26 Nov
2016

Of Progress and Continuity

In the current issue of Resurgence & Ecologist an article entitled “Small is Still Beautiful” by Paul Kingsnorth very effectively identifies the dead-end that the broad ecology movement from the 1970s has ended up in with the current political Green direction. Brexit being the lens which has brought this into sharp focus.

Aside from some very pertinent reflections on the almost complete failure of the political wing to achieve the relevance or mass support which the EU debate could have gifted it, he also references John Berger’s distinction between a “culture of progress” and a “culture of survival”.

Berger was writing in the mid 1970s at a time when perhaps “survival” did not have all of the connotations it has acquired since. At that time Movement for Survival, one of the two founding strands of the Ecology (later Green) Party, had recently merged with PEOPLE and was seeking to establish a broad movement that went far beyond mere politics. Berger’s “culture of survival” refers to a way of living that has as its end goal the continuity of life as opposed to the more recent culture of progress which seeks constant change, constant ‘improvement’ typified by the pursuit of never ending growth in a finite system.

Progress in this sense is a deeply bourgeois concept, something that has only been possible with the rise of an industrial civilization based on a reductionist rationalist vision of the world. It is a new and purely human way of living; totally human centred, viewing the natural world as a resource to be exploited in the pursuit of progress. As it starts to meet ecological limits it inevitably turns to consumption of its own human resources from the ‘bottom’ to keep the wheels of progress driving forward those at the ‘top’.

Like a wooden ship of fools powered by a steam engine that has set out across the ocean and run out of coal, the culture of progress is now having to burn its own material in order to keep the engine turning. There is no land within reach, the masts and decks have already been used up, now the fools are tearing the planks from the hull in order to fuel the engine of progress.

The culture of survival or culture of continuity on the other hand is the way of living that peasant and indigenous people follow. Living within an ecosystem as an active part of it there is no end goal: it just is. Of course this is not to say that it is static; a fully functioning ecosystem is incredibly dynamic and a very rich culture that all levels of existence share in. It is the natural territory of deep ecology, and should be the natural direction of a green ecology movement turning away from the culture of progress.

Unfortunately, as the article identifies, the political green movement has become entrapped in the culture of progress (the Green Party even had “Real Progress” as its strap line for a period), even whilst a mass of people are stirring and starting to catch glimpses behind the smoke and mirrors within which the culture of progress conceals itself.

Just listening to conversations, young and old, on the bus you can detect a visceral understanding that something is not right. The way we are living is flawed, and cracks are starting to appear. From “funny weather were having” to a feeling of dis-empowerment (“they” and “the system” being against “me” and “us”) a breeze is blowing through the culture.

When people feel need to move then they seek a platform from which to step out. Now is surely the time for the ecology movement to start to effectively construct a platform where people feel comfortable, not where they are demonized as bigots or worse because they recognise that small is more beautiful, that a symbol is not reality, that they can make their own minds up and don’t need to be preached at or told what to do or controlled.

The ship of fools of industrial civilization is set upon its own destruction. The task for the culture of continuity is to re-purpose the planks to build a life boat that is capable of surviving. The good news is that that way of being is still open to us and will persist whatever the fools do. We just need to take it.

Set the sails I feel the wind a-stirring,
For the bright horizon set the way.
Cast your reckless dreams upon our Mayflower,
A haven from the world and her decay.

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