rn: 5 facets of a myth (excellent net resource library)


Jan Slakov

Dear RN,

While I personally rarely go to web sites because it is such a pain with the
set-up I have, the sites listed below are, I am quite sure, among the best
on the web.

But this article is much more than a listing of useful sites! It urges us to
make real a new myth, one to replace the myth of progress. How about "an
apprenticeship to nature" as author Kirkpatrick Sale suggests? ... It fits
for me. this morning, as almost every morning, I went for a walk in the
woods. Beautiful tracery of moonlit branch shadows on the snow! Years ago a
song came to my mind on one of these walks. Here are a few lines:

Oh night that is turning to morning,
Oh light that glints on the trees,
Oh dew that has frozen to crystal,
Oh, beauty I'm given to see!

Oh day which for some is forbidden,
Oh song which for some is too faint,
Oh fragile how do we save you?
Oh strength how to get at your source?

all the best, Jan
PS Further to the "apprenticeship to nature" idea. A friend recommended
_Mutant Message Down Under_ by margo Morgan, which I'm reading now. This is
eco-tourism at its best: no need to actually fly anywhere, just read this
book and let the wisdom of the aborigines, of a people whose relationship to
the rest of nature is truly healthy, reach through to you.
From: "Carolyn Ballard" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Fw: Five Facets of a Myth
Date: Wed, 8 Dec 1999 16:50:34 -0800
     "Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his
own blood."  Friedrich Nietzsche
     "Writing is the continuation of politics by other means."  Philippe
----- Original Message -----
From: <•••@••.•••>
To: <•••@••.•••>
Sent: Thursday, September 23, 1999 1:00 AM
Subject: Five Facets of a Myth

