While watching CNN International, I saw a commercial for a program “Planet in Peril” that was going to have a discussion about vanishing species, which discussion was taglined (a verb?) “Planet vs. Progress.” Not unlike the name “Planet in Peril,” which really isn’t the case — it’s life in peril or life system in peril — something about that tagline didn’t sit right in my head. Part of the commercial talked about “balancing” the needs of a system where layers upon layers of living things depend on each other in order that the system actually be viable…or should I have understood that as balancing the needs of the natural system with the economic “needs” of a human society?
Not too long ago, I wrote a post on this, wherein I pondered (using basic things as examples) how humans, having conceptually divorced themselves from nature, could rationally think that we aren’t harming our environment. I also mused over how humans have institutionalized the conceptual divorce, officially boxing in our perspectives: our economics, cultural institutions, religion*, laws, ways of life have all been inextricably codified and form the basis of all that we seem to know. We can’t easily re-align our consciousness to be part of nature without destroying what we view as indispensable to human society. The notion of “progress” is a significant problem to overcome.
Here now again, I wonder: how can we call anything “progress” if it really isn’t?
I suppose we have to lay out in the open what it is we mean by “progress.”
What is Progress?
The definition of progress is really quite simple: pro (forward) gradi (step/walk). From simple movement in physical space, we’ve extended the concept to include advancement, growth, development, improvement. Progress is interpreted from a variety of angles:
- advancement toward a goal,
- social improvement,
- technological or scientific increases in ability to solve problems and create opportunities, and
- economic growth (increases in consumption and, correspondingly, market values & comforts).
In all cases, the concept has as its main assumption mankind’s advancing in some desired direction. We maintain without understanding why that progress is a good thing that we should push for in every aspect of life.
Even the Mennonites and similar sects of human society believe in progress: achievement of or advancement toward increasing humility. They don’t shun technology for the sake of shunning, but to maintain a course designed to achieve a prescribed end. And for everyone, even trying to maintain the status quo requires a type of progress in the sense that effort is expended to maintain a state that is constantly threatened by “progress” around it, in which case all actions toward that end constitute a direction.
Therefore, I would hazard to say that the notion of progress is universal in our species to one degree or another and found in every aspect of our life. From this perspective, progress is definite in the sense that it has a specific aim; and deliberate in the sense that the steps taken to reach the aim are considered essential toward achieving the aim.
Can progress be a direction without being definite or deliberate?
Yes. And I would say that therein lies the core of the problem with our notion of progress: the gestalt of unconscious actions or the whole of actions motivated by selfishness comprise a direction. The direction is created by the momentum arising from effort toward blindly satisfying selfish ends, establishing a trajectory, or direction. The sheer mass of common (shared) selfishness to indulge ourselves motivates the formation of our laws and values. With those codified, we lock ourselves into the course we’re on. And we extol their value to our way of life.
Combine this with the arrogance that we humans are above or masters of nature (thereby creating a mental separation of us from it), and you get a notion of progress that excludes nature except as a consumable resource. Our progress, then, is an advancement of this profound selfishness to the detriment of the system of life of which we are part. The lifeforms within nature have no value to this notion except where they are exploitable toward the ends of self-indulgence.
Problems with Progress
There, to my mind, are two basic problems here: one is the “progress trap,” the other is simple blind stupidity where what we call progress is really a increase in indulgence. I won’t even go into the progress trap — where humans in pursuing progress inadvertently introduce problems that they don’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to solve, well-exemplified by the BP oil spill or Fukushima — since that topic is already well explored. It’s the latter that I wonder about.
How can progress be called progress if it either isn’t sustainable or doesn’t represent a permanent mark of improvement? It seems to me that progress in the sense of advancement and improvement can only really exist if its ends don’t result in annihilation because that would mean the trajectory ends with a sudden stop and “progress” has been defeated. Imagine that, in our progression, we throw the balance of elements that compose a global ecosystem off kilter too far for there to be correction. (Well, there could be correction if mankind stopped interfering with corrective activities, say, in a few million years when different species could emerge to comprise and fortify a robust ecosystem.) Is it “progress” if we destroy the platform upon which our aims rest?
65% think we should do nothing about climate change since “we are powerless to stop it,” and the same percentage think science should stay out of the political process. When asked “How much would you be willing to pay to forestall the risk of catastrophic climate change?” 76.7% said “nothing.” (poll analysis)
Perhaps our individual and collective bankruptcy (of every kind) explains why 79.6% of respondents to a Scientific American poll are unwilling to forgo even a single penny to forestall the risk of catastrophic climate change. Scientific American readers undoubtedly are better informed than the general populace. And yet they won’t pay a thing to avoid extinction of our species. (Mr. McPherson’s website)
Is the Slope Really Slippery?
Immediately, if I were the reader of this post, I would suspect the logical fallacy of the slippery-slope variety when I read the term annihilation.
Imagine if you will a chain — the very chain we call “the food chain“. Why do we call it that? Because our existence depends on the interaction of predator-prey relationships above and below our level in the chain: we depend on, say, meat; the animals we eat depend on things they eat; the things they eat depend on the things they eat; etc. Let’s say, a link (level) in the chain includes bees. Bees pollinate plants. Bees disappear, plants die. And the animals in the links that depend on those plants suffer (or die). Consider also that the “food chain” is only one type of interrelationship among planetary elements that mankind is mindlessly affecting. We just don’t realize (because of our mental divorce from nature) how inter-related things are.
Given evolution, annihilation may not mean the end of life, but rather the end of things as we know them. I seriously doubt that mankind could forever destroy life on this planet. After all, throughout the ages, mass extinctions have happened with some frequency. According to one statistic, of all the species that have existed on this planet, 99.9% are gone. Life recovers … given massive amounts of time.
I don’t mean annihilation as an extrapolation that ends everything; only as a hypothesis that says: if you change your environment drastically, and that environment plays a significant role in what you expect from life, then your expectations will have to drastically change, changing the nature of the direction your life must go in order to continue…if we can survive the change.
So it is not so slippery a slope to 1) evaluate the chains of life (biodiversity) and the part they play now; 2) factor in the the loss or severe weakness caused by loss or significant imbalance of interdependent elements; 3) factor in the rate of loss &/or imbalance; and then 4) project the viability of what we consider progress in not only how it is sustained, but whether it can become increasingly more enjoyable.
If any notion of progress does not build on the health (and some might say, the better health) of all the elements that make up our system, then it cannot be progress in the sense of improvement, but rather progress in the ironical sense of blissful movement “toward destruction.”