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”