For the last two centuries or so this has proven a fairly reliable ideology to uphold for the simple fact that so many advancements were made and despite some horrific wars in even recent memory and natural disasters, humanity has triumphed over a number of obstacles which our ancestors struggled with. Take for example the numerous diseases like smallpox and so on which were cured with modern medicine. Widespread malnutrition, famine and droughts were minimized to the point of being forgotten in many local memories in various regions of the industrialized world. Technological development in all things nautical was followed by the automobile and then by aviation, which indeed allowed for the exchange of goods and services on a scale which up until the last century was unimaginable. Humanity also put a number of men on the moon and sent probes to neighboring planets.
Still, industrialization and modernity has brought with it a number of lethal consequences despite remedying a number of humanity's past common problems.
Over a million people die around the world every year in automobile accidents. This is calmly accepted as a natural consequence of development and tolerated. In fact realistic preventative measures are scarcely seriously implemented and instead cars are designed to maximize survivability for the passengers, never mind the pedestrians. Widespread redesign of infrastructures and minimization of automobile use are unpopular ideas and moreover it would slim the sacred cow of economic growth, so despite all the runners and cyclists who would relish living in a city with few cars, there is no political will in much of the world to do this kind of thing. Automobile use is increasing in much of the world, not decreasing, and government plan for more cars on the road, not less.
Another perhaps surprising consequence of industrialization is the epidemic of cancer. I think most people just think cancer has always plagued humanity and the statistic of one in three people getting cancer sometime in their lives as just natural and matter-of-fact. However, as a study carried out recently by the University of Manchester has demonstrated, in the ancient world cancer was not as widespread as it is today. A. Rosalie David and Michael R. Zimmerman conclude their study with the following remarks.
It is hoped that research in palaeopathology will contribute to the elucidation of the pathogenesis of cancer. The publication of the first histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy is one step along the way. Despite the fact that other explanations, such as inadequate techniques of disease diagnosis, cannot be ruled out, the rarity of malignancies in antiquity is strongly suggested by the available palaeopathological and literary evidence. This might be related to the prevalence of carcinogens in modern societies.1
Even the common layman will understand that there are consequences when billions of humans over the course of a century or more dump toxins into the closed global environment. The prevalence of cancer in our present age is in all likelihood directly caused by the sheer amount of pollution produced by industrial civilization over the last century or more.
Indeed, our technological advancement and improved standard of living came with a very heavy price. However, few would be willing to accept this even when presented with solid evidence. It is in stark contrast to the promise of modernity and industrialization – the good life, the promised land and the pleasures produced by technological development and social progress. There is something intolerable about being told that most of your modern comforts are basically responsible for epidemics like cancer, asthma and of course other related phenomena like climate change which is wreaking havoc across the globe and all its inhabitants both animal and human. Your hygienically produced foodstuffs wrapped in plastic and delivered by petroleum powered trucks are directly related to diseases and natural disasters which could easily kill you or one of your loved ones in the future.
Again, this is contrast to the common expectation and vision of human development. Even if one recognizes the problems caused by industry, there is still perhaps the assumption that technology will prevail over these obstacles as humanity steps closer to the promise of a utopia in the future where all diseases have been eradicated and global peace has been firmly established. This kind of naive thinking is perhaps just as reassuring as some religions which promise a post-mortem heaven, but it fails to take into account the realities of the common human condition and resource-limited environment that humanity exists in.
This indeed leads to the monkey wrench in the machinery that derails all hope for a utopia.
We live on a planet with finite resources. Unfortunately, the rest of solar system has been demonstrated to be rather hostile and unlivable, and any hope of finding another suitable planet in our lifetimes or in this century is non-existent given the vast distances between our solar system and neighboring ones. The key finite resource which our species has been gorging itself on especially in the last century is petroleum. This fine concentrated form of energy is the key resource which allowed our present day global infrastructure to be built, complete with endless kilometres of highways and countless airports, and all the vehicles from planes to cars which make use of them. The abundance of food that has allowed our high populations has also been a result of turning stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels into food.
Additionally, industrialized healthcare was also made possible. Consider all the disposable plastic items in just a single surgery operating theater and the vast chain of production and distribution that allows for such a facility to operate. The plastic syringes and stool pans themselves are made of petroleum-based plastics, but the trucks which delivered them and the fossil fuels used to get at the original oil in the ground all likewise depend on the supply of abundant energy.
That being said, imagine what happens when the production of this key finite resource plateaus and the depletion begins. The cost of everything rises at first, but in the long-term the whole global infrastructure and innumerable goods and services become simply unsustainable unless an alternative energy source of the same power is developed.
