Towards a Better Understanding of “Progress”

This post relates back to a previous one titled Priveledge, Desperation, and Gratitude In the aforementioned essay, I mention that civilians have a preconceived notion that bringing industrial society and the dominant culture to various tribal communities (especially those that are currently uncontacted) is a sort of heroic deed. Well, the previous essay discusses moreso the fact that civilizations are very inadequate at their supposed job of providing new opportunities and higher quality of life. Here, I will elaborate on these preconceived ideas.

Let us begin by reviewing the current definition of “progress” as can be found by a simple internet search: As a noun, “progress” is defined as “forward or onward movement towards a destination” and “advance or development toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition.” The focus here will be on the latter definition, the one which is commonly used in reference to industrialization and civilization.

The idea that bringing industrial society to the uncivilized is “progressive” results from two different, yet related, misconceptions: The first being that indigenous communities and tribal societies are “primitive,” and that as such, life must inherently be full of hardships and tragedies which can be alleviated or solved entirely by modern civilized life.

Indigenous communities that retain a tribal state are not “primitive.” This can indirectly relate to misconceptions about evolution, such as that moss is a primitive plant species in comparison to a plant such as a rose. This is flawed logic, because the speciation event that occurred to separate species such as moss and the clade that includes roses occured at one point in time: Leaving all the current species in the broader clade the same amount of time to advance, or exist. While moss may resembled the ancestor of roses, ferns, and pine, it is no more closer in time to the ancestor they all share than any of the previously mentioned species.


Likewise, hunter-gatherer communities and others who are uncivilized are no less advanced, mentally or otherwise, than those of us who are a part of industrial society. All of us, civilized or not, are still Homo sapiens that have existed as a single species for the exact same amount of time. Though a tribal lifestyle may closer resemble the lifestyle of an ancestor of ours (say, homo erectus for example), uncivilized people are not in and of themselves, our living ancestors. Such a concept does not even make sense. Furthermore, there is an astounding amount of evidence that shows a tribal organization and hunter-gatherer/scavenger-forager means of existence provides one with many health (both physical and mental) benefits. If anything at all, civilization is regressive.

The latter misconception that uncivilized life is inherently a miserable existence likely stems from a combination of the narcissism of civilization (for who could be different from us and better off?), general ignorance, the above misconception, and falsely equating the effects of a tribal community’s contact with a civilized one with overall uncivilized life. In reality, uncontacted tribes and those left alone tend to lead lives with very little violence, mental and physical health issues, and have intimate societies. This is very different than that of civilizations, in which rates of suicide, those diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and crime are ever prevalent, if not dramatically increasing.

“Outsiders who come here always claim they are bringing progress. But all they bring are empty promises. What we’re really struggling for is our land. Above all else this is what we need.” -Arau, Penan man. Sarawak, Malaysia, 2007. 

“Progress” and “development” as enacted by industrial civilization inevitably imply a destruction of landbases or the environment. All uncivilized communities (and in reality, all of everyone) depend on the environment for life. When “progress” enacts the violent destruction of Nature, it carries through with the violent destruction of many indigenous peoples.

All it takes is the ability to form coherent thought to realize that something (read: “the progress of industrial civilization”) that brings obesity, suicide, diseases, violence, and destruction where there was little to none before does not fit the definition of “progress” in the sense that it is an improvement on the previous condition of the community. We merely define the actions of imperial civilizations as “progressive” because we, as a civilization, cannot see ourself for what we are or blatantly refuse to admit that we are doing something that would bring what would traditionally fit into our ideas as “bad.” Yet clearly, if forcing industrial civilization on indigenous communities does them more harm than good, it cannot be truly considered “progressive.” In the end, nothing that does more damage to Nature than what it’s worth is beneficial in any realistic way.

Read more about how “progress can kill” at: