Is it possible that sustainability will give back to us a sense that time moves cyclically, and give us a new idea of “progress?”
“Progress,” the idea that human society advances ever forward into a better future, is tightly associated with modern thinking. In particular the brave-new-world notion that progress in technology will always make our lives better and will always leave the past behind to be remembered but not repeated, is now almost a caricature. The forward thrust of modern ‘progress’ mirrors the cradle-to-grave manufacturing model of making new things (out of ‘raw materials’ or ‘natural resources’), using them up and throwing them away (where they disappear). The process moves always ahead toward the new. Several squirrelly ideas and a fatal irony are embedded. First, what’s new about something new? I’ll just leave that one to ponder. Second, using things up suggests that nothing is left behind, an obvious falsehood – even food eaten up leaves poop behind and fuel used up leaves CO2 at least. Thirdly, throwing things away doesn’t get rid of them, just takes them out of sight. We clearly know by now that there is no ‘away,’ everywhere is somewhere and the more we insist on an ‘away,’ the more it crowds in on us. In Freud’s terms, denying things or feelings by putting them out of sight or “foreclosing” them simply embeds them more deeply in our mind and body, until they infect our every action.
And the irony… progress implies a utopia or state of perfection always ahead like a mirage. There, presumably everything is perfect, progress stops and time becomes cyclical again. Hmmm. So cyclical time is the goal.
Sustainability however proposes that we live in the world without diminishing it. No graves. No ‘away.’ No using things up. It embraces the fact that everything exists before we ‘use’ it and continues to exist after. Technology may transform materials and move them from place to place, but nothing is left as waste. Everything is recaptured and returned to the cycle. Progress means innovation that improves the cycle in all its phases, not just the ‘making stuff for our use’ part of the cycle. Life can be excellent, and everything returns, so that it can go around again and again.
Thinking of materials in this way implies a cyclical sense of time: that all things return, in different forms, with an accumulation of memory perhaps, but always already present. Same, same, but different. We are part of the cycle of the natural world, and progressively innovate new ways to keep it strong and healthy, year after year, century after century, and millennium after millennium, always changing and, if we do our jobs well, always the same.