We need a new definition of Progress

As the planet hurtles ever closer towards a runaway climate apocalypse, and the 6th mass extinction is making our rainforests go on silent mode, humans are continuing to walk towards the wrong direction: more consumerism, more carbon footprint, more impact on Earth. And although as a species we are beginning to realise that something about our society, something about our economic model is fundamentally wrong, we have accepted that we are unable to change the very lifestyle that we know is destroying the planet.

This behaviour is much like that of an addict: they know what they are doing is self destructive, but they pursue it anyway. Along with the inability to give up on the “high”, they have also lost the faith that they need in themselves to make the effort to stop. They have lost hope in humanity.
Along with our addiction however, we have been nurturing a grand delusion about what Progress is. In fact, we have been deluding ourselves that we are progressing. Each generation of humans has grown up with the false perception that it is better off than the generation before: that as our civilisation advances, this means better health, better well-being, more happiness. While this may be true when looking at macroeconomic factors such as life expectancy, it is safe to say that we are beginning to fail in all of these aspects. Our quality of life is diminishing rapidly, and this can be seen in the fact that our civilisation is increasingly focusing on ways to mask and minimise the damaging effects of Progress. Human health is in crisis mode, with massive parts of our economy dedicated in healing the physical and spiritual cost of progress on humans. Our healthcare systems for example, are trying to catch up with record cases of the “progress diseases”, cancer and obesity.

And it is not a surprise that these two modern diseases are a side effect of our existential crisis and loss of connection with the natural world, and ourselves. Obesity is the result of humanity’s greed, anxiety, lack of purpose and need for distraction, as well a descent into mindless hedonism with unhealthy foods that bear no resemblance to the nutrition that our bodies actually need. Cancer is the effect of our destruction of nature, which has led to the contamination of the food cycle with toxins.

Our health has actually been going backwards for a very long time now. We may live longer, but this is thanks to a healthcare system and new technologies and medicine that are masking the effects of modern diseases. The reality is we have more ailments, and more things to worry about.

People are becoming increasingly unhappy, with record levels of depression and anxiety. Some of us ignore this, believing it is a benign side effect of an advanced civilisation that has solved its most important problems: food, water, housing, education. We just have more time to think about other things now, and that is why we are unhappy.

But that’s not true. There is something else going on, and this is evident in the fact that our anxiety and depression is much, much deeper, it is taking place on an existential plane. We are all on a frantic search for self-improvement, “finding our calling”, finding fulfilment, “enlightenment”. It is a sign that humanity is not simply feeling lost, it is lost.
There is a whole industry of life coaching set up around this, and a pathological blogging and social media culture aimed to tell people that they are not good enough, both physically and mentally. From productivity to business success, we are all trying to live up to our online Avatar. To make things worse, technology has made us disengage from real life and the moment happening right now, increasing our deep sense of an isolation, a separation from the world that leads to a personal identity crisis in each and every one of us. Humanity is on a desperate quest to “find itself”, but for some reason it is looking forward into technology, when it should actually be looking back, into who we used to be when we were much happier.

It is no wonder we have been pursuing Progress the wrong way: there is something inherently wrong about how we have been defining it: we have accepted too many of the “side effects” of a more technologically advanced society. Modern civilisation is like a botched plastic surgery: we went in for a huge facelift job so that we can look great on the outside, without even asking about the internal complications in the long term.

This is because our models of progress have focused on increasing convenience, rather than well-being, existential meaning and happiness. Mass production of food has resulted in more choice, but lower quality across the board. Education has accelerated our technological development, but has also isolated us in specialisations that neglect our need to become whole humans that feel more connected to the “big picture”. Our “bullshit jobs” have moved from “making” stuff, to “handling” stuff, resulting in us losing the meaning and personal connection with what we do, and a sense of really having an impact through our work. Our shopping habits are nothing but a psychological coping strategy to refuse to deal with the reality of life, including death and grief, which are motivating and spiritual experiences we have forgotten. Shopping therapy is a tranquilliser that numbs our fear of death, as well as the deeper realisation that our lives are unsatisfying. In order to finance this habit, some of us accept to take high-paying corporate jobs that increasingly lead to burnout, discrimination, exploitation and further isolation and dehumanisation that we willingly subject ourselves to.

We are driving ourselves mad as well as physically ill, for nothing. And in this process, our economic machine is destroying more of the Earth and churning out CO2. And yet we still call all of this Progress.

We have been doing Progress the wrong way. It has come at a massive cost for humanity, and unfortunately we are about to pay even more, give up more of our humanity in the altar of Progress. Only if we stop and realise what we have given up, what we have lost, will we change course, rather than passively accept all these dysfunctions as “side effects” of an otherwise smooth road strewn with rose petals.

