Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
John Durham Peters
In the 18th and 19th centuries the idea of "progress" guided the development of the West's images of its own future. As is well known, progress began to lose its capacity to operate as a metadescription of society in the middle of the 19th century. By the end of World War I the idea of progress was in a deep crisis from which it would never completely recover. This dissertation examines the historical period between the moment when the idea of progress began to decline and the period in which a new kind of image of the future began to take shape. This new type of image of the future takes place in what I call "the age of sustainability."
"The age of sustainability" does not indicate a particular mode of imagining the future, but rather a set of cultural conditions that are favorable to the production of ideas like sustainability. Sustainability itself is only the dominant available mode of imagining the future under the conditions of the age of sustainability. The idea of progress began its decline because the descriptive mechanisms that supported it began to erode: revised assumptions about the social roles of technology, a perceived diminishment of the future time available to human societies, the increasing complexity of social relations, and the decreasing availability of metanarratives all contributed to the decline of the idea of progress. During this period of decline, however, new descriptive mechanisms arose that sought to compensate for what had become unavailable in the production of images of the future. These new descriptive mechanisms account for the difference between the "age of progress" and the "age of sustainability."
The central question of this dissertation, then, is to ask what social conditions most contribute to the development of the kinds of images of the future that predominate in the age of sustainability. Among these are: 1) the increasing complexity of all social relations and an attendant scarcity of time which generates consciousness of risk; 2) an inertial resistance to change imposed on social systems by the frictional force of risk; 3) a requirement under conditions of increasing complexity that trust is increasingly placed in expert systems, which has the tendency to situate responsibility for crisis amelioration with nonhumans; and 4) the unavailability of unifying descriptions of society that is responsible for a diminished optimism regarding the possibility of normatively guiding social development.
Copyright 2012 Chad Jason Vollrath
Vollrath, Chad Jason. "After progress : the image of the future in the age of sustainability." dissertation, University of Iowa, 2012.