This is where the religion of progress declares with confidence that some new innovation in the future, which does not exist at the present moment such as abiotic oil or fusion power, will save industrial civilization from reverting into a pre-industrial state and that the progression in human history will only naturally continue towards the stars. Failing that the elites of the world just won't let such a degeneration happen because it would be detrimental to their power and authority. However, we need only consider that the elites of Rome in the west and the Han Dynasty in the east probably did not want their respective civilizations to fracture and collapse, nevertheless, they not being omnipotent, the respective collapses indeed happened without their consent.
John Michael Greer, otherwise called the Archdruid, is a great thinker in the peak oil movement. His definition of the belief in progress is worth quoting here.
It’s not going too far, I think, to call belief in progress the dominant religion of the modern world. For most people nowadays, what matters about our past is that it’s a story of progress, a vast upward sweep from the brutal squalor of a primitive past to the Promethean splendor of a science-fiction future out among the stars. In the modern imagination, the present is by definition bigger and better than the past, just as the future will by definition be bigger and better than the present. For believers in progress, to call something “new” is to define it as “better,” while what’s old is by definition inadequate.
Progress has its own creation myth, rooted in popular distortions of Darwin’s theory of natural selection that twisted the messy, aimless realities of biological evolution until it fit the mythic image of a linear ascent from primeval pond scum to the American suburban middle class. It has its saints, its martyrs, and its hagiographies, ringing endless changes on the theme of the visionary genius disproving the entrenched errors of the past. It has its priests and teachers, of whom the late Carl Sagan – arguably one of the most innovative theologians of the last century, with his mythic “We are star-stuff” narrative that fused 19th century positivism with the latest astrophysics – is probably the best known.
Nevertheless, despite the hopes and dreams of the devotees of progress, there are ecological limits and we have actually passed them. In the last decade alone the world has come to recognize the existence of rapid climate change and all the disasters that come with it. Despite the pleas of many scientists that we must cut emissions and clean up our collective act, not much is being rectified and we can only expect further damages to our soil, the oceans and the atmosphere. However, the ecological limit that we really need to recognize is fossil fuels – and by educated estimations we are past the peak already, which means that from this point on conventional petroleum production will never increase and we can expect it to decrease. The International Energy Association is on record expressing the nature of the problem:
In this scenario, by 2035, three-quarters of the world’s oil production from existing fields will need to be replaced, Mr Tanaka said.
In this scenario, the IEA projects that crude oil production achieves an undulating plateau of 68-69 million barrels per day over the projection period (to 2035).
“Despite the fact that crude oil production doesn’t increase, the need for new capacity on a gross basis is still very large, because so much of the world’s existing production capacity will have been lost by the end of the projection period [of 2035],” said Mr Tanaka.
The peak oil problem is already shaping the nature of this century's political and economic developments. Even the US military is aware of this as the Guardian has reported. From wars in the Middle-East to China's appropriation of the entire South China Sea, the motivating factor for this really boils down to oil, a precious commodity which the globe collectively relies upon and which is the lifeblood of industrial civilization.
However, that lifeblood will be used up and in due time it will be gone. This means, in other words, the end of industrial civilization and all the pleasures (and pains) it has brought with it. The resulting events will not prove agreeable to most of humanity. Again, quoting John Michael Greer:
My take is that modern industrial civilization is on the downslope of its history, headed for the compost heap of fallen empires alongside all the dead civilizations of the past. Peak oil and the other elements of the crisis of the contemporary world, in this analysis, are simply the current manifestations of patterns that shaped the fall of other civilizations, and our future will most likely follow a similar course – an extended, uneven decline extending over more than a century, including repeated periods of crisis followed by partial recoveries, ending in a dark age in which much of the technology, knowledge base, and cultural heritage of today will survive in fragments or be completely lost.
Hence, unless said author is very much mistaken, we can expect the altars of progress to come crashing down and the faith in the machine to be utterly lost when the rapture of a technological solution fails to liberate the masses from their woes.
That our civilization will come to an end and that we are witnessing the initial stages of it is worth deep consideration. For Buddhists and most Hindus with some background reading in classical Indian literature, such a chain of events and degeneration of things will not prove overly shocking given the conviction of many to believe that we are presently in an age of decline, whether it be called kaliyuga or the dharma ending age.
The valuable insight to be gained from seeing things through such a perspective will enable the individual (in particular those oriented towards spiritual practices) to plan their lives accordingly and free themselves of unrealistic worldviews that promise greener pastures no matter what.
The concept of kaliyuga – a cycle within time characterized by degeneracy in the world – appears not only in Hindu literature, but also in some later period Buddhist literature. I have never seen any reference to it in East Asian Buddhist literature, but in Tibetan Buddhism kaliyuga is common knowledge. According to the Sūrya Siddhānta, a key Indian astronomical treatise, kaliyuga started on February 18th, 3102 BCE. Richard Thompson in his work Vedic Astronomy posits there was an alignment of planets on this day which suitably marks the beginning of the age.
