I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks, but it’s so big and hard to wrap my head around that I just don’t know where to begin. It has something to do with the shortsightedness of economic progress. And then it has something to do with my admittedly idealistic idea of progress, and its two necessary components: stillness and balance.
I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll start with the one image my head keeps going back to: a knob of clay, cupped beneath my hands on a turning wheel. Although the clay is spinning, it’s so centered that it offers the illusion of stillness both to the eye and to the hands that are resting very stilly on its surface. Only when it is perfectly centered can I gently begin to shape it. Any sudden movements or excessive force will cause it to collapse or unbalance.
This is my metaphor for what I think progress should look like. Balance first, then balanced, deliberate change. And throughout the process, enough stillness and deliberation to consider our actions fully before we take them. If not to the seventh generation, at least to the second or third.
Progress, as much of the rest of the world sees it, is economic and technological expansion. I don’t inherently have a problem with technological innovation and am as dependent upon my indoor plumbing and electricity as any first world citizen. (Though I’ve found cutting back to have some unexpected benefits.) But economic growth for its own sake is a road that ends in a concrete wall. Even if we weren’t busy altering, destroying, and ultimately exhausting our natural resources, even though we fantasize about indefinite, unplanned economic growth, our finite resources will pose a real limit sooner or later. Economic growth may be our immediate concern, but we don’t even have a plan B option in case we really screw up the planet.
Essentially, I agree with the eminent speaker whose name and position I have totally forgotten on Planet Earth, who argued, “There’s been too much growth already. What we need now is a sustainable retreat.” What this means, in some ways, is voluntarily returning to or adopting lifestyles and practices that were more in sync with the limitations of our resources. Reducing our birth rate, eating locally grown whole foods, relying less on animal products, using fewer petroleum-based products, getting away from brainless consumerism, returning to lower yield but more sustainable fishing and agriculture practices. All that stuff.
At the same time, I think technology can be a huge ally in this goal to live sustainably without giving up the genuine gains we’ve made in improving human existence. Renewable energy allows us to keep using electricity (albeit less of it); contraception has given us the ability to choose our family size; the internet is an amazingly powerful tool to spread information, news, and consciousness. Without Twitter and the avid environmentalists I started following a year ago, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.
For me, progress is whatever improves our lives and our relationship with the natural world. It’s about balance, and about leading lives that offer us enough stillness, enough silence, and enough space to care about this relationship and act to protect it.
Sadly, getting the entire human population to act consciously, sustainably, and wisely is even less likely than finding a new planet when we’ve gutted this one.