Have We Progressed and Is Progress Worth It?

Novel themes are fun because they’re subtle. It’s possible to read a book without realizing what the theme is even though it’s usually there, lurking in the background.

Ironically, the theme of the novel it’s taken me more than a year to revise is progress. I think about progress a lot.

Have we, as humans, progressed? There’s no doubt we have. But sometimes it seems as if for every step forward, we take at least another step back. We have time saving devices like computers and washing machines, but they cause pollution and disposal problems. Cars and highways were once seen as signs of progress over horses and dirt roads. Now traffic jams slow any progress down.

Electricity was another sign of progress. Yet we still create most of our electricity by burning fossil fuels. Now we’re looking toward using alternative energy sources. Any meaningful progress seems too slow.

Throughout history, most of our progress has come at the expense of nature. Nature does have a way of fighting back though. Sometimes I can’t help but think this would be progress of a different kind:

nature, progress

Maybe progress shouldn’t be measured by technology and inventions, but by how we treat each other. When looked at that way, there have been huge strides since the 1950s when segregation ruled the South and a woman’s place was in the home (and only the home). So while we keep taking steps forward and back, hopefully we’ll continue to take a few leaps ahead every once in a while. Sometimes we don’t even realize progress is happening until we look back and say, “Wow, everything is different. How did that happen?”

What are your thoughts on progress? Is progress worth it?

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33 thoughts on “Have We Progressed and Is Progress Worth It?

  1. I believe we don’t know how good we have it till its gone. Often the simple pleasures of childhood, are now so different in today’s world. I think kids used their imaginations more, due to having to make their own fun. Now its all fun on an X box. Kids indoors more, than being outside, enjoying the days with friends in real. How we treat each other now, is effected by the technology, and I fear there is no going back.

    • That’s true, and not knowing how good we have it until it’s gone makes me think of nature too. Some of those video games seem pretty violent whenever I see the commercials for them. I can see how that doesn’t seem like progress when compared with playing outside. That’s definitely something to think about – thank you for stopping by.

  2. I’ll respond to your mention of theme in a novel. To me, this is one of the most nebulous things about writing. I know what I want my theme to be, but I’m not sure I’m adequately invoking it. I didn’t concentrate so much on this with my first couple novels, but I’m much more focused on it with my current WIP.

    • It is tricky to bring in something that should be subtle! It can be brought up every once in a while in conversation or just the thoughts of the character, but you don’t want to detract from the story by going off on the theme either. So for the progress theme, it kind of ended up coming through in little things the main character would see or think about – but only every once in a while so that it’s sort of sprinkled in. Stephen King had some good things to say about novel themes in On Writing so that helped me along with it.

  3. I think everything happens in cycles. One day playing vintage outside games will become trendy once again. Change isn’t necessarily progress, or vice versa. But humans always want what they don’t have, that part always stays the same.

    • Vintage outdoor games sound like fun – I’d like to play a few of those! It’s true that change isn’t the same as progress – change is much easier. It would be nice to see more real progress in our lifetimes.

  4. With progress comes great consequences, good and bad, depending on how you handle the results. Overall we are healthier and live longer than we used to, we can do things no other humans have done before and we have really gone global. In the meantime, we have become more self-centered and selfish, have lost many of our good manners, and are raising spoiled kids who will have a very hard time dealing with a new world when they are grown up. I think there’s more good than bad in progress but it’s a delicate balance if we’re not careful and we may be reaching the tipping point soon.

    • That’s so true! It really is a delicate balance. There’s been so much progress in the medical field, but then that leads to overpopulation and all the problems that come with it too. I’m also hoping there’s more good than bad in progress, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.

      • Hopefully the countries that are growing rapidly will eventually slow their growth down, like most developed countries. Most countries in Europe actually have an aging overall population, so it is possible to lower the birth rate, but it does take time. And who knows how much time we have. I also hope that technology will allow us to work remotely more and more and help us reduce our carbon footprint by traveling or commuting less.

