LR – Progress and Pitfalls

This is the first installment of “Lance’s Ramblings” or LR for short. If you didn’t know, I’m a pretty reflective person and therefore philosophical musings are in my blood. So from here on out anytime I feel the need to scratch that itch it can get filed under LR; thus it can be easily dismissed by those who think I’m nuts 🙂

I’m not one to typically second guess myself – for good or ill. Even so, I’m not too soft in the head and I’m not very impetuous; though the latter might be a surprise to those who don’t know me well. Over the past couple of years I’ve led a far-from-conventional life. But being contemplative and deliberative, in spite of some the wacky circumstances of my life, it was all very intentional.

As I’ve reflected on the effort to make this trip happen – a trip that we hope will redefine our lives – it’s impossible for no misgivings to arise. Everything I’m doing and hoping to accomplish would undermine the “progress” of modern civilization; that is the socio-economic norms of it. My end goals are to have no “job”, consume as little as possible and minimize my environmental impact. This means foregoing TV, fast food, dishwashers and ten thousand other things. I want to grow as much of my food as possible, learn how to use a composting toilet and have everything that can be “recycled” in my home used towards that end.

But if no one had jobs, no one consumed much and everyone subsistence farmed, what would “civilization” look like? What is the connection between “civilization” and “progress?”

Jared Diamond has brilliantly theorized how modern civilization has taken the form it has in his pivotal work Guns, Germs and Steel. One can contrast the common understanding of the idea of the “White Man’s Burden” with broader perspectives. When we do so we find that valuations pertaining to “civilization” and “progress” are not nearly so straightforward as our social studies, history or economics teachers led us to believe. Another innovative mind challenging the conventional wisdom in these matters is Ronald Wright. Everyone should engage with his work A Short History of Progress in at least in one format. Besides the book, there is the film Surviving Progress and he gave the 2004 series of Massey Lectures on this topic; those lectures can be found on YouTube and are engrossing. I disagree with a fair bit of Wright’s reflections on Easter Island; but those are all disagreements on technicalities and do not undermine his overall thesis. He coined the term “progress trap.” In short, that is using “technology” of some sort to solve immediate problems without considering the long term consequences. The result is a “solution” that produces short term benefits or “progress”, but also introduces ever-increasing long term problems. The normal response in the future is to deploy more short-sighted solutions that will, in due course, result in even more problems. Taken to the extreme, a tipping point is eventually reached that results in the collapse of a civilization. At least in the film, I believe, Wright proposed the idea that modern civilization itself might be a progress trap.

Given all that, I know I have to at least take this journey and see what comes of it. I think my end goals are good ones; but how much pause should it give me that almost no one can follow the course I’ve chosen; or would even want to? Should I give more weight to my own values than to the norms of modern society as a whole? I want to say “yes” but to say so seems to smack of hubris. Yet the nominal lifestyle of this age is dangerously unsustainable and, in my personal experience, hardly worth living. So I must act on what my heart knows is true.

Could I be wrong? Maybe. But I feel if everyone took the time to simply breathe and let the experience of true, deep life unfold naturally, that they would feel as I do. Therefore I know my work is not to try to convince people to think and/or live like I do, but to simply live in a fashion where I minimize my contribution to our collective problems. I leave it to others to judge whether my example is worthwhile or not.

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