> I can remember vividly sitting at the dinner table arguing with my father
about progress, using upon him all the experience and wisdom I had gathered
at the age of fifteen. "Of course we live in an era of progress," I said,
"just look at cars -- how clumsy and unreliable and slow they were in the
old days, how sleek and efficient and speedy they are now."
> He raised an eyebrow, just a little. "And what has been the result of
having all these wonderful new sleek and efficient and speedy cars?" he
asked. I was taken aback. I searched for a way to answer.
> He went on. "How many people die each year as a result of these speedy
cars, how many are maimed and crippled? What is life like for the people who
produce them, on those famous assembly lines, the same routinized job hour
after hour, day after day, like Chaplin's film? How many fields and forests
and even towns and villages have been paved over so that these cars can get
to all the places they want to get to -- and park there? Where does all the
gasoline come from, and at what cost, and what happens when we burn it and
exhaust it?"
> Before I could stammer out a response -- thankfully -- he went on to tell
me about an article written on the subject of progress, a concept I had
never really thought of, by one of his Cornell colleagues, the historian
Carl Becker, a man I had never heard of, in the Encyclopedia of Social
Sciences, a resource I had never come across. Read it, he said.
> I'm afraid it was another fifteen years before I did, though in the
meantime I came to learn the wisdom of my father's skepticism as the modern
world repeatedly threw up other examples of invention and advancement --
television, electric carving knife, microwave oven, nuclear power -- that
showed the same problematic nature of progress, taken in the round and
negatives factored in, as did the automobile.
> When I finally got to Becker's masterful essay, in the course of a
wholesale re-examination of modernity, it took no scholarly armament of his
to convince me of the peculiar historical provenance of the concept of
progress and its status not as an inevitability, a force as given as gravity
as my youthful self imagined, but as a cultural construct invented for all
practical purposes in the Renaissance and advancing the propaganda of
> It was nothing more than a serviceable myth, a deeply held unexamined
construct -- like all useful cultural myths -- that promoted the idea of
regular and eternal improvement of the human condition, largely through the
exploitation of nature and the acquisition of material goods.
> Of course by now it is no longer such an arcane perception. Many
fifteen-year-olds today, seeing clearly the perils with which modern
technology has accompanied its progress, some of which threaten the very
continuance of the human species, have already worked out for themselves
what's wrong with the myth.
> It is hard to learn that forests are being cut down at the rate of 56
million acres a year, that desertification threatens 8 billion acres of land
worldwide, that all of the world's seventeen major fisheries are in decline
and stand a decade away from virtual exhaustion, that 26 million tons of
topsoil is lost to erosion and pollution every year, and believe that this
world's economic system, whose functioning exacts this price, is headed in
the right direction and that direction should be labeled "progress".
> * * *
> E.E. Cummings once called progress a "comfortable disease" of modern
"manunkind," and so it has been for some. But at any time since the triumph
of capitalism only a minority of the world's population could be said to be
really living in comfort, and that comfort, continuously threatened, is
achieved at considerable expense.
> Today of the approximately 6 billion people in the world, it is estimated
that at least a billion live in abject poverty, lives cruel, empty, and
mercifully short. Another 2 billion eke out life on a bare subsistence
level, usually sustained only by one or another starch, the majority without
potable drinking water or sanitary toilets. More than 2 million more live at
the bottom edges of the money economy but with incomes less than $5,000 a
year and no property or savings, no net worth to pass on to their children.
> That leaves less than a billion people who even come close to struggling
for lives of comfort, with jobs and salaries of some regularity, and a quite
small minority at the top of that scale who could really be said to have
achieved comfortable lives; in the world, some 350 people can be considered
(U.S. dollar) billionaires (with slightly more than 3 million millionaires),
and their total net worth is estimated to exceed that of 45 per cent of the
world's population.
> This is progress? A disease such a small number can catch? And with such
inequity, such imbalance?
> In the U.S., the most materially advanced nation in the world and long the
most ardent champion of the notion of progress, some 40 million people live
below the official poverty line and another 20 million or so below the line
adjusted for real costs; 6 million or so are unemployed, more than 30
million said to be too discouraged to look for work, and 45 million are in
"disposable" jobs, temporary and part-time, without benefits or security.
> The top 5 percent of the population owns about two-thirds of the total
wealth; 60 percent own no tangible assets or are in debt; in terms of
income, the top 20 percent earn half the total income, the bottom 20 percent
less than 4 percent of it.
> All this hardly suggests the sort of material comfort progress is assumed
to have provided. Certainly many in the U.S. and throughout the industrial
world live at levels of wealth undreamed of in ages past, able to call forth
hundreds of servant-equivalents at the flip of a switch or turn of a key,
and probably a third of this "first world" population could be said to have
lives of a certain amount of ease and convenience.
> Yet it is a statistical fact that it is just this segment that most
acutely suffers from the true "comfortable disease," what I would call
affluenza: heart disease, stress, overwork, family dysfunction, alcoholism,
insecurity, anomie, psychosis, loneliness, impotence, alienation,
consumerism, and coldness of heart.
> * * *
> Leopold Kohr, the Austrian economist whose seminal work, The Breakdown of
Nations, is an essential tool for understanding the failures of political
progress in the last half-millennium, often used to close his lectures with
this analogy:
> Suppose we are on a progress-train, he said, running full speed ahead in
the approved manner, fueled by the rapacious growth and resource depletion
and cheered on by highly rewarded economists. What if we then discover that
we are headed for a precipitous fall to a certain disaster just a few miles
ahead when the tracks end at an uncrossable gulf?
> Do we take advice of the economists to put more fuel into the engines so
that we go at an ever-faster rate, presumable hoping that we build up a head
of steam so powerful that it can land us safely on the other side of the
gulf; or do we reach for the brakes and come to a screeching if somewhat
tumble-around halt as quickly as possible?
> Progress is the myth that assures us that full-speed-ahead is never wrong.
Ecology is the discipline that teaches us that it is disaster.
> * * *
> Before the altar of progress, attended by its dutiful acolytes of science
and technology, modern industrial society has presented an increasing
abundance of sacrifices from the natural world, imitating on a much grander
and more devastating scale the religious rites of earlier empires built upon
similar conceits about the domination of nature. Now, it seems, we are
prepared to offer up even the very biosphere itself.
> No one knows how resilient the biosphere, how much damage it is able to
absorb before it stops functioning -- or at least functioning well enough to
keep the human species alive. But in recent years some very respectable and
authoritative voices have suggested that, if we continue the relentless rush
of progress that is so stressing the earth on which it depends, we will
reach that point in the quite near future.
> The Worldwatch Institute (http://www.worldwatch.org), which issues annual
accountings of such things, has warned that there is not one life-support
