Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Progress-ive Values
distributed 7/28/06 & 10/7/11 - ©2006, 2011

The 2006 distribution of this issue of Eco-Justice Notes was underwritten by Thomas Pakurar, of Midlothian, Virginia. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

Whether you think of yourself as a progressive or a conservative -- or something else -- you're probably in favor of progress.

Perhaps especially in the United States, we're enamored with progress. We have great confidence in constant change for the better. Politicians and business leaders can be sure of a positive reaction when they speak of their plans for progress.

Progress is what we want for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for our communities and our nation. Doubt that? Try turning the assertion around. Do you want to stop progress? Doesn't that notion grate on you personally? And how do you think a politician would fare who announces a platform of ending progress in the next 4 years?

Progress is a core value in our society, an assumption about how things should be going. As Alex Steffen said, "Americans believe in progress even more than they believe in God." Nobody wants to be against progress.

Maybe we should be against progress though -- or at least progress as it is generally understood. Humorist Ogden Nash once quipped, "There has been lots of progress during my lifetime, but I'm afraid it's heading in the wrong direction."

In a society which is in love with the idea of progress, it is essential to take an explicit look at what we mean by progress, and whether that really is where we want to be going.

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Here's an exercise that I often do with church groups. Feel free to use it in your setting.

I ask the folk to think about progress as they generally hear it expressed. Don't focus on your own notions of progress, but think about progress as it is lifted up on the campaign trail or at the Chamber of Commerce. What are some of the qualities, the indicators, of that sort of progress? [Stop reading now for a moment, and make your own list.]

Here are some of the signs of progress that were named when I did this with some groups recently: affluence and consumption -- more technology -- "development" and growth -- education -- health care (especially very elaborate acute care) -- convenience and ease of living -- individual freedom -- fast communications -- "more" -- longer lives.

I usually add to the list two other -- rather more complicated -- qualities of "progress": an increasing separation from and power over the natural world (think of genetically modified organisms, air conditioning, and huge projects to supply water to arid cities), and economic efficiency as measured in the narrowest monetary terms (so factory farming, globalization, and outsourced workers are "efficient").

In my workshops, we look at those lists and realize that almost every expression of "progress" is a factor in the eco-justice crisis. (On the list above, education probably isn't part of the problem; fast communication is a factor when we must keep upgrading our equipment.) The very things which our society lifts up as most desirable are the things which are creating and amplifying the problems we face.

Theologian Sean McDonagh wrote: "Much of what we commonly call progress today -- digging up the Earth, poisoning it and destroying natural diversity -- is retardation for the Earth community. We need to call things by their proper names in order to reverse the destruction which has taken place so extensively. Real progress will also involve healing this damage."

It is one of my core convictions that people will not give up on progress. We can not, and we should not, expect people to abandon their hope for a better world.

What we must do, then, is assert a different notion of progress. We must re-define what progress is, so that our most profound hopes can mesh with what is good for our communities and for the Earth. In the workshops, I do that by fleshing out the biblical notion of shalom.

Shalom looks to community instead of individualism, to sufficiency instead of excess, to sustainability instead of consumption, to justice instead of disparity, to relationships with all of God's creation instead of power over nature, to peace instead of violence.

When we internalize that notion of "the good life," then we can begin to ask if we're making progress toward shalom -- which has far more content than just asking about "progress" -- and we can begin to know if our "progress" is going in the right direction.

US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little." We need to name similar tests for "what progress costs the earth and the future," in the words of long-time Sierra Club leader David Brower.

In 2006, activist Bill McKibben had a challenging essay in National Geographic Magazine about A Deeper Shade of Green. He essentially says that we won't fix the environmental mess until we stop seeing economic growth as the ultimate sign of progress. He ends with a strong affirmation of religious institutions as able to cultivate the values we need if we are to claim a new notion of progress. It is an essay that still is worth reading and discussing.

Social and personal transformation both happen when we are able to assert a compelling, hopeful and attractive vision of the good life. An internalized definition of progress which allows us to move our society in a new direction is essential. Churches have a vital role to play in spreading that vision.

HINT: All of the quotations in this issue of Notes came from the "Quotation Bank" on the Eco-Justice Ministries website -- found under the "resources" tab on the website menus. This quirky collection of short sayings can liven up your sermons, be included in bulletins and newsletters, or just stir up your own thinking. Take a few moments to browse or search the collection.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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