by Steven Best

“The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely.” Julian Simon, economist

“At the gates of the Coliseum and the concentration camp, we have no choice but to abandon hope that civilization is, in itself, a guarantor of moral progress.” Ronald Wright, historian

We live in dark, disturbing times: we are witnesses to proliferating wars, perpetual genocide, predatory global capitalism, rampant militarism, unparalleled government surveillance and repression, a phony “war on terrorism” that fronts for attacks on dissent and liberties, the ever-present threat of financial collapse and global depression, the sixth great extinction crisis in the earth’s history, climate change, and planetary meltdown. Scientists warn that we are at a tipping point of global ecological collapse, and report the shocking speed of catastrophic changes such as which turn icecaps into water and forests into savannas.

Welcome to the fruits of “progress.” The modernist ideology par excellance, progress has been defined as the expansion of the human empire over animals and nature; bringing other species and the natural world under human command; and overcoming the “primitive,” “savage,” and “barbaric” states of premodern human existence itself. Progress is measured in terms of domination over other species and the environment, as well as overcoming “undeveloped” premodern cultures. The inherent fallacies and disastrous consequences of the long lineage of dominator cultures that peaked in modern European societies led to a volatile contradiction between the social and natural worlds. The questions is not if this will be resolved, but will it be through compulsion or choice, throughout breakdown or breakthrough, through collapse and extinction or through choice and consciously harmonizing human existence with biodiversity and the laws of ecology.

This is a difficult moment to argue for the notion of progress. Indeed, who thinks that tomorrow will be better than today? That their children will inherit a brighter future? That jobs, wages, and retirement plans will be secure? That homes, health care, and education will be affordable? That the plight of the poor and needy will be overcome?[i] That the ecosystems that system life will convalesce rather than collapse? Didn’t the dream of the Enlightenment – that the spread of reason, science, technology, and “free markets” would bring autonomy, peace, and prosperity to all – die on the slaughterbench of the twentieth century? On that macabre period scarred by world wars, fascism, totalitarianism, genocide, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and threat of nuclear annihilation, corporate hegemony, and environmental breakdown? Barely out of the starting gates, the twenty-first century opened with attacks on the World Trade Center, the deployment of an endless “war on terror” masking a war on democracy, the unparalleled rise of surveillance and security states, escalating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasingly aggressive neoliberalism and globalization, ever-widening gaps between the world’s rich and poor, and accelerating species extinction and catastrophic climate change.

Toward the end of the 1960s, a new wave of counter-enlightenment thinkers, or postmodernists, rose to prominence with denunciations of civilization, modernity, and the notion of progress. They were influenced by Max Weber’s critique of the “iron cage of reason,” Martin Heidegger’s critique of technological domination, and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s analysis of the failure of the Enlightenment project and revolutionary Marxism. Whereas eighteenth century theorists saw the spread of reason promoting autonomy, freedom, and world peace, Horkheimer and Adorno described the perverse irony in which rationality instead produced technical domination, totalitarianism, fascism, and systems of cultural control. Whereas Enlightenment, “aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters,” they wrote, “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”[ii]

Similarly, Michel Foucault rejected the Enlightenment equation that happiness and freedom advance in proportion to the spread of reason science, and technology. He resolved the “unity of Western history” into discrete eras with no developmental logic or coherence. Rather than an endless and undeviating road to human perfection, Foucault saw history as shifting power constellations that “progressed,” if anything, toward increasing regulation and control of bodies, populations, and minds.[iii] Jean-Francois Lyotard diagnosed the fin-de-siècle “postmodern condition” as a jaded cynicism toward any “metanarrative” (e.g., Hegelian, Marxist, or capitalist) that charted history as the development of freedom and progress.[iv] Against the totalizing critiques of postmodernists, Jurgen Habermas championed the Enlightenment as an “unfinished project” that harbored not only the instrumental rationality of technical and bureaucratic domination, but also the “communicative rationality” underlying critical thinking, argumentative debate, and dialogic skills vital for freedom and democracy.[v]

Progress is the myth of modernity and a potent ideology and secular faith. It has promoted a fetishism of growth, control, and money. It functioned as an alibi for greed, exploitation, genocide, and the crushing of peoples, animals, biodiversity, and the natural world under the burgeoning corporate-military juggernaut. It helped to create and legitimate Eurocentrism, colonialism, industrialism, capitalism, imperialism, consumerism, and systematic eradication of humans, animals, and environments. According to Enlightenment thinkers, progress involves emancipation from the domination of nature and tyranny of ignorance, and proceeds in stages as society evolves beyond “savage,” “primitive,” “stagnant,” and “barbarian” civilizations, escapes the bondage and tyranny of the “Dark Ages,” and takes the great leap forward into the great “Age of Reason.”

But the new postmodern concept cannot correct our course and inspire deep moral and institutional changes without a posthuman foundation that defines moral and social progress in ways that transcend anthropocentric and speciesist ideologies in favor of a radical broadening of ethics and community. This demands overcoming discrimination and hierarchical domination of any kind, not only the domination of human over human but also the elevation of humans over other animals and the physical world as a whole.

