Is Progress the Only Value?

Originally written in 2006

The first article I ever published was entitled Is Progress Now the Only Value?  It was printed in the Hamilton Spectator in 1986, following the first space shuttle tragedy.  I wonder, 20 years later, if anything’s changed.

The dictionary defines progress as the advancement toward a higher or better stage.  It suggests that we have a goal, a purpose.  Is the purpose to know more, to have more money, to reach further into space, to learn more about where we came from?  Is theour purpose simply progress itself, at any cost.  Perhaps the value we place on advancement has propelled the last half-century.

In the fifties, shopping centres, a convenient way to keep ourselves stocked, were being born.  So were convenience foods and a myriad of other comforts.  McDonald’s was born.  It was a time of hope and optimism, we are told.  Hope that the future would be brighter than the past. But somewhere along the way, we began to get very comfortable.  Comfortable with our larger homes, our shorter work weeks, our leisure time. Space-saving and time-saving solutions were all the rage. But look now.  We are now slaves to our cell phones, our plasma televisions, i-pods, Blackberries.  Our vehicles are large and spacious, and even then we pull humungous trailers. Our computers are fast and adept.  Occasionally even instant. Our kitchens are equipped with microwaves, and Minute Rice, and our bathrooms with jet-tubs to aid relaxation, and shampoo/conditioners that reduce the time we have to spend in the shower.  Our hospitals have scanners of all sorts, and medically, there are more options than before. We have more knowledge, clearly.  But the increase in knowledge is hardly a firewall against so-called advances that end in disaster.  Perhaps it should be, but it isn’t.

Take illicit drugs as an example. In the late 60s, 12-20 million Americans were users.  By the end of the 70s, TIME magazine estimated that 42 million Americans were using marijuana, which, along with cocaine, had become a billion-dollar product for farmers, smugglers and dealers from Columbia, despite the knowledge that mind-altering drugs lead to tragic death.  A parallel evolution was occurring.  This society, so proud of its progress, was slowly being mired in the quicksand of convenience and comfort.  Indeed it would soon be hard to tell the difference between convenience, and progress.

The advancements in science led to moral decisions we were, and are, hardly equipped to make.  They also led to new, synthetic drugs, some legal, others illegal.  The new drugs are easier to take and quicker to work; some increase the quality of life for those with health issues; others combat their side effects.  Still others, like Ecstasy and Crystal Meth have outcomes far more disastrous.

We ask how people could sacrifice their lives for such spontaneous gratification, but we need only look at the rest of society for the answer.  We are a society of spontaneous gratification.  Microwaves, cell phones, high-speed internet, on-demand cable, fast food restaurants and drive-thrus, express service stations, and more.

As long as progress is our only value, we will continue to lead increasingly frenzied lives.  Some of us will opt out. If we’re careful, cognisant of the outcomes, we’ll meditate, or choose life coaching to help us slow down and regroup.  We’ll buy a hybrid vehicle to help the environment – or our wallets.  We purchase a house by The Lake, or a dog and a cat, to calm ourselves. But some of us – even those of us who know better — will resort to drugs, legal or illegal, to “get through life”.  We won’t be thinking about the outcomes.  We’ll be thinking about the moment.  Like when we go through a drive-thru, or buy our cigarettes, or have an affair.  We won’t be thinking what this might mean down the road, or how it could affect those around us; we’ll be instantly gratified.

We were well-trained for the choice, after all.  Fifty years of progress for the sake of progress, where comfort and convenience rate higher on the moral scale than longevity and environmental consciousness.  Where family values slide down the scale, and individualism blows off the top.

It all changed in our own backyards; we needn’t look to politicians or – worse – the next generation – to fix it.  It’s our job.  Yours and mine.

So when we ask the question how could someone sacrifice her life for the instant gratification of drugs, we don’t have to look back on our own choices and cringe, that indeed, we have done the same, be it with drugs, or any other form of instant gratification. Indeed, in the end, one wonders if the frenzy of the 21st century isn’t what some of the young people, indeed even people our own age, are escaping.  Escaping our own creation.

It’s high time to start recreating, folks.  Comfort exists within us; it cannot be bought, manufactured, even stolen.  And it won’t feel like the comfort we’re used to, because, of course, it will last. It’s your choice to make, right this instant.