Giving 'Progress' a Rest

Since the so-called (European) Renaissance beginning in the late-15th century, the vast majority of human cultures have been hell bent on a continuous, unrelenting, myopically focused path of constant scientific, technological, and ideational improvement and advancement that has come to be called "progress." The globalization of progress took place first at the end of a sword and under the blows of a truncheon, later at the end of a gun and the concussion and shrapnel of bombs, and today at the end of the same under the guise of humanitarianism and the ideological mantra of neo-liberal globalization. Helena Norberg-Hodge beautifully captured progress in her book Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World.

Progress recognizes no pinnacles. It permits no stability. It demands constant, unfettered revolution. Every idea, every piece of technology, every bit of scientific knowledge can and must be improved on, made to progress. Progress has so completely and insidiously insinuated itself into the global cultural consciousness that today it seems inevitable, necessary. Today it is virtually synonymous with human experience. There are only small pockets of cultures where progress is not the driving force of human life -- most famously in the United States amongst the Amish and other plain clothes communities -- and those cultures are being worn down by the constant, unremitting assault of the command, "Progress, or perish!"

I am writing today to shed light on a pinnacle, and to suggest that we respect and embrace that pinnacle. Rather than turning the model over and over, running it up and down, looking for faults, fissures, and cleavages where we could blow it apart in a fit of "innovation" to "improve upon it," I would like to suggest that we gladly and thankfully adopt the model as is and just get to work following the model. The model that I am referring to is pastured pig production as it had developed by World War II. One might pause here and argue that I am being hypocritical in my suggestion that we adopt this model because for more than two centuries (beginning with the Enlightenment) leading up to World War II agricultural practices had been constantly improved, refined, and revolutionized by scientifico-technological progress. Pastured pig production at the time was only as good as it was because it had constantly submitted to the dictates of progress. My response to this charge is that I, with the Amish, am not against improvement, refinement, and revision. I am against the vision of the infinity of such things. I am against the vision of the inevitability and necessity of such things. I recognize and honor cautionary thoughtfulness and care in a world of feverish scientifico-technological progress. I recognize and honor pinnacles. I admit that those before me were capable of making something good enough that I need only follow their lead, not mindlessly, but with humility, completely devoid of the hubristic impulse of progress.

From breeding, to feeding, to pasture management, to sheltering the pigs, the pastured pig farming model of the years leading up to World War II works, period. I see no reason to focus our energy on squeezing out another inch or two of a pig's length, or adding another row of teats on sows, or pushing litter size, or coming up with high yielding, quick maturing forage hybrids, etc. when the historical model already works so well. To put it in technical-scientific terms, the law of diminishing returns is operative here, I think. If they were averaging four weaned pigs per litter and growth rates of 0.5 lbs. per day, then we would have work to do. They weren't. They were weaning eight or more pigs and were getting 1.5 to 2 lbs. of daily growth, the same as we do today, all on well managed pasture, and using pig breeds well suited for the climatic conditions of the farm.

Like the Mongolians who have built their gers (yurts) the same way for 3,000 years without "improving" on them, we should base our pastured pig production on that of the years leading up to World War II. The pastured pig farming of that time should become our tradition. One hundred generations and more from now pastured pig farmers should be farming the way they farm because "that is the way it has always been done." They should walk into the field in the morning with a calm, confident, traditional cultural knowledge that oozes from their pores like sweat, free of the unsettled, calculating, critical impulse of progress. Whatever improvement or refinement does take place over the next 100 generations and beyond should come organically from the farmers at a glacial crawl, not from scientific agricultural labs in fits and bursts.

One time when I was working a cash register at a farm stand, I asked this young woman, who was probably about twenty, whether she wanted a paper or a plastic bag, and she suddenly looked at me terrified, like a deer in the headlights, and after a moment blurted out, "whichever is better." In a society as unsettled as our own, one cannot even know whether to use a paper or a plastic bag without reading dozens of pages of technical-scientific arguments in an interminable debate. (I gave her a paper bag, but I still don't know which is better.)

That is no way to live. We need to settle down and give progress a rest.