A Brief Genealogy

“Progress knows nothing of fixity. It cannot be pressed into a definite mould. It cannot bow to the dictum, `I have ruled,’ `I am the regulating finger of God.’ Progress is ever renewing, ever becoming, ever changing—never is it within the law.” Emma Goldman

The notion of progress – which states that history advances in a definite, desirable, straightforward, and irreversible direction of constant improvement — has become so entrenched in modern thinking, it is easy to forget that it is a relatively recent invention. Certainly not all cultures were as dynamic as European modernity, few embraced change with such vigor, and none identified it as progress.

The progressivist narrative covers a historical sweep of ten thousand years, and begins proper marking the revolutionary shift from hunting and gathering lifeways to farming and agricultural society. Progressivists view the domestication of plants and animals as the “great leap forward” from “savagery” to “civilization.” It assumes more is good and bigger is better, and modernity is the apex of history. While it rightly interprets this shift from hunting-gathering cultures to agricultural society as perhaps the most important revolution in history, it tendentiously maligned the old world to champion the new world without seeing the regressive nature of farming cultures and how they spawned the pathologies and systems of domination that imperil us today.

“Progress” represented a radical departure from premodern and non-Western ways of thinking. Modern thinkers broke with the pessimistic, cyclical model of the ancient world that saw time as repetitive rather than innovative, as an eternal recurrence rather than an evolving process. According to the ancient outlook, history played out in the rise and fall of civilizations, infinitely repeating cycles of chaos and order, of birth and destruction, driven by monotonous dynamics devoid of purpose, goal, meaning, or direction. As evident in Plato’s metaphysics, many ancient philosophers and historians equated the passage of time with corruption and decay; they denigrated the empirical world as mere appearance and falsehood, while seeking truth in timeless essences. The Greco-Roman worldview was fatalistic, determinist, and cyclical rather than optimistic, open-ended, and linear. From Homer to the Roman Stoics, the ancients clung to a belief in Moira, an inflexible law of the universe to which human beings must acquiesce. Their cosmology did not allow, let alone inspire, people to conceive of gradual improvement in human affairs and to look forward to a future better than the present and past.

Unlike the Providential vision, Progressive history demands a positive view of change, a rejection of an inalterable universe hostile to human purposes, a renunciation of a fixed human nature, an affirmation of human ingenuity, an optimistic belief that humans can gradually improve themselves and their societies over time, and thus a type of linear narrative depicting conditions improving from generation to generation. Key roots of Western progressivism lie in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The enigmatic belief that history had meaning – human beings struggling to realize Divine purpose — and steadily advanced from the sin to salvation of spirit (for an elite few) was a radical departure from the pessimistic, cyclical model of the ancients.

Yet, the ascendance of progressivist history required not only a linear narrative and stage model of ameliorative change, but also the innovation of real forces capable of bringing advances in science, technology, the arts, medicine, culture, and life overall. Cumulatively, these innovations inspired optimism that the future will be better than the present. From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the preconditions necessary for a full-fledged progressivist discourse took shape, prepared by the Renaissance, modern science, the Enlightenment, the French and American Revolutions, capitalism, and the industrial revolution. Beginning in the eighteenth century, Enlightenment visionaries witnessed advances in learning, reason, criticism, liberty, individuality, and happiness. Progress would emerge, they thought, through the unstoppable achievements of science and ever-more enlightened activity of governments. Despite skeptics, the growing consensus was that laws of history could be discerned; that reason, freedom, and markets could spread peace and prosperity worldwide; and even that human nature and society were “perfectible.”

Modern thinkers embraced the progressivist form of the Christian narrative, and maintained a place for God and faith, while nonetheless given a secular coding.[vi] Modern science did not break with the anthropocentric and speciesist ideology of orthodox Christianity, but rather appropriated and bolstered the project of dominating nature and exploiting animals through more invasive, advanced, and deadly technosciences. Thus, in the transition from Providential to Progressivist history, Man usurps the place of God; Humanism is the new Gospel; Science and Technology form the new Faith; and Profit and Competition are indubitable truths and sacred values.[vii]

As evident by the unshakeable confidence of Condorcet, who was jailed and executed by functionaries of the French Revolution he rapturously praised, Enlightenment faith in Progress was often as dogmatic as Christian conviction in Providence. Although modernists de-deified the historical process, they formed new gods in Man and built the “Church of Reason” (Auguste Comte).Consequently, many Enlightenment figures espoused a secularized Providential and Salvationist narrative that traced the development of man from ignorance to knowledge, from slavery to freedom, from coarse existence to perfectibility. Humanism is less a philosophy than a theology in which humans deify themselves as Lords of the Earth and claim the right to commandeer its teeming life and fecund resources for perfection and salvation in the material world.

Despite the “Renaissance” in knowledge and arts, and the awakening of autonomy and critical reason in the “Age of Enlightenment,” the new European cultures perpetuated regnant dogmas and ignorance, replicated anthropocentrism and speciesism, perpetuated cruelties, torture, pogroms, and conquests, replaced monarchical domination with the oligarchic tyranny of capital, and intensified hierarchies while disseminating oppressive power systems. The domineering views of official Christianity combined with humanism and the emerging technosciences, thereby reinforcing the ontological and moral chasm dividing human and nonhuman animals, alienated from and hostile to wilderness and nature, and promoting unprecedented pathologies of power targeting global peoples, “brute beasts,” and inhospitable forms of nature.

