Francis, Encyclical Laudato Si’, No. 205. Cf. G. Mucci, “Papa Francesco e l’idea del progresso”, in Civ. Catt. 2020 III 307-313.

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