Since Rio+20, it took me a while to return to believing in the idea of ‘progress’, or for that matter, in the hope for and purpose of global cooperation for better economic or environmental alternatives. The deep disappointment produced by the apparent failure of the summit, framed as our last possibility out of a looming climate mess, was not aided by the appearance of forest fires across the U.S. or the final scientific stamp on the fact that humans are indeed the cause of such recent extreme weather events. Then, I saw a play called ‘The Word for Snow’ by Bronx-born writer Don DeLillo, which terrified me with the dystopian picture of progress that it painted. Narrating the philosophical quest of a young pilgrim in the near future, its idea was that as we decimate our planet, concepts based on the natural world like ‘snow’ will cease to retain equivalents in actual reality. This will force the concepts to become mere remnants of a history stored only in the human imagination, images embedded only in language.
Confronting the horror of letting things continue to deteriorate and flow towards a possibility of such hauntingly conceivable dystopias serves sometimes to alert to the importance trying to do something for the sake of making things better, to the idea of another kind of ‘progress’ in what the idea could entail. Though the idea has in recent times been dangerously narrowed to a material, commodified notion, escaping from its much more immaterial and philosophical meaning in ancient Greece or the Age of Enlightenment, its potential force to guide society is huge.
Without some hope in the realization of ideal types like justice, and without deeply rethinking where we want to get and how, the result will be us blindly going where we’re being led rather than striving for something better, an eventual suffering from a loss of purpose and loss of faith in a seemingly valueless, intellectually stagnant society. Slavoj Zizek calls to attention the importance of actively fighting for values against such loss of purpose, writing in ‘The End Times’ on the struggle against the current world order and the ideological mystification which sustains it: “To engage in this struggle means to endorse Badiou’s formula mieux vaut un désastre qu’un désêtre: better to take the risk and engage in fidelity to a Truth-Event, even if it ends in catastrophe, than to vegetate in the eventless utilitarian-hedonist survival of what Nietsche calls the “last men”.”
Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing
In most of the world, we learn through formal and informal education the price of everything and the value of nothing. Debating the purpose of life, for instance, has become an utterly ridiculous and ‘soft’ affair. Society’s prosperity is not only articulated but also led by math and statistics and those who speak this language – not by philosophy or ethical questions, which always come second and are considered in retrospect. Of course it goes without saying that the scientific method has great value. But if it is not guided by ethical debates, it can become a supposedly neutral language that serves to perpetuate the status quo by affirming with its supposed neutrality the ‘naturalness’ of the order that happens to be in place. Answering Leo Tolstoy’s claim, ‘Science is meaningless because it cannot answer the only question important for us: “what shall we do and how shall we live?”’ Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, gives an interesting conclusion. Weber essentially claims that while the scientific method provides a valuable tool for logical and truth-nearing decision making and activity, used in a vacuum of virtual reality created by its own internal logic, the method, as applied in economics in particular, has been able to not just avoid the real world with its complex issues, but also questions of value, distribution, right and wrong, ethics, and even the existential essence and purpose of life itself as Tolstoy presented the problem.
Indeed, a society that does not engage with the ethical questions of distribution or the value of its activities with regard to people and the environment can become a society that inadvertently props up existing privileges and often-unfair distributions. Globally, economic progress has created many awe-inspiring products, but as we very well know, it has also led to soaring inequality and a poverty trap for a great part of the world’s population. The social contract has not followed in suit to hold in check the global private interest regimes that have developed as a result of trade globalization. While many of us do reap the material fruits of unprecedented material progress, this type of lifestyle is in the grand scale so unevenly distributed that it is simply naïve or ridiculous to speak of the ‘progress of humanity’ as any kind of collective, equitable endeavor.
The type of lifestyle ideal that guides economic progress also narrows the scope of what ‘progress’ could alternatively be, confining the notion its Western variety, at the expense of indigenous value systems and ways of life. On top of this, the effect of producing such lifestyles for the globally privileged has the tendency to lead to the annihilation of the planet’s climate and ecosystems. It seems intuitive that a reframing of the idea of progress is therefore needed, and that the idea should also allow pluralism and various interpretations to guide it.
Sustainable Development as the new direction of progress?
Reframing progress is, as we know, what Rio+20 set out to do broadly in June. The problem with the outcome wasn’t perhaps that the much-anticipated Rio+20 text was inadequate, but rather, that it largely reiterated what was already agreed upon twenty years ago—without any new framing of which to speak. The text was boiled down to a lowest-common denominator fait accompli. Much of what was controversial, and therefore the most significant and possibly paradigm-shifting, evaporated into thin air, including the discussions about planetary limits and Beyond GDP becoming marginal mentions. For many, the big remaining hope from the outcome is the institution of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will present an opportunity for the international community to reframe progress in the next few years, based on the idea of the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental goals. The strengthening of UNEP might also be a sign of progress, if indeed the institution’s increased powers could begin articulating a more binding, legal social contract on global environmental issues.