The modern notion of progress retained Christian views that humans are separate from nature and that animals and the earth are theirs to possess and dominate. Indeed, the influence of anthropocentrism and specialism grew stronger throughout the “Age of Reason.” Dramatic advances in science and technology; the emancipation of rational inquiry from Church strictures; a grow-or-die market society organized around profit, commodification, and accumulation imperatives; and exponential population growth – all these factors brought about a massive, expanding, intensive, and horrifying system of animal slavery. The modern, “civilized,” and “enlightened” world proved itself more barbarous than any past culture as it reduced animals to nonsentient machines and tortured them mercilessly without anesthetic in the dungeons of vivisection laboratories. Further advances in technological and scientific domination led to the industrialization of animal farming through factory farms and slaughterhouses, as well as to genetic engineering and cloning based on the most invasive control and manipulation of animal bodies possible, manipulating their genomes and cloning them in mass homogenous batches.[viii]

With strong roots in political economy and the capitalist theory of Homo economicus, the progressivist vision assumes that humans are rational, self-interested beings who seek constant change and advances in their lives. According to this ideology, each generation lives better than their predecessors and the generations to come will tap the resources of even greater technical advances, comforts, and markets of possibility. Since the seventeenth century, progress has been measured in strictly quantitative terms, such as growing powers of technical control over nature and constantly expanding markets and wealth creation spreading peace and prosperity throughout the globe.

Modernist measures of progress rely on indices such as production quotas, employment rates, profit margins, housing sales, consumer confidence levels, and the Gross National Product. Aside from ignoring the catastrophic impact of growth on exploited peoples, animals, and the environment, the quantitative model cannot measure intangibles such as meaning, satisfaction, and happiness. Thus, it cannot address the question of whether western industrial capitalism is a “better” social system than premodern forms. Indeed, the evidence points decisively in the other direction, showing that in myriad ways modernity is regressive in relation to the many advantages of non-formal and non-hierarchical societies.

As there is no direct connection between changes in the objective and subjective worlds, between wealth and well-being, and between the quantity of goods and the quality of life, and as happiness and satisfaction are not mathematical variables, there must be a qualitative measure of progress. Indeed, a dramatic indicator that modern Western societies are not progressing in crucial areas like health and happiness is the fact that psychological, social, and physical afflictions climb in proportion to the rate of modernization. It is a well-known fact that the more “advanced” a society, the higher its rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, mental illness, depression, job dissatisfaction, crime, murder, divorce, and so on.[ix] Given the inverse relation between social development and human fulfillment, and between economic growth and ecological balance, we need new and varied means of measuring progress.[x]

But progress was measured not only according to narrow range of material indicators related to advances in science, technology, and prosperity, it tracked advances only as enjoyed by the privileged elite minorities and never took into account the impact rulers had on the ruled and the catastrophic consequences industrial capitalism had on the lives of the working classes. A few theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marquis de Condorcet, and Karl Marx saw the fallacy, and rejected any concept of progress wherein the vast majority of peoples’ lives dramatically worsen in hyper-exploitative conditions designed by and for elites. For socialists, Marxists, and anarchists, genuine progress would result only upon ending exploitation, abolishing classes, and distributing the benefits of science, technology, and labor equally throughout society, benefiting as many people as possible, and upon this basis genuine humanity could emerge and flourish, creating true conditions of progress and social advance.

The Limitations of Humanism

“Slavery is the first step toward civilization. In order to develop it is necessary that things should be much better for some and much worse for others, then those who are better off can develop at the expense of others.” Alexander Herzen, 19th century Russian socialist

Modernity is a huge subterfuge constructed in as a zero-sum game, which is a situation in which one group gains only if the other loses, and loses because the victor appropriate their resources. Thus, capitalists are rich only because workers are poor and workers are poor because capitalists exploit their labor power and appropriate surplus value as profit. Powerful states and empires amass wealth and power by stealing resources and enslaving people from vanquished states. The world’s “developed” nations become so by siphoning resources and wealth from “undeveloped” nations, which in fact were intentionally underdeveloped and suffered poverty and lack brought on by colonization. The cities and palaces of Europe could not have been erected without the reducing African cities to rubble and its peoples to slaves.

But the obscenity whereby one human group or class does to another to advance its own interests in the name of “progress” is exponentially greater if we consider the worst case of this injustice, which is how a particular class or group – an entire species in this case, Homo sapiens – gains at the expense of others — millions of other animal species and countless billion individuals that humans enslave to grow their populations, wealth, and comfort. In the greatest zero-sum game of all, the advances beneficial to humanity exist in inverse relation to other animals, such that the more — human gain, the more animals lose and the greater the human comfort the greater the suffering and death of animals. While helping humanity in highly uneven ways (as determined by class and other systems of hierarchy and discrimination), modern technoscience intensified the misery and slaughter of animals and exacerbated the destruction of the earth. This is evident in the horrors of vivisection, factory farming, slaughterhouses, fur farming, species extinction, global warming, pollution and poisoning, and the degradation and weakening of all ecosystems and the evolutionary planks of life.

From the animal and ecological standpoints, therefore, “progress” is regress, humanism is barbarism, the “light” of Reason brings darkness and madness, and science sanctifies sadism. And since injury and damage to nonhuman animals and ecosystems inevitably undermines human existence itself, such “gains” are short-term at best, and bill for the true social and ecological costs of this system is now due, and will be shouldered by current underdeveloped nations who contributed least to climate change, while the heaviest costs will burden all future generations.

