The Idea of Progress

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Ideas can be powerful. The idea of perpetual material progress has captivated human beings, especially during the last two centuries. Yet, the notion that it is natural for human beings to seek constant progress or growth – material or otherwise - is a relatively new one. For many millions of years, humankind has evolved without being enchanted by the idea of outer progress. Many thousands of communities, even today, do not care for it. It is not that they did not learn and change – in the sense they may have made themselves new tools or discovered new ways to live or to express themselves – but what was central to their lives was not progress but liberation, nature worship, living according to one’s Dharma or belonging to a group. 

Material Progress became a big idea after the Industrial Revolution, when great strides in technology made more materialistic growth possible. The work of Darwin, Bacon, Adam Smith and others legitimised and even glorified the idea of the progressive modern man. Within these two centuries this idea of progress as the greatest driving force for nations snowballed into a frenzy of mining and extraction from the earth, producing and transporting stuff and marketing them to encourage relentless consumption. 

Today, the notion of material progress at the individual level, and development at the macro level, is nothing short of a religion. Religion is usually defined as a set of beliefs and practices one is committed to. The idea of unending growth, neo-liberal globalization as the vehicle to deliver growth and money as the measure of it, are all part of a set of beliefs that are defended as strongly today as many people would defend their religion.

Another meaning for religion includes something that supports reverence to a god, or provides a sense of the sacred. According to some estimate, there are over 4000 religions in the world; they existed or still exist in a dynamic relationship with the socio cultural mileu provided by various civilisations. Our modern civilization and economic system is possibly the only exception – which professes secularity and does not explicitly value the sacred. Possibly by default then, we see that material progress itself has become the sacred centre – endorsed by individuals, modern communities and governments.

Most religions also provided an inner anchoring through a moral code and ideas of well-being (although there were ones that believed in cannibalism or violence which may be difficult for us to digest). In this respect, the modern religion of material progress and development falls terribly short. Not only is there no real concern for the well being of all, we have found that in its short history, the well being of most of the human population as well as the ecosystems of the earth have been compromised, sometimes beyond repair.

How do we change tracks? In this issue of Bhoomi, we share the work of several thinkers and activists on transitioning to an economics of happiness, including hard-hitting facts as well as hope and positivity.