“But Prometheus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk. And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire. Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire.”
-Hesiod. The Theogony
Human progress can be summed up as a quest for more and better tools and sources of energy and power in order to make our lives easier and more comfortable. Man’s first accomplishment (which may have happened even before man became “man”) was the ability to create and control fire; but all technological breakthroughs are ultimately double edged swords. According to Greek mythology (and many other mythologies as well) fire was stolen from the gods and given to humans by a benevolent trickster. The symbolism is clear: man has gained access to a powerful force, a force of nature and the gods, through chance and happenstance and as such he has no ability to completely harness the consuming power of that force. For his trouble, Prometheus was chained to a rock for eternity while every day an eagle pecked out his liver and every night the organ grew back and the wound healed so that the punishment could be repeated again the next day. Man’s punishment for accepting the gift was Pandora and her box, which when opened released all of the evils into the world; only Hope was prevented from escaping. Thus, because of man’s fundamental quest to acquire more and more powerful sources of energy there is ultimately no hope for man.
After fire, man’s next great step towards harnessing the power of nature was the domestication of the horse. When, where, and how this happened is of great debate amongst archaeologists. What is certain though is that not long after horses had been domesticated they were put to use for warfare. The nomadic steppe peoples of Eurasia, where horses were probably first domesticated, were known throughout ancient times, and well into the middle ages, as the best horseman and the fiercest warriors. The apex of the Steppe Cultures, the Mongols, eventually controlled the largest empire in history and may have killed up to 40 million people during their conquest; all on horseback. In Mesopotamia and the Near East horses were combined with another technological innovation, the wheel, to create chariots which were the ancient equivalent of a combination F-16/Abrams Tank when attacking infantry troops who had little more than a wicker shield to protect themselves.
For thousands of years the horse was the height of man’s ability to control nature’s energy. The fastest that a person could travel overland was the speed of a horse until the industrial revolution and the steam engine, when the bridled horse was replaced by the iron horse as the most powerful way to travel. As the railroad expanded into the American West it brought progress but it also destroyed ancient cultures and brought an end to the pioneering spirit and rugged individualism through homogenization. Only twenty one years after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad the U.S. Census declared the frontier officially closed. The closure of the Western Frontier caused many to look for a new frontier to define the American character and at the end of the 19th century that frontier was in places like Cuba and the Philippines.
Industrialism advanced the democratization of energy by putting electricity into homes, along with gadgets and devices intended to make use of that electricity to save time and energy around the house, something that continues to this day. Putting more energy at the disposal of the most people possible was the driving focus behind Henry Ford’s zealous pursuit of the best manufacturing processes. Ford said, “The effects of putting all this additional developed power into the country is something we do not yet know how to reckon with, but I am convinced that the remarkable prosperity of the United States is in a large part due to this added horsepower, which, by freeing the movements of men, also frees and awakens their thoughts”. Henry Ford was optimistic about the proliferation of energy, maybe not unjustly, but even though an idea may be noble in its conception it’s how the idea subsequently plays out that is key. And instead of freeing the movements of men and awakening their thoughts we’ve created a society that is hectic and chaotic and based on and consumption and consumerism.
The pinnacle of man’s pursuit to harness ever greater energy has been the splitting of the atom, something that was pursued solely as an act of war, and a form of energy so powerful that when Robert Oppenheimer, the man who brought it about, saw the awesomeness of what he had done and realized the destructive power that he had just given humanity he was reminded of the words of another ancient myth, the Bhagavad-Gita, and thought to himself, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.
The purpose of all this isn’t to say that fire, steam power, oil, automobiles, atomic energy, industrialism, electricity, the internet, vacuum cleaners, computers, (in a word: Progress) is bad, but instead to remember that technological advancement is a double edged sword and when something is gained then that usually means that something else was lost in the process and a series of unknown and unforeseen future consequences are set into motion. And to be mindful and humble when dealing with the forces of progress and energy because we are dealing with forces that weren't ours to begin with and aren't entirely ours to control.