Against the metanarrative that dates progress in history with the rise of agricultural society, Jared Diamond calls the transition from hunting and gathering to farming “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”[xi]Agriculture brought infectious diseases, malnutrition, a shorter life span, more work, worsened position of women, introduced class-based inequality, and on the whole it “inextricably combines causes of our rise and our fall.”[xii] The agricultural revolution came with a huge cost and brought numerous regressive developments, especially for animals. The expansion of human population and needs meant the need for the slave labor of animals. Gradually, humans learned how to exploit animals for milk, food, clothing, labor, and transportation, as they also discerned how to manipulate the reproductive lives of animals by castration (to make males more docile) and artificial selection. Over time, humans dominated other animals through hobbling, confinement, whips, prods, chains, and branding to mark them as private property, and now manipulate them all the way down to the genetic level.

To call modernization processes and the current state of the world “progress” is nothing short of madness. The dominator worldview of Western culture – indeed, the entire sweep of agricultural society – has been a calamitous error. The narratives, values, and identities of human supremacy that helped bring us to this dead-end cannot lead us to safe ground, but rather only ensure and hasten our demise. The fallacious and disastrous consequences of separating humans from nature, of attempting to control nature and bend it to the human will, and the arrogant dismissal of limits to growth in favor of the fantasy infinite supplies all pouring from the inexhaustible cornucopia of food, land, and resources, is evident in the ecological crisis reverberating through the world.

No coherent, consistent, or defensible definition of progress would sanction the exploitation of the majority of humans for the benefit of a minority, nor would it privilege human interests over the interests of animals and considerations of ecology. Progress cannot be defined in reference to the human community alone. It is a bizarre notion of progress that presides over a ten thousand year animal holocaust, a mass extinction crisis, and the ruination of every ecosystem including serious damage caused to the equilibrium responsible for maintaining a balanced and hospitable earth temperature. The fatal contradiction of humanism grows ever clearer and more malignant: as long as humans butcher animals and ravage nature, they decimate and destroy their own lives, for a viable social world depends on a flourishing natural world with integral ecological systems and rich biodiversity.

We assuredly need new, multidimensional ways of measuring progress that measure the quality of life (e.g., meaningful work and leisure time) rather than fetishized variables of quantitative growth. But the new paradigms proposed by visionary thinkers (such as Edward Burch’s “General Progress Index”) are fatally flawed. The new models must be more far-reaching than most dare to imagine, such that they transcend the limits of humanism – however democratically or universally conceived — in order to bring animal rights and ecological ethics into the forefront of a postmodern ethic and concept of progress compatible with the flourishing of other species and the earth.

The Task of Reconstruction

“Not least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all the reactionary arguments against Western Culture in the service of progressive enlightenment.” Theodor Adorno

In the current era of the sixth great species extinction crisis, rainforest destruction, global warming, and runaway human population growth, we must recognize that the Emperor has no clothes, and it is time to call Western civilization for what it is – a metastasizing system of domination, war, slavery, slaughter, and ecological disaster. The fallacious and disastrous consequences of separating humans from nature, attempting to dominate nature and bend it to the human will, and thinking nature is an inexhaustible cornucopia of resources is evident in the ecological crisis reverberating through the world.[xiii] The earth itself is refuting the dualistic, anthropocentric, and hierarchical philosophies that informed Western thought from Aristotle and Aquinas to Descartes and Bacon to Marx and beyond into the present day.

But rather than merely deconstruct progress and strand ourselves in a nihilistic wasteland without a moral compass, we can reconstruct the concept to chart a radically new way forward that can stave off social chaos, unimaginable suffering and loss of human and animal life, and ecological collapse. Only through reference to some notion of progress can we assess whether our lives and societies are moving in a positive direction. We can gauge whether a new job or school is better than a prior one, whether one’s health or finances are improving or deteriorating, and how one’s life is proceeding on the whole. Unlike traditional peoples, modern westerners live within dynamic societies and they expect their lives to “improve” over time, and parents want their children’s lives to be better than their own. Of course, since the quality of individual lives is greatly affected by their social circumstances, citizens must have a means to assess whether their society is moving in a positive or negative direction.

One can easily recognize the need for better policies – for progress — in critical areas such as education, health care, and jobs, as well as amelioration of social inequality, poverty, and homelessness. Similarly, one can imagine striking improvement in the reduction or elimination of animal abuse, along with gains in the health of the forests, waterways, and air quality. “Progress” is an indispensable critical and normative concept that can be used to advance democracy, freedom, autonomy, and ecology, and to move society in a healthy and sane rather than dysfunctional and self-destructive direction. Even anarcho-primitivists like John Zerzan — who rejects the totality of civilization and longs for mode of existence prior not only to agricultural society but to the emergence of speech and symbolic thought — assume some concept of progress in the view (held by the more hard-core critics) that things would greatly improve with the collapse of industrial society and “civilization.”[xiv]

“Progress” entails two distinct conditions: (1) change (from one state or situation to another), and (2) improvement (the new state or situation is an “advance” over the prior one). Whereas the second condition entails the first, the first in no way demands the second, as change can bring about worse rather than better conditions for individuals or a society. Positive assurances to the contrary, the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 considerably worsened environmental and labor conditions in Canada, the US, and Mexico while benefiting multinational corporations, exactly as it was intended but not represented. Since the 1980s, paralleling developments globally, US corporate profits have risen, CEO salaries have skyrocketed (now over 400 times the wages of the average worker), the gap between rich and poor has grown steadily wider.

