From the time we were children, we’ve been taught that “progress”—as defined by capitalist American culture—is a good thing. Progress is manifest destiny. Progress is civilizing the uncivilized, elevating the inhabitants of the third world and taming the “savages” that lived off the land. Progress is taming nature, not being at its mercy. Progress means more time for leisure and the opportunity to be wealthy and comfortable.
Progress is a good thing. Or is it?
Perhaps we need to examine our unexamined assumptions, because despite our push toward that sort of economic and social “progress”, most Americans are no more happy today than they were in the 1970s, according to a study done by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. While there have been certain social milestones made in the last two centuries when it comes to human social progress, other forms of economic or technological progress hasn’t all been good. Certainly, we can celebrate the end of slavery, segregation, and polio. We should hail the progress that the women’s rights movement has made in the last century, and feel relieved that advances in medicine mean we can cure most cancer and help women deliver babies safely as compared to several centuries ago. We can feel grateful that progress has meant that men and women alike no longer have to toil on the land in order to survive and thrive: they can become artists and engineers and activists and leave the hard work to those who find their soul’s calling in the agricultural arts.
However, the endless quest for progress has brought us such environmentally destructive practices as natural gas fracking, tar sands, and risky deep water drilling. More consumption means more pollution, more rainforests cut down to accommodate agriculture, more trees cut to manufacture paper for magazines and junk mail.
In the mainstream media today, progress is akin to a national religion. When the economy isn’t growing, we’re not making progress, and therefore, we need to put all our time and energy into making sure we get things back on track. This is the Story that our culture lives by and subscribes to, but it is this story that will foretell our demise. Do we even stop for one minute to consider that the story we’re telling ourselves isn’t correct? That from the perspective of the planet, and thus ultimately from the human perspective, progress isn’t always progress?
Here are at least four reasons why:
Reason #1: Progress has disconnected us from nature.
It’s true that in the last two centuries, there have been great strides in technology and efficiency that have enabled most people to pursue careers of a non-agrarian nature. One farmer, equipped with fuel-powered tractors and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, can do the work of hundreds of farmers without such implements. Therefore, more people have been able to branch out into the arts and sciences and dream up things like machines that can travel across a city or out into space. We no longer need to have the knowledge of how food grows or how to care for the land on which we live: we can exchange our thinking in the form of skills and talents for food and shelter. When in the past people would know when the first frost was likely to end a growing season and what “normal” rainfall to expect year to year—because their very life depended on it—today people barely notice the weather because they spend time indoors in climate-controlled offices and houses.
But we cannot live as a species disconnected from the rest of nature. When the sole purpose of our life becomes the acquisition of money and material goods, and we no longer care about what happens to the rivers and forests surrounding our cities, massive environmental degradation is sure to follow. When we can once again enjoy a relationship with nature—whether it’s in the form of gardening, farming or simply hiking—we can once again be physically and spiritually healthy.
Reason #2: Progress has disconnected us from each other.
People used to spend a lot more time together as a community. Now people are too busy working in cubicles, commuting to and from work, and compulsively checking our e-mail to really get to know their neighbors. And why should they care about knowing or befriending their neighbors when we don’t really NEED them anymore? If our car breaks down we have our choice of perhaps dozens of auto repair shops that can service our car. If we need a loaf of bread we just go and buy one from the grocery store. If we need a barn for our horses (or RVs), we hire a contractor to build one. In the old days, alienating yourself from your neighbors meant a difficult and lonely life. Today, it means that you’re just “busy” and probably have a big salary.
Money has enabled us to become self-reliant and independent, and it has destroyed community. Technology has made the world a smaller place, but it has isolated us from each other. Instead of going over a friend or neighbor’s house for dinner and conversation, we eat our fast food meal alone on the couch while watching TV and checking our cellphone every five minutes to see if anyone has commented on our Facebook status. No gadget, software or website can take the place of real human companionship and interaction. We are deficient in community and we don’t even know it, because we think we are “friends” with more people than ever through the internet. But while face-to-face time satiates our craving for companionship, spending time on the computer does not. Therefore, we have become addicted to technology and the momentary euphoria of being acknowledged by words on a screen.
Reason #3: Life expectancy goes up, but health goes down.
Life expectancy has gone up considerably in the last two centuries because of advances in medicine. Antibiotics, chemotherapy, surgery, and many life-saving drugs have made it possible for most Americans to reach a ripe old age of 70. However, it’s the quality of health that’s gone down for many—particularly the lower-income demographic. According to the American Cancer society, an unhealthy lifestyle of poor eating habits, smoking and little exercise has increased cancer cases to 27 million and increased cancer deaths to 17 million in 2009. China, Russia and India are expected to have the highest rate of increase of cancer incidence and deaths and the overall global increase is expected to be 1% per year. Tobacco use and obesity are the leading causes of cancer in poorer countries. Children are developing Type 2 diabetes in America, something that was practically unheard of just 50 years ago. Residents living near natural gas drilling platforms are at an increased risk of developing neurological problems and disease. Allergies are epidemic, and scientists postulate that a too-sterile environment is to blame. Processed food is cheap and easy, but nutritionists and doctors now warn that a diet high in processed food can cause colon cancer and other health problems.
Reason #4: Resource depletion and environmental destruction.
Human activities have led to a rate of species extinction that is at least 100–1,000 times higher than the natural rate. Industrial agriculture and genetically modified crops have killed soil fertility and left what amounts to a chemically-dependent sponge upon which we grow plants and feed crop. We treat animals like products to be caged, injected with hormones and drugs, and slaughtered en-masse instead of treating them like creatures that can feel pain and despair. We dump industrial toxins into rivers and oceans and tell the world that the ocean is big and “can take it” when there’s an oil spill and we have to pour even more chemicals into it in order to cover up our negligence. We don’t care that we’re poisoning the air or the waterways or causing the extinction of precious animals and plants, because all we seem to care about are jobs, economic growth, and how much money we’re going to have in our bank account.
What is the cost of all this insanity? What else will we have to sacrifice or destroy in order to worship at the altar of this so-called progress?
A New Definition of Progress
Progress must mean more to us than taking away from nature in order to gain material goods for ourselves. Progress has not given us more free time to spend with our friends and family; it has made us more stressed and fearful than ever. We can’t count on our non-existent community, so we work jobs we hate so we can continue to live in the illusion that our happiness depends on maintaining our current “lifestyle.” Progress has to mean examining what really makes us content, and working within the limits of the planet in terms of resources. The greatest tragedy of the human race has been the squandering of fossil fuels, particularly oil—in 200 years we will have used up most of these miracle energy sources that took millions of years to form and which we will never get back.
Progress should mean working within the Earth’s limits to ensure that people aren’t just well-off financially, but happy and healthy. It means closing the gap between the very rich and the desperately poor, because progress can’t just mean the improvement of the lives of 5% of the population. Progress means peace, and cooperation, and more beauty in the world. It means figuring out a way to live on the planet so that our children and our great-great-great grandchildren can enjoy the same wilderness we’ve enjoyed, and not just in a zoo or on television. Progress should mean that we put our collective energy into elevating our spiritual and emotional growth, instead of protesting against this or that political party or the latest atrocity against nature and humanity. Increasing beauty, happiness and well-being of all: I’ll take that sort of progress over the latest high-tech, plastic entertainment gadget any day.
Margaret Emerson, MA is a writer, designer, ecopsychologist and the author of the book Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range. She leads contemplative hikes through her MeetUp group and facilitates overnight mindfulness-in-nature retreats in the mountains of Colorado. She writes a blog at www.ContemplativeHiking.com.