The other yugas in order are satya, tretā and dvāpara. The satyayuga is the period of truth which is said to start upon the conclusion of a kaliyuga. This kind of perception of time is radically different from how we generally see time in the modern west and elsewhere where it is linear and progressive. The future, though uncertain, is forecast as being better than now due to anticipated advancements in technology and longer lifespans. I think even in the face of severe climate change and doomsday prophets on the internet, the majority of people are optimistic that technology, industry and democracy will allow humanity to prevail against nature and our inborn impulses. In other words, time is seen as progressive, not degenerate. Things will get better, not worse.
It should be noted here that the kaliyuga does not mean the apocalypse, but rather is a predicted cycle of time in the cosmos. It is a vision of time that is not linear and progressive which is quite unlike the modern western conception of time as noted above. Instead, one views time in cycles of repetition with inevitable decay and degeneracy. According to said line of thought, if we examine things from our present point of time things are expected to worsen, both socially and environmentally. Industrialization, capitalism, secularization of society, technological development – these features of the modern age are actually not seen as progress, but a sign of long-term degeneracy. This is perhaps an alien way of seeing things to many modern people.
Whether or not things are seen in such a light or not, the reality is that our industrial civilization is destined to self-terminate by virtue of the simple fact it is locked into devouring fossil fuels which ironically while destroying the environment are essential to maintain military power and in turn resources. Again, whether you fit this in with the aforementioned kaliyuga narrative is perhaps unimportant, because the trends and facts of our present predicament point to collapse and immeasurable suffering in the coming decades.
Consider that a voluntarily reduction in resource consumption and industry, which we need to do but will not, would be tantamount to sacrificing military power which is heavily tied to an economy whose lifeblood is nothing other than environmental-destroying fossil fuels. Joseph Tainter in his work The Collapse of Complex Societies explains this as follows.
Here the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foodhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.2
In other words, to actively pursue de-industrialization and economic undevelopment, while beneficial to the global ecosystem, would be equivalent to disarmament, which for any power in the world would not be seen favorably. However, to support oneself military, one must ensure economic growth. Economic maintenance depends on the consumption of fossil fuels in our modern age. Hence, fossil fuels are required for economic stability and growth, which in turn is necessary for military power. If you want to ensure military strength, you need to burn fossil fuels, but in burning fossil fuels you also push the human impact on the environment past the red line and ecological payback follows. Military power, economic growth and ecological doom all go hand in hand.
Nevertheless, the burning of fossil fuels continues onward to an ensured self-created doom. It will continue. There are more than enough reserves to be tapped to push us past the red line and we will go past those limits. Bill McKibben points this out in his article:
"If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons -- five times more than we can ever safely burn."
Both economic and military security are firmly tied to a finite resource whose use incidentally is responsible for the aberration which is industrial civilization. Humanity has created a system that is set to self-terminate regardless if we collectively agree to it or not. The unfortunate tragedy is that times of decline in history are almost always characterized by violence and death. As the resource pool shrinks intolerance, community fracturing and a breakdown in social order all ensue. Humanity will live on, but our modern industrial civilization will collapse and in the process demographics will return to pre-industrial models where populations like we presently have will become completely unsustainable. This means over the next century or two six to seven billion humans will likely be scratched from the global population. Like the fall of Rome and other civilizations this will result in a vast loss of knowledge and skills. Historically when civilizations collapsed this kind of population loss has not been unheard of.
Buddhism has historically often stood the test of collapsing civilizations unless it was a foreign force intentionally set on destroying it as was the case India. This may be a light in an otherwise dark forlorn corridor of grief appearing before us. The reality of impermanence applies as much as it does to civilizations as it does to lifeforms. The cyclical nature of history cannot be halted. Hence, the best thing a Buddhist can do is that instead of trying to save the world with seemingly bright albeit ultimately unrealistic ideas it would do best to enter voluntarily poverty and keep their heads down while devoting themselves to Dharma. Voluntary poverty means that when crashes come, you're already near rock bottom, so there will be no hard crashing.
The cycle of history at the moment is heading rapidly towards collapse. This is a natural process at work we see in history. We're just unfortunately at the starting stages of rapid decline. You can't prevent it. The only bright future you can expect is one brought about through spiritual cultivation. The religion of progress will prove a catastrophic failure and their narratives will be relegated to the piles of history's failed hopes and dreams. If you have cultivated yourself mentally and spiritually, then the degenerate process at work will prove much less painful than it otherwise will be.
1A. Rosalie David & Michael R. Zimmerman. “Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between?” Nature Reviews Cancer 10, (October 2010), 732.
2 Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge: Cambride University Press, 1988), 214.