Rethinking Progress—Limits to Our Old Definition

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

We confront one particularly encompassing limit—to our modern notion of going forward. We can think of other more circumscribed limits as subsets of it. We can come at making sense of it from multiple angles.

Modern progress’ onward and upward picture confronts limits most obviously with physical/environmental constraints. With the larger portion of the world’s population just becoming industrialized, somehow our new story must be physically sustainable in a way that past narratives were not.

Economic limits understood broadly provide a further layer to the argument. With the Modern Age, we’ve come to measure social and individual well-being almost wholly in economic terms—such as individual “net worth,” and rising GNP (a wholly monetary measure). Today we find new willingness to question this limits-denying picture on both fronts. We are recognizing how a solely material yardstick is inadequate for measuring the health of societies or even the stability of economies. More personally, empty materialism is a major contributor to today’s crisis of purpose. This is not to call for some opposite “small is beautiful” advocacy. It is to call loudly for rethinking collective and personal wealth in ways that more fully take into account all that creates human meaning (and, more specifically, all that human meaning asks of us in our time.)

In the end, continuing to cling to the past’s “onward and upward” narrative would present a more fundamental problem—it would sever us from ourselves in ways that could have only disastrous consequences. And a further recognition compounds the dilemma (while offering hints of a solution): Continuing on as we have would violate how change processes in human systems more generally work. Usual thinking restricts us to three options: going forward, collapsing, or going back. But none of these options can get us where we need to go. (Creative Systems Theory calls this the Dilemma of Trajectory.)

This last recognition at least suggests that there must be something important missing in how we have thought about the future. Cultural Maturity’s evolutionary picture at least provides a further possibility. We have to think in quite new ways for where it takes us to make full sense. But when we do, a picture becomes visible that reframes not just this limit, but our relationship to ultimate limits more generally.