Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2012 > The Myth and Reality of Progress

Mainstream, VOL L, No 23, May 26, 2012

The Myth and Reality of Progress

Monday 28 May 2012, by Bharat Dogra

The concept of progress is deeply embedded in most reading and writing of human history. At first glance it appears so obvious as modern life has so many comforts and conveniences that could not have been dreamed of just about five hundred years ago, not to mention five thousand years ago. But in a more specific context, if one was the compare war-ravaged Iraq at its worst in the early 21st century with the peak of the Mesopotamian civilisation several thousand years back, then there may be reason to believe that there was greater distress in Iraq in year 2003 compared to the situation everal thousand years back. Similar conclusions may be drawn by comparing strife-torn Palestine and Sudan of the late 20th century/early 21st century with the celebrated civilisa-tions in these areas several thousand years ago.

At a more general level, a comparison of life of millions of people living in very unhealthy slums may be made with the life of cave/thatch- dwellers about 10 to 15 thousand years back. In terms of access to clean air and water the cave-man was certainly better placed, and probably he had access to healthier food (fruits and nuts picked fresh and meat). The present-day slum-dweller lives in highly congested and unhealthy conditions, exposed to dirt and pollution all the time. He eats a lot of junk food and even if he lives longer thanks to modern medicine, the cave-man remained in better health as long as he lived.

The concept of constant or inevitable progress becomes even more questionable if we look not just at living conditions of human beings but also at the extent to which they cooperate with each other to oppose injustice, promote mutual well-being and the welfare of all. In this context it is even clearer that we can’t speak of constant or inevitable progress—rather there are various periods of history when we rise and there are other periods when we fall. One of the most interesting and useful ways of approaching history is to study the factors and forces which contribute to this rise and fall of human capabilities to increase the welfare of all.

AT this stage it will be interesting to see how a great scholar who wanted badly to believe in humanity’s destiny of progress was nevertheless reminded time and again from his actual study that progress can’t be taken for granted. Our reference here is to Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote a famous world history in the form of letters written to his daughter Indira from jail.

On January 5, 1931 writing to his daughter Indira from jail, he wrote: “Man’s growth from barbarism to civilisation is supposed to be the theme of history. In some of my letters I have tried to show you how the idea of co-operation or working together has grown, and how our ideal should be to work together for the common good. But sometimes, looking at great stretches of history, it is difficult to believe that this ideal has made much progress or that we are very much civilised or advanced. There is enough of want of cooperation today, of one country or people selfishly attacking or oppressing another, of one man exploiting another.— Sometimes we read about past periods of history which seem to be better than ours, more cultured and civilised even, and this makes us doubt if our world is going forward or backward.”

In his inaugural address at the Asian History Congress. (December 9, 1961) Nehru again expressed serious doubts about ‘human progress’: “What is the basic philosophy of history? I try to think of history as a process that leads man to higher and better stages of progress. Then I find to my surprise that those higher stages have been represented by great men in the long past. Having been fascinated by the scientific and technological civilisation which has been built in Europe and America, I gradually come to a stage where it seems to me to have stopped. I begin seeking for something deeper than merely the physical aspect of civilisation. I find that my mind is more interested in what Pluto or the Budha said, which has a timelessness about it. So I wonder if our present-day history, having fulfilled its destiny in so far as science and technology are concerned, is at all moving to a higher plane of human existence.”

While studying ‘progress’ in any society, another question we should never forget to ask is: ‘whose progress’ are we talking about? In many cases the obvious signs of prosperity may be more visible, but at the same time the sufferings of some of the most vulnerable sections may also be increasing. The most extreme examples are from the continents of America and Australia, known to be highly prosperous societies of recent history, but the present-day inhabitants gained their prosperity only after the original inhabitants of these continents were almost wiped out.
The tragic story starts with Columbus stepping into the new world in 1492. Columbus forced the Taino Indians in Hispaniola to bring him an ounce of gold every three months. Those who did not, had their hands chopped off while escapees were hunted down with dogs. Regarding the impact of the advent of the ‘civilised’ people in the new world, the priest Las Casas wrote : “For 40 years, they have done nothing but torture, murder, harass, afflict, torment and destroy them with extraordinary, incredible, innovative and previously unheard of cruelty.” Las Casas estimated that 50 million Indians perished in Latin America and the Caribbean within 50 years of Columbus’ landing.

According to Wayne Ellwood who prepared a special issue of the New Internationalist on this subject, “Scholars now reckon that 90 percent of the indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out in a century and a half—the greatest demographic collapse in the history of the planet and the proportional equivalent of nearly half a billion people today.” Historian Duft has written: “Even before 12 years had elapsed after the discovery of Espanola several hundred thousand of its original inhabitants had perished, victims of cruelty of the white man. Its population, estimated in 1492 at 3 million had dwindled to about 300. Of the six hundred thousand people in Puerto Rico and Jamaica scarcely two hundred remained half a century later.” According to Robert Huges, author of The Fatal Shore: “It took less than 75 years of white settlement to wipe out most of the people who had occupied Tasmania for some 20 thousand years.”

In these two continents, after the 15th century the mainstream history tells us about the increasing prosperity of the settlers. But the original inhabitants of the area are almost forgotten.

Another variant is that one area became prosperous, but only at the expense of inflicting cruelty and oppression on people of another area. This is of course the all-too-familiar history of colonialism. One of the most extreme cases was the way in which slaves obtained from Africa were used in the most cruel way. Columbus had written, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

However, soon there were so many deaths among native Indians that slaves had to be obtained from Africa to toil in the new world. This soon became a new source of enormous profits on the one hand, and even greater misery on the other. Wayne Ellwood estimates: “The Atlantic slave trade lasted nearly 400 years during which time 15 million Africans were shipped to the Americas. Conditions during the crossing were so horrific that between a half and a third of the African captives died on route. Of the rest, most died within a decade of their arrival in the strange new land.”

It is only by raising questions about people and groups who had to suffer so much that any notions of ‘progress’ can be evaluated in a just way. Perhaps what is even more essential is to study not only the condition of all human beings at various time-periods but to instead look at all life-forms. If instead of asking how has the life of human beings changed during the last five hundred years we ask: ‘How have all species changed during the last five hundred years?, then we will get a very negative answer. The reason is that the natural habitats of all life-forms, including forests, oceans, rivers, estuaries and coastal areas, wetlands etc., have been damaged on a massive-scale largely by man’s activities. In addition, various species have also been hunted or overfished to the point of extinction or high levels of depletion.

So we need to be very careful before we accept the concept of ‘progress’, not to mention the inevitability of progress. Similarly all concepts of the inevitability of transition from one form of social and economic organisation to another form are very difficult to accept. History has to be studied more carefully than this.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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