In a world predicated on rapid, chaotic, directionless flux, “progress” is an indispensable critical and normative concept that can be used to advance democracy, freedom, autonomy, and ecology and animal rights, and thereby move society in a healthy, humane, and sane direction rather barreling down the dysfunctional, dehumanizing, omnicidal, and self-destructive path onto which we still ourselves locked and immobilized. The concept of progress is a means of guiding and directing change in the direction of greater democracy, freedom, ecological balance, and respect for nonhuman animal life and the earth as a whole.

Today it is patently obvious that no viable concept of progress can be dominionist, anthropocentrist, and speciesist, or can ignore the evolutionary and ecological unity and coherence of the social and natural worlds. A definition of progress that violently elevates humans over all other animals, that enslaves every being from which it can draw blood and profit, that fetishizes growth and mandates plunder, and that is fueled by addiction and unsustainable appetites, implodes from the weight of its own contradictions. A sound concept of progress is necessarily holistic, and grasps the interrelations and evolutionary continuity among the natural, animal, and human worlds. It abandons hackneyed hierarchies, pseudo-separations, and indefensible prejudices of all kinds, as it views nonhuman animals as sentient subjects of a life entirely of their own purposes and value. It grasps the revolutionary transformations humans have to make in their psychologies and societies in order to live in harmony rather the natural world, rather than in antagonism and contradiction with it.

A postmodern, posthumanist concept of progress repudiates the zero-sum game of winners and losers. The only meaningful definition of progress refers to improvements in life for all – not just “all” humans but all species and individuals — and does not sanction the exploitation of the majority for the benefit of a minority. This new concept breaks with domineering and dualistic views that define human interests in opposition to other species and the natural world, rather than understanding humans as inseparably involved with the vast biocommunity and entire globe. This equal consideration extends in principle not only to all human interests (and therefore requires a theory of global justice), it also gives equal consideration to the interests of animals and the requirements of ecological integrity and balance.

Quite unlike the humanist definition, however broad, “radical,” and “egalitarian,” a new account of progress must incorporate nonhuman animals into the category of “all” who must benefit (or at least not be harmed) from regulations, laws, and social policies. We need to advance a new universalism that transcends the arbitrary and parochial mindset of humanism to focus intensely on respecting and protecting the inherent value of nonhuman species and the natural environment, as we understand and cultivate healthy and flourishing relationships among humans, animals, and the natural world. In contradistinction to postmodern attacks on “totalizing” theories and grand narratives, the problem is not with stories that they are too universal and occlude cultural differences, but rather with frameworks that are not universal and inclusive enough.

Accordingly, it seems prudent to define social progress as occurring whenever advances in democracy, equality, and rights in ways that maximize the material and psychological well-being of as many beings – human and nonhuman – as possible, while harmonizing with ecological dynamics. On this conception, progress is measured according to the degree that change promotes the well-being and integrity of three overlapping worlds: human animals, nonhuman animals, and the natural environment. If some humans benefit (say by developing oil resources in the Arctic wilderness) at the expense of animals and the earth, that is not progress: not only were benefits monopolized by a privileged elite, but also animals and habitats were damaged, as will be the interests of future human generations. Truthfully, given the growing severity of social and environmental problems, and the inveterate inability of human beings to forestall potential problems with precautionary measures, it is hard to view the ideal of the “harmonization of the social with the (animal and) natural worlds” as anything but utopian, but utopias are critical guiding visions too and our options are now limited to try or die.

Non-Linear History

“History is not `just one damn fact after another,’ as a cynic put it. There really are broad patterns to history.” Jared Diamond

History is neither repetitive and random, nor linear and teleological (seeking some preordained goal); it is formed in the complex triadic space in which humans shape and are shaped by biological, environmental, and social determinants, as they co-evolve with other animal species. As we see in the work of thinkers ranging from eighteenth century philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder to Foucault and Manuel de Landa, the singular concept of “history” has to be broken up and dispersed into a plurality of histories involving different cultures that develop unevenly and semi-autonomously from one another (but often in parallel evolution as well).[xv]

Yet, despite its non-linear complexity, history is not as random and meaningless as postmodernists like Foucault or Jean Baudrillard suggest.[xvi] Rather, one can find developmental dynamics and patterns comprehensible only through a unifying narrative. History is not a smooth, linear trajectory unperturbed by contingency, chaos, conflict, contradiction, spontaneity, stagnation, regression, and ambiguity. Against a single, uniform, homogeneous, totalizing “metanarrative” that sees history as a grand story of either freedom and progress or domination and disaster (a “metanarrative in reverse”), the past unfolds in dynamically changing social forms that exhibit competing and often contradictory norms, values, policies, institutions, and directions of development.

