Progress and the Maintenance of Social, Cultural and Environmental Sustainability
The following agenda contains a number of suggested questions participants might address to move the discourse on this broad subject beyond the traditional debates on development taking place regularly in international and national forums where the discourse is dominated by scientific enquiry and instrumental calculations to the exclusion of other valid and vital sources of knowledge. All countries seeking to develop are presently invited, even pressed, to become immersed in the “age of global materialism” now occurring in a planetary environment where fragile ecosystems are showing many signs of failure.
Participants are invited to inject intuition, philosophical reasoning, imagination, poetic inspiration, and wisdom into the consideration of these essential matters. This treatment is urgent as we are dealing with deep seated and irreversible changes in countries whose time honored traditions, civilizations, and philosophies have much to offer the world by their understandings and beliefs about nature and the deep and complex experience of being human.
Topic I Conceptual issues
What can be said of the idea of progress and of its relevance for the future of humankind?
This question invites participants to give thought to the meaning of development. Does it infer that people in poor countries or in poor regions of vast countries (with large poverty stricken rural sections) are in a sense inferior to people in societies or regions with high per capita incomes? Suppose there is a society marked by a high degree of literacy and refined rituals for social interaction, strong family links, and apparently healthy, yet has a pre-industrial economy. Is this an underdeveloped country in need of progress?
In reflections on these matters of development- sustainability, and well-being of people- what would be the conditions for a greater use of different sources of knowledge-intuition, artistic and poetic perceptions, spiritual insights-in complementing and orienting instrumental rationality? Moreover, in the context of humanity’s responsibility towards the world, how is it possible to pursue the liberating message of the Enlightenment while breaking the imperialism of instrumental rationality and accepting these different sources of knowledge?
What can we add to existing criteria for measuring development?
There are many such criteria offered by international organizations today. PLQI, GNP statistics, Human Development Index, World Bank indicators and so forth. Those countries with the highest marks according to all these indicators are the western developed countries. Should these material standards and indicators alone serve as the measure of development?
What will come of development if the planet’s resource limitations and the biosphere’s carrying capacity come to exceed the potential for technological adaptation to diminishing resources and space for waste accumulation?
Should we not consider another measure of development, for example, along the lines proposed by J.S. Mill’s vision of the steady state?
Is there necessarily a trade off between the maintenance of social, cultural and environmental sustainability and economic or material development. Is it possible that development should have diminishing returns and that the opportunity cost is loss in the art of living?
Topic II: Ethical and humanistic dimensions of progress
There is an apparent trade off between a type of development that transforms a nation’s culture and environment into a second rate model of another and the security of the people derived from their own traditions, communal ways of life, and in general, their sense of rootedness and happiness. How can this be avoided and what should be done, if anything about this? Take for example the reluctance of Bhutan to move to “western style democracy” and give up its “steady state” in a kingdom that apparently measures its progress in terms of gross national happiness.
In a global and harmonious society, what would be the sources and expressions of personal and social identity, and, from this perspective, what would be the roles of secularism and religion?
Among others, this topic raises the issue of public versus private goods. Is there still place for public goods in fast growing capitalistic societies? Or is the mark of an advanced country one that has liberated the society from community spirit for the sake of competitive individualism in the pursuit of private wealth in every sector? Would health and the environment really thrive where profit is virtually the only motive for taking action?
Mobility, flexibility, adaptability, and competition are among the values underlying the dominant culture and which are introduced by transnational corporations, NGO’s and IGO’s. Both for the health of people and for the protection of the environment, would it be useful or even necessary to give more weight to values such as stability, harmony, wisdom and happiness?