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  • Writer's pictureLuke Dowding

The Pilgrimage to Progress?

As I walked along Hove seafront with my parents recently, I looked out to sea and noticed the wind-farm out in the distance. Wind-farms seem to anger many and produce a fervent adoration in others. To the angry they are an eyesore, more so than the electricity pylons that litter our landscape, and for their fans they are the solution (at least in part) to our climate woes. I certainly see the logic in their use – particularly out to sea where they can seemingly generate a lot of power, and actually find them to be rather aesthetically pleasing.

Of course, if you believe firmly enough in either view then you could offer compelling (and conflicting) reasons as to why wind-farms are the best thing since nut milk, or the spawn of eco-wokery. So that’s not what I’m setting out to deliver here. Instead, I’d like to use the narrative around wind-farms as a tool to frame the complexities of the paradigm of so-called “progress”.

This idea of progress, the growth and development of humanity going from strength to strength, and gain to gain, is accepted by both camps in our wind-farm analogy; yet there is great disagreement as to the appearance of the destination. In fact, I’d argue that neither even truly believes there is such a terminus – but rather an endless motion always striving for the better.

It strikes me that there are similarities to the pilgrimages of the Middle Ages. In these people were encouraged to make frequent journeys to shrines to pray (and pay) for their sins to be forgiven – this would give you a greater chance of one day making it to heaven, and aren’t we sold similar narratives today? If you’re in the green brigade then buying one more tree to offset your carbon, ditching those disposable plastics, and swapping out various foods for their apparently eco-alternative, are all the shrines your encouraged to visit, paying the fee as you do so. If you are a card-carrying techno-capitalist then your shrines might look more like an ardent belief that the established system will continually evolve for the benefit of the world, that short-term fossil fuel usage is necessary, and that technology may lead to us no longer needing the natural world at all – bio-domes, greenhouse crops, and fake meat await.

Both believe that their pilgrimage to progress is holy, surely both can’t be right?

Perhaps then the paradigm of progress is broken and ought to be done away with. There are some statistics that suggest that when you hit a certain level of annual income, you are believed to be no happier, healthier, or safer if you earn above that than you are that level. In fact, perhaps you might end up feeling the stress and strains of maintaining a level of income that finances the ever-growing list of wants. Much like this, I wonder whether there is a level of “development” that is simply more than enough for our species as it exists today. We have enough resources, food, and indeed capital wealth (according to our current economic narratives) to ensure that everyone is happy, healthy, and safe – yet all our pilgrimages to progress seem to enforce is that which divides. If I am wealthier, I can afford to shop more consciously of the global impact of my purchasing decisions, or I can choose to shop accordingly to my desires – regardless of the affects. Both approaches remain rooted in the dizzying paradigm of progress, which be design can only leave people behind: progress is only progress when you benchmark it against where you have been, or those who are not yet (or perhaps never will be) there with you.

The question I’m asking myself, and the world around me, is whether an escape from the endless pilgrimages is possible? Must I always trek to another shrine and pay my tolls along the way too, or can I stop satisfied and grateful for where I am now? By doing this, will I enable others to follow the example – leading and encouraging by action, not by words; or will this only enforce another divide between those who can and those who can’t?

I don’t have the answers, but I’m asking the questions – could you do the same?


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