However, gaps in the discussion remain. Despite the Brundtland Commission’s original definition of Sustainable Development, “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, much quoted at Rio+20, we have yet to deal with this 1987 concept in its full intended meaning. Sustainable Development contains within it two key concepts: needs and limitations imposed on the environment. Yet, society remains utterly concerned with wants and material economic growth to meet these wants and providing consumer opportunities to people defined as consumers. Rather, Rio+20 should have by now engaged more deeply with what we essentially ‘need’ and what distributing that between people defined as fellow human beings would mean nationally and globally with regard to the understanding of ‘limitations’.
However, while the latter discussion did not significantly feature in the international agreement, it did occur between various people from civil society, academia, business, different stakeholder groups, and progressive governments that had gathered in Rio+20. To bring some lessons of Rio+20 home, the higher education sustainability initiative for Rio+20 and other coalitions could also translate, say, at Harvard into student-developed sustainability curricula for courses in for instance, ‘ecological economics’ or ‘sustainable governance.’ The Strategies for a New Economy Conference organized by the New Economics Institute in the lead-up to Rio+20 also did much to link up such ideas between students and young graduates from around the United States and elsewhere. Similar collaborations are mushrooming around the world as especially young people are experiencing an era of dissatisfaction with the existing order. What was, then, important about the occurrence of Rio+20 was not so much the agreements signed, but rather that new narratives about alternatives are globally and increasingly being debated on all levels of society. The articulation of obstacles and the thinking and collaboration on solutions at Rio+20 even by fringe actors is in itself of some value.
Not capitalism, not communism, but Bhutan
Achim Steiner, Director of the UN Environmental Programme, contemplated that Rio+20 revealed “a world at a loss what to do…if we do not go into the heart of economic policy, we will meet here at Rio+40 even more culpable.” It revealed, in essence, that what is direly needed is a sense of direction, purpose, and narratives to get somewhere better. Both ‘the future we want’ and the ‘how will we get there’ are crucial – viable visions, examples, experiments, and models to learn from. Bhutan is a beacon of hope here.
About forty years ago, Bhutan began a great national experiment with a policy called ‘gross national happiness’ (GNH) to set a trajectory of progress guided by something other than GDP growth. This trajectory seeks to integrate sustainable and equitable socio-economic development with environmental conservation, cultural promotion, and good governance. On 2nd April this year, Bhutan convened a sort of coalition of the willing at the UN on ‘Defining a New Economic Paradigm’, and a smaller meeting again in Rio+20, which I had the honor of attending, drawing in government partners like Costa Rica, Finland, and Japan, as well as economists like Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz.
Bhutan’s Report of the High-Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness explains what I think is a brilliant example of how we could set out to reframe progress: “This “happiness” has nothing to do with the common use of that word to denote an ephemeral, passing mood — happy today or unhappy tomorrow due to some temporary external condition like praise or blame, gain or loss. Rather, it refers to the deep, abiding happiness that comes from living life in full harmony with the natural world, with our communities and fellow beings, and with our culture and spiritual heritage, — in short from feeling totally connected with our world. And yet our modern world, and particularly its economic system, promotes precisely the reverse — a profound sense of alienation from the natural world and from each other. Cherishing self-interest and material gain, we destroy nature, degrade our natural and cultural heritage, disrespect indigenous knowledge, overwork, get stressed out, and no longer have time to enjoy each others’ company, let alone to contemplate and meditate on life’s deeper meaning. Myriad scholarly studies now show that massive gains in GDP and income have not made us happier. On the contrary, respected economists have demonstrated empirically that deep social networks are a far better predictor of satisfaction and well-being than income and material gain.”
Bhutan has also not only articulated goals for another kind of progress, and connected people and governments around this, but for several decades has attempted to instantiate them in the realm of citizens’ everyday life. For instance, the Bhutanese Constitution mandates that at least 60% of the Kingdom of Bhutan remain under forest cover in perpetuity and that health care and education be provided free. As a result, figures show that 99% of children attend school, and an accounting system to place intrinsic value on goods such as nature, community, trust, cooperation, and compassion is coming into its own.
If Bhutan’s efforts sound dubious or unrealistic, Tim Jackson, former commissioner on the UK Sustainable Development Commission and author of the controversial report “Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a finite planet,” coins well the absurdity, on the other hand, of what we are pursuing at present. Progress, as it stands now, is colored by what he calls “the ‘insatiability doctrine” by which “we spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.” It seems fair to suppose that this may not be the final zenith of humanity, and that we cannot be mistaken if we at least explore other paths.
Voltaire’s satiric 18th century book Candide has a character called Dr. Pangloss, an optimistic tutor, who justifies the evils of the world with false logic of how everything that happens is always for the best, because that is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire’s protagonist in the end rejects this naïve and dangerous ‘optimism’, and sets to ‘cultivate the garden’—urging us to not accept ‘progress’ as a justification for the state that exists now, but to engage in a struggle for the truths and values that compel us to make better narratives into realities, that is, creating progress in the progressive sense.