What Shall We Call Progress?

Building a Railroad: What is Progress? (Video 5 minutes)

What Shall We Call Progress? 

Anthropologists have long noted that indigenous tribes live much more in the now than moderns. Consequently, their sense of time is much less acute, and their concepts of progress are minimal. On the other hand, they are acutely tuned to surrounding nature. Their sensory feats astound those of us with our noses in screens all day. Indigenous people think of themselves as a part of nature, not separate from it.

The cultures of indigenous people fascinate those concerned for how humanity is going to survive in any great numbers on a crowded, depleted planet. Patel and Moore are the latest to ponder this concern. They too conclude that we moderns will not cease destructive consumption until we feel a connection to nature strong enough to make our economies and our habits of living compatible with it. That is, how do we feed nature as well as ourselves?

One proposal is to return to living as the older indigenous tribes did. Besides howls from consumers wanting to keep their conveniences, very little calculation is needed to conclude that earth does not have enough ecology left to support 10 or more times as many people living as, say Native Americans did 500 years ago.

So we have to find a new balance with nature. Nobody really knows what that would be, but it is a change much more drastic than most environmental proponents envision. No less a business publication than The Economist just ran a piece recognizing that to keep us and the planet together, we have to start taking more CO2 out of the air than we put in. We must either invent a marvelous energy efficient technology, or cede big chunks of the earth to Mother Nature to form her own big carbon sinks. With programs like the trillion tree project, we would have to induce nature to form carbon sinks faster than it would do on its own.

Like it or not, we need to engage in systems meddling. But for that to succeed, we have to stop doing what we are doing – developing economies by greatly increasing per capita resource consumption. Developed economies don’t want to give up much; undeveloped ones want to develop as fast as possible. To date, this is what we have considered to be progress.

Who could be against this kind of progress? Almost no one it seems. For instance, the Chinese government is aware that their pollution is excessive. They are taking stronger corrective action than most economies, but they can’t stop the growth machine. Doing so risks political suicide.

And that conflict digs into the heart of the ecological quandary. How can we shut off our desire to have more and more, and to do more and more? As Moore and Patel point out, our whole Western way of life is based on our concept of progress being more and more. Even our most basic financial tools are geared to drive growth.

Tool and technique economists are turning to behavior, just like tool and technique proponents of lean and quality have done in business. Attempts at government regulation only stop the worst planetary degradation; they don’t reverse anything. They don’t change what “the system” tells us is success achieving whatever our belief system defines as progress. Our #1 root cause threat is us, where “us” implies all the systems, myths, and beliefs that we live by.

Basic beliefs have never changed quickly. Patel and Moore trace how the present system evolved over a millennium or more. Any plant with roots that deep does not modify. It has to be ripped out and something new put in its place, which suggests social disruption and transformation on a very fast scale. Only hopeless optimists think it can be done.

But if we are going to give this transformation a stab, how should we think about doing it? One conceptual approach is to think of overconsumption as an addiction. We know something about what works to cure many addictions, as described by Johann Hari.

A cure for addiction is showing addicts a way to be at peace with their demons other than by drowning them in some chemical – and by reconnecting them with other people. Translated to the environmental front, personally engage people in programs to let nature regenerate – so engaged that they no longer have an urge to buy the biggest house and to binge shop for stuff to fill it. Instead, promote fashion as ability to live well while being frugal, living on the least, rather than being envied for consuming the most.

Of course, this approach requires creating programs on at least a local scale and a strategy to induce people to become grounded in reality – nature’s reality. You can’t be nostalgic about something that you have never deeply experienced. And you will need to defend against propaganda urging people to keep consuming. Think of it as trying to displace an artificial ideology with one based on nature and fact-based reference points – science.

Another approach originated from Carl Jung, renowned as a psychologist, but also an early environmentalist. He intrinsically understood the role of nature in keeping us sane, but foremost, Jung was a scientist; he followed the evidence. He crisscrossed many paths through our fragmented bodies of knowledge.

Scientific experimentation has debunked a lot of hokum, but Jung saw a dark underside to rationality. Inside, we’re still animals with instincts that rip open our logical veneer, for good and for ill. We self-justify emotions by turning our pseudo-reasoning in illogical loops. Exploiting our emotions to implant a set of pseudo-rational beliefs – an ideology – in masses of people is a “psychic epidemic.” It’s like a mono-crop destroying the balance of nature on a scale incomprehensible to indigenous minds.

During WWII, Jung advised the Allies on Hitler, correctly predicting that he would commit suicide. Less noted, Jung also predicted – and feared – that technological mankind would destroy itself by destroying nature because we can’t see through our own illusions to preclude psychic epidemics. About this he was conflicted: “Nature must not win the game…but she cannot lose…”

Decades after Jung, we remain conflicted. Economic development threats to the environment keep growing. Economic development is a world wide psychic epidemic, but lost in its illusions, we rationalize away the evidence.

What was Jung’s solution? To stay sane, be nostalgic for Mother Earth. However, nostalgia is an emotion requiring enough prior familiarity to form an emotional bond. Jung was convinced that without emotionally bonding with nature, economic mankind would go insane in a technical, artificial world. If our ethical moorings are anchored only in ourselves, and in systems we have created for ourselves, we are devoid of meaningful underlying purpose. And are we more likely to become addicts?

Deep purpose needs an emotional bond. When a hero dies to save another human life emotion wells up in us. That life could be ours. But we can’t relate when someone forgoes comfort, convenience, and acquisition to save all life – all the cyclic webs of life that constitute a whole, viable system: nature. Lacking that emotional bond, we remain deluded that economic growth is infinitely expandable and nature infinitely expendable.

Thus deluded, we rationalize how economic growth can co-exist with a healthy nature, perhaps even a regenerating one. To do this, we devise rules and regulations, technologies and techniques, plans and processes. However, regulations are ineffective if those regulated want to ignore them or cleverly reinterpret them to circumvent them. Thus deluded, we convince ourselves that we are saving nature by merely complying or by employing environmentally beneficial practices. None of it is fully effective as long as we remain emotionally numb to nature’s needs.

What’s Jung’s prescription for this disease? That everyone should study biology, up close and personal, daily if possible, until we see emotionally as well as intellectually.

The Compression Institute’s prescription: We will save ourselves, not by top down command, but from deep inside us, guided by being aware of what nature needs, as well as what we need – as opposed to what we just want. That’s the intent of Vigorous Learning Organizations and Compression Thinking.

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