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Ellen Bailey

The End of Progress?

A world religions professor suggests that the word needs to be redefined in our collective consciousness.

We don’t hear much talk about “progress” anymore. The word used to mean the unquestioned improvement of life by modern technologies— more food, energy, cars, computers, cell phones, and personal wealth.

But the technological destructiveness of 20th-century wars and pollution exposed the dark shadow of “progress,” and we have run into the brick wall of major problems built into industrial society’s core values. We can no longer pretend that we can exploit natural resources and pollute carelessly without kickback. Global warming is the loud alarm bell warning us of big-time environmental problems. New Orleans was just the beginning.

Many groups are working hard to get the rest of us to live sustainably within our global resources. But we are actually doing precious little. New York City recycles just 16 percent of its waste. Wind power still provides only about 1 percent of all energy. Luxuries are seen as entitlements, not products of the system that is rapidly spoiling our own nest. The oceans are nearly 90 percent depleted of seafoods. Industrial societies, spreading around the globe, are trampling the earth dangerously. Yet we resist questioning our vision of progress.

Is this the fatal destiny of the Western worldview, or is it changeable by sensible humans?

We cannot wiggle our way out with techno-solutions alone. We need a major overhaul of our thinking and a shift to sustainability ethics. Life can no longer build on unlimited consumption. We must learn to live in harmony with our natural world’s needs. We need to use our inventiveness to create a wide range of new sustainable technologies and jobs.

What should we be eating? Not so much factory-farmed, antibiotics- and fat-laden meat that lead to rampant obesity. The grains we feed the cattle and poultry that feed us could feed a hungry world.

What should we be driving? Not gas-guzzling, highly-polluting vehicles whose roads, bridges, and parking lots are subsidized by governments seven times more than mass transit.

How much electricity should we be using? The electric bill for a typical supermarket is about a dollar a square foot. Yet China and the United States are each planning about 50 new coal-burning electric generation plants using highly polluting technology, because high demand makes it so profitable.

The industrial-technological mindset is spreading rapidly, thanks largely to the desire of U.S. and other western economies’ need[s] to cram their corporate coffers ever fuller. Yet Americans want the rest of the world to forgo the luxuries we have come to consider our birthright. Our planet’s population just crossed the 6 billion mark, and is likely to soon cross the 9 billion mark, sending immigrants flooding into wealthy nations expecting more of the luxuries they have seen us using on TV.A new ethic of “sustainability progress” demands that we restrain our reckless materialistic pursuits. We will be forced to live more simply, drive more slowly, eat less meat and fish, use less electricity, buy fewer frivolous techno-toys, recycle seriously, compost, and, by the way, reduce stress.

But a new ethic needs motivations—new values, a new sense of being human in the world, and a new spirituality. Spirituality and science should cooperate. Ancient religious worldviews should be taken as affirmations of transcendent mysteries beyond and within the physical world. Science should not cling to a reductively materialistic extrapolation of the scientific method into atheism.

Our precious planet, just a tiny blue dot in the disc of the Milky Way galaxy, is blessed with the right conditions for life—just the right temperatures, gravity, oxygen, and water—that apparently are very rare. This should make us feel incredibly fortunate. We urgently need to cultivate empathy with the cosmos in our collective consciousness—starting with a spiritual opening to sacred whispers from the world. There are quiet moments and glorious spectacles all around and within us when the sense of sacredness floats forth that uncovers the oneness below the surface of existence.

Looking at the sky, be thankful for the vast forces such as gravity and life’s systems that make our existence possible. Recall that over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is the ocean, whose life forms, from shrimp to whales, have their own needs for natural habitats that industrialized fishing destroys. Enjoying trees and plants, be thankful that they take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

We are just one big-brained species, highly dependent on all of our globe’s gravity, air, water, food, other animals, and each other. We should relate to other animals through empathy, rather than fierce domination, as with factory farms and slaughterhouses. We must cultivate a sense of eco-justice, wherein a fair distribution of resources with all the world’s human communities is an ethical imperative.

The shift from industrial “progress” to ecological sustainability demands major changes, from a spiritual sense of who we are in the universe, to intellectual directions, practical lifestyle changes, new job-producing technologies, and the exercise of better global citizenship. This challenging paradigm shift, from industrial “progress” to sustainability ethics, can open up conscious empathy for nature, with a new wealth of beauty and harmony.

Lee Bailey recently retired after teaching 21 years in the Department of Philosophy and Religion. He has authored four books, most recently The Enchantments of Technology, and is working on a new book about sacred whispers in the world.

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