Change Versus Progress

In spite of all the risks involved, a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest... Change will always be a nobler thing than permanence. [The] static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.

Olga Tokarczuk, 2018 Nobel Laureate, Literature in Flights
Tokarczuk wrote these words regarding the meditation of a flowing river.  For all of the change that is apparent in the flow of a river, a great deal that remains constant.  Change is the foremost of these constants but beyond that there are patterns in the flow set by the rocks and river banks that, for the non-geological time being, mold and direct the path of the water as it finds its way.  Change can and ought to teach us, learning become change itself as well, and we can become informed and inspired.  Motion and change prompt us to acknowledge the evanescence of what is around us, particularly in nature, and appreciate it all the more for the chance opportunity that allows us to see a deer during a hike, or catch sight of a falcon or osprey swooping past towards it perch.

There is a risk that Tokarczuk's passage, or my interpretation of it, is a bit romantic but I cite this not merely for the contemplation of the river, but for the paradoxes within.  A tree, for example, is changing and it will degenerate and decay. That paradox may be easy enough to unpack when observing nature and recognizing that our ecosystems are dynamic systems that are indeed constantly in motion, the components within all moving at various paces, whether within days, seasons or the lifetimes of the creatures that exist in that ecosystem. The dynamics and the motion of that ecosystem are familiar and they is an easy recognition of the renewal that is ongoing in the natural environment and that the sense that there is motion, change and impermanence. 

Impermanence has been a source of discomfort. There is the reminder of mortality and with it, perhaps, the lack of control over our circumstances as well.  The recognition that the static brings with it decay wavers.  There are times we know that someone is pursuing a quixotic endeavour against the forces of nature, or the weight of time and we are familiar with the old adage that nature abhors a vacuum. Still, for all we know, we, individually, still think that it is in our best interest, or does no lasting harm, to try to wield a bit of control and fight gravity, the flab or whatever else might be asserting a more humbling, inconvenient reminder that change is inevitable and with it an individual life cycle that will bring us individual decay rather than the siren song of permanence.

Our efforts to ... fight off the movement of time in our dynamic, changing world is further entrenching the threat of decay and degeneracy.

Concrete river in Tokyo
 It is not, however, just a cosmetic preoccupation with fending off wrinkles or a more noble battle to maintain good health for as long as possible.  Collectively there are countless interventions that society pursues for the sake of certainty.  In Japan, with its wobbly techtonics, the seasonal assault of typhoons and limited resources, the majority of the nation's rivers are encased in cement troughs and the ripples that Tokarczuk evokes with her contemplation are minimized and the turbid churn rendered a weary pedestrian flow that does not invite contemplation.

Progress, throughout history, has been an easy sell.  The comfort, convenience and cost effectiveness often makes it hard to argue against it.  Raising a warning about the disadvantages of progress would get one branded a Luddite or poo-pooed for preferring to living is some dark age where the advantages of new technologies are avoided.  Those who are skittish about the appeal of progress are considered doom-and-gloomers who wish to resign mankind to a narrower horizon that has been preordained and forego the power we have to transcend our natural limitations. When we can defeat diseases that have tortured us, it is hard to make the case against progress, but when it merely results in entrenching and ossifying an unhealthy status quo of social, economic and ecological imbalances that now prove to be deadlier than cancers or isolated police actions it is much harder to sell it as "progress."

Our efforts to ensure ourselves greater comfort or to fight off the movement of time in our dynamic, changing world is further entrenching and ensuring the inevitability of decay and degeneracy.  Progress, for all the benefit we blindly attribute to it, is distinct from change.  Change is noble because of all that it signifies.  Interaction, the passage of time, movement, experiences are all things that contribute to our growth and learning -- individually and collectively.  Part of that human ability to experience something and grow from it is more likely to occur when we encounter changes that are natural or, at least authentic. In his book Wabi Sabi Simple, Richard R. Powell sums up the dark side of progress when he says, "we do not work to change things as much as we work to keep things the same." For all of the promise that "progress" offers, it is a bait and switch.  It strives to disrupt the cycles of change and renewal that best ensure our permanence, if not our nobility.

The fact that we call it "social change" rather than "social progress" is not merely a matter of the collocation of the two words being uttered more smoothly.  Technological progress, as we have come to realize in 2020, has not accrued the benefits that we have been promised and it is unlikely that the next wonder of progress will, like a deus ex machina, solve the problems that are mounting and restore cycles that we have worked so hard to disrupt ever since the Industrial Revolution, if not for our entire history.  It is Change that we must strive for.  As painful and humbling as it must be, Change, not progress, enlightened by the best that we know about our environment and by the knowledge of how to define permanence, change, completeness, and the interconnectness amongst all of us, whether rock, animal or plant, will best restore our society and our planet to the dynamism and ongoing change that will allow us to survive. Because, at this point, it is clear that if we assume that we are approaching or just drifted past the pinnacle of our collective progress as a species and that we just have to reach toward it, we will achieve a stasis that will bleakly validate our hubris with ash.