Surviving Progress by Questioning Progress


January 8, 2012 by sgoobie


The recently-released documentary Surviving Progress, an excellent discussion piece for the classroom, invites viewers to consider their own notions of progress, and its consequence for the Planet. 

Is all change for the better?

Ask your students: Do you think the future will be better than the present?  Do you believe that the present is better than the past?

In our journey to help youth, fellow citizens and ourselves better disentangle the ways of thinking lurking behind growing regional and global environmental crises, we arrive at a way of thinking called progressivism.

Progressivism is, relatively speaking, something quite new.  Spanning the 17th and 18th centuries, sparked by European philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau, the Age of Enlightenment (as it came to be known) took emerging ideas about the application of reason in society and mobilized them throughout Europe and, eventually, the Americas.  The established order — including the role of the Church — faced its greatest challenge while the “rights” of the individual citizen rose to prominence, eventually sparking numerous bold popular declarations of independence, revolutions, emancipation of peoples and the founding of democratic governments.  The startling realization stemming from this philosophical upheaval was that old dogma and authority — from Moses to Aristotle to daily superstition — could now be held up for scrutiny and, if found problematic, replaced with new knowledge.

While there is much to celebrate about the Enlightenment’s promotion of individual freedoms and its trust in science and reason to solve society’s problems, we need to closely examine at the same time the inherent optimism carried forth by this new worldview along with its environmental consequences.  Voltaire, in particular, was a major proponent of a particular flavour of progress —  societal advancement through science and reason.  This understanding of what we mean by progress has spread out from his era and continues to gain ground in the farthest corners of the world during this, the Age of Globalization.  The modern proponents of progress rightly point out examplars: “cutting-edge” medical technologies to prevent and treat disease, construction materials and techniques to avoid loss of life in natural disasters, and scientific know-how to diagnose and predict hidden threats such as climate change and ozone depletion.  Indeed, to those peoples for whom these developments are equitably available, much has been gained in terms of health, longetivity and physical comfort in living.

The horrors and insanity of 20th-century war and genocide challenged, for a time, the idea that “men” could find progress in reason.  Nevertheless, that change is inherently positive, that new ideas, ways of living, and technologies are always signs of betterment, and that advancement is synomous with scientific and technological achievement — these perceptions have become firmly set in our modern ways of thinking.  Progressivism is a now central part of our modern ecological thoughtprint.

Around the world, traditional lifestyles, time-tested beliefs and place-based knowledge have fallen by the wayside, replaced by the norms of the “developed” and “advanced” Western world and the “universal” truths of empirical science.  Through reason-saturated schooling, our societies revel in the driving of out so-called primitive, intuitive understandings of the world .  Consumer capitalism has sprouted from the premise that what is old is out-dated and needs swift replacement by the newest, shiniest gadget or latest fashion; indeed, life satisfaction seems to now hinge on the accumulation of these new goods.  Likewise, our “modern” economies are based on the premise that growth is good, and the status quo (or, gasp, de-growth) is bad.


A world out of balance: climate change as an indicator of “progress”

When we consider the natural world of which we are a part, it becomes quite clear that there are dramatic consequences to this particular understanding of progress.  Every new technology brings with it both benefits and negative side-effects.  Nuclear power is an extreme example, making accessible near-infinite quantities of energy while resulting in troubling near-ageless radioactive waste and the risk of regional — even global — disaster.  There is no new technology or scientific development without some environmental or social consequence.  It is only now as we reach and surpass the natural limits of the planet’s systems that we come face to face with the dysfunctions of progressivism.  Still, ironically, we often define progress in a way which boasts our toxification and degradation of the air, water and land: how many acres of land “cleared”, how many minerals mined, how many fish caught, how much capital (i.e. natural “resources”) has traded hands…

Together with our students, we need not make an enemy of progress.  Rather, we merely need to question the assumption that all new ideas and developments are inherently good.  All societies change, adapt, morph — and this may be neither all good nor all bad.  Together we can ask, for any particular change: Who or what benefits?  How long will this benefit last?  Who or what suffers?  Given a long-term timeline, is this suffering worth the benefits?

It is only when we as educators and students consider these questions that we are able to better moderate our view of change.  It is in this critical process that we can grasp the importance of protecting what matters — a truly conservative approach — and changing what is no longer in keeping with our most pressing local, societal and global challenges.

Returning to our original classroom questions, we may now add what is arguably the most powerful and necessary clarifier of all.  It is a question too seldom asked, a seemingly-simple query with deep undertones and far reach.

What do we mean by “better”?


One thought on “Surviving Progress by Questioning Progress

  1. rocky says:

    hey bwana that was great keep up the good work

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