With “progress” poisoning so much, might we reconsider creative stewardship?
“We must understand that unnecessary articles and goods that a man possesses reduce his power to imbibe happiness from the surroundings. Therefore, Gandhi repeatedly said that productivity should be kept within the limits of wants. Today’s mode of production is such that it finds no limit and goes on increasing uninhibited. All these we have been tolerating so far but the time has come when man must understand that by depending more and more on machines he is moving towards his own suicide." – Ivan Illich in “The Message of Bapu’s Hut”
STARK CONTRAST. Reading Ivan Illich's reflection on Mohandas K. Gandhi's hut in Sevagram, India, I can't get away from the stark differences between the world of "progress" Illich laments and a world in which the priorities Gandhi articulated would be taken with actionable seriousness.
[I frame "progress" within quotation marks in this piece because I want to distinguish authentic progress from poverty-fomenting, planet-sickening “progress” as it is being predominantly assumed and practiced.]
GENERATIONS OF "PROGRESS." First the West and now the East have embraced--full bore--the suppositions and practices of "progress" in the very terms against which Gandhi and Illich warned. In the generations since Gandhi presented the world the alternative of creative stewardship, with the non-militaristic liberation of India as a budding example, we've "progressed" at break-neck intensity and speed. As a result, wonderful things have happened. As a result, terrible things have happened. Much has been gained; much has been lost.
UPSIDE, DOWNSIDE. An honest assessment of the kind of "progress" humanity has made in the past 70 years must include not only technological breakthroughs, but humanitarian setbacks. It includes economic development for some, but resource exploitation, economic devastation and servitude for many more. It includes unprecedented wealth generation for some, but the extension of life-crushing poverty for untold millions. "Progress" has been made in such a way that makes all of us more dependent than ever on non-renewable sources of energy, the consumption of which has sickened our environment and put the future of life as we know it in limbo.
BREAKING DENIAL IS NECESSARY. Even if one gives Thomas Friedman all the positive points he makes for the wonders of technological progress in his widely-read book The World Is Flat, sadly, Friedman glosses grossly over real downsides of "progress." Perhaps it is hard for those of us who've embraced the terms and benefits of "progress" to stop and consider the stark price of our it. Harder still: to consider that we might have bought into a less-than-the-best model for international human and social development. This is, I am convinced, exactly where we are at this moment in international history. I hope we can soul-search our way to better models for the sustainability of life and human relations.
GROWING BACKLASH. There are signs of backlash against the rawest expressions of unbridled "progress" on many fronts. It is couched in social resentment and religious upheavals. Militant extremist Islamic groups may not so much "hate our freedoms," as American leaders repeatedly told us, as they hate our rapacious pursuit of happiness at their expense. Religious Fundamentalism is a growing response to "progress" for some at the expense of many.
COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE ACTIONS FOR "SECURITY." Haven’t we come a point in time where mustering military might in the name of securing protection for valued material resources against people who have nothing else materially to lose has become counter-productive? I think we are already beyond it, actually. America has already fought these fronts with futility in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US military has not won these conflicts because American leadership originally miscast the problem, continues to fail to grapple with the core issues, and has been unready to amend its suppositions, cease or amend its economic and cultural offenses against such people, or change its habits.
THE COMING CENTURY. Further, I wonder if American leadership has yet begun to realize the levels of pent-up resentment in Africa and areas of Asia and the Middle East. Has it realized the extent to which China and India have cut into North America and Europe’s corner on "progress" and are vying for the very resources upon which "progress" is so dependent? We're in for a very interesting century, one in which "progress" will be challenged repeatedly. Let's hope we can have the wits to hear the anguish with our hearts and respond with the kinds of changes we already implicitly know need to be made.
REASON FOR HOPE. My reflections here may seem like I am a despairing naysayer. Not so. I believe in hope and an authentic progress in human relationships and international economic development. But if that's what we want, we're currently on a self-defeating track. Stopping the runaway "progress" train or diverting it while a better model is conceptualized is not a luxury we have. Developing alternatives and leaning into them with confidence and faith until "progress" is overtaken by creative stewardship is, however, within our reach. But there is a sense of urgency; "progress" has poisoned much and evidence of social and ecological morbidity is mounting.
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA