Theory, policy and practice perspectives from Royal Holloway

What is Progress?

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Craig BennettOn February 8th, the Windsor Auditorium was packed with staff, students and guests anticipating an insightful talk by Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth for our Annual Sustainability Lecture. The audience was not disappointed. Craig kicked off his lecture by puzzling the audience with his claim that rather than talking about his environmental campaigning work, he would discuss a much more fundamental question that needs to be answered first: What is progress?

So what is progress? According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is a linear movement towards a set destination or a development towards a more modern society. So which one is correct? Craig’s answer: neither. Rather, he believes that progress should not just create a more modern society but a better one. While this seems very close to the common understanding of sustainable development, Craig opposes this notion as he believes that the idea of sustainable development has not led to the changes in politicians’ engagements we need to achieve a better society. Rather, the continuous debate about the “right” indicators for measuring sustainable development distract from the underlying issue: where do we want to go and what is the right path?

So where to go from here? To move forward, we can learn from the past. Referring to the book A Short History of Progress by Donald Wright, Craig talked about the progress traps that many ancient civilisations fell into. One of the most well-known examples is the case of the Easter Islanders who completely destroyed their sources of survival in an attempt to show off their wealth to each other. So what went wrong? In short, previous civilisations suffered from an increase in wealth inequality and a consequent depletion of their resources. According to Craig, a situation like that is very familiar to us in the 21st century. But why is our civilisation still alive? Have we mastered the art of overcoming progress traps that caused Easter Islanders and many other civilisations to collapse? In short: no. We still face progress traps but have learnt to circumvent their immediate and direct effects. We learned to migrate and to be less dependent on local economies. Moreover, we learned to tap into energy sources from the past by using fossil fuels.

So which progress traps do we face?
1) Technology: We are often locked in to incumbent technology and cannot see a way around it. Craig points to the example of the electric car (for more see the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?”)
2) Fossil Fuels: We rely on energy from the past. Fossil fuels helped us achieve today’s wealth but also today’s inequality and environmental problems. According to Craig, experts agree that in the future – be it in 10, 100 or 1,000 years – the world will be powered by renewable energy. Thus, we could ask why wait? Why do we not put all efforts into something that is inevitable anyway? Why fight against it?
3) Economic Growth: Why are we so focussed on GDP growth? Why are we not focussing on other aspects such as health, happiness or equality?
4) Subjugation of nature: For Craig this is the biggest progress trap of all. Why are we not valuing nature for the benefits it brings to us? Why do we not acknowledge our desire to be with nature? Craig pointed to studies that show that patients heal faster if they can look at trees. Yet, why are there so few trees near hospitals? How come private schools have grounds while poor schools have only concrete paving and stone walls?

In short, Craig summarised that the obstacles that keep us from progress are those that keep us in the past. They bind us to fossil fuels, incumbent technology and disrespect of nature. As a contrast, in his passionate speech, Craig said that “This will be the first time in global history we will have developed a global conscience. Because we can make informed choices”.

So what is his solution? “The task for us all in the 21st century is to reclaim the word progress from its [pure economic] meaning in the Victorian era. […] We have to make a big global decision if we want to live – or go down like other civilizations before us.” Who should lead this global process towards sustainable progress? Craig’s answer is simple but powerful: all of us. He strongly believes that the biggest revolutions in history were not made by the elite but by the masses. Only if all of us develop a global conscience and do our share in this new form of revolution, will we be able to prevent our civilisation from following the same path as that of the Easter Islanders. And isn’t that something worth fighting for?

We are very grateful to Craig for his insightful, passionate and inspiring lecture and hope he will come back soon. You want to learn more? Then keep an eye out for the book he is writing on this very topic. A podcast of his lecture is also available via the Centre for Research into Sustainability (CRIS) website.

Dr Anica Zeyen, Lecturer in Strategy and Sustainability, RHUL School of Management

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