Friday, January 18, 2013

What is Progress?

January 18, 2013

Well it's been quite awhile since I've posted. I did start writing a piece for New Year's which I will post when I get it edited down enough but I feel like there is too much important stuff to wait till my 6 pages can be trimmed and polished enough to fit into this form. I thought perhaps I would get the ball rolling by highlighting one of the issues involved in that larger piece. So, today I want to talk about the idea of progress.

One day, a long while ago, as I was listening to somebody talk about progress in a lecture, I was struck by the question in my mind, "Where are we progressing to?" In our modern American life it seems like the idea of progress is so deeply ingrained in our view of the world that we never stop to look at what it actually looks like in the context of life. No one has ever really told me where it is we are going or why we are in such a hurry to get there or even if there is a there to get to. I don't often hear anyone question the implicit assumption that progress means something vaguely better than here. I wonder what is it that tacitly makes it better? No one seems to ask what it is exactly that defines progress or what is so good about it. In fact, questioning along these lines has earned me replies of, "You're just against progress, you don't want to see anything change." Hmmmmm . . . . . . .

It seems that in my lifetime progress has been about bigger, faster, more. It's always involved in talks about economic growth and that we are somehow flawed without it. I always wonder how big do we need to get? Is there ever a point where we can stop growing? And, is constant growth really a good thing? In terms of economic growth what I see is a lot of resources being sucked up out of the earth and put into the air where they don't belong and being turned into a lot of stuff that ends up in a landfills which are overflowing. And I wonder is this a good thing? Could we do something better? Who gets to define what is good and what is better?

In the last week I have happily come across 3 different public presentations in which this exact discussion has come up. The first was an article by Chris Hedges entitled The Myth of Human Progress, the second, last night in a talk by Vendana Shiva and the third, today in Sarah Van Gelder's Editorial in the new issue of YES magazine. You know, there is something about encountering something for a 3rd time. It's like a nudge from the universe or something so when all 3 of these speakers so echoed the thoughts I have been outlining in my New Year's piece I couldn't just let it pass unacknowledged.

Chris Hedges article frames the idea of progress in a historical perspective as a myth that drives complex civilizations. He outlines a basic repeating pattern of civilization after civilization that overextends and undermines itself by overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, and overpopulating effectively "wearing out its welcome from nature." He places our current climate crisis in this context. Citing works from other authors he points out that our last 500 years of "progress" has brought us to this point once again. And that we need to understand "that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem," because those who led us here have a vested interest in keeping it so even as the world burns around them.

Last night Vendana Shiva was here on our little island speaking with Molaka'i social activist Walter Ritte and Center for Food Safety Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell. They told many stories about their battles with Monsanto and the importance of saving seeds. An article in Forbes magazine entitled, Why Uncle Sam Supports Frankenfood was cited to explain how the US corporate industrial economy requires the redefining of life as manufactured property to provide a basis for the US economy to continue. Because we have moved almost all of our manufacturing out of the country and turned almost all of or food production into GMO biofuel and GMO fodder crops it is the only thing we really have left. This line of thinking was elaborated by explaining how pigs can be redefined as meat manufacturing plants, and plants as solar converters and so they can be patented and monetized. Is this really something good? Or,  maybe the question is better for who, for how many, and for how long? And the real question, at what cost? The pink elephant in this room is the question isn't there a different way to do things that doesn't turn all life into something to be exploited for money?

Sarah Van Gelder couches her writing on progress in her interactions with Chief Seattle's people. She tells how they, "figured out centuries ago that inequality upsets the delicate balances that allow societies to thrive." She also tells how the Suquamish Tribe worked to restore themselves from the devastation of having their land taken and their culture suppressed by restoring salmon and shellfish habitat. In a bay closed to shellfish harvesting because of pollution they worked patiently to create themselves a place to live. Her article presents the view of many indigenous peoples that every place on the Earth is sacred, no place can be written off because this is where we all live. There really is no where else to go and we all share the planet together. Sarah says that she, "grew up in a culture that claimed the right to conquer, use up, and displace nature. Human intelligence coupled with technology would take us on a one-way trip to a brighter future, we were told." She suggests we are reaching the limits as to what life on Earth can tolerate. She looks at this idea of progress in relationship to her observations of life and the approach to it of tribal peoples around her and says it takes humility to recognize that our idea of progress maybe isn't what it's been cracked up to be.

It is time, I think, to really examine our ideas about progress and to ask ourselves where have we gotten ourselves to. Even though the idea of economic reform and social change is scary to us all, is it really more scary that turning all life on the planet into a commodity? Do we want to live in a world where all life is sacrificed to become money? This brings to mind the idea of King Midas and how everything he touched turned to gold. As Andrew Kimbrell so pointedly asked us last night, do we really want to define ourselves as consumers? Tuberculosis used to be called consumption because it consumed the body and often killed it. Fire consumes all in its path and leaves behind only ashes. Is this really what progress is?

We have now arrived at a place where the myth progress has taken us. Any way you turn in this story of progress it all seems to have the same ending, no one gets out alive. Maybe it's time for a new myth.