Walking off a Cliff: the Progress Blindfold

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?

NOTE: do not read a value judgment in the word “selfish” and “selfishness.” Here they are used to refer merely to “toward satisfying the self” and “perspective where self is primary.”

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.”

20 Responses

  1. I’m not sure I arrive at the same level of judgment that several interpreters of this study do because I don’t think that not answering a question about how much one is willing to pay is indisputable proof that same someone is unwilling to pay.

    [Jump back to where you were]


  2. From the House GOP readies restrictions on EPA AP story:

    Many scientists say carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollution contribute to global warming, and the attempt to reduce them is a major priority for President Barack Obama as well as environmentalists. Critics argue the evidence is thin and new rules would drive up costs for businesses and consumers and cause job losses.

    Once again, it’s human economic interests that trump the basic health of the only thing that gives us life: the planet.

  3. Facebook discussion:


    I lived in the rainforest I would definitely be for its destruction.


    So, trying to parse the connotations of your post … Let’s start with this:

    1) rainforest vs. Hilton > might suggest a cognitive separation of the human (being) from the ecosystem that sustains him and of which he is a biological part.

    2) destruction of rainforest > might suggest, not just fighting against living within the natural environment, but destroying it so that the context does not present itself.

    When I was spending a lot of time in Provo UT, friends of mine would tootle up to Park City to see a friend. There, new houses were being built into the forested hillside, away from defined “city” environs. What we read in the local newspaper from the people moving into these new houses was how inconvenient it was that they had to worry about coyotes, and racoons, and bears, oh my. They were for eradicating the dangerous & wild pests.

    There is a mental separation of the human being from terrestrial “being”; where the natural environment, if it can’t be exploited for human gain,it becomes an inconvenience.


    I do get what you are saying but Im never sure which side of this fence Im on. In theory it would be nice if we embraced nature but in reality this world is as AC/DC put it “dog eat dog – eat cat too” and in the struggle to stay alive everyone is thrown in the fighting arena, including the Rain Forest, the Coyote, and the environment. Its every man or creature for themself.


    I see your point: nature is savage. “Food chain” is the type of system we live in. But I’m not sure it can be every man for himself — of type of species selfishness — if man erodes the strength and health of his environment by destroying the elements that make the system run.

    There are other chains involved than just food — how oxygen is produced and how water produced & cleaned, for instance.

    Mankind has an advantage over the not-human in the arena. You might say, survival of the fittest. But if we’re focusing on only the competitor in the arena, we’re not seeing the system in operation. Forest through the trees problem.

    I don’t know how to balance mankind’s selfishness with the health of the bio-system of the planet (that we are an organic part of). I just know that, for our own long-term prospects, we should try.

  4. During the first Republican presidential debates, When Michelle Bachman was asked what government program she’d cut to reduce the deficit, she did offer up a classic false dilemma:

    And I would begin with the EPA, because there is no other agency like the EPA. It should really be renamed the job-killing organization of America.


  5. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.”
    ~ Heraclitus.

  6. Buchanan, our first gay president

    Despite such evidence, one reason why Americans find it hard to believe Buchanan could have been gay is that we have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall story line is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically. Thus we must be more tolerant now than we were way back in the middle of the 19th century! Buchanan could not have been gay then, else we would not seem more tolerant now.

    …Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.


  7. […] is evolutionary in the sense that it happens in reaction to environmental conditions (not progress in the ameliorative sense). If we think of these nutbags as environmental conditions, we are at […]

  8. A New Story of the People

  9. Question: is Christianity or monotheism responsible for the conceptual separation we humans have with nature?

    It occurs to me that Christianity barely pays nature lip-service: it is all about humans, humans, humans and our personal (individual) walk with God in relation to other humans.

    Nature is exists for humans to dominate (“have dominion over”).

    But the reason why I wonder if Christianity has brought us to our current paucity of respect for the planet because it single-handedly attempted to wipe out the nature-based or nature-respecting religions. Christian leaders thought it their duty to destroy pagan ways and perspectives, pronouncing them evil and unholy and a path away from the Christian god.

    My hypothesis is, then, that (1) Christianity contains no earth-health consciousness, and (2) there is no balance of the human-centric selfishness of monotheistic religions and religions that possess a salient respect for nature and how we are part of the gestalt life system.

    I expect there are Christians who might argue (I don’t know, and this isn’t as much a strawman coming up as it is an attempt to address the possibility) that “no earth-health consciousness” is false as there are some references to caring for the earth in their teachings. (For instance, I have read a couple essays attempting to establish earth-health consciousness by arguing from “stewardship” and “the Garden.” But these arguments were rationalizations to attempt to bring consciousness into the practice of the faith.)

    My argument about that would be that having a few thoughts on the matter does not constitute active consciousness, but rather are detached intellectual acknowledgment that have the same passive impact as an observation.

    I refine “consciousness” by including the modifier “active” to assert:
    (1) Consciousness of earth-health is baked into the ongoing belief system such that thinking about earth-health is automatic when thinking about other aspects within the religion’s focus.

    (2) It is “active” in the sense that practice of the religion includes activities whose objectives are earth-health oriented.

    I submit that Christianity’s focus is on “dominion of the earth” and (over) populating it in the name of reverence for (human-only) life. Any earth-health mention or action is a function of the individual’s consciousness that are not produced, invoked, or inspired by Christian teachings or consciousness. The “Green Movement” is not a Christian movement, although Christians may find justification or motivation to participate other than by the commands and tenets of their religion.

    (return or jump to paragraph context)

  10. […] —, which subset they want to rule our nation in a form that doesn’t require imagination or involve progress. When they refer to the destruction of America if we, don’t just conserve their box, but don’t […]

  11. […] where a path is marked by some basic things you have to achieve in order that there be forward momentum (progress): loving & love, humility, honesty (especially the intellectual variety), sincerity, pureness of […]

  12. Keywords/phrases:
    chances for growth without challenge,

  13. Meanwhile, U.S.-style laissez-faire capitalists, who now dominate the politics and economy in this country, continue to argue that all solutions must be determined by the “free market.” But the free market does not focus on the needs of democracy, or the implications of rampant inequity, or the catastrophic problems of the natural world. The free market is interested in one thing: expanding wealth. That is its only agenda. Nothing else matters, at least until the system collapses. Klaus Schwab had it right. And the situation is not much better abroad.

    “ Why should we want to reinvent capitalism? The nature and logic of capitalism are incorrigibly avaricious. As a property system driven by the need to maximize profit and production, capitalism is a giant, ever-whirling vortex of accumulation. . . . Capitalism compels us to be greedy, callous, and petty. It takes what the Greeks called pleonexia—an endless hunger for more and more—and transforms it from a tawdry and dangerous vice into the central virtue of the system. The sanctity of growth stems from this moral alchemy, as does the elevation of market competition into a model of human affairs.”

    ~ http://www.alternet.org/print/books/there-are-good-alternatives-us-capitalism-no-way-get-there

  14. Criminal negligence is normally understood to result from failures to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms, or the threat of harms to public safety, consequent of certain activities. Those funding climate denial campaigns can reasonably predict the public’s diminished ability to respond to climate change as a result of their behaviour. Indeed, public uncertainty regarding climate science, and the resulting failure to respond to climate change, is the intentional aim of politically and financially motivated denialists.

    Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?


  15. From a You’ve Been Scienced facebook post heading:

    Here’s a question for you: If we humans, as a species, are well suited for the current environment, what do you think will happen if we alter that environment?

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