by Hank Stone
February 15, 2010
We Americans know it is unrealistic and foolish to expect a future that works for our children. World peace is Utopian dream. A safe and healthy,sustainable environment is something we can “make progress toward,” but not achieve. Why not?
According to one story, we can’t have Utopia because people are sinful. It’s our human nature. We can make technological progress, but because we can’t rein in our greed and dishonesty and blood lust, we will always muck it up before reaching the Utopian ideal. We must come to Jesus to be saved.
That’s one story we tell ourselves. Here’s another story.
For all of our lifetimes, we have been experiencing progress. That is, each generation has had more opportunities and a higher standard of living than the last. We have been living in the story of progress since the discovery of the New World, which had vast resources and hardly any people. The enterprising “rugged individual,” with freedom and hard work and ingenuity, could prosper. And our prosperity continued to grow for all of living memory.
Progress means we go forward from where we are. That is, we make incremental changes to the status quo, which is pretty good, to get us to an improved future situation.
But we need a growing population to supply new customers, and to support people of retirement age. We need an increasingly large supply of resources to feed the increasing population. And if we stop improving our productivity, our society will be collapse.
Our country’s prosperity also relies on resources from all over the world. To assure access to these resources, we sometimes need to apply military pressure in other countries. That is, we wage wars.
Once entrenched, the war system generates so much money that we now can’t stop it. The war system has become “too big to fail,” and does what it must to keep a flow of new enemies, new fears, new weapons, and new money.
In this second story, we are speeding into the future on a train called Progress. We can’t stop this speeding train, because our population and economic growth cannot exist in a sustainable, steady state. So the train we’re on won’t get us to Utopia.
Why do we need Utopia, since we have ridden the train of Progress so successfully for so long?
The world population today, after doubling twice in the last hundred years, is 6.8 billion human beings.
Meanwhile, scientists warn that world oil production has peaked (or soon will), and will decline. Oil is central to the production of food. Tractor fuel, pesticides, transportation, processing, and retailing all require oil.
Water tables on five continents are dropping, mostly because of irrigation, which accounts for 70% of fresh water use.
Food production increases that have allowed the world to feed its growing population have been largely due to the unsustainable use of oil and irrigation.
So even without economic crises, climate change, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, the train ride will end soon.
The train of Progress cannot slow down without awful human costs. Picture our train speeding across a chasm on a railroad trestle. But the workmen are building the trestle just in front of the train. When they can’t find timbers (oil, fresh water, food) enough to support the train—
To abandon the train of Progress, we would have to do several difficult things.
First, we would have to admit that the story of Progress is unsustainable, and that we need a plan for the future different from continuing past trends. That’s scary and embarrassing.
Second, we would need a new plan for the way forward. This is made difficult by the fact that our cultural stories tell us not just that progress is good, but that only incremental change is possible. Big changes are hard, so VERY big change must be impossible.
Third, the rich and powerful decision-makers of our society like things the way they are. Governments, corporations and the media do the business of the rich, and don’t tell us ordinary people that change is necessary.
Fourth, we would need a world-size get-well plan. The problems we’re talking about are interconnected, and affect the peoples of the world. Furthermore, there is no hope of rescuing our country while the rest of humanity falls into the abyss. We can’t do what needs to be done without the participation of the great majority of ordinary people, worldwide.
Why do I imagine that humankind is up to the challenge?
First, I have a religious belief: The Creation is abundantly good. Life can be difficult, but God has been generous with us. The human future is not assured, but we have been given everything we need to survive and prosper.
Second, the world is so interconnected that great numbers of people hear about large-scale events as they occur. When the train of Progress begins to fall, people will know about it and their attention will quickly be concentrated on the need for transformation.
Third, the idea that big changes are hard, so that VERY big changes must be impossible—is false. That is because we are talking about changing the STORY itself. The story of Progress includes the notion that we make incremental changes to improve our situation. But the limitation of incremental improvement is part of that obsolete story.
Changing the story will release us immediately from the story of Progress—like aking up from a bad dream.
Of course, physical constraints will remain. And the question of what to do will remain. But one way or another we will be free of the Progress story.
If we are prepared to give up Progress, we will discover resources we forgot we had. We will discover $2 trillion per year that we no longer need to fund militarism. We will rediscover common sense, and good will in ourselves and in ordinary people around the world.
Then, what sort of future might we build?
Why not Utopia?