Progress, by any other name…

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Clint Eastwood, the tough-guy actor and director of the acclaimed movie Million Dollar Baby, is not a source I usually turn to for insights about political philosophy. I realize he is a genuine political figure— having been elected mayor of Carmel, California— but in charting my beliefs about the world I have sought out the ideas of other teachers: Green activists, grassroots organizers and leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. Yet recently, in a roundabout way, Eastwood pointed me toward the answer to a question I have long pondered. The question concerns the idea of progress, about which I have distinctly divided views.

I grew up with the rosy American notion that modern civilization is on a course of steady improvement. I even have labeled my political opinions as “progressive”, which sounds more appealing to the average American than “leftist”. But at the same time, I’ve come to see that many of the things touted as progress— from nuclear power and industrialized agriculture to the rigid standardization of almost everything, including the tests kids take in school and new songs played on the radio—are truly steps backward.

My faith in progress was first shaken by the ascendancy of right-wing politicians in the U.S., who advocated increased corporate power and weakened social and environmental policies as the way of the future. The next blow was when many other leaders around the world (including some of the European social democrats who I admired as true progressives) embraced a similar vision for the 21st century based on lockstep adherence to government privatization, market economics, rampant technological growth, and corporate-led globalization. This leaves little room for alternative ideas about how more than six billion people should harmoniously inhabit this small, fragile planet.

Among people I know, the word “progress” has become ironic, spoken with invisible quote marks implying it now means something different than the original definition—the same way “bad” came to mean “good” in African-American slang. The word has become tainted for me, although I’ve learned that it doesn’t carry this kind of double meaning for most Europeans.

This is where Clint Eastwood enters the scene. While reading a great new book, How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson on a ski weekend, I came across this passage, which ignited my imagination: “For what is progress? Clint Eastwood’s preacher in Pale Fire puts the matter elegantly. When told by a local town fat cat that a group of independent gold miners who refuse to move off their land to make way for his company are ‘standing in the way of Progress’, Clint simply asks: ‘Yours or theirs?’”

That’s it! I marvel that I missed such an important concept all these years. Just because the powers that be advertise their selfish aims as the march of progress doesn’t make it so. Progress is a word worth fighting for, like “freedom” or “democracy.” Humans are hardwired to believe the world is getting better for their children and grandchildren. It’s foolish to concede this lovely, uplifting idea to those whose “progress” is little more than schemes to further enrich themselves. True progress is the embodiment of centuries of work to create a better world— a better world for everybody.

So now, thanks to Clint Eastwood, you can also count me as passionate about progress.

  Jay Walljasper is the author of the new book All That We Share:  A Field Guide to the Commons.  He is the editor of OnTheCommons.org, a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler and the cities columnist for Shareable.net.  His website: www.Jay Walljasper.com

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