An Apostate from the Religion of Progress

I am an apostate from the religion of Progress. I left it behind seven years ago, though in reality it is more like ten. There was a period of time when I went through the motions but no longer believed. My aim here is to declare that it is well past time for all of us to abandon this religion, but first I will tell my story.

My father was not a Progress-ite. He was, in fact, so much the opposite that he got strange looks of the type reserved for “backwards” folks, even in our rural community. We collected rainwater for bathing. We heated it on the stove for washing dishes, the water heater having failed before I was born and my father having decided it was an unnecessary and wasteful convenience. We grew much of our own food, in a labor-intensive “triple-dig” garden plot system. We cut and split our own firewood, which kept our house warm through Minnesota winter. We built a lot and purchased little. All of our trash fit in one carload for our annual trip to the landfill.

We were objectively poor, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Our joy was in the warblers, in the juncos, in the wood thrushes. Our joy was in the garden harvests, in the prairie wildflowers, in the autumn scents of fresh-fallen leaves, in the glide of skates on clear river ice. Our joy was in annual family traditions, in holiday meals, in songs sung around summer evening bonfires with fireflies a-glimmer and whip-poor-wills calling in the distance. This was a wonderful environment in which to come of age, and my spirituality became, in a sense, Earth-based. Earth-based, but with some metaphysical aspects as well that were also part of my upbringing, that I won’t go into here. I felt like I belonged, like it was enough just to be present and to fully experience life. That has always been part of me, so perhaps I have never truly been a Progress-ite. Perhaps I cannot comprehend how difficult this current crisis of faith is for those for whom Progress is their dominant religion, those who claim to believe in science, those who do not have alternative answers to existential questions, waiting beneath the surface.

Progress found me though, as it finds many people. My curiosity about the natural world drew me toward science, and science – as an institution – believes in Progress. As science and traditional religion became polarized over the last couple of centuries, scientists adopted alternative answers to existential questions, and one of the results – it seems – was the collection of existential beliefs that constitutes the religion of Progress. My scientific education led to a personal crisis of faith, as the predominant materialist atheism of the scientific community clashed with my own spirituality. This reached a sort of compromise, in which I found my own answers more satisfying in terms of understanding who I am and why I’m here, while also accepting the preeminence of science in understanding and improving our physical reality. You might say that I added a Progress overlay.

I very nearly started a career in ornithology or wildlife science, but ultimately I felt that the world needed solutions to impending problems more than it needed a better understanding of biology. I had long had an abiding interest in alternative energy, so I followed a wild idea about photosynthetic hydrogen production into a PhD program at Oregon State.

In the course of my studies, I became intimately acquainted with the state of the science of photobiological hydrogen production, as well as hydrogen energy and renewable energy more generally. I designed, funded, and executed a successful research project aiming to create a proof-of-concept metabolic switch to transition cyanobacteria from a growth phase to a hydrogen-production phase. I became the president of the OSU Hydrogen Club, built a hydrogen-powered bike, and watched children play with remote-control hydrogen cars at the town’s summer celebration. I gave presentations on hydrogen energy to various organizations.

After a year or two, however, I found that I could no longer believe that any of this had real potential to save the world. It seemed that very intelligent scientists had ideological blind spots when it came to life-cycle analysis, net energy, and economic feasibility. Some challenges, or “opportunities for future research”, seemed potentially insurmountable, likely to be outside the realm of biochemical possibility, with millions of dollars of research failing to make meaningful advances or else revealing problematic trade-offs.

Advances in our lab – and similar labs around the world – were heralded in the media as breakthroughs on the way to a clean energy future of green living solar panels and carbon-neutral cities. Meanwhile, many of the most critical and quite-likely-insurmountable barriers to implementation were not even addressed, as they were deemed economic technicalities to be considered once the basic science was figured out.

I don’t want to get too technical here, but I’ll give a couple of examples:

  1. Hydrogen is an energy carrier – like a battery – rather than an energy source. Renewable electricity is converted to hydrogen via electrolysis, and then hydrogen is converted back to electricity via fuel cells. The round-trip efficiency of this process is, at best, around 40%. This is before accounting for the energy required to hyper-compress or liquefy the hydrogen in order to store a useful amount in a reasonable volume, after which that efficiency drops to 30% or less, as well as the infrastructure build-out required to distribute hydrogen. Batteries as energy carriers achieve round-trip efficiencies exceeding 90%, but somehow hydrogen fuel cells received enough hype to be marketed as the wave of the future.
  2. The best short-term biosolar hydrogen conversion efficiencies achieved in a lab were around 1%. Biochemists theorized that this could potentially be pushed to 10%. Assuming the ultimate goal was to create electricity from fuel cells, the value of electricity produced from photobioreactors or green living solar panels at 10% efficiency would be around $0.03 per square meter per day. All of the materials, cell culture media and maintenance, hydrogen collection/purification/storage apparatus, and fuel cells would need to cost this amount in order to make any sense. This is quite clearly impossible. Standard solar panels make economic sense because they achieve higher efficiencies and require essentially zero maintenance over a 20-30 year life. A biological system would be far more complex and require frequent attention.

