The mainstream west understands progress in terms of technological advancement and increased material wealth. It is held as a self evident truth that these two things are good, and desirable. They go with economic growth and increased GDP and are understood to be how we overcome poverty and improve quality of life for everyone. This is why it’s very hard to even start a conversation about alternatives – we have a culture that believes in material growth and consumption as its primary means of salvation in this lifetime, and its grand hope for improving the future for generations yet to come.
Thus is causes horror and alarm when The Green Party talks about zero growth economy, shrinking the economy, reducing material wealth. There’s a knee jerk, fear based reaction to all of this, because if material progress is good, not seeking material progress must be bad.
So what are we getting, for our great march of progress? What have we marched to, and where does the road lead? Yes, most of us now have more material wealth and comfort than the average mediaeval noble. We have increased life expectancy. We also have an obesity epidemic, social fragmentation, isolation, lack of resilience, loss of skills, increasing inequality between the richest and poorest and a crisis in mental health. There is no clear correlation between improved material comforts and improved quality of life. I would argue that the high stress, over stimulated, depression and anxiety inducing modern lifestyle is no kind of progress at all. As air pollution takes an increasing toll on life, those life expectancy gains are dwindling for many, too.
The march of progress pollutes our drinking water, the air we breathe and the soil that feeds us. It depletes habitat for all living things, and takes beauty out of the world. The mental health of humans is directly affected by contact with nature. So the more forests we cut down, the more open spaces we cover in tarmac, the more harm we do ourselves. It’s a funny sort of progress, when you stop and think about it.
And what do we do, with the amazing technological progress we’ve made? We sit in traffic queues and we watch television programs in which other people pretend to do exciting things. We do less that is real, less that has inherent meaning, less that gives us chance to be heroes, or saints, or whatever your calling may be. We spend more time investing in imaginary people doing pretend things. Are we living fuller, richer, more rewarding lives as a consequence of all our progress, or are we struggling to pay the bills and spending most of our free time on escapism?
Where are we marching to?
Because we do have a choice, and we do not have to accept the assumption that all new technology and all material posessions are unquestionably good. We need to be more discriminating, more selective, more willing to question the benefits and costs. Forever marching forward on the grounds that forward is good is a very weak strategy, especially if there’s no attention paid to what you march towards. With climate change, habitat destruction and species extinction on the rise, as we destroy the very resources we depend on, the march of progress seems intent on marching itself right over a cliff.