What is Progress and How do we get There?

I have Tom Wessels’ The Myth of Progress on a shelf.  Tom has produced some wonderful books on historically continuous change across our wider Wessels The myth of Progress.jpglandscapes.  He sees patterns in that place where people and landscapes meet.  He takes to task what we mean by Progress, and the need to change our thinking.  There are principles we need to think about; the impossibility of continued material growth; the dangers of increased energy consumption; the life-giving potential of self-organised systems (our bodies are one, a forest ecosystem another).  Tom argues that the over-simplification of our life through eyes that focus only on numbers and scale ‘efficiencies’, are pushing us away from life toward a dystopian machine that will inevitably eat itself.

He writes of the wood in which he played as a child, the place that gave the neighbourhood joy and belonging – like many of our own childhood experiences with woods and rivers and mountains I imagine.  The Tukituki, Te Mata Peak, Waimarama and Ocean Beach, Ball’s Clearing.


From Te Mata Peak to the Southwest, Hawke’s Bay

And then the bulldozers came to Tom’s wood – to bring ‘progress’.

I thought of Tom Wessels because I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling. He brings out the same theme time and time again. Beautiful streetscapes and seascapes made ugly by developers and planners who think a certain way.
the-myth-of-progressBryson spurns the measures of wealth.  GDP tells us very little about quality of life, our opportunities, our hopes, our dreams, the capacities within our landscapes and communities we lose at future peril.  He points instead to the quality of things that those peering into spreadsheets will never see, and so will destroy without realising their own wilful ignorance. Those who cannot connect blindly destroy the things that make us belong.  Usually because they cannot measure them.
Bryson looking back on Britain: “It was in every way poorer than now.  Yet there were flowerbeds on roundabouts, libraries and post office in every village, cottage hospitals in abundance, council housing for all who needed it.  It was a country so comfortable and enlightened that hospitals maintained cricket pitches for their staff and mental patients lived in Victorian Palaces.  If we could afford it then, why not now?  Someone needs to explain to me how it is that the richer Britain gets the poorer it thinks itself.” p87-88

There will be those who think this is a call to go back in some time warp.  It isn’t.  It is about re-embracing life-giving capacities.  As Tom Wessels is so good at demonstrating in this and his starling-murmuration-chloeother books, everything changes on the surface.  Stasis is a myth.  Building and trees fall and regenerate; in life, everything grows and dies and is replaced.  This is the inherent creativity of not just ecological but social life.  But what lies beneath is what is really important; the capacities that keep this dynamic wheel called life revolving.  If we do not re-embrace as the basis of governance those capacities that give life, then it isn’t governance, it is a clearance sale.

If you only measure the wheel, but have no concept of those Clearance Sale.pngqualitative capacities that drive it, then you will treat people and the land as resources to grind.  And when you have ground them down, with them will go those social and environmental capacities upon which we depend: love, foresight, creativity, hope, trust, community-centred morality, belonging; the landscape’s capacity to mitigate flood and drought, climatic extreme, the capacities of growth and renewal.

One of the most horrifying moments when working with spreadsheet analysis that discount the future is when you realise the absolute ‘rationality’ of pillaging life as fast as you can – the insane rationality of the spreadsheet worshipper where more-money-today is the aim.  It is logical to minimise the costs and maximise the returns – to go for scale, to cut the forest, clear the seas of fish, take the water, lose the soil, drain the wetland, pollute the stream – grab, take, extract, pillage, now.  The uncivilised colonial and corporate agenda.

It gives you serious pause when you come to that realisation.  Some technocrats realise it when they are young, some never do, some don’t care, some work for large corporations who absolutely do not care because they do not Black People Starving to Death Due to Breeding Choices.jpgbelong to a place.

But if you do care and belong to a people and a place, you cannot accept the rationalisation of that form of insanity.  You go searching for moral meaning.  Morality matters.  You end up finding humanity and systems thinking as the rudder for decisions, not simplified numbers.  You lose respect for what some refer to as the ‘thinking’ of large organisations filled with disconnecting machines and polished shoes, who blame the victims for what the shoes have done.

What Wessels and Bryson highlight are that the current values of government and large business have to change to something a whole lot wiser.

I think we need to reverse the rise of those who measure their own deluded concepts of ‘efficiency’ (usually some version of rigid box-ticking obedient ‘accountable’ hierarchy where bigger is better) and who cherish disconnection so they can live within a theory far from pulsing life (they call it ‘objectivity’, which makes me want to laugh out loud).  We need to go back to the people; those who feel and belong and see beyond the spreadsheets to those qualities that give life meaning.  Ask yourself who is more the ‘expert’ of any particular place out of those two types; who is more likely to be wise; who more strategic; who more visionary?

But beyond the choice of people to whom we listen, we require a shift in *purpose* to something life-affirming and cultural – to something that cherishes the capacities and potential of our land and communities.  That requires a rejection of the short term maximisation of money flows irrespective of what is destroyed to achieve that end.

What we ought to do is treat people and land as the ends to sustain, and money as a means to that end rather than in any way an end in itself.

We have done the opposite over recent decades; we have put the counting of money on a pedestal and the consequent ground down people and land at its feet.  And so we have accelerated the cutting down of Tom Wessel’s woods, and Bryson’s village ideal.

For all the measured dollars, this isn’t progress.  It destroys the bedrock in order to build ugly castles of soon to be decaying and wind-blown straw.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

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