system on which the biosphere depends for its existence -- healthy air,
water, soil, temperature, and the like -- that is not now severely
threatened and in fact getting worse, decade by decade.
> Not long ago a gathering of elite environmental scientists and activists
in Morelia, Mexico, published a declaration warning of "environmental
destruction" and expressing unanimous concern "that life on our planet is in
grave danger."
> And recently the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists
(http://www.ucsusa.org), in a statement endorsed by more than a hundred
Nobel laureates and 1,600 members of national academies of science all over
the world, proclaimed a "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" stating that
the present rates of environmental assault and population increase cannot
continue without "vast human misery" and a planet so "irretrievably
mutilated" that "it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we
> The high-tech global economy will not listen; cannot listen. It continues
apace its expansion and exploitation. Thanks to it, human beings annually
use up some 40% of all the net photosynthetic energy available to the planet
Earth, though we are but a single species of comparatively insignificant
> Thanks to it, the world economy has grown by more than five times over in
the last 50 years and is continuing at a dizzying pace to use up the world's
resources, create unabating pollution and waste, and increase the enormous
inequalities within and between all nations of the world.
> * * *
> Suppose an Objective Observer were to measure the success of Progress --
that is to say, the capital-P myth that ever since the Enlightenment has
nurtured and guided and presided over that happy marriage of science and
capitalism that has produced modern industrial civilization.
> Has it been, on the whole, better or worse for the human species? Other
species? Has it brought humans more happiness than there was before? More
justice? More equality? More efficiency? And if its ends have proven to be
more benign than not, what of its means? At what price have its benefits
been won? And are they sustainable?
> The Objective Observer would have to conclude that the record is mixed, at
best. On the plus side, there is no denying that material prosperity has
increased for about a sixth of the world's humans, for some beyond the most
avaricious dreams of kings and potentates of the past. The world has
developed systems of transportation and communication that allow people,
goods, and information to be exchanged on a scale and at a swiftness never
before possible. And for maybe a third of these humans longevity has been
increased, along with a general improvement in health and sanitation that
has allowed the expansion of human numbers by about tenfold in the last
three centuries.
> On the minus side, the costs have been considerable. The impact upon the
earth's species and systems to provide prosperity for a billion people has
been, as we have seen, devastatingly destructive -- only one additional
measure of which is the fact that it has meant the permanent extinction of
perhaps 500,000 species this century alone. The impact upon the remaining
five-sixths of the human species has been likewise destructive, as most of
them have seen their societies colonized or displaced, their economies
wrenched and shattered, and their environments transformed for the worse in
the course of it, driving them into an existence of deprivation and misery
that is almost certainly worse than they ever knew, however difficult their
times past, before the advent of industrial society.
> And even the billion whose living standards use up what is effectively 100
percent of the world's available resources each year to maintain, and who
might be therefore assumed to be happy as a result, do not in fact seem to
be so. No social indices in any advanced society suggest that people are
more content than they were a generation ago, various surveys indicate that
the "misery quotient" in most countries has increased, and considerable
real-world evidence (such as rising rates of mental illness, drugs, crime,
divorce, and depression) argues that the results of material enrichment have
not included much individual happiness.
> Indeed, on a larger scale, almost all that Progress was supposed to
achieve has failed to come about, despite the immense amount of money and
technology devoted to its cause. Virtually all of the dreams that have
adorned it over the years, particularly in its most robust stages in the
late 19th century and in the past twenty years of computerdom, have
dissipated as utopian fancies -- those that have not, like nuclear power,
chemical agriculture, manifest destiny, and the welfare state, turned into
> Progress has not, even in this most progressive nation, eliminated poverty
(numbers of poor have increased and real income has declined for 25 years),
or drudgery (hours of employment have increased, as has work within the
home, for both sexes), or ignorance (literacy rates have declined for fifty
years, test scores have declined), or disease (hospitalization, illness, and
death rates have all increased since 1980).
> It seems quite simple: beyond prosperity and longevity, and those limited
to a minority, and each with seriously damaging environmental consequences,
progress does not have a great deal going for it. For its adherents, of
course, it is probably true that it doesn't have to; because it is
sufficient that wealth is meritorious and affluence desirable and longer
life positive. The terms of the game for them are simple: material
betterment for as many as possible, as fast as possible, and nothing else,
certainly not considerations of personal morality or social cohesion or
spiritual depth or participatory government, seems much to matter.
> But the Objective Observer is not so narrow, and is able to see how deep
and deadly are the shortcomings of such a view. The Objective Observer could
only conclude that since the fruits of Progress are so meager, the price by
which they have been won is far to high, in social, economic, political, and
environmental terms, and that neither societies nor ecosystems of the world
will be able to bear the cost for more than a few decades longer, if they
have not already been damaged beyond redemption.
> * * *
> Herbert Read, the British philosopher and critic, once wrote that "only a
people serving an apprenticeship to nature can be trusted with machines." It
is a profound insight, and he underscored it by adding that "only such
people will so contrive and control those machines that their products are
an enhancement of biological needs, and not a denial of them."
> An apprenticeship to nature -- now there's a myth a stable and durable
society could live by.
> Kirkpatrick Sale
> * * *
> Resources:
> http://adbusters.org/campaigns/economic/links.html
> http://bfi.org
> http://commoncause.org/publications/aug99/083099.htm
> http://earth.jsc.nasa.gov
> http://essential.org
> http://freespeech.org/cinetopia/rentstrike.html
> http://greens.org
> http://ic.org
> http://indy4.fdl.cc.mn.us/~isk/maps/usmapindex.html
> http://ithacahours.org
> http://poclad.org/articles/articles.html
> http://preservenet.com
> http://rmi.org/faq/index.html
> http://www.bestweb.net/~jfiliss/factsmyth.htm
> http://www.cc.columbia.edu/~gm84/gibtable.html
> http://www.chelseagreen.com/WhoOwns
> http://www.citizen.org/CMEP/Mergers/didyouknow.html
> http://www.citizen.org/congress
> http://www.citizen.org/pctrade/gattwto/gatthome.html
> http://www.communitycurrency.org
> http://www.gaia.org
> http://www.gn.apc.org/resurgence
> http://www.gp.org/platform_index.htm
> http://www.henrygeorge.org
> http://www.landreform.org/reading0.htm
> http://www.lightlink.com/hours/ithacahours
> http://www.mondragon.mcc.es/ingles/mcc.html
> http://www.nonviolence.org/issues/action.htm
> http://www.ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/BasicCtC.html
> http://www.schumachersociety.org/frameset_land.html
> http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/97mar/jeffer/jeffer.htm
> http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99aug/9908genx.htm
> http://www.tradewatch.org
> http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/index.html
> http://www.worldwatch.org/links/sow99i.html