Review of the Book:
The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future
by Tom Wessels

H. William Batt

[This book is published by University of Vermont Press, 2006. This review
is reprinted from GroundSwell, September-October 2007]

Tom Wessels is a biology and environmental science teacher at a small New Hampshire college. He also has a daughter whom he worries may not be able to enjoy the quality of life that he has known. His concern for his daughter, his students, and his general fondness for the earth led him to write The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future. It is a reflective and sobering commentary of only one hundred plus pages. Without being preachy or self-righteous it offers a quick discussion about both our worldview and our behavior. Unfortunately, there is no plan by New England University Press to issue it in paperback, which means that this twenty dollar book may never get the attention that it could for less.

It is a very personal book, even though daughter, wife, personal memories and home only come up a few times in passing. Really it focuses on the economic paradigm in which we live, one in radical conflict with our natural world. Our economic system is premised on open-ended growth and consumption, but we can’t live outside of and independent of a finite world of nature. Our world is only sustainable if we recognize and appreciate its maintenance as a dynamic equilibrium, and the neoclassical economic system shows no awareness of this. The author’s knowledge of the laws of biological proclivities, of other ecosystems, and of thermodynamics gives his descriptions an extra depth and color. But human social systems are no different; we’re subject to the same laws even though we act differently. So, on we go, polluting our nest and jeopardizing future life and beauty, all in the belief that our success and fulfillment should be measured by factors such as energy and materials consumed, GDP, and experiences notched. The growth he observes is analogous to a cancer, one which will eventually overwhelm nature’s interdependence and balance on which we too depend and of which we are a part.

What, he asks, drives such insanity? The economic paradigm in which we frame things is one candidate. But not everyone subscribes to the indices it offers. Or are we rather forced to go along – to drive cars to carry out our daily lives even if we hate driving, to rely on food from chemical adulterated farms in often distant lands even if we don’t like the taste, and to work at jobs just so that we can continue? If we accept this lifestyle, we do so, perhaps, with reluctance and unease. How much, then, are we trapped in such an existence, even if we appreciate its falseness and pointlessness? Perhaps, he suggests in his fourth chapter, “The loss of diversity and the loss of democracy,” the market is not as free as we think. Perhaps it is really a myth, and we are indeed trapped in a new kind of slavery to a corporate-dominated world that has its own logic. This chapter explores the significance of corporate power in our lives, and how it subsumes everything to its own inexorable rationale. One corporate executive is quoted to the effect that “We want clean air, clean water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world – yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those conditions.” Walmarts win. The chapter ends by Professor Wessels saying that “An economy is supposed to serve its people; however, in the world today, people are to serve the economy.” If there are villains, it’s the economics profession, but his heroes are Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, and Herman Daly, all economists critical of their own colleagues.

And so he calls for cultural change, even if he’s not the first and not perhaps even the most original or poetic. What distinguishes this book from others with the same message is the author is very much like the rest of us. He is not like Black Elk whom he cites at length. Nor is he an ascetic or a mystic. He and his wife and his daughter, may have some greater awareness, live a bit more frugally perhaps, and know a bit more about our impact on the natural world. But we are nonetheless caught up in an economic system that seems without escape and perhaps beyond reform. The progress that so many people assume he sees as a myth. The investment and consolidation that he makes to secure his life, and those for whom he cares, is still carrying him further out on a tenuous branch. It is not progress at all, but rather a chimera. Being a natural scientist, he knows that, ultimately, the equilibrium of the world and universe itself will be restored, and we likely won’t be a part of it. The ecology of the world and the economy that exists within it are not sustainable, even perhaps in the near term. His book is a reflection on that dilemma, and he does a good job of telling it.

Common Ground-U.S.A. does not share name/address/phone/email information with any other organization without your written permission.

Send questions or comments about this web site to WEBMASTER
Copyright © 1997-2015 Common Ground-U.S.A.