The myth of inevitable progress

Our species has been on the earth for more than 200,000 years. 30,000 years ago, there was a sort of explosion of art and cave paintings showing up on multiple regions and continents. 12,000 years ago we began to build settlements and plant crops. We have a long and vigorous history as a species.  But much of what we expect life to be like is based on less than 100 years of our history.

Like the idea that you can retire. Or that you will make more money as you get older. Or that children will not work to support the family. That you will have access to clean water to drink. That you will be in love with the person you marry. That home ownership is normal and expected. That working for someone else for pay is normal and expected. And my favorite: That p is inevitable.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, however. After all, my grandfather was born in 1886. His son died in 2020. Two lives, during which time we went from horse and buggy to railroad to airplanes to visiting the moon to exploring Mars. My grandfather grew up in an age where a rusty nail could kill you, and in his 30’s would live through a global flu pandemic that killed millions. By the time his son was born, there were antibiotics and then polio took out most of a generation and then there was a vaccine and nobody died from polio and rarely did they die from the flu.

If all you knew of human history was the last 150 years, you would be convinced progress was inevitable. That over the long term, optimism is the only realism. That you should always be bullish.

But history tells us otherwise.

I love to grow things, and there are natural rhythms that occur you can depend on that guide our world. Like the last frost date in the springtime, the day on which your danger of freezing is gone and thus you can put out your tomatoes. But in 1815, there was a volcanic eruption in Bali that led to global climate impacts that lasted more than a year, including frost in Virginia in August. People starved, there was massive upheaval, and Mary Shelly was driven indoors and wrote Frankenstein as a result.

Life is not ordered – it is chaotic. Sometimes, the stings of good runs last a long time – but they are still strings, and not chains. And if you think that every day in the future will be like all the days you have had before, you will be OK… until you aren’t, and then you may be wiped out.

I no longer believe in the inevitability of progress, even if our economy is predicated on it. But nothing grows forever – things get sick and sometimes things die, and eventually, everything does.

Don’t mishear me: I’m not advocating for a survival bunker in the basement full of guns and body armor. But I do think it make sense to include in your plans the probability that things will not go according to plan.

Another time, I will talk about what I think a healthy amount of preparation looks like at the household level. But more important than any individual thing you do is, I think, the mindset with which you approach it. I don’t think things are guaranteed to get better or easier, which is why I have to learn how to get stronger and more resilient.