The Progress Problem

In Walter Benjamin’s text ‘On the Concept of History’, he invites us to question the notion of history as it relates to progress. He states:

“Progress, as it was painted in the minds of of the social democrats, was once upon a time the progress of humanity itself (not only of its abilities and knowledges). It was, secondly, something unending (something corresponding to an endless perfectibility of humanity).  It counted, thirdly, as something essentially unstoppable (as something self-activating, pursuing a straight or spiral path).”

Benjamin is describing an interesting idea that has haunted the human race for as long as history has been recorded – this association that we have created between history and progress, one which we seem, at this stage of our existence, to be incapable of breaking away from.  Modern western society lives in the future.  In a future full of innovation and improvement and changes.  A future full of progress.

But Andrew Ross, in ‘Getting the Future we Deserve’, asks us to question our current obsession with progress – we must put into perspective what we are gaining and what we are losing.  Ross specifically addresses current environmental concerns, as well as concerns with human equality.  He suggests that we move away from the “futuristic ideals of scientific progress through technical mastery of the natural world’s resources” and towards “the traditional aim of utopian socialism”, and “the idea of a more radically democratic future”.

Both authors raise a number of points relating to history, and the social and environmental impacts of the need for progress.

I recently visited one of the old lookout bunkers from WWII at Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver.  This space brought several ideas to mind relating to how we view historical sites today.  In a way, the bunker is a symbol of human progress – it was built during a time of world-wide struggle, but also during a time of immense technological progress.

But standing in that space made me think of how that space, and so many others like it in the world, was built out of fear.  Out of fear of other human beings.  The bunker was a lookout point to ensure that the Japanese were not going to attempt to invade Canada through that area.  And then this brought me to thinking about how much of our progress is aimed at, or causes some form of destruction.  Destruction of our environment, destruction of the other species who used to share this world with us, and destruction of each other.

And suddenly Ross’s text made perfect sense. How can we possibly achieve any sort of meaningful progress when our entire species is still incapable of living in peace, of showing respect for ourselves, for each other, and for our world?  What does conquering progress even mean when in parallel we are on a crash course to a world with nothing to live for?

Perhaps this is too melodramatic, but these are extrapolated ideas of what this all means to me, and what it means for all of us.

Standing in the bunker, I thought of how although that space has long lost its intended use, there are many, many places like it in the world that still are in use.  People cannot live without fear of each other, there is still so much struggle amongst humans, on infinite levels ranging from petty social differences to massive political issues.

In his video lecture on ‘The Ruins of Modernity’ (, Jody Baker specifically asks how we can shift the visual angle on the ruins of modernity without losing moral standards, and how we can bring the past into the present, instead of allowing it to disappear without regard as we can only look toward the future.

The past is in spaces like the bunker. I can feel it when I am in those spaces, a strange sort of anxiety comes over me as my mind wanders back in time to a situation in which the bunker was used for its intended purpose. When the world was in a state of fear of the other, and of the possibility of nuclear war. And when it feared progress.  WWII and the creation of the atomic bomb ignited a spark of fear in the world’s eyes.  When people realized the ability that lay within man’s reach – the ability to wipe the planet out, of destroying humanity and all that comes along with it, a certain awareness came over them, along with a desire for the chance to live in a world where one can hope for a brighter future.

I find myself wishing for more abandoned bunkers. If they are abandoned, they are not in use. And I would rather live in a world full of decaying wartime buildings than in a world with war.

Baker encourages us to think of the ruins of modernity as spaces of opportunity, of potential.  Of progress.  I want to encourage us to think of the ruins of progress as a space for true potential. We need to re-adjust humanity’s course.  At this stage we are divided between those who want progress towards new and better things, and those who want to improve what we already have.

I want both, but the latter must come first, so that the first does not come at the expense of the latter.


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