Against a single, uniform, homogeneous, totalizing narrative that sees history as a grand story of either freedom and progress or domination and disaster, the past must be viewed as unfolding in dynamically changing social forms that exhibit competing and often contradictory norms, values, policies, institutions, dynamics, or directions of development. Since “Western culture” is not a monolithic, homogenous, unbroken, uncontested, and seamless worldview of anthropocentrism, speciesism, racism, patriarchy, and domination, it is important to trace the simultaneous development of two opposing lineages. We therefore need a dual narrative that maps competing dynamics and contradictory values, traditions, and tendencies.

Throughout Western history, in other words, cultures of complimentarity and hierarchy developed dialectically, side-by-side, simultaneously, in opposition and antagonism to one another. In addition to the domineering humanist conceptions of ancient, medieval, and modern cultures, there emerged vital alternatives through the revitalization of the ahimsa ethic and holistic vegetarian ideals born in ancient Eastern societies and cultivated in Western settings. Thus, Pythagoras, Porphyry, Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Thomas More, Milton, Alexander Pope, John Calvin, Paley, Michel de Montaigne, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, Percy Shelley, William Blake, Caroline Earle White, Tolstoy, Bernard Shaw, Gandhi, Henry Salt, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, and growing legions of contemporary activists, academics, scientists, doctors, rabbis, priests, and people from all walks of life have repudiated speciesism, violence, and hierarchical lifeways to promote peaceful, compassionate, and egalitarian values toward human and nonhuman animals alike, values they understood to be crucial to the moral development of “humanity” in its best sense. Tragically, however, alongside these perspectives, the dominator worldview also evolved and indeed prevailed, wreaking violence and destruction in the ever-expanding, colonizing spread of Homo sapiens. From Aristotle, the Stoics, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and Martin Luther to Descartes, Bacon, Kant, Marx, radical and liberal humanists, Social Darwinists, and into our present time, the hierarchical tradition always sought to marginalize, repress, and silence the voices of complimentarity.

While history is not pre-determined, law-governed, teleological (striving toward a goal), or linear, nor is it random, chaotic, cyclical flux, repetition of the same, or meaningless change. Rather, among the many possible narrative arrangements and interpretations of history, one can trace a broad evolutionary trend; a developmental pattern, a coherent movement, a meaning, and a potentiality. Despite the massive failures indelibly etched into the slaughterbench of history, such as played out in an endless stretch of hierarchies, wars, armies, empires, battlefields, states, classes, bureaucracies, genocides, and omnicidal devastation, one can also find — by looking at the last few centuries in Western societies – a coherent evolutionary development of moral progress.

One can define and gauge moral progress as the broadening of the moral community toward ever-greater degrees of inclusiveness and equality; from another perspective, in another language, one can map the dynamic movement of the universalization of rights.[xvii] The struggles for freedom, rights, justice, and democracy, while not unfolding in a linear or inexorable way, provide a kind of coherence to modern history. The operations of critical reason, we must first point out, are crucial to broadening the moral community, to developing more inclusive and egalitarian concepts of moral worth, and, after the eighteenth century, to the universalization of rights. The shift from uncritically accepting customs to demanding a logical justification for their assent moves society away from dogma and tradition toward the rational viewpoint.

Over the last two centuries, moreover, the moral and legal discourse of rights has become increasingly expansive, moving from state-backed privileges of white male elites to granting basic rights to all human beings through a profound process of social struggle for rights, democracy, equality, and dignity, moving from an intra-society dynamic to a human-nonhuman and culture-nature dialectic. But as the language of the state, and institution that supports and serves corporate power, the discourse of rights is limited, however expansive, and ultimately needs to give way to a new language to protect the inherent value and dignity of human and nonhuman individuals; of course, this language is not yet a developed reality because the social revolution it depends on has not yet appeared, and is nowhere on the horizon.

The expansion of the moral community was not a linear development encompassing all humanity in a single, continuous, irreversible and irrevocable trajectory. Affirmations of biological and moral relatedness of species are evident through history and various cultures, and were present throughout Western society, but advances in moral reasoning (always related to democracy-building) were often lost, delayed, or reversed, and they still have a long way to go. “Nevertheless,” Peter Singer writes, “it is the direction in which moral thought has been going since ancient times,” a process of increasingly expansive moral values and a movement in which, since the eighteenth century, egalitarian philosophies and moral and legal rights have widened in scope and influence.[xviii]

Dynamically developing throughout the turbulence of the last two centuries, the notions of value, rights, and community were moving moral concern beyond humans, beyond animals, beyond even sentience, into a holistic ecological ethics that enfolded the entire natural world and physical environment into a new moral paradigm. From Albert Schweitzer and Aldo Leopold to deep ecologists, enlightened thinkers in the twentieth century have broadened the notion of community beyond the human sphere to include other animal species and the earth as a whole. Schweitzer, for instance, advocated a general ethics of “reverence for life” that encompassed the organic and inorganic world. For the authentically ethical person, no person, animal, or element of nature should be harmed, all must be protected, and “life itself is sacred.”[xix] Leopold advocated a “land ethic” that counseled respect for and awareness of the complex interrelatedness of all matter and life on this planet. The new ecological sensibility and “biocentric” ethics that assigned intrinsic value throughout the world was bolstered considerably by the tradition of deep ecology, which was developed by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the 1970s and was developed by a wide range of thinkers including George Sessions and Bill Devall.[xx]

This entails a new form of enlightenment that overcomes all forms of discrimination, including speciesism, recognizes and respects the basic rights animals have as sentient beings, and treat animals with the same respect it accords members of its own species.

