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What is progress?


Out walking the other day I noticed that the skyline at Newhaven near where I live has now been split by the large (230ft?) chimney of a new incinerator.

A hundred years ago this might of been progress. Under the conditions then, it might have been appropriate. Like the building of our Victorian sewers, massive construction projects designed to improve public health or get rid of waste would presumably have been a good idea.

But today this sight makes my heart sink. Even ignoring the defiled view, to me, building that incinerator is not progress. It is a retrograde step.

This is a plant that will simply burn waste to produce further waste which then must be sent out in to the atmosphere or put in landfill.

And rather than a real dialogue with the people who live nearby, it seems to me many objections and suggestions were ignored. The idea of a zero waste strategy, for example – based on reducing waste at source and throughout the production cycle – doesn’t seem to have been taken very seriously by the “powers that be”.

By contrast, Ovesco, another local initiative, has been raising money for a community-owned solar power system. The idea is to put 544 photovoltaic panels on the roof of a large local building and generate renewable electricity. And, perhaps most interestingly, anyone with £250 to invest can join in and share in the returns from the project. An experiment in sustainability, and in the participation of local people.

The Ovesco project, for me, is progress.

Of course, these are very personal views. So, what makes me, personally, label one project “progress” and the other not?

Simply, for me, it is all about the vision I hold. My personal vision.

And what is vision? For me, vision is about what I see coming down the road towards me.

If I have no vision of the future, then I am interested only in what is happening to me right now.

With a negative vision, a future where the world is polluted, and a hard place to live in, then an incinerator makes perfect sense. It deals with a short-term problem. Creates some jobs in the short-term. Contributes a little to economic growth.

With a positive vision, a future where businesses and people work together in harmony to create a world where many of our energy needs are met through renewables, then the Ovesco project makes perfect sense. It allows us to experiment and learn – about renewables and how to work together as a community.

This suggests some questions: Do I need a vision? Can I choose a vision? And what should I choose: a negative or a positive vision?

Part of our nature as humans means that many of us are very present-focussed and are pretty unconcerned about the future. That is great in many ways – after all pleasure and happiness all occur in the present – not in the future.

But if we have no vision, I believe things may just happen to us, and we may miss an opportunity to influence them.

If we allow ourselves a negative vision, we create the conditions for that negative world to come about. That kind of view leads to acquiescence and a lack of action. And then we may just find ourselves getting something we don’t really want, deep down.

And, by contrast, if we learn to cultivate a positive vision perhaps we’ll start taking steps to bring it about.

By “cultivate” I really mean “learn to look”. As Shakespeare wrote, the world “is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”. If we look carefully, consciously, we can see signs that indicate where things are heading. By selecting those that seem positive to us, and acting on them – finding allies, and taking simple, practical steps – I believe we can draw that world closer, and make it more likely to come about.

That, for me, is progress.

Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

4 thoughts on “What is progress?

  1. PS If you, like me, wonder what the mechanism might be that leads from a positive vision to it actually coming about consider this experiment by Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire.

    “I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2in high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.

    For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: “Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.” Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.”

    (via Tony Tsieh)

  2. Pete – we’re talking to a Local Authority next week about how ‘Do Something Different’ can help prevent the need for a new incinerator being built. Unless residents can start to recycle more, and do so quickly then they too, will have a dirty great big chimney on their doorstep. Residents are angry about the prospect and can prevent it happening but will they change their behaviours and start recycling? I’ll keep you posted

  3. Great, great article, Pete.
    You are absolutely right that having a positive vision of the world promotes a better world, through responsibility and empathic action, while having a worldview of impending apocalypse actually shuts-down initiative, and discourages any constructive action.

    When you think about a bright future, you open up, you cooperate, you accept others. When you are pessimist about the future, you close up, become suspicious and protect what you have, instead of investing. The psychological equation is obvious.

    My last blog post may be interesting to you and your readers. I talk about the Rise of the Conscious Organization. That’s a positive vision 🙂

  4. Pete, very good to link incinerators, visions of progress and economic growth. Incinerators are certainly not progress, which can be seen from their duel impacts on growth. Firstly, as you say, they add a little by creating a market for replacing the resources they destroy. Then comes the reverse progress: they reduce the resources available for future growth plus add to the stocks of problems such as GHGs and toxic nano-particles.

    Like most problems, incinerators are a symptom of a paradigm so cannot be stopped by asking people to recycle more. Actually there are 2 paradigms to change for this; a positive vision with net-positive impacts ( ) and a ‘growth model’ that doesn’t undermine itself ( ) The second one is part of implementing the first and would enable zero waste strategies to be taken seriously just as actively as today they are overlooked.

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