Progress, simplicity, and contentment

Progress, “classically” understood, means improving the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization. But what, then, should we do if our progress prevents us from progressing? What if progress begins to undermine the very resources that enable it? The solution is to limit progress. But, if limiting progress improves our situation, then, strictly speaking, it would be progress to slow our progress. It would also be progress to improve our technological efficiency, but this merely perpetuates the notion that infinite improvements in material wealth can come from a finite pool of resources, not to mention the rebound effect of efficiency improvements on consumption explained by Jevons’ Paradox. We must remember that the Earth is finite. It replenishes itself, but we have exceeded a sustainable rate of consumption. Our progress stands to preclude our future progress, and so it must proceed within limits. In order to progress, we must limit progress.

This is only disturbing if one judges progress by continuous improvements in material luxury. I challenge we humans of the “developed” world to be content with materially simpler lives. We must reduce our consumption. Where political corruption and incompetence in the United States prevents any real governmental movement toward ecocentricism, we as consumers must simply consume less. Progress is often understood as entailing more consumption, but today we must do the opposite to progress. It would be progress to move toward primitivism, or, less radically so, simplicity. But to see it this way would require a dramatic shift in values.

JM Kincaid

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