Modern civilization’s definition of progress—new inventions and economic growth—has brought untold wonders—from the printing press, to the steam engine, to today’s computer revolution. But projected into the future unaltered, its “onward and upward” imagery becomes questionable at best. We face today a dramatic array of new planetary limits—limits to population, limits to available resources, limits to space for the effluvium of civilization. We ignore these limits at our peril.
How a culture defines progress could not be more important. It lies at the heart of any age’s collective story. It describes how a people measure success—a time’s meaning of more.
The question of progress is new today not just because it asks for new answers. Like with morality and the implications of conflict, in a way not before seen, it lies in our very mortal hands. In the 1950’s we might have asked whether we would succeed at progressing—”Can we beat the Russians to the moon?” But it is extremely unlikely that we would have asked about progress itself. At the heart of the needed new human maturity lies a new responsibility not just for succeeding as a species, but for defining what in the future it will mean to succeed.
Along with a new kind of responsibility, redefining progress will require that we stretch how we understand—learn to think with a new complexity and subtlety. The question of progress tends to evoke polar response — pitting economics against the environment, those who view bigger as better and those who argue for small is beautiful. Is progress good? Is it bad? Limited to old definitions of progress, each answer is right. And just as much each is wrong.
For example, progress in the sense of technological advancement will be critical to a healthy future, and not just for how it might increase our human bounty. It will play a crucial role in realizing the environmental sustainability that those who most questions progress’s old story urge. But however enlightened their use, new technologies alone cannot be enough. If everyone on the planet consumed resources like people in the modern industrialized world, we would be doomed.
So without question, we need to do with less. Yet in the end, calls to do with less stop just as short as views that blindly trust growth. Most people find calls to do with less not terribly compelling—however well meant they might be—and for good reason. Ultimately, redefining progress is not about less—but about revisiting what we mean by “more.”
Along with new responsibility, we need to bring a new breadth and sophistication to how we think about human advancement.
No task is more critical. Redefining progress will be essential for our future physical well-being. And just as much it will be essential for continued psychological and spiritual well-being. A culture’s story of progress is its story about what matters. Writing a new chapter in our story of progress is about redefining—and with this discovering afresh—the soul of culture.