We must elaborate a new concept of progress that is ecological, sustainable, humane, holistic, and rooted in a new ethics of nature, one that dialectically mediates the needs and interests of humans, animals, and the earth. The new Enlightenment promotes a paradigm shift in the way we think about and relate to the natural world, it widens the boundaries of community to other species and inorganic matter, and it extends basic rights to nonhuman animals by application of the same logic used to grant human rights.

Moral progress should not be conceived in idealist terms as an autonomous development of human ethical capacities. Reason and emotion have played key roles in the development of ethics, but moral evolution also develops in and through political rebellion and social movements for rights, justice, and liberation (which themselves depend on rational insight).[xxi] The best vehicle for continued ethical and social advance today is the politics of total liberation, which views the emancipation of humans, animals, and the earth as one interrelated, comprehensive, unified struggle, such as demands an alliance politics of unprecedented breadth, diversity, and inclusiveness.

Imperiled Future

To keep from dehumanizing ourselves (and even gravitating toward genocide), we must stop demanding perpetual progress.” William Catton

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Antonio Gramsci

The Western concept of progress and the system that spawned it have brought us to an evolutionary crossroads where we confront profound options and choices. Under the spectral shadow of climate change, resource scarcity, biological meltdown, environmental entropy, nuclear threats, and escalating global conflicts, the future of human evolution is problematic at best and unlikely or doomed at worst. Progress is something human beings still must aspire to and can achieve, but only with revolutionary changes in society, culture, politics, worldview, and human identity. A new moral compass is desperately needed to guide and inform the radical institutional and conceptual changes necessary to stave of catastrophic social and ecological collapse.

After millions of years of prehistory, only two hundred thousand as Homo sapiens, we have reached a pivotal point in history, a crossroads for the future of life, such that we can choose either breakdown or breakthrough.[xxii] In the language of chaos theory, there have been numerous bifurcation points of social disequilibrium in history when a fundamental system transformation could have occurred, but the new fluctuations did not provoke change in the fundamental structure.[xxiii] New arrangements will arise, however, that we must exploit for their transformative potential.

The main drama of our time is: Which road will humanity choose to travel into the future — the road that leads to peace and stability, or the one verging toward greater war and chaos. The one that establishes social justice or that which exacerbates inequality and poverty? Will we stay on the same modern trail of irrational growth and development, of the further uncontrolled expansion of global capitalism, or will we stake out an alternative route, one that radicalizes the modern traditions of Enlightenment and democracy and is guided by the vision of a future that is just, egalitarian, participatory, ecological, healthy, happy, and sane? Will we move, in David Korten’s words, toward the “Great Unraveling” and plummet deeper into the unfolding crisis? Or will we embark on a “Great Turning” where we finally learn to live in partnership with one another, nonhuman animals, and the earth?

Windows of opportunity are rapidly closing. The actions that humanity now collectively takes — or fails to take — will determine whether our future, and that of biodiversity itself, is hopeful or bleak. In the aftermath of ten thousand years of incessant growth and war that humanity waged upon itself, other species, and the earth; and in the presence of a global capitalism that is clearly unsustainable and is driving natural systems to an irreversible tipping point of catastrophe, the greatest challenge in the history of our species is staring us right in the face: Can humanity dramatically change its entire mode of existence — from their economic and political institutions to their cultures, traditions, worldviews, values, and ways of living and thinking — in order to forestall a global crisis, or will people worldwide numbly continue to plummet toward disaster in the tailspin dive of inertia?

In an era of catastrophe and crisis, the continuation of the human species in a viable or desirable form, is obviously contingent and not a given or a necessary good. Apart from tradition, dogma, and hubris, there is no indication that humanity has an inherent goal, destiny, purpose, or fate. Just as this species might never have evolved at all, given the complex contingencies of evolution, so it might never survive to see the distant or near future. For, having evolved with numerous other Homo types, and emerging as the sole heir to the hominid family line, the human species has nevertheless embarked on a mad, violent, dizzying, and unsustainable mode of existence. Like Homo habilis, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, and all other bipedal ancestors, Homo sapiens could easily reach an evolutionary dead-end and succumb to the black hole of extinction.

Never before has humanity faced such a challenge; never has there been a more critical moment in history than now. Human evolution is not a fait accompli – either in the sense that things will increasingly improve with the passage of time (the linear concept of progress), or that our species will continue at all. Thus, the future of human evolution – in a viable and desirable form, rather than in a post-apocalyptic, barren Mad Max world – is something that will not come easy, if at all, and demands a struggle on an unprecedented scale.