It took a while for this to dampen my enthusiasm; it was too easy to join in the excitement at conferences and to give hopeful interviews to journalists. And yet something inside tugged at me and said this isn’t science. Science doesn’t doggedly pursue dead ends and pour millions of dollars into researching non-solutions. Instead of the frontiers of science and engineering, I had joined a religious community more intent on bringing a Star Trek future to life than on pursuing solutions with any hope of success.

As I realized this, I began to discover scientists outside the Progress bubble. Scientists who pointed out that there would be no silver bullets. That energy-positive nuclear fusion was likely impossible. That energy research had long since entered a phase of diminishing returns, with lots of hype but minimal likelihood for real breakthroughs. That massive investments in wind, solar, and hydropower would help but that our society would ultimately need to use less energy as fossil fuels dwindled.

This was, at first, depressing. I grieved the shiny new future that I had so recently believed in, that would never come to pass. I left behind the religion of Progress, finding that I could no longer believe and at the same time that I no longer had the same level of respect for scientists. Many scientists, it turned out, were not objective seekers of knowledge. Though they envisioned themselves as such, they were instead devout believers in an ideology of Progress that blinded them to clear understanding. Their press-release promises of breakthroughs just around the bend were preventing us from confronting our real dilemma: how to transition from an age of endless progress to an age of confrontation with physical limits.

This was depressing until I considered the full implications of unlimited progress. The essay I Do Not Wish to Live on Coruscant marked a turning point for me, when I realized that unlimited progress, perhaps led by a fusion energy breakthrough, could only lead to a world that I would not want to live in. Since that time I have embraced the idea of a world of limits. Though the years ahead may be comparably more painful, I take great solace in the fact that natural resource limits will likely prevent Homo sapiens from completely destroying the biosphere of planet Earth.

With my belief in Progress shattered, I no longer had any desire to work at the cutting edge of technology, pursuing diminishing returns and marketing them to a Progress-believer populace eager to get a little closer to their Star Trek dreams. I returned to my roots for a time, working in the soil with the sun and rain on my back, growing and harvesting seeds, which would multiply themselves a thousand times over in fields and gardens around the nation and world: an evolved miracle of biology thousands of times more complex than anything our best minds could create, and yet somehow viewed as backwards and old-fashioned.

I am a tinkerer by nature, a thinker, a synthesizer of ideas. I wish to help our society adapt to an age of limits, to exist harmoniously within the constraints of Earth’s biosphere. I wish to build resilient communities, disconnecting from complex and fragile global supply chains. I wish to pursue appropriate technology rather than high technology. I feel that we need less high tech innovation and more distillation and winnowing: seeking among the vast repertoire of human knowledge for those technologies, skills, and ideas that will be most beneficial in an age of limits, an age of decline, an age – ultimately – of sustainability. Perhaps it is not surprising that I find myself building winnowers.

I am not sure yet where this intellectual exercise will lead me. I have felt called to write often over the last year. Perhaps one day I will publish it. I do wish, in a sense, to wake people up. To wake people up from neoliberal capitalism, from the fear-ridden media-driven narrative matrix, from our divided politics. But perhaps most importantly, to wake people up from the religion of Progress. From my current perspective, I see believers in Progress investing in the latest gadgetry and electric cars as infrastructure declines, as wallets grow lighter, as electricity becomes less reliable. I see other believers in Progress building bunkers and preparing for a crash that will never come, preparing to rise from the ashes and begin Progress anew. I see believers in Progress experiencing a crisis of faith as a pandemic reminds us that we are mortal animals, and that infectious disease will always be with us. And all of these choices use up scarce resources that could be used to build resilience and prepare to face the limits and challenges ahead.

I understand, though, that letting go of a belief in Progress will be hard. It was hard enough for me, even with my underlying answers to existential questions. It will be harder for those who derive meaning and identity from Progress, who see our manifest destiny among the stars, or in the digital realm, as a reason to be alive, a pinnacle of our evolution. And yet I believe it will be necessary. Because progress, small “p”, is coming to an end.

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