Living in a Progress-Driven Society and the Environmental Consequences of a Constant-Growth Model

Class Discussion

April 26, 2006

Kristin Leitzel


Kinsley, David. Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Prentice Hall, Inc: Englewood Cliffs, 1995, Ch 10-11 (pp 125 – 158).

Berry, Thomas. “Into the Future,” in This Sacred Earth, Second Edition, Gottlieb, Roger ed, Routledge: New York, 2004, pp 492-496.

Summary of Readings

The purpose of these readings was to examine the way our culture approaches nature and the relationship between humans and their environment. In Chapter 10, Kinsley discussed the mechanistic approach to nature that originated in modern theory with writers like Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Our approach to nature as a resource, coupled with our almost religious pursuit of progress, has led to a detached view of nature that permits its exploitation and destruction. Kinsley also pointed out that our degree of technological advancement has insulated us from nature and allows us to live with very little contact with the natural world.

In Chapter 11, Kinsley summarized the “ecological spirituality” of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. These three authors viewed nature as sacred in its own right. Progress at the cost of destroying the environment is held as morally irresponsible, in addition to being harmful to ourselves in the end. Kinsley emphasized the common view that humans must take on an ecological mindset, where people see themselves as only one part of a system that we depend on for survival.

Thomas Berry, in “Into the Future,” argues that our current approach to progress and development are unsustainable and that we must adopt a new way of thinking if we are to create a viable future. We need to realize, Berry writes, that the planet is finite and a onetime endowment. The fact that the planet (a) exists and (b) supports life is the result of a lucky chance of events that will never (in a practical sense, anyway) occur again. Recognizing our relative unimportance in the grand scheme of things is essential in humbling our interactions with nature. For Berry, our future depends on this change in our self-awareness within the context of a universal reality.

Questions Discussed

Does our progress depend on a mechanistic view of nature? Can we have progress if we give nature an inherent value?

Is the language of the market place inadequate when it comes to valuing an ecosystem or a species?

Even if we wanted to change our approach to nature, is it possible to teach everyone a new way of thinking?

Is preserving nature worth giving up future progress?

Do we have (or should we have) some sort of moral obligation to respect nature?

Summary of Discussion

At the beginning of the discussion, I asked how many people had read The Monkey Wrench Gang. Only one other student had. The general tone of the discussion was one of resignation to our current path of progress and the (probable) resulting environmental destruction. Even if we would be better off ethically and in terms of the long run, the task of changing the way people think about progress and consumption is impossible. Our only option is to go along for the ride and hope that technology can get us out of any tight spots we run into on the way. On a small scale, we can encourage people to recycle or purchase 25% of their electricity from a renewable source, but complete sustainability (which would require zero net growth) is not something we will see in the near future.

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last updated 2/06/06