What does “progress” mean in everyday American parlance? At the very least, it refers to a confidence that scientific discovery and technological innovation are generally benevolent processes tending to make life “better.” By “better” we usually mean “easier” (power mowers and weed eaters instead of push mowers and scythes); more “interesting” (video games and camcorders instead of board games and box cameras); and “cheaper” (digital watches and affordable personal computers). Science and technology “improve” society, most believe, because they ease many of our pains, prolong lives, expand opportunities (for travel, education, and work), and extend our range of control over the world.
When Americans stop to think about it, they may realize that “progress” is embodied in things—CAT scanners, modems, microwave ovens—and in systems: Social Security, air traffic control, disaster relief, employment bureaus, insurance companies, postal services. While often maddeningly complicated, these things and systems are rationally comprehensible. Furthermore, the persons who make or operate them are expected to exhibit an appropriate form of rationality. Letter carriers may not simply discard mail sent to persons they dislike. Computer programmers must not plant “viruses” in their programs. Internal Revenue Service employees must not refrain from auditing the returns of family members. “Progressive” things and systems operate mechanistically, objectively, impersonally—this is indeed one of their great beauties.
Yet too much mechanism, objectivity, and impersonality can dehumanize and overrationalize a society. Moreover, some innovations have proven far too dangerous to be termed “improvements”—nuclear power plants, steroids, and intrauterine devices, for example. Americans have thus become more cautious in their appraisal of science and technology; Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Thalidomide refuse to fade from memory. Yet there remains a great reservoir of faith in “progress”—construed, again, as the gradual implementation of scientific discoveries for the improvement of the human condition. As a people, Americans continue to applaud and sustain the process. Despair over the declining number of scientists, mathematicians, doctors, and engineers does not signal retreat from “progress” but rather testifies to allegiance to its imperatives.
An American historian, Christopher Lasch is one of the United States’s premier “public intellectuals.” Like Bill Moyers, Richard Neuhaus, Neil Postman, and Robert Bellah, Lasch reaches out to wide and influential constituencies who are ready for a serious engagement with the country’s deepest concerns. Revolution and Democracy: The Russian Revolution and the Crisis of American Liberalism, 1917-1919 (1962), The New Radicalism in America, Eighteen Eighty-Nine to Nineteen Sixty- Three: The Intellectual as a Social Type (1965), Agony of the American Left (1969), Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (1977), The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979); The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1984)—these works have established Lasch’s reputation as a profound and prescient critic of both the Right and the Left in American political and intellectual life. This reputation will invite many readers to assume that The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics can speak to their questions and anxieties about progress.
That progress is a topic worthy of the most discerning analysis is something most will readily grant. Perhaps confidence in scientific advance has grown too strong, become too much like a faith. In that case, society may be engaging in idolatry and self-deception. Perhaps, too, the expectation that things will gradually improve is implicitly utopian and perfectionist. If so, what will happen when real loss, irreversible decay, and tragedy strike? If “improvement” stalls or ceases, who will be held responsible? Is an expectation of continuous progress behind society’s furious litigiousness? If every imperfection or loss is humanly preventable, then “malpractices” are one’s worst enemy.
Unfortunately, Lasch is not really interested in what most people have in mind when they say, “You can’t stop progress.” His book has almost nothing to say about what some have called “technological optimism”—the belief that even technology-generated problems (for example, air pollution) can be solved by the application of more technology. Indeed, the word “technology” does not even appear in Lasch’s index. Moreover, although Lasch is convinced that current environmental degradation foreshadows a new era of severe limits, he ignores completely the huge literature on the subject. Major figures in the “limits to growth” debate of the last two decades—Dennis and Donella Meadows, Ann and Paul Erlich, Barry Commoner, Herman Daly, Robert Heilbroner, Ynestra King, Thomas Berry, George Parkin Grant—are not even mentioned.
If The True and Only Heaven is not about “progress” as most people conceive it, what is it about? Generously appraised,...
(The entire section is 2139 words.)