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The Progress of the Arts and Ecological Wisdom

The term progress, rich in meaning in the 18th century (so much so that the term in French was used exclusively in the plural and one spoke of, e.g., des progrès des arts et des sciences), became, in the 19th and 20th centuries, a synonym for economic growth: progress was associated with the accumulation of material goods.  Speaking of ecological progress is thus tantamount to describing green growth, as defined by the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), as an economy “significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”, thus assuring the “enhance(ment of) energy and resource efficiency”.

The hidden carbon cost

In Europe, green growth has often been portrayed as the transition to an economy of knowledge and the development of services.  Was it not the “Lisbon Strategy’s” aim to “make the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010”?  But an immaterial economy (knowledge and service-based) cannot develop without a material basis which often consumes a great deal of energy and scarce resources: the hospitality professions are being replaced by machines packed with electronics.  Communication and information rely on the widespread adoption of computers, the production and transports of which weigh heavily in terms of carbon equivalents and the operation of which expends great amounts of energy. As the highly complex products they are, based on the use of uncommon materials, “green” technologies, such as the use of lighter-weight materials in automotive engineering, can only be recycled with difficulty or in a very incomplete manner, while needing to be replaced frequently as the result of rapid product obsolescence.

As a result, they are extremely energy consuming and produce high levels of waste. Their widespread application as a substitute for currently employed products is not easily achieved. Biotechnologies (such as GMOs) involve risks that are far from being completely understood and their anticipated efficiency is very time-limited, or even questionable. As with all technologies, it is not enough to consider only the intended effect while failing to take into account the unintended consequences of this intentional action. In the quest for sustainability, it is not an isolated trait of technology that requires consideration, but the entire system that makes it possible.

The role of desire

Postulating that it is possible to separate growth from the intensive use of raw materials and energy and emissions of pollutants is like entertaining the illusion that the same lifestyle can be kept up by simply changing the means. But it is precisely the way of life that is the problem. And isn’t a model of society based on moderation what we really need? The real issues are the anthropological hypotheses governing progress which in turn is equated with growth: while acknowledging the moral superiority of those who can make do with little, Adam Smith vividly demonstrated in Theory of Moral Sentiments that the desire to imitate our neighbour, pushing us to increase our consumption, has positive repercussions on the entire economic engine. The moral rehabilitation of desire was achieved by the appreciation of its effects: the emergence of a society capable of infinite expansion, generating progress.

Rebuilding social relations

Will taking into account the limited character of resources made available for these insatiable desires and the discovery that, beyond a certain limit, material abundance no longer results in more well-being, prompt the renewed distinction between luxury and subsistence, thus moving again from desires, between which no distinction can be made, to needs which, as opposed to desires, have limits, limits one could even attempt to align with nature?  Leaving it at that would mean retaining the individual basis from which derives the illusion of growth as a generator of welfare and social equity. This would mean believing that it is enough to change individual behaviour (consume less, be modest) while ignoring the social basis making such behaviour possible: the only way, therefore, to shift from desires to needs and to impose virtue, would be by an authoritarian state.

But growth is more than just the aggregation of individual initiatives; it creates as much dependency as it ensures independence, which is why GNP does not measure social well-being, because other aspects such as health and education must be considered as well. Therefore, there can be no modest society without the modification of social relations, without substituting competition with cooperation, the “every man for himself” mentality with solidarity, and competition with conviviality. If social progress is the capacity of each individual to liberate himself or herself from the common evils of poverty, illness and ignorance, and if this progress depends on the adoption of a certain number of technologies, only the socially equitable use of these technologies, as demonstrated by Ivan Illich, can ensure that doctors do not induce illness, schools do not induce illiteracy and poverty does not become destitution.

How to do better with less

A convivial society is no doubt a more modest society: ‘being’ replaces ‘having’. But is it also an ecological society?  Is it enough to produce and consume less for the pressure on our environment to lift and for us to stay within the physical limits of growth as a result? Isn’t a different approach necessary, and the profound modification of our relationship to our environment?  “Humanity has always progressed by increasingly harnessing nature to its needs and not the reverse”, proclaimed the Heidelberg Appeal, which, in May 1992 expressed concern about the threats the Earth Summit posed to economic and social development and technical progress.  Isn’t this purely instrumental perception of nature in need of review? “Do better with less”: the formula used to summarise the goals of green technologies stands for an instrumental rationality. Ecological efficiency can of course clash with economic efficiency. The agricultural production system of crop-livestock farming, addressing the ecological imperatives of recycling and closed cycles, has been swept away by the economic imperatives of integration into marketing channels. How to ensure the sustainability of eco-efficiency?

The necessary independence of common goods

Present ecological thinking, in particular with regard to questions concerning biodiversity, revolves around the notion of the “commons” as an intermediary level between private appropriation and recourse to the State; the duality to which economic thinking generally confines itself. The point is to demonstrate, as Elinor Ostrom has done, how user communities are capable of ensuring the sustainability of resources as soon as they use them collectively, as “common goods”. Lawyers object to this expression, arguing that it doesn’t make sense, because a good, being appropriated, thereby ceases to be common. According to them, there is no such thing as common goods, just “common things”.  But doesn’t this mean that what counts with regard to these “commons” is not so much the ownership structure, rather than the relationship with the “things” that constitute them and which must, in order to remain common, retain a certain independence, and not dissolve, in terms of their identity as things, into the use made of them?

This independence can go so far as to make genuine legal entities of these things. The Constitution of Ecuador explicitly recognises Pacha Mama, the ancient Mother Earth deity of the Amerindians, as a subject of law: “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes. All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature.” (Article 71). This enables environmental groups to take oil companies before the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court for environmental damage caused by oil spills. Thereby, instrumentalisation has ceased.

Technology as the mastery of nature

According to Jürgen Habermas, in Technology and Science as Ideology, the instrumental rationality of technical action does not raise any objections as long as it doesn’t invade the sphere of relationships between people, which fall under the realm of axiological rationality. But one may wonder whether the best manner to fight this invasion wouldn’t be to integrate axiological rationality into technical rationality. In fact, it already is, if we refer to technology as the mastery of nature. It is therefore our idea of technical action as the imposition of form on material or as the application of a power relationship that should be challenged. What we must aspire to is a conception of technical action as a form of partnership with nature or cooperation in a community of humans and non-humans. This means recognising that our technical actions are also rooted in the moral domain, do not depend solely on our knowledge, or even on our know-how, but on true wisdom.

If progress is equalled to economic growth, the phrase economic growth becomes meaningless. The conceptions of progress, even if they take account of quality and social requirements, omit the relationship with nature; they cannot be termed ecological. Following in the footsteps of Rousseau, rather than speaking of ecological progress, thought should be given to exploring the conditions under which the progress of the arts and sciences can be aligned with ecological wisdom.

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