Progress and Environmental Sustainability

Gowdy, John M.
Environmental Ethics Vol. 16/1 (1994), pages 41-55

One of the most pervasive ideas in Western culture is the notion of progress. Among economists, it is synonymous with economic growth. According to advocates of unlimited growth, more growth will result in a cleaner environment, a stable population level, and social and economic equality. Although most environmentalists do not subscribe to the growth ethic, they generally cling to a notion of progress by arguing that there has been continual enlightenment in public attitudes toward the environment and that this enlightenment can lead to environmental salvation. I argue that there is no convincing argument for past human progress and no reason to believe that it will occur in the future. Once we abandon notions of progress, we free ourselves to concentrate on making do with what we have rather than placing our hopes on some future material or ethical utopia.