I am going to outline a proper, high-level view of human history in this short post. I don't intend to go into detail today.
I have often talked about the "myth" of Progress in human societies. I've been reading political philosopher John Gray, who reinforces (in some ways) views I've already put forward. Progress is largely a myth in the social and political realms, but no one can deny that there has been substantial material Progress in the last two centuries. Everywhere we look, continuing Progress is assumed. Where does our quasi-religious faith in Progress come from?
First, there was the birth of scientific thinking in the 16th and 17th centuries, a trend which continues to the present day in the form of great technological advances (applied science). In the 17th and 18th centuries, we got the Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age of Reason—
The Enlightenment is the period in the history of western thought and culture, stretching roughly from the mid-decades of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics; these revolutions swept away the medieval world-view and ushered in our modern western world.
Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution, in which the traditional hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were violently destroyed and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, ostensibly, upon principles of human reason.
The Enlightenment begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but, with it, the entire set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles.
D'Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence”, because of the tremendous intellectual progress of the age, the advance of the sciences, and the enthusiasm for that progress, but also because of the characteristic expectation of the age that philosophy (in this broad sense) would dramatically improve human life.
We are all children of the arrival of Science and the Enlightenment project.
And we did get Progress, at least as compared to the immediately preceding Middle Ages and all other ages which preceded these breakthroughs in human thinking. Humans were able to manipulate Nature to serve their own ends. Starting with Adam Smith in the 18th century—he was a moral philosopher—and continuing from there, the "science" of Economics was born.
The principal means by which human ends were achieved, in so far as they have been—the material Progress we have benefited from—was entirely dependent upon the energy which Fossil Fuels provided. Coal burning predominated early on, in the 18th century, and that was followed by the ever-increasing exploitation of crude oil and other liquid hydrocarbons after Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in 1859. And then we humans became adept at extracting natural gas (methane). These trends continue to the present day.
What is often forgotten is that it is Physics that dominates human history, not only in the last three centuries, but throughout, from before the first seeds were planted in the ground. Before the birth of Science, and the Age of Reason, and the successful exploitation of Fossil Fuels, humans were "stuck" in a low-energy world. They used domesticated animals and each other (slaves) to provide all the energy they could not get from food.
We live in the House That Fossil Fuels Built. None of this Progress imagined by Enlightenment thinkers would have ever materialized without those Fossil Fuels. I can not emphasize that enough.
And then humans became arrogant. And blind. The ancient Greeks said these were basically the same thing. They called this lethal combination hubris. Humans forgot that it is Physics which has always dominated their history. The aforementioned Economists (and many, many others) came to think that Progress existed separately from the energy which made it possible. In philosophical terms, humans reified the idea of Progress. Continuing material Progress was no longer contingent; rather, it was assumed to be our Natural State.
This was easy to do in so far as great scientific and technological advances in other areas of human life obscured the fundamental Physics/Progress connection which makes modern life possible. It was but a short step to the deeply flawed conclusion that energy was not a limiting factor in furthering material advances. Energy became a mere commodity, just like any other, natural or human-made. The connection with Physics was entirely forgotten, or if not forgotten, dismissed as unimportant. If the supply of energy was in jeopardy, or causing other problems—these are called externalities—further technological advances would serve to increase the energy available, or its quality, whether that meant more Fossil Fuels, or some new form of cheap, "clean" energy heretofore unexploited.
And that, leaving out a thousand details, is where we stand in the early 21st century. Ironically, the very energy which made all this astonishing material Progress possible is now killing us in the form of global warming, and in a myriad of other ways made possible by human exploitation of the natural world which was in turn made possible by the energy provided by Fossil Fuels.
One might think that human arrogance would be deflated by that very fact, but it has not been. The Greeks would have called this tragedy. Ask economists, or environmentalists, or politicians or just about anyone with some clout in human affairs, and they will tell you that Progress can continue unabated. A new form of energy will miraculously appear, or Something Good will happen. We are required to have Faith.
Unfortunately, nobody can tell you, without the required Faith, what that might be.
Bonus Video — The Age Of Reason