Friday, April 30, 2010

On Freedom and Progress

One of the important concerns I have with large-scale, broad, and fundamental concepts is the problem of defining what these mean. "Sustainability" has come to mean so many things to so many people. For example, companies like BP and Anglo-American have kidnapped the word to mean things that legitimise what they do to consumers of their products. People may think that simply changing their incandescents to compact fluorescents makes them "sustainable." As I mentioned in the last post, it seems imperative that we have some common notions of what these issues, sentiments, and values mean, in order to have more than adequate solutions to them.

I have read some wonderful articles in Orion recently, one talking about freedom (by Jay Griffiths), and one about progress (Derrick Jensen). Griffiths elaborates on human freedoms, and how freedom has become a justification for opposing any sort of environmental restrictions. Freedom is defined as the rich and powerful people and corporations define it; they are free to throw punches, but freedom is not the freedom of the powerless to protect themselves from being hurt by those punches. Further, our current notions of what is good, i.e. values like ambition, pride, speed, and success are what Griffiths calls unfettered traits or emotions. These are contrasted with fettered emotions - "...in honesty you are bound to tell the truth. You are tied by respect, you are linked by love, you are tethered by kindness to kinship with nature, and restrained by a sense of justice and law." Further, what are the rights and freedoms of our rivers, watersheds, trees, air and rocks? They indeed have the freedom to exist. They have the right to not be treated violently by humans. Our unfettered emotions and traits fall squarely against these rights and freedoms. Yet, progress is defined by our unfettered emotions and traits. The current notion of progress is beautifully articulated by Jensen. He asks, "Why have we come to assume that "progress" is always good?" There are always at least two sides that judge whether progress is good. Those that think the progress is good, and those whose rights and wishes and culture and history may be trampled upon by those who think progress is good. Example given: "For the perpetrators of the United States Holocaust, the development of railroads to move men and his machines was "good" and "useful" and "helpful." From the perspective of the Dakota, Naajo, Hopi, Modoc, Squamish, and others, not so good. From the perspective of bison, prarie dogs, timber wolves, redwoods, Douglas firs and others, not so good." Wendell Berry contends that the notion of progress necessarily implies a hatred of where we are - we need to be somewhere else. Furthermore, progress (of science, technology, and "knowledge") takes away the freedom of the thing we study and learn about, from the perspective of that thing. In the end, we will just find a way to categorize it, and possibly exploit it. Jensen cites Lewis Mumford (1970) - "The chief premise common to both technology and science is the notion that there are no desirable limits to the increase of knowledge, of material goods, of environmental control; that quantitative productivity is an end in itself, and that every means should be used to further expansion."

What do you think?

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