Monday, November 17, 2008

Progress?

Progress is the mantra of our modern society. “Move forward, achieve more, create anew, sell for profit, consume with abandon.” Progress, it seems, is the Prime Directive. Our society moves in mysterious ways: into the far-off outposts of the world with tales of a market utopia, through pristine waters in massive oil tankers, over fishing villages with tanks and shells from warships. We might not say it as clearly as the Borg of Star Trek fame, still it seems that for most there is eventually no choice but to assimilate, and resistance might, indeed, be futile.

When we look at the path that our society’s culture has taken over the last 200 years, we describe that movement as progress. Perhaps we have to do this to keep ourselves from going mad at the seemingly impossible prospect of opposing such a huge and insatiable machine. Perhaps we’re so out of touch with the birthright of an amazing living planet and a true fellowship with all human beings that we can’t feel the pain of the separation from our more wild and “unsophisticated” selves.

The legacy of “progress,” delivered to us as a gift from our forefathers, is carried like a torch by the powerful and the wealthy of each successive generation. They promise luxury, ease, cheaper prices, greater equality and lasting peace. But this progress, as we choose to see it, also dredges out a legacy of exploitation and abandonment. It leaves visible scars across the landscape, and invisible gaping wounds in the spirits and psyches of peoples from whom everything that has any meaning has been taken.

Modern global society judges itself more on financial success and material worth than on its global stewardship and richness of culture. Corporations rule the roost with all of the rights afforded a true person and little (if any) of the accountability. The only responsibility that a corporation has is to make money for its shareholders. Companies go out looking for necessary resources, and for markets in which to sell their products. Their job is to acquire resources at a cheap price, so that they can produce products, while convincing potential customers that they can’t live without the products being produced.

A good example of what happens when corporations are allowed to run the show is the ecocide occurring in Venezuela in the Imataca forest reserve. There US, British, and South African transnational mining companies are mining gold and destroying valuable forest preserve lands, using mercury and cyanide in the process. This has left the rivers polluted and the health of the people who live on the land negatively impacted. (1) At the same time multi-national logging companies have been logging the forest, leaving 20 percent of the reserve destroyed and up to 60 percent designated for future logging. Meanwhile the locals, who are against both the mining and the logging, are left unable to hunt or fish in their traditional ways. (2)

Governments preach progress as a means to achieve support while keeping alliances with powerful entities that help to maintain the status quo. A certain segment of society is pleased while another is pacified. Those who shout out in resistance are shoved aside or silenced in other ways. The Venezuelan government has allowed the mining and the logging to occur unchecked inside its borders. While the motives can be debated, there is no doubt that the primary beneficiaries of this policy are the powerful international corporations, and a few of the well-placed elite. Governments are often complicit in the atrocities committed in the name of progress, as we shall see in the following example.

Most of what we recognize today as progress depends on oil. Oil fuels the economic engine that is roaring towards the future. The thirst for oil also creates unseen victims. The Ahwazi Arabs of southwest Iran make up approximately 67% of the population of the Khuzestan province. This region is important not only because it is located at the passage between the Middle East and Asia, but it also contains about 90% of Iran’s oil resources. Oil revenues from the oil extracted in this area are spent elsewhere, and do not contribute to the well-being or livelihood of the Ahwazi who dominate the region. (3)
According to Daniel Brett, chairman of the British Ahwazi Friendship, in his article titled Iran’s Forgotten Ethnocide, the Ahwazi Arabs have been the victims of a focused policy of ethnocide by the government. Despite their show of commitment to the Iranian regime, they have been the victims of land confiscation and “ethnic-restructuring” aimed at forcing the Arabs out of Khuzestan in order to achieve the Persianisation of this area, securing access to the rich energy resources. At least 300,000 hectares (approximately 742,000 acres) of land has been taken by the government since 1979. (3)

Ahwazi Arabs, despite living in the richest province in Iran, suffer extreme levels of poverty. This poverty is related to the forced displacement and land confiscation, which, according to the Middle East Forum was designed to take laborers off of the land and into the towns, where ethnic repression and language barriers combined to make them unable to compete in the job market. They live in areas with open sewers, no sanitation services, no access to water, electricity and gas services while oil refineries, sugar plants, and other large projects are being built on the lands that the Ahwazi called their own for generations. (3) On the world stage, the building of new oil refineries and sugar cane processing plants is considered to be a sign of progress. On the local front however, ethnocide and displacement are the harsh reality.

The media is part of the machine, delivering messages wrapped neatly in shiny, brightly colored paper, and decorated with pretty bows. The messages projected mostly say: “You are not good enough as you are.” Other messages reinforce our notion that progress is the road to salvation. “Progress will bring us happiness.” “Progress will solve our problems.” The popular view of progress portrayed by the media and envisioned in our imaginations is only partially true. The reasons for this are complex but they revolve around one reality. The powerful few with the most money are also those most able to exploit natural resources, while actively encouraging far-off and self-reliant segments of society to abandon their long-held ways of living. Webs of false-truths can ensnare even the supposedly responsible news organizations, but the media itself is largely controlled by corporations whose main purpose is to make money and to sell goods for other corporations.

Peoples employing the traditional means of subsistence (foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, and agriculture) are all becoming more interdependent and market driven. Those that choose to resist the change are subjected to enormous pressure from their governments, the media, their neighbors, and society’s push to integrate. Those that try to fight for their rights to retain their ways are often quashed by government programs to settle citizens in cities. They are forced off their lands when discriminatory systems of land ownership are put into place, and then their lands are used as a resource in the race towards the future. Those self-reliant cultures that do choose to earn a little money so that they can merely interact with the outside market economy, find themselves sucked into a vortex of ever more dependence, a need for money, a need for goods, a need for the market, and thus a loss of their self-sufficiency and autonomy. Once self-sufficient “outsiders” join modern society’s lemming-like march towards excess and waste, there is little opportunity to turn back.

As ecocide, ethnocide, and displacement continue to destroy the path back to self-sufficiency, time-honored methods of eco-friendly living become seemingly more difficult to sustain and impossible to recreate. The irony is that ultimately, much of what we have perceived as progress is less sustainable and more destructive to our world. A bacteria culture in a petri dish can thrive and prosper so long as it has something on which to feed and room to grow, but once that bacteria reaches a critical mass, its fate is sealed, and it will continue to progress to its inevitable demise with nothing left but glass, waste, and dying cells. Is this to be our fate? Are we no better at making choices about our future than bacterial cells in a laboratory? Are we so predictable? Will we all be victims of this progress we have chosen?


Sources:


1. (2006, July 30). Venezuela's Imataca Ecocide. Retrieved November 05, 2008, from Web site:
http://www.sprol.com/?p=349

2. Kuiper, J (2005, March 18). Corruption leaves slaughtered forests in Venezuela. Retrieved November 07, 2008, from Forest Council Web site:
http://www.forestcouncil.org/tims_picks/view.php?id=952

3. Brett, Daniel (2008, March). Iran's forgotten ethnocide. Retrieved November 10, 2008, from Arab Media Watch Web site:
http://www.arabmediawatch.com/amw/Articles/Analysis/tabid
/75/newsid395/4712/Irans-forgotten-ethnocide/Default.aspx