The Mounting Challenge of Progress

“Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller

The mounting challenge that we now face is that we have lost sight of what progress really is. As we have accepted our roles as consumers and have shirked the responsibilities of citizens, we have given ourselves over to turning everything that we can into something else and calling it progress. Now that this movement of consumerism has culminated in making finance our biggest industry, we now find ourselves consumed with converting everything that we can – every natural resource, every calorie of human labor, every moment of time, and every relationship – into little blips of light and information that we call money.

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Because this system we follow is based on the idea of scarcity, we are compelled to live our lives as if in a fervor to fill needs that were heretofore non-existent. In the name of progress, we find ourselves continually conspiring to invent new methods of creating addictions, compulsions, and obsessions to keep all of our fellow humans consuming as much as possible as well.

“We are different from our animal ancestors in that we are not content to merely survive,” Kevin Kelly reminds us in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, “but have been incredibly busy making up new itches that we have to scratch, creating new desires we’ve never had before. This discontent is the trigger for our ingenuity and growth.”

As a species, we were first sold imaginary lines in the sand and taught to call them borders. We were sold stories of God and how He would smite those who resisted His prescribed hierarchy of culture. We were sold the story of money and the machines we called corporations as they promised to magically turn all of our resources to money so that we may live a better life if we only feed them everything we have. And this we have come to call progress.

“We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology,” writes Jeffrey D. Sachs in The Price Of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue And Prosperity. “That, in a nutshell, is how we have lurched into the early twenty-first century.”

While our manufactured needs have compelled us to invent amazing new technologies in order to supposedly decrease the amount of labor we need individually, we have found ourselves working more hours than we have in almost a century. Somewhere along the way, we were sold the idea that the purpose of the system we are feeding is to get ourselves to the top of the hierarchy, where we can consume the most for the least amount of labor. At the end of this story we’ve been telling ourselves, our progress has enabled a small percentage of the population to hoard the majority of the wealth while the majority of the population merely exists to provide them more to consume.

“The entire system of free market capitalism, as it is practiced in the United States and in many Western nations,” Simon Mainwaring writes in We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World,  “is leading us further and further down the wrong path, toward a world dominated by narrow self-interest, greed, corporatism, and insensitivity to the greater good of humanity and to the planet itself. Short-term thinking and the single-minded pursuit of profit are increasingly subverting an economic system that otherwise has the capacity to benefit everyone.”

As the majority of the wealth we collectively create gets siphoned into the accounts of a few, we find ourselves grasping at whatever tiny luxuries we can afford, consuming what we can to make the suffering more bearable.  Because we have not yet imagined any other way of existing in the world, as John Holloway reminds us in Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, “We are the sole creators of the system which entraps us,” as we participate willingly in that which strips us of who we could become.

In addition to separating ourselves from one another through classes and other classifications, the story of progress we have been telling ourselves has nearly ruined our relationship with nature. Striving as hard as we can to be separated from the natural world, we have forgotten it’s actual importance as our home and provider of life.

As Ernst F. Schumacher wrote in Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, “Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.”

Fortunately, at the tail end of the information revolution, more and more people are realizing the horrific consequences our misunderstanding of progress has left us with, and are open to a new path. Yet the journey ahead will require us to return to our roles as citizens and become more conscious consumers. We must reconsider our definition of progress and how we will participate in it moving forward.

“Knowing that an economy is in decline is not enough,” Jeffrey D. Sachs tells us in The End of Poverty. “We must know why the economy is failing to achieve economic growth if we are to take steps to establish or reestablish it.”

Reinventing an economy so that it works for all will not only require us to learn new lessons, but also unlearn some of the bad ones we have gathered along the way. Making any kind of true progress requires a continual renewing of the mind.

As the father of modern economics John Maynard Keynes wrote in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”

The most common aspect of our mounting challenge is the belief that overcoming it is impossible. We have become so predisposed to believing that the powers-that-be will not allow us the freedoms our hearts long for that we frequently give ourselves over to apathy in the face of rising against it. Yet everything that humankind has accomplished, even everything that was once considered impossible, began in the human imagination. If you can begin to see progress as a way to achieve greater sustainability, resilience, and quality of life for all instead of only a few, know that you are part of a shared vision, and the rest of us thank you for having faith. As Clay Shirky wrote in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, “Upgrading one’s imagination about what is possible is always a leap of faith.” Although the story of progress we have been telling ourselves sometimes seems destined to end in a Dark Age, we do have the power to tell a new story of Renaissance about the progress we truly seek.

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