While the result is horrible to contemplate from our perspective, Homo sapiens may not have the will or intelligence to meet this challenge, and might thereby succumb to the same oblivion that engulfed its many hominid ancestors and into which it dispatched countless thousands of other species. Just as ancestral hominid species have gone extinct, so have prior civilizations collapse. As Jared Diamond has shown, numerous civilizations of former times (including Easter Island, classical Mayan civilization, and the Greenland Norse) have suffered economic and social collapse, and sometimes extinction, due to overpopulation, overfarming, overgrazing, overhunting, deforestation, soil erosion, and starvation brought about through exhaustion of plant and animal food sources.[xxiv]

But, considered from the perspective of animals and the earth, the demise of human beings in the form they have evolved could be the best imaginable event possible, as it would allow healing, restored balance, and a regeneration of a middle-aged earth that would bring about entirely new species and a new Cambrian explosion of biodiversity, just as occurred following the demise of the dinosaurs. Whereas worms, pollinators, dung beetles, and countless other species are vital to a flourishing planet, Homo sapiens is the one species – certainly the main species — the earth could well do without. [xxv]

It is increasingly obvious that the fates of humans, animals, and the earth are inextricably bound. Progress can no longer entail the zero sum game of human “gain” at the expense of animals and the environment. Rather, a deeper concept of progress eliminates the opposition between human and nonhuman animals, between society and nature; it understands the profound interrelatedness of all aspects of our planetary ecology, and enables us to become good citizens of the biocommunity rather than barbarians, Huns, Vikings, invaders, mercenaries, juntas, and death squads bringing down the whole house.


[i] On the slow, steady, and methodical destruction of the middle class since the 1960s, see Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1991; Barbara Eherenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Owl Books, 2002; and Barbara Eherenreich, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, New York: Henry Holt & Co. 2006.

[ii] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum, 1998 [orig. 1944].

[iii] See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

[iv] The writing of “grand narratives” runs counter to recent postmodern critiques of “metanarratives” of history which are simplistic, teleological, and homogenize disparate dynamics and events in one framework. Whereas metanarratives defined by postmodernists are indeed problematic, we should not lose sight of the inherent narrative aspect of theory and science and the importance of macro-, or “grand,” narratives. The grand narrative of “moral progress” tries to avoid many of the errors and fallacies of metanarratives. See Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations New York: Guilford Press, 1991.

[v] See Jurgen Habermas, “Enlightenment: An Unfinished Project,” in The Anti-Aesthetic (ed. Hal Foster), Washington: Bay Press; and, Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

[vi] Revealing the continuities between the old and new narratives, Bacon, the renowned champion of the scientific method, claimed that humanity must “recover its God-given right to command nature” and in works such as Novum Organum Bacon eloquently and disturbingly articulated the ethos of domination by commanding us to penetrate nature, to seize her secrets, and to put her on the rack of our inquisition.

[vii] A sound analysis of Western progressivism needs to mediate two different historical approaches. The first outlook, represented by J.B. Bury and Carl Becker, emphasizes the ancient Judeo-Christian roots of the modern concept of progress and sees modernity as a secularization of the Judeo-Christian narrative (see J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Origin and Growth. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008; and Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964.) In response, a second school of thought has emerged, represented by Hans Blumemberg and Christopher Lasch, which underscores progress as a purely modern concept predicated on a sharp break from the past. Lasch follows Blumenberg’s critique of the “secularization thesis” which sees the modern secular narrative as different from the Judeo-Christian story in two key ways: it roots change in human dynamics divorced from a Divine plan or purpose, and it valorizes the multiplication of needs (whereas Christian and Roman philosophies alike rooted moral wisdom and virtue in the limitation of needs) (see Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983; and Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, pp. 44 ff.). While Blumberg and Lasch correctly identify discontinuities between the ancient and modern, Christian and secular, frameworks, there are also important continuities they occlude. On my interpretation, there are three key sources of influence on the concept of progress: the Judeo-Christian tradition, seventeenth century science, and the eighteenth century “liberal” tradition rooted in the emerging ideology of capitalism.

[viii] See Steven Best, “Genetic Engineering, Animal Exploitation, and the Challenge for Democracy,” Leonardo’s Choice: Genetic Technologies and Animals (ed. Carol Gigliotti), Springer Press, 2009.

[ix] Island cultures and Latin American nations, in contrast, rank highest in life expectancy and happiness; see “Wealthiest countries at bottom of list of happiest societies,” The New Zealand Herald, July 12, 2006.

[x] Thus, for example, Edward Burch replaces the narrow Gross National Product index with the broader General Progress Index (GPI). Incorporating data from the United Nations “Human Freedom Index,” the GPI model employs 22 different criteria to assess human, social, and environment needs (including leisure time, educational attainment, and reduction in global warming emissions) and their levels of attainment. See “Gross National Happiness,” Clamor Magazine, Issue 35.5, January/February 2006,

[xi] Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”

[xii] Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006, p. 139.

[xiii] On the cornucopian worldview, that essentially there are no limits to resources or growth, see Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2. New Haven, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

[xiv] See John Zerzan, Future Primitive: And Other Essays. Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1994.

[xv] See Johann Gottfried von Herder, Philosophical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Vintage, 1980; and Manuel de Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books, 2000.

[xvi] See Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972; and Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End. Oxford: Polity Press, 1994.

[xvii] On the universalization of rights as a key indicator of moral progress, see Roderick Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

[xviii] Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981, p. 113.

[xix] Albert Schweitzer, Philosophy of Civilization. New York: Prometheus Books, 1987.

[xx] See Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; and Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered. Gibbs Smith. Layton: Utah, 2001.

[xxi] For discussion and examples of contemporary revolutionary alliance politics, see Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006.

[xxii] David Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. San Francisco CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2006.

[xxiii] See Steven Best, “Postmodern Science and Social Theory,” Science as Culture #11, 1991.

[xxiv] Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2011.

[xxv] See Alan Weisman, The World Without Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.