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

On our cosmic significance

If human beings have intrinsic value, then so too does every other form of life. To contest this point implicitly assumes that humans are radically different and fundamentally distinct from other animals. It assumes that humans are over and above the rest of the ecosphere. This idea of intrinsic human worth reflects the anthropocentric worldview perpetuated today by Western monotheism, neo-conservativism, and progressive liberal humanism. But Darwin’s evolution levels the playing field of cosmic significance. Human are no more important than any other part of the ecosphere. Either all life carries intrinsic value, or none does.

This line of thought has unsettling implications for the predominate view on human existence. Most people are uncomfortable with the prospect that it’s our very presence, our rapacious and environmentally manipulative human nature, that is the problem. The real problem, utopians say, is that our science, technology, and social organization have not progressed sufficiently yet. Most are adamantly faithful that progress will deliver us from unsustainability. Yet it is precisely this progressive worldview that engenders our ecological crisis to begin. A return to primitive living, however, as romantic or appealing as it may seem to some, would be impossible to sell to the vast majority of people. And we’re largely either unwilling or unable to radically change our habits of consumption or unprecedented standard of living. So the only palatable option is to progress our way out of the problems of progress. We prefer to have faith.

If not for techno-agriculture, the human presence could not have reached this point. Contextually, it’s important to remember that the development of modern agricultural technology has been a secular progressive project. Moreover, we must keep in mind that secular progressivism is a natural evolution of Judeo-Christian millenarianism: intrinsicity is the secularization of divinity. The faith that scientific, technological, and governmental progress can make our highly consumptive way of life sustainable is a secular belief that fulfills the same natural human longing as traditional religions. Both secular progressivism and modern theism serve to satisfy our spiritual desire for cosmic significance, espousing that human life is headed toward a glorious culmination, that we are the most important aspect of nature, and that we have a righteous prerogative to use nature toward our magnificent end. But neither worldview is rooted in the reality of our animal condition.

Curtailing the human presence would be a logical way of mitigating anthropogenic environmental degradation: if our numbers were stabilized and then progressively reduced through women’s education and birth control availability, then resource intensive lifestyles would be less of a concern because demand would likewise diminish, and pollution would dissipate more quickly given fewer inputs. But secular liberal humanism and religious fundamentalism, the predominate social paradigms, both value human life more highly than the totality of the ecosphere despite our utter connectivity to and dependence upon it, and so often they resist even considering routes that might slow our growth, our progress.

Without a moral evolution toward understanding human beings as indistinct from the rest of the ecosphere, despite our technoscientific power, it’s unlikely that people will admit in any significant volume that the human presence is itself the ultimate source of our ecological crisis. Humanity needs such an evolution, for on it rests any hope for a sustainable future.

JM Kincaid

For the next step in this thought process, continue to “Hope amidst the cynicism”

Hope amidst the cynicism

Recently in a seminar at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, Dr. A. Karim Ahmed, Director of the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington D.C., posed a provocative question about the state of contemporary environmentalism. In short, his question was this: Where can one find hope amidst the cynical pessimism of today’s environmentalism? If you are constantly confronted with talk of catastrophic climate change, imminent sea level rise, the unsustainability of modern agriculture, ocean acidification, environmental injustice, rampant deforestation, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and the major ecological damage associated with extractive industries, how to be hopeful is a daunting question. Nevertheless, what follows is a short attempt to provide such a glimmer.

We Westerners must start with a potentially difficult admission. We must admit to ourselves that the past two and a half millennia of anthropocentric philosophy, religion, and science are among the root causes of the modern ecological crisis. Ours is a rapacious way of life and we have a habit of regarding the Earth as a mere resource stock. This is especially obvious when one contrasts our paradigm with the more eco-centric worldviews stemming from Buddhist, Taoist, and Dharmic philosophies.

However, even though Western thought has traditionally distinguished we human beings from the greater natural cycles and other animals (Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, etc.), recent progress in chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, microbiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and ultimately ecology, has begun to emphasize the utter connectivity of everything from microbes, to human beings, the Earth, and the Universe (to recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s remarks about our universal origin in star dust). While Baird Callicott’s “new, new ecology” synthesizing Buddhist spirituality with the Western paradigm has not yet emerged, the progression of Western thought is unveiling empirical conclusions that the aforementioned Eastern existential and metaphysical worldviews also support.

Science is an undeniable source of human power and potentially stands as a reason to reinforce our sense of cosmic arrogance and beliefs about the righteousness of the human dominion over nature, but I believe scientific progress will ultimately serve to remind us of and humble us about our place in existence, and I am confident that that humility will disseminate through society as science education is more heavily emphasized. Hopefully the result will be a proliferation of love, awe, respect, appreciation, and feelings of connectedness to the ecosphere that we have so unfortunately lost touch with from being constantly surrounded by the concrete, plastic, and technology of modern life. What hope is there? I hope that progress in science will eventually humble we human-centered Westerns about our place in nature, and remind us that we are but one small part of a beautiful greater cycle. Once we remember our fundamental connection to nature, we may become less consumed with pursuing the anthropocentric and arbitrary purposes that have thus far been a major source of our ecological crisis. Perhaps we will begin to cultivate our sense of meaning in life from being part of the ecosphere, rather than from exploiting it.

JM Kincaid