Reframing Progress

December 10, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed“…Progress is one of the most powerful notions in the modern world” writes John Dryzek in
The Politics of the Earth.

I’m inclined to agree with him. Progress acts as a kind of meta-narrative, an incredibly potent and pervasive trope that is woven through stories ancient and contemporary, and forms a core part of our culture. The idea of progress is essentially about things getting better, about the future being better than the past and the present. This hopeful idea, tied up with assumptions about how it will happen, forms our shared story of progress – our progress story. It’s natural that humans should be attracted to a notion like this, as it gives people hope, satisfaction, a sense of achievement and empowerment. What isn’t so natural is the way the idea of progress has become so wedded to the idea of economic growth, fuelled by rampant consumerism.

As this earlier post discusses, growing dissatisfaction with GDP as an entirely misleading and insufficient measure of progress has led to a recent explosion of new indicators, such as the Happy Planet Index, the Genuine Progress Indicator and Gross National Happiness, to name just a few. The groups and individuals behind these ideas are getting the conversation started on what we value, what we consider to be progress, and how best to measure it. This is incredibly important work. But it’s not just official indicators that determine what the progress story is all about. The media forms a very influential gateway between the official statistics and measurements and most ordinary people – meaning it’s the media representation that is directly encountered. I think that the work being done on developing new indicators would be greatly supplemented and reinforced by an effort to reframe and redirect the progress story in terms of the language we use to talk about it and the way it’s represented in the media.

Progress Towards What?
When talking about progress, it’s important to ask: Progress towards what? It’s clearly not an end in itself: it describes a journey towards something. Asking this question throws up all kinds of deeply subjective, normative questions about what we value. Where we’re trying to go determines the path we take, and determines whether a specific movement is progress along that path. The Happy Planet Index assumes long happy lives that have low ecological footprints are what we’re aiming for. In contrast, the dominant version of the progress story assumes ever-growing consumption of goods and services is what we’re aiming for, measured by GDP. What I see as a more appropriate goal, is a high level of wellbeing for everyone on earth, within the finite limits of our planet. If this is our goal, then what counts as progress towards it? When slavery was abolished, when women in the Western world won the right to vote, when the internet was invented, all these things I consider to be “real progress”. When we get more of our energy from renewables than fossil fuels, when everyone has access to clean water, when education is provided for all the world’s children, when the greenhouse gas levels of the atmosphere start to go down instead of up… Those are the kinds of things I’d call “real progress”.

Reframing Post-Growth as “Real Progress”
For those of us that are familiar with the post-growth concept, it is obvious that a future beyond the constant quest for growth could absolutely still progress in terms of science and culture. All the way back in 1848 the often-quoted John Stuart Mill wrote that:

“…a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the art of living, and much more likelihood of it being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on.” (John Stuart Mill, 1848, in Principles of Political Economy).

Yet for people today who are new to the idea, growth and progress are so wedded that they often assume you can’t have one without the other. When I speak to my peers about post-growth, they’re often surprised and happy to hear that things like scientific research and the production of art and culture would not need to be constrained along with resource use and pollution. This appears not to be immediately obvious to newcomers, and I feel it should be. We humans have a big appetite for change and novelty. This is the main reason I find the terms stationary state and steady state to be a bit lacking, because they give the impression there’s no change going on at all in a post-growth economy. This is of course misleading, because it’s more about dynamic equilibrium than stillness. When describing the post-growth concept, perhaps it’s worth considering that words like innovation, discovery, dynamism and transformation are likely to excite newcomers more than words like steady, maintained and limited. Groups like Sustainable Man already recognise this, with their uplifting bite-size memes and videos. And here at the Post Growth Institute we use an asset-based approach to our work, developing creative forward-facing solutions by starting with what’s already working and building out from there.

Of course I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t talk about limits. The fact of natural limits is entirely crucial, but I feel perhaps all the focus on limits could be giving the impression that all things are limited in a post-growth economy. In books, articles, videos and so on that are designed as an introduction to the concept, I think all this needs to be spelled out with clarity and repetition. The message should be clear: limiting environmental impact does not need to mean limiting art, science, technical innovation, social change and cultural evolution. If anything, it allows them to flourish more, without the distraction of consumerism and without the need to throw all our energy and resources into the growth-machine.

Reframing Growth-Mania as Undesirable
The growth-forever model is also starting to be reframed. Although it remains officially dominant, cracks in its hegemony are beginning to appear. Mainstream economists seem to be worrying about global growth stalling, and what with the obscene inequality and environmental devastation it has given us, people around the world are beginning to wonder if there might be a better way. The New Economics Foundation in the UK is busy framing economics-as-usual as “unfair, unsustainable and unstable” and promoting a new type of economics based around wellbeing and sustainability. The Guardian has even been publishing articles blatantly sceptical of the growth model, with hundreds of commenters agreeing enthusiastically. Since the 2008 financial crash, it seems doubts are beginning to occur as to whether more of the same is an adequate solution. The Occupy movement has encapsulated the global inequality crisis in the catchy “we are the 99%” – a powerful slogan that provides an alternative to the usual “a rising tide lifts all boats” frame. I often now hear fossil fuels being called “dinosaur technology”, and this is the kind of attitude that we need to cultivate around growth-mania as well. It is already happening, but to be faster and stronger the process needs more people to be consciously involved. As Tim Jackson said in this fantastic talk, humans have quite an appetite for novelty. Perhaps this can be used to our advantage by pointing out all the ways in which the growth model is inefficient, based on a 200 year old view of the world, not fit for purpose and wildly out-dated.

Of course, most of us don’t run national newspapers or TV stations. But we do have the internet, allowing us to not only publish and share relevant articles and videos, but also to leave comments on mainstream news websites – something that I frequently do, in the hope that my comment might make someone reconsider their economic assumptions. Most importantly we also have the ability use our language consciously when discussing these issues with other people, describing growth as an old broken model and post-growth as an exciting opportunity for real progress.


Photo: Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness philosophy. Creative Commons.

Tegan Tallulah

I'm a passionate sustainability enthusiast, blogger and digital marketer. I live in Brighton, UK, with my boyfriend and tortoise. Can usually be found reading, writing or eating chickpea burritos.

Tags: innovation, limits to growth, new economy, post-growth