The “classical” idea of progress is that human beings should pursue the continuous linear improvement of the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization. Progress, as such, is an arbitrary normative teleological judgment – we judge that the purpose of human life is to progress and that its pursuit amounts to a moral imperative. The social and political prioritization of this pursuit, I have argued in the problems of society – part two, has culminated in “the paradox of progress,” which manifests today as our ecological crisis. The paradox is made in the fact that, through ecological disruption, human progress undermines its enabling conditions. One could also think of this as a negative feedback cycle.
Negative feedback cycles are generally desirable in complex systems because they are self-regulating. James Lovelock and Andrew Watson’s Daisyworld provides a beautiful example of negative feedback and its homeostatic propensity. In terms of human progress, however, negative feedback ultimately means a regression in our standard of living, which, I assume, most people do not find desirable. But because the paradox of progress is beginning to become obvious in the forms of global climate change, ocean acidification, extreme weather events, hypoxic zones of oceanic proportions, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and global sea-level rise, all of which constitute serious degradations to the natural conditions upon which our economies, our standards of living, and the very habitability of the planet depend, we must quell any absolute aversion to changes in what we believe “progress” to mean.
In response to the ecological crisis of the paradox of progress, the classical version of the idea of progress is undergoing an evolution of sorts. As we approach the cusp of the paradox, norms about progress are adapting. The new take on progress is but a slight change from the classical version. “New progress” is the idea that humans should pursue the sustainable improvement of the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization.
The difference is between the pursuit of continuous linear improvement and sustainable improvement. The latter is a far less rapacious pursuit, and because the idea of sustainability is fundamentally concerned with enabling the continued fulfillment of our objective biological needs, a non-arbitrary purpose, new progress, while still normative and teleological, is not an arbitrary judgment, unlike classical progress.
Today we witness the development of a new idea of progress. Since the United Nation’s issuance of the Brundtland Report in 1987, human institutions the world-over have begun to adopt ideals of new over classical progress. Social norms about progress are starting to become intertwined with norms about sustainability; sustainability is, after all, a very natural evolution when faced with the prospect of regress or, in the most radical scenarios, collapse. The capacity of the sustainability movement to overcome the paradox of progress remains to be fully proven, yet an undeniable sense of optimism blooms from projects like those of the United Nations Environmental Programme, 350.org, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Clinton Foundation.
Integral to the success of the sustainability movement will be a shift in global paradigm from anthropocentricism to ecocentricism, for the human-centered worldview is at the heart of our ecological crisis. We can no longer take for granted the capacity of Earth systems to abate our overwhelming pollution as if that were their purpose, nor can we continue believing human beings to be the most important and most significant aspect of the natural world. We must cultivate a sense of love, humility, and connectedness with the Earth and Sun, for they are, in many ways, life itself, and it is in both our rational self-interest and the collective ecological interest that we appreciate and protect the life-enabling natural conditions that together we enjoy and depend upon.
To do this, each of us must learn to be content, to find happiness in the very fact of our existence – a sentiment I’ve seen expressed by Lao-tze, Chuang-tze, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Shunryu Suzuki. We should try to satisfy our deepest existential longings through simplicity, companionship, love, music, sex, creation, and reflecting on the utter connectivity of everything from microbes to the universe and the constantly astounding reality that we happen to be the kind of animals that can consciously ponder our own existence. Of course, there is some room for material luxury in this picture, and there is an undeniably compelling case to be made for the nobility of human power and accomplishment. Even if I thought it were possible, I would not encourage doing away with the pursuit of progress altogether. To temper action with wisdom and proceed with the ecosphere in mind is good enough.