The pilgrim’s progress, the us to self-destruction | Giles Fraser: Loose canon

I sit on the bottom of my garden, reading Paul Kingsnorth’s amazing new book, Confessions of a Recovering environmentalist. It is too late, he says. There is no way we can lead, Vice versa, the changes in the environment, to our destruction. And the idea of progress, the constant development, is the engine of our destruction. I start to dream. My mind slips to the side. I start puzzles, the Progressive Alliance. What is a progressive? And how are they related to the progress Kingsnorth believes, was the destruction of our planet?

The word “progressive” and turns in our political life, is constantly changing its meaning. Tony Blair, the concept of recycling for those that call largely on the left who do not want to be socialists. But David Cameron was also often described that way. Now, however, is not the term progressive means, Tory. The Progressive Alliance calls for tactical voting from labour, Lib Dem and Green voters, the limitation of the size of Theresa May, the victory. As a progressive is a big party, and almost everyone is welcome. How about Rick Wakeman, I wonder? After all, he was the figurehead of progressive rock … you remember, endless keyboard solos, the boots of men with long hair and a stupid silver. I know, I’m fun a little. But these days he is a big donor to the Conservatives. It’s hard to know who progressives would not invite to their party.

And how the idea of progress comes intuitively as something wide of the left? A hundred years ago in Italy, the so-called futurists, the appropriation of the language of the technological progress of the far-right were fascists. “Idealists, workers of thought, unite to show how inspiration and genius walk gushed in step with the progress of the machine, of aircraft, of industry, of trade, of the Sciences, of electricity,” the futurist founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Love the progress not only for the progressive. Hell, just last week, Kim Jong-un, praised to launch its newest rocket, as a “great leap forward”.

The historian Sidney Pollard describes the belief in progress as “the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind… that it consists of irreversible changes in only one direction, and this direction to improve”. In these days of progressive writing, the humanity would be. And Yes, that is an improvement. But the idea that history consists of constant and inevitable lift in the direction of human improvement is hardly worn by the ecological disaster, our ingenuity and greed currently visiting this planet. Species are disappearing, ice is melting, topsoil disappearance, suffocation with carbon dioxide emissions – if our ancestors spoke breathlessly about the future progress, this was what she had in mind.

Kingsnorth does not romanticise the past. Only he points out that seeing the future with rose-colored glasses now more “socially acceptable”, and therefore dangerous: “The kind of people can be disgusted by an idealized past, often contain their enthusiasm for an idealized future.”

Economic progress goes by the name of growth. Always forward, always upward, calls the money-making machine. And we are his servants, the poor Homo oeconomicus. Trapped by debt, we are encouraged by our leaders to run, faster and faster, (they call it productivity), and buy more useless, and invented stuff, even if it means that we are borrowing more to do it. The possibility of one or two Green MPs apart, all those we elect to the Parliament in the next month, believe that economic growth is an undoubtedly good thing. No party will ever form a government on the basis that we have to learn to live with less. A collapsing planet is a niche interest, an inconvenient externality, which will be fixed one day, due to technical progress, the modern deus ex machina, good for all occasions.

Ovid had something to say about all this, towards the end of the first century BC: “Clever human nature, victim of your inventions, disastrously creative.” This is the kind of wisdom you don’t need to make progress.