This post introduces a couple concepts from Arnold Toynbee and Buckminster Fuller that may appear like big, confusing words. But, don’t let the terminology make you jump ship on this article!
The key is to understand what the concepts mean beyond the words themselves and see how they can work together to shape future progress.
What future progress? Here’s a preview of how it all comes together.
In the book Voluntary Simplicity, author Duane Elgin says (emphasis added in bold throughout):
- “Integrating the historical insights of (Arnold) Toynbee and the material insights of (Buckminster) Fuller, we can redefine progress as follows: Progress is a twofold process involving the simultaneous refinement of the material and nonmaterial aspects of life … Toynbee found a strong connection between simplicity and human progress.”
Toynbee is also mentioned in Richard Gregg’s 1936 essay The Value of Voluntary Simplicity. Gregg says:
- “In Volume III of Arnold J. Toynbee’s great Study of History he discusses the growth of civilizations. For some sixty pages he considers what constitutes growth of civilization, including in that term growth in wisdom as well as in stature. With immense learning he traces the developments of many civilizations—Egyptian, Sumeric, Minoan, Hellenic, Syriac, Indic, Iranian, Chinese, Babylonic, Mayan, Japanese, etc. After spreading out the evidence, he comes to the conclusion that real growth of a civilization does not consist of increasing command over the physical environment, nor of increasing command over the human environment (i.e., over other nations or civilizations), but that it lies in what he calls ‘etherealization’: a development of intangible relationships. He points out that this process involves both a simplification of the apparatus of life and also a transfer of interest and energy from material things to a higher sphere. He follows Bergson in equating complexity with Matter and simplicity with Life.”
There’s our first concept: etherealization (also spelled etherialization), and otherwise known as the “law of progressive simplification.”
Let’s start there.
What is the Law of Progressive Simplification or etherialization (Arnold Toynbee)?
Arnold Toynbee was a British historian, a philosopher of history, an author of numerous books and a research professor of international history. (1)
This is a nice video introduction to Toynbee and his thinking:
The following excerpts come from A Study of History: Volume I: Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by Arnold Toynbee:
- “The history of the development of technique, like the history of geographical expansion, has failed to provide us with a criterion of the growth of civilizations, but it does reveal a principle by which technical progress is governed, which may be described as a law of progressive simplification.”
Toynbee lists some examples of the law of progressive simplification in action:
- Evolution of transportation: “The ponderous and bulky steam-engine with its elaborate ‘permanent way’ is replaced by the neat and handy internal-combustion engine which can take to the roads with the speed of a railway train and almost all the freedom of action of a pedestrian.”
- Evolution of communication: “Telegraphy with wires is replaced by telegraphy without wires.”
- Evolution of the alphabet and language: “…scripts of the Sinic and Egyptiac societies are replaced by the neat and handy Latin Alphabet…”
- Evolution of clothing: “…complexity of Elizabethan costume to the plain modes of today.”
He goes on to say:
- “Perhaps simplification is not quite an accurate, or at least not altogether an adequate, term for describing these changes. Simplification is a negative word and connotes omission and elimination, whereas what has happened in each of these cases is not a diminution but an enhancement of practical efficiency or of aesthetic satisfaction or of intellectual grasp. The result is not a loss but a gain; and this gain is the outcome of a process of simplification because the process liberates forces that have been imprisoned in a more material medium and thereby sets them free to work in a more etherial medium with a greater potency. It involves not merely a simplification of apparatus but a consequent transfer of energy, or shift of emphasis, from some lower sphere of being or of action to a higher. Perhaps we shall be describing the process in a more illuminating way if we call it, not simplification but etherialization.”
- “Our illustrations suggest that the criterion of growth, for which we are in search, and which we failed to discover in the conquest of the external environment, either human or physical, lies rather in a progressive change of emphasis and shifting of the scene of action out of this field into another field, in which the action of challenge-and-response may find an alternative arena. In this other field challenges do not impinge from outside but arise from within, and victorious responses do not take the form of surmounting external obstacles or of overcoming an external adversary, but manifest themselves in an inward self-articulation or self-determination.”
“Real progress is found to consist in a process defined as ‘etherialization’, an overcoming of material obstacles which releases the energies of the society to make responses to challenges which henceforth are internal rather than external, spiritual rather than material.”
Let’s move on to concept #2.
What is ephemeralization? (Buckminster Fuller)
Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, and futurist. (2)
Here’s the gist of ephemeralization:
“Ephemeralization, a term coined by R. Buckminster Fuller, is the ability of technological advancement to do ‘more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing,’ that is, an accelerating increase in the efficiency of achieving the same or more output (products, services, information, etc.) while requiring less input (effort, time, resources, etc.). Fuller’s vision was that ephemeralization will result in ever-increasing standards of living for an ever-growing population despite finite resources.” (3)
The Power of Putting them Together: Etherialization + Ephemeralization
I recently read an interview with Duane Elgin where he sums everything up. Coincidentally, I’m also reading Elgin’s book The Living Universe (Amazon):
The interview and book reiterate the same key points. Elgin says:
- “As we master the art of living on Earth, our mastery will be evident in the simplicity of our way of living. Simplicity does not mean turning away from progress; to the contrary, it is an expression of a maturing civilization. We can gain insight into the relationship between simplicity and progress from the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee, who invested a lifetime in studying the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history. Based on his voluminous studies, Toynbee summarized the essence of a civilization’s growth in what he called the Law of Progressive Simplification. He wrote that a civilization’s progress and growth was not to be measured by its conquest of land and people; rather, the true measure of growth lies in a civilization’s ability to transfer increasing amounts of energy and attention from the material side of life to the non-material side—areas such as education, cultural and artistic expression, and the strength of democracy and society. Toynbee also coined the word etherialization to describe the historical process whereby humans learn to accomplish the same, or even greater, results using less time and energy. Buckminster Fuller called this process ephemeralization (although his emphasis was primarily on getting greater material performance for less time, weight, and energy invested).”
- “Building upon the insights of Toynbee and Fuller, we can redefine progress by expanding the definition of ephemeralization. Progress can then be viewed as a two-fold process involving the simultaneous refinement of both the material and non-material side of life. With ephemeralization, the material side of life grows lighter, less burdensome, more articulate, and effortless. At the same time, the non-material side of life becomes more vital, expressive, knowledgeable, wise, artistic, and nurturing. In short, ephemeralization involves the co-evolution of inner and outer, consciousness and matter. Ephemeral progress does not negate the material side of life but calls forth a new partnership where the material and non-material aspects of life co-evolve with one another.”
- “The outer aspects of our lives most important to ephemeralize are the basics: housing, transportation, food production, and energy generation. It is important to lighten up our inner aspects as well—learning the skills of touching the world and others ever more lightly and lovingly—in our relationships, work, community life, and more.”
“By refining both outer and inner aspects of life—outward simplicity and inner richness—we can foster genuine progress and build a sustainable and meaningful world for billions of people without devastating the ecology of the Earth.” (4)
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