The Problems of Progress

Practice of the Week
The Problems of Progress

Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.

To one degree or another, we are all enamored with the technological accomplishments of the modern world. Centenarians living today grew up in a world where children routinely died of diseases, electricity and indoor plumbing were rare, and newspapers were the only news media. Progress has been amazing. Who knows what marvels the future will bring?

Yet there have been unintended consequences of all this progress. Bill McKibben writes in Eaarth that we are living on a new planet (which McKibben spells with two A’s). The new planet, Eaarth, is very different from the old Earth on which we were born and on which civilization emerged. Industrial civilization has unwittingly altered the very support systems upon which we all depend: the stable, predictable, self-regulating biosphere. The task before us is to learn how to live on this new, less friendly planet. So much for progress!

For most of human history, the Earth has been viewed by many people, but not all, as an inanimate resource without end, for us to exploit as we saw fit. According to Genesis, humans were placed on Earth to subdue it. And subdue it we have. The legacy of progress is not only moon landings, heart transplants, and the Internet but also mountaintop removal mining, oceanic dead zones, unpredictable climate, and depleted uranium. As Thomas Berry put it:
“We have created a technosphere incompatible with the biosphere.”
The path of un-learning is a path of letting go. We must let go of those things that no longer serve our highest good or that of the Earth (which are one and the same). One of the most critical concepts to abandon is the notion of unproblematic progress. We must ask some hard questions, and not turn away from unpleasant answers. We must approach new technologies with a “do no harm” ethic and consciously examine the role of technology in our own lives. In this respect, I love the Amish. They are one group that never quite bought into the propaganda of industrialized progress. Ironically, many of them have integrated some modern products into their lives. They have cell phones, solar panels, and battery-powered devises. Contrary to popular belief, not all Amish eschew technology completely. Rather, they are very selective. They choose only technologies that fit with their ethic of simplicity and their religious faith and use their chosen items very carefully. An Amish friend of mine keeps his cell phone out in his shed and uses it only as necessary to run his farm. No family meals are interrupted by its annoying intrusion. The Amish are very conscious of technology and its impact – for good and ill – on their lives. We all must adopt a similar kind of consciousness, for from it flows a more balanced view of the fruits of industrialization. We also need to realize how technology is a part of our lives regardless of whether we can afford, or even want, the latest gadgets. We swim in a sea of microchips, from those that store our bank account and tax records to those that run the digital x-ray machine used to diagnose our child’s broken arm. From 3-D movies to those automated phone calls that interrupt our dinner, technology is everywhere.

Progress comes with a price. Perhaps it is worth the cost, perhaps not. But here and now on our spiritual journey, we must embrace the questions about it – even if we don’t have the answers worked out completely. This is the essence of living an awakening, examined life.


1. Give and Take. Cultivating the mindset that taking requires giving. Choose one aspect of your life where you take from the Earth’s bounty. Your food, perhaps. Or your electricity, which might come from coal. Or maybe you simply collect pretty rocks from the beach. Big or small, make a pact with yourself. Write it down and post it somewhere prominent to serve as a reminder. For your chosen area, each take with require a give. If you are a beach pebble collector, you could also spend some time picking up liter on that same beach. If you choose food, you could volunteer at a soup kitchen or organize some friends to purchase fair trade coffee as a group.

2. Technology Fast. Choose one device your grandma didn’t grow up with and turn it off for a week. This could be your TV, radio, computer, GPS system, or any other piece of technology that occupies a significant place in your life. On Sunday, ceremonially turn it off. Throughout the week, journal about the experience.

3. Journaling: Exploring Feelings about Modern Life. Choose one of the starter phrases below and begin writing. Write continuously for at least ten minutes, allowing your thoughts to flow where they will. Start in on another starter phrase whenever you need to in order to keep the pen moving for ten minutes.
  • If I had been alive three hundred years ago, my life . . .
  • I like modern life, but . . .
  • The Earth provides . . .
  • If I had a time machine, and could go anywhere with it, I would . . .

Group Activities

Elder Wisdom. Invite several people who are more than eighty years old to share their life experiences with the group. Ask them: What has changed since you were children? What things are better now? What was better then? What do you see as the most significant area of human progress? What problems do you see for the future? What sort of world would you wish for future generations?

Questions for Group Conversation:
  • What are some of the negative aspects of technology? Can their effects be mitigated?
  • Identify one or two examples superfluous or wasteful technology. What can be done about this waste?
  • What criteria should we use to decide how much technology to allow into our lives? How can we approach technological progress in a mindful way?
  • What must you personally unlearn to approach technology sustainably?
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Previous Ecospiritual Practice: Industrial Civilization and Everyone Else

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