      • Yes, I can see how technology could help us with a lot of environmental problems in the future so I guess it’s not always all that evil. :)

  5. I remember a pastor once said that we humans were designed to always move forward as our feet faces the front and not the back…we walk forward naturally and progress happens naturally. Progress means we change, some good and some not so good. Learning to adapt can be difficult at times. Great post…;)

  6. I guess everything comes at the cost of something else.
    Let’s be thankful there is a growing awareness about environmental protection and preservation of nature.
    Progress definitely is worth the effort :)

  7. I like the image of a spiral. We seem to go in circles, but actually we revisit old things from new perspectives / heights. So we find 18c writing on inequality and the fear of new technology and humanitarianism. No change then? Well, as you say, some progress in that some have equality, some regress in that the dominant ideology of capitalism insists it is the only ‘true way’ (sound familiar!)
    I am very much with you that the most important change is psycho-social. We have to learn how to nurture each other more urgently than explore space or the ocean. That said, we must not allow the world to burn from our foolishness while we stare up our own existential tract!

    • We do seem to keep spiraling! I think we need to start looking at progress in new ways. For the last few centuries, progress meant clearing forests and building towns or cities or new inventions that mostly came at the expense of nature. Now that we’ve realized that, any progress could be thought of as things that might reverse some of that and help the environment.

  8. Every choice has its consequences. And we usually don’t realize that—until, maybe, it’s too late. I love the conveniences of modern life and the health care that let’s us stay together far longer than we could in the past. But the costs are there—overpopulation and polluted environments, for example.

    Maybe the next stage in our evolution should include more thought about potential consequences than we currently have.

    • I agree that needs to be the next stage in our evolution. We’re going to have to consider the environment more before we act if we want to have a future. It’s good to hear an archaeologist’s point of view on something like this – thank you!

    • It is a tricky thing. Sometimes my thoughts on it also depend on my mood at the time. Mostly, I think of progress as anything that moves the world forward in a positive direction, but then people have different definitions of positive and negative.

  9. So much progress is stymied by ignorance. 90 percent of the people around you can be color blind as far as race, but 10 percent racists is still a huge number and so it seems progress isn’t what it should be. 90 percent around you could be green thinkers, but 10 percent want those big-ass gas-guzzling Suburbans for a young husband, wife and two toddlers, and it seems the message isn;t getting through. It is, but s l o w l y.

    • Sometimes that 10 percent can be pretty loud too. Progress really is slow. It’s pretty crazy that it can take generations to see the effects, especially when most of us want more immediate changes.

  10. Very thought provoking, Sheila. I agree with your concerns about progress. I think we need to appreciate more ‘in the moment’ rather than constantly looking for The Next Big Thing. This might be why I am a traditionalist at heart. I am in awe of the people who, long ago, figured things out to get us to this place we’re at now. Of course this changes as we ‘progress’ and eventually I’ll be in awe of my generation and the strides we have made.

    As far as novel themes, I love weaving them into stories. I think they emerge organically if we don’t force the issue too much. Once it pops its head through, it’s fairly easy to thread it among the plotlines.

    • Thanks Kate! I wonder about it too because I’m not so sure all the technology makes us any happier and lots of “stuff” can definitely get in the way of happiness. That’s a great way of explaining novel themes and that’s what happened with my book too. I didn’t set out to include it and even as I was concentrating on just writing the story, the theme would seep in like magic every once in a while.

  11. I think medical progress the most important “progress” of all. There are so many people I know who would not be here if it weren’t for all the hard work put into medical science in the last few years. In that sense I think progress is fantastic! :)

    • I wonder about that too. I think we’ve progressed in some ways, just not in others. It does feel like we’re taking steps forward and backward at the same time and it ends up becoming some kind of a crazy dance.

  12. Have aches and pains, stomach troubles or sexual problems? We’ve created the drugs to help you…but listen carefully to the disclaimers and warnings on the commercials. The lists of side effects are long and sometimes dangerous, but don’t despair: we have more drugs to treat those, too, followed by more warnings. Our drugs won’t make you live longer…it will just seem like it.
    I’d say your questions about progress will invite many responses!

    • That’s funny – at first I thought this was spam. I’d like to think it’s all generally worth it but more and more I’m not so sure. Does technology make us happier? It might save us some time but then that time is spent with more technology. Those drug commercials are funny and I’ve always wondered who’s out there taking those things – why would anyone deal with all those side effects? Everything seems to be designed so that more is needed when a simpler life is what would make people happier.

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