You Call This Progress?

The wonderful century…


I’ve found a book you need to read: The Wonderful Century by Alfred Russel Wallace.

It’s actually written about the last century, but reading it now makes it seem prophetic:

…the more we realize the vast possibilities of human welfare which science has given us, the more we must recognize our total failure to make any adequate use of them.”

“With ample power to supply to the fullest extent necessaries, comforts, and even luxuries for all, and at the same time allow ample leisure for intellectual pleasures and aesthetic enjoyments, we have yet so sinfully mismanaged our social economy as to give unprecedented and injurious luxury to the few, while millions are compelled to suffer a lifelong deficiency of the barest necessaries for a healthy existence.”

“Instead of devoting the highest powers of our greatest men to remedy these evils, we see the governments of the most advanced nations arming their people to the teeth, and expending much of their wealth and all the resources of their science, in preparation for the destruction of life, of property, and of happiness.”

And this observation about what he saw near the end of the 19th Century:

One of the most prominent features of our century has been the enormous and continuous growth of wealth, without any corresponding increase in the well-being of the whole people; while there is ample evidence to show that the number of the very poor — of those existing with a minimum of the bare necessaries of life — has enormously increased, and many indications that they constitute a larger proportion of the whole population than… in any earlier period of our history.”

This increase of individual wealth is most clearly shown by the rise and continuous increase of millionaires, who, by various modes, have succeeded in possessing themselves of vast amounts of riches created by others, thus necessarily impoverishing those who did create it.

He’s writing about the new technology of the late 19th Century but if you substitute our new technologies, tell me it doesn’t ring true:

The development of steam navigation, of railroads and telegraphs, of mechanical and chemical science, and the growth of the population, while enormously increasing productive power and the amount of material products — that is, of real wealth — at least ten times faster than the growth of the population, has given that enormous increase almost wholly to one class, comprising the landlords and capitalists, leaving the actual producers of it — the industrial workers and inventors — little, if any, better off than before.

And, Wallace notes of his government in Britain:

This is exactly what we have been doing during the whole century, — applying small plasters to each social ulcer as it became revealed to us — petty palliatives for chronic evils. But ever as one symptom has been got rid of new diseases have appeared, or the old have burst out elsewhere with increased virulence; and it will certainly be considered one of the most terrible and inexplicable failures of the nineteenth century that, up to its very close, neither legislators nor politicians of either of the great parties that alternately ruled the nation would acknowledge that there could be anything really wrong while wealth increased as it was increasing.”

He anticipates the climate crisis we’re now in and recognizes that wanton greed is at its core:

The struggle for wealth, and its deplorable results [in the human sphere] have been accompanied by a reckless destruction of the stored-up products of nature, which is even more deplorable because more irretrievable. Not only have forest-growths of many hundreds of years been cleared away, often with disastrous consequences, but the whole of the mineral treasures of the earth’s surface, the slow products of long-past eons of time and geological change, have been and are still being exhausted, to an extent never before approached, and probably not equalled in amount during the whole preceding period of human history.”

Tell me it doesn’t sound like he could have written this today:

When the brightness of future ages shall have dimmed the glamour of our material progress, the judgment of history will surely be that the ethical standard of our rulers was a deplorably low one, and that we were unworthy to possess the great and beneficent powers that science had placed in our hands.”

Yet he is hopeful in the end:

Although this century has given us so many-examples of failure, it has also given us hope for the future. True humanity, the determination that the crying social evils of our time shall not continue; the certainty that they can be abolished; an unwavering faith in human nature, have never been so strong, so vigorous, so rapidly growing…”

“The people are being educated to understand the real causes of the social evils that now injure all classes alike, and render many of the advances of science curses instead of blessings. An equal rate of such educational progress for another quarter of a century will give them at once the power and the knowledge required to initiate the needed reforms.”

“The flowing tide is with us. We have great poets, great writers, great thinkers, to cheer and guide us… And as this century has witnessed a material and intellectual advance wholly unprecedented in the history of human progress, so the coming century will reap the full fruition of that advance, in a moral and social upheaval of an equally new and unprecedented kind, and equally great in amount.”

We must change.

We must find solutions to this consequence of Capitalism as we have practiced it now for almost 200 years, so that those who actually produce the products we consume, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear, those who care for us when we’re ill, who teach our children, who respond when we need protection, are rewarded with a bigger slice of the economic pie so that they can also enjoy the benefits of the prosperity we all celebrate.

I would challenge anyone who can read this — especially our elected representatives — to do this simple experiment: work 40 hours a week for $7.25 per hour, the current minimum wage (which has not been raised since 2009) for 3 months. See what that life is like. Truth is, you won’t be able to pay all of your bills on that wage. Neither can those with far less expensive bills than yours,

Anyone who works a full 40 hours a week should be able to live a life in our current society, to be able to afford housing, health care, nutritious food, transportation, heat in the winter and cool relief in the summer, clothing and necessities for themselves and their children.

Why have we hardened our hearts to the need so evident all around us? Most of the people who hold the fate of the minimum wage in their hands are wealthy, many are millionaires.

I hear the argument that raising the minimum wage will cost jobs, but raising their lowest wage to $15 an hour sure hasn’t seemed to hurt Amazon. Their executives will tell you it has had an overwhelming positive effect on their workers and their bottom line. And think of the economic surge we could expect from millions of workers who suddenly have a few more dollars in their pocket at the end of the week. As we all do, they will spend those dollars on things they’ve been unable to afford for the past 11 years.

We’ve spent over a century continuing the policies addressed by Wallace. As during the Gilded Age, we live in a time of extraordinary greed where each of us works mightily to garner more for ourselves, even at the expense of those in genuine need around us. There is nothing Christian about this behavior so one would expect Christian leadership to be organizing this charge. Any believer would have to think Christ himself would.

Covid has revealed the scope of the need that surrounds us, millions working harder than you or I (certainly) yet barely subsisting in this unforgiving time in which we live.

Honor your faith, or if you are not a believer, honor yourself. Do the right thing. Call your representatives and Senators and encourage them to raise the minimum wage now, this year.

And if that means your Big Mac costs .25 cents more, consider it a donation.

Let’s put humanity back into our society.




I want to acknowledge the source of this information I’m sharing. It’s from Brain Pickings, a weekly blog, that is one of my favorites. It is written by Maria Popova and you can both subscribe and also support her work HERE.