Sometimes I only realise the damage that our civilisation has inflicted on us when I speak to the previous generation. The conversations I have with my mother take place on such a surreal level sometimes, that demonstrate the vast gap between her time and my time, all taken place within just one generation.

In my mother’s house, there was no fridge. Families would prepare their own food and find ways to store it. People were very poor, but every house had a piglet, which they would slaughter and boil, and preserve in ceramic pots. This would be the entire meat supply for the year, without any need for CO2-emitting refrigeration and transportation, mountains of plastic packaging, and administration costs. Most of all, it was organic, high quality and much better-tasting meat.

I remember my mother’s story about making home-made pasta, using locally sourced flour, butter and eggs that of course have a much higher nutritional content. After the dough was made, sheets and strings of pasta dough were suspended from every piece of furniture in the house in order to air-dry, before it was to be cut to pieces and stored for the winter. The entire family was involved in the production, and my mother’s main role as a child was to make sure the cats keep away from the pasta at all times while it dries. The pasta was nutritious, and the family was making memories, feeling connected with each other and feeling grateful to the mill that gave them the flour, the hens in their backyard that laid the eggs, the generosity of nature and the community they lived in.

Compare this to the 5 seconds it takes to grab a stale imported packet of bleached pasta and throw it in the supermarket trolley. We have no connection, no appreciation, no meaning, no gratitude. We are not just barely human. We are barely alive. And our consumption, our food industry, are eco-cidal.

“Progress” has given us a false perception that we are better off, by focusing on our daily needs. But we are far worse than before, living less meaningful lives. And the more unhealthy our minds are, the more there is a risk we feel even more separate from nature, and continue the destruction of our climate and the ecological systems that are part of it. We are being trapped in a vicious cycle.

We all deep down know what Progress means. It is what makes one feel happy, fulfilled. Progress means having no conflicts with others, or with yourself. Progress means feeling in harmony with your world. Progress means feeling content, without having to steal or destroy.

to be continued…(or not)

George is an Author, Biologist, Chemist and Food Scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , read his books or join his blog by clicking Follow at the bottom of this page

10 thoughts on “We need a new definition of Progress

  1. sometimes interesting notes can be found if you look back (for example I found http://www.thespiritof76.com/NEX_NEWS/Storage/TO76/00_PREFA.HTM – basically some ideas about different types of society and human relations, not very visible in today’s world) – but in general .. I don’t think this wheel of history can be put into reverse (in nice way).

    Without changing human psychology current psychological traps will work on majority of humans, and this will mostly guarantee same course of false progress. Yes, may be few % will realize things and try to change their course, even if it require effort – but for now it seems only small numbers of humans can change their lives sharply enough for long enough time – be it ethical veganism, non-consumerism, unusual political views (anarchism), or even something as ‘simple’ as changing default OS on their computers (increasingly more complex procedure today, with all this secure boot and everything).

  2. ❤ Yes. Thank you for the your mother and her memories. My grandma came to mind so vividly. She had a fridge but she made her own pasta too and was leaving it around to dry. Eggs from her siblings who had farms were so yellow. She barely used plastic, and if she did, severely multiple times. She distrusted fruit yogurt and juices from the shop, anything processed. She knew what was good for her. I miss her and her times.

    What a splendid write, as many before. One day, hopefully, they will say this of you: And he knew all this back then, and said it.

    1. Our misguided progress has been a failure of system, more than technology. Progress has happened not because of Markets, but because of our ability to reason, to communicate and share knowledge, from our science and tech. Progressive’s is not inevitable too. It must be worked for, otherwise civilization crashes and dark ages happen. But yea, Capitalism’s fundamental ideology is individualism, selfishness, competitiveness, expansion/growth, labor for income, profit motives…this has shaped the world to what is is…not some flaw of human nature or flaw of technology. My $0.02.

  3. Thank you George for sharing your wisdom. I am from Durham NC. My grandparents lived much as you have described in your article, for many years raising almost all their own food organically at home.

    Dane Wigington, from the website geoengineeringwatch.org, shared this article that you have written on his nationwide Saturday radio broadcast yesterday. The link to the broadcast is in the upper right hand corner of his website.

    Your article fit in perfectly with the subject of which he was talking yesterday. I am appreciative to have come across your website now and will share your writing with others.

    Blessings, Jonathan

    1. Hi there Jonathan many thanks for your comments and it’s great to connect with you and Dane. I’ll check out the website and will be following the show when I can. All the best, George

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