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Lewis Mumford: the decline of progress.

Over the course of his life, the sociologist Lewis Mumford took an interest in the negative effects of technology on human societies. This excerpt from Technics and Civilization shows that Mumford was one of the first thinkers to reflect on the twilight of the ideology of indefinite progress, which links human happiness to the triumphal development of science and technology. Though it was first published in 1934, his arguments are still valid (and the slightly revised 1963 edition is still translated and reprinted more than 30 years later). One may wonder if Mumford does not replace the former optimism with the idea that the era beginning for humanity in the 1930s would be one of dynamic equilibrium. World War II and the following years have cruelly disproved Mumford's ideas.

The main justification for the gigantic changes that took place over the course of the nineteenth century was change itself. What happened to human lives and social relations was of little importance, people considered every new invention as a fortunate step forward towards further inventions, and society was advancing blindly like a caterpillar tractor marking its course by the very act of moving. It was supposed that the machine would overcome any limit to movement or growth: the machines had to become larger and larger, the engines stronger, the speed greater, mass production had to increase: even the population had to grow ceaselessly until its needs manage to exceed food production or exhaust the soil's nitrogen reserve. This was the myth of the nineteenth century.

Nowadays [1934], the idea of lineal progress without aim or limit seems perhaps the most miserable idea of a miserable century. The limits on thought and on action, the rules of growth and development are so present in our thought as they were absent from that of the contemporaries of Herbert Spencer. Without a doubt, countless technical improvements remain to be done and they will certainly open up infinite new fields. Yet even in the field of purely mechanical achievements we find that we are already coming up against natural limits, not imposed by human discretion, lack of resources or insufficient technological maturity, but by the very nature of the objects with which we work. The period of exploration and sporadic, non-systematic, advances that seemed to incorporate, in the nineteenth century, the essential characteristics of the new economy, is rapidly drawing to a close. We are now facing a period of systematic consolidation and assimilation. Western civilization as a whole, is in the situation of the western pioneers when they found they had occupied all the available land and established the basic transport and communication lines. Now it has to settle and make best use of what it has. Our machinist system is beginning to reach a state of internal equilibrium. The sign of the era that is beginning is a dynamic equilibrium instead of indefinite progress. Equilibrium, not unilaterally accelerated progress; conservation, not thoughtless pillage, become essential to fulfill such goals.

Technics and Civilization, chapter 8.12.

Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York (1934)

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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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