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Looking forward but heading in reverse

By Valerie Yule - posted Tuesday, 14 April 2015


The idea of progress which fuelled the Enlightenment and the Victorian ethos, received a series of nasty bumps with the Great War, the Great Depression, the next Great War and the nuclear Bomb, but people still recovered enough to believe that they could still progress and learn from the mistakes of the past.  My generation was at the peak of progress – the United Nations, the success of feminism, the spread of democracy, the wonders of technology and cyber technology.  Our battles were won or about to be won.

Now who can believe in progress?  Those who condemn all our ideas of progress except technology, and who have no toleration for other ideas are winning the battles and even wars. Women’s rights are being knocked around without the younger female generation objecting  - indeed they totter round on the high heels we thought that health had won the battle against. People grow older than people ever grew before – but the medical advances that achieve this cannot keep them as frisky as they expected to be.  The military-industrial complex is firmly keeping its place as the armourer of all sides.  Education goes round in circles without managing to educate all. The gap between rich and poor is wider than ever.  Pollution extends even over great cities.

What do ordinary people do?  They follow fashions without thinking if it is progress or regress.

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In our street, good houses are pulled down and McMansions take their place, to give employment and profits and use up resources. Every time I totter down the street, I see another blank space dug by bulldozers.

Nature strips are grass mown by motor-mowers except for two, which are Native-plants, and mine which is No-Mow filled with all the flowering plants which will grow with no care at all.  Nobody copies them – or even tries the good old hand-mowers which are all that is needed for their pocket handkerchief lawns, so brown and dusty in the summer. Incompetent hand-mowers take their place in the shops.

The new houses take more maintenance, air-conditioning and central heating. They have less room for the city-cooling gardens.

The Internet, radio and declining print media teach the people the ‘Good Life’.  In Victorian times the ‘Good life’ was about being good, and even the women’s magazines taught the fun of being virtuous.  Now the ‘Good life’ is mostly about looking good, which means everyone looking the same or worrying about not looking the same, and living a luxurious life-style.

The Good Life is also about cooking great meals on the one hand, and slimming down on the other hand – two contradictory commands.

 Two great worries are wanting to eat more food and wanting to stop being fat. So there are  in the ‘developed’ world,  advertisements for things to eat which are guaranteed will not nourish you, while most people in the ‘developing’ world want food that will nourish them. The old Korean word ‘poojah’ meant rich, and it meant fat.  But in the developed world, the poor are fat, because junk food will make them fat. 

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All the research that teaches how to live healthy lives, not have accidents and save the planet goes by the board.

The latest bit of anti-progress is the Black Expensive-Looking car, which is top of the fashion for cars. Research and common observation show that black cars are hard to see in the dusk and at night. That means more accidents. Why then are so many new cars black?  Is it to look swanky and glamorous?   Is it just to follow the fashion? Leading the fashion are the doctors and solicitors. Is it going backwards to Henry Ford, who would let car buyers have any colour they wanted, as long as it was black.

We believe in Growth, while the climate suffers from too much growth.

The West believes it suffers from too few children, while the rest of the world have too many.

And our  science fiction, even for children, is almost all about future dystopias.  The imagination extends from what probably will happen, to wild theories about what could happen.

And are we ourselves, are we going to let the next generation go down this slippery slide without showing them other fashions from the past that we knew, or the future we can still imagine?  I dare you.  There are lots of extreme sports that people dare to try; here is another.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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