The catastrophic success of Progress

Despite their great diversity in cultural forms and beliefs, most indigenous cultures seem to share a common respect for the interdependence of all life. In modern times this world view has been displaced by the almost universal doctrine of human exceptionalism – an all-pervading assumption that our species stands outside of nature with a self-assigned mandate to “manage” all other life forms on the planet for our benefit.

ArrowChartOver the last four centuries the ideology of Progress has become the main expression of human exceptionalism. Indeed, it could be argued that Progress became the core organising and legitimising principle of Western civilisation with its roots reaching back to Mosaic law and classical Greek humanism. In this context Progress can be taken to mean our collective commitment to the steady growth of human knowledge, power and material wealth in order to advance the mastery of our species over the natural world.

In today’s dominant societies Progress and its attendant utilitarianism – that the value of any being or thing is ultimately determined by its utility for humankind – are the taken-for-granted foundations of virtually all political, economic, social and environmental policy and public discourse. Yet the over-performance of this ideology has created its own antithesis.

By unleashing a destabilising abundance of energy from the Earth’s sequestrated reservoirs of ancient sunlight, the industrial revolution triggered a run-away explosion of human population, over exploitation of nature’s riches, economies fatally dependent on ever growing levels of frivolous consumption, and a deluge of toxic wastes that now threatens the stability of the biosphere.

While the colonising monoculture of Progress has swept away so many alternative ways of being, there are still indigenous communities that preserve Earth-centric cultural resources of inestimable value. They can serve to remind us of who we are and where we came from. And over the past century shifts in the focus of scientific inquiry from a determined reductionism towards whole system dynamics and complexity have started to yield new ways of seeing the world and our place in it.

As we ponder how to deal with the catastrophic success of Progress, a radical value shift may be our best and last chance. Radical, that is, in the literal sense: a return to our roots in Earth’s matrix of life.


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