Beyond Material Worth Declarations


The twenty-first century promised a new age of advanced thinking and innovation. Now that we’re living in it, the vision of the ultramodern has slipped away, leaving in its place a landscape of crisis but also opportunity. Guggenheim Forum asks eminent figures from a wide range of disciplines to offer visitors their reflections on what does or does not constitute progress.


Colin Beavan

Writer, activist, and blogger, No Impact Man

2009 had cooler cell phones than 2008. 2010 has cooler cell phones than 2009. 2011 will have even cooler cell phones than 2010.

That won't be progress.

If it's the same year in, year out, how can it be progress? It's not progress. It's more of the same.

What would constitute progress?

Far away from us, one billion people in the world have no access to clean drinking water. Far away from us, therefore, a child dies of diarrhea every 15 seconds.

I would give up my secondhand Blackberry and any other cell phone I've had or will have if it would mean no one died of thirst. I think most people feel that way. People have big hearts.

Ask the average person: Do you want to watch TV on your cell phone or save the world's children from dying of diarrhea? I know what they'd say. People are good.

Yet the people we are proud of for having the smartest brains work, not on water, but on bringing us still better cell phones.

What would be real progress?

When we find a way to put our brains where our hearts are. When we find a way use our big brains to facilitate the intentions of our big hearts.

When we find a way to concentrate more on bringing clean drinking water to the billion people who don't have it instead of looking for a way to bring better TV reception to our cell phones.

That would be progress.


Fabien Cousteau

Filmmaker and oceanographic explorer

Progress is a term that seems so simple. Yet, the movement of what one might think of as progress can take on a complex form and affect everything around it. Akin to the theories of matter and energy, to have progress happen somewhere, regress often happens elsewhere. Imagine the bow of ship: as it sails, gracefully slicing through and displacing water, while plowing forward in great progression, the ship leaves vortices of chaotic liquid confusion with its stern. The faster and bigger the ship, the greater the wake it leaves behind.

Examples like this abound throughout life. Some are much more dramatic and less temporary than sailing through tranquil waters. Take the “progress” of a species living in an enclosed system like our planet. If this species progresses too quickly other species will have to give way to leave room. It seems that the velocity of progress is a key factor in determining how long it will take for the vortices of life to regain balance in the wake of the progressing species. To some extent, balance or stability around progress seems directly proportional to the velocity of progress. In short, the “golden fleece” of true progress is something that both satisfies the progressing entity and incorporates a symbiotic harmony with its interdependent surroundings. Without this, the longevity of progress cannot be maintained and the progress itself becomes short-lived. Progress for one must be progress for all.


Susan McPherson

Board member, Business Council for Peace (Bpeace), and member of Echoing Green's Social Investment Council

During my career, I've witnessed "progress" in business by how much revenue was generated or by the numbers of deals that were signed. At the gym, I've determined progress by reaching certain mileage or times. In my personal life, progress might have been measured by whether there was a third date! All seem so superficial.

But what is progress from the perspective of a female entrepreneur who is attempting to grow her business in Afghanistan, following a childhood growing up under the rule of the Taliban? Or what does it mean for a similar business owner who witnessed the horrors of genocide within her own small village in Rwanda? Do I know? As a board member of the unique organization Bpeace, I would like to think so. But after volunteering my time for over five years, I am just now starting to understand. We provide a fusion of pro-bono services delivered by experts in the Bpeace network: volunteer professionals, corporations, accredited educational institutions and in-country staff hired by Bpeace for their experience. Our young organization, made up of volunteers, has worked to support fledgling business owners in these two countries ravished by war. Since 2002, we've watched Afghan and Rwandan women venture from small, micro-financed, home-based businesses to create organizations of 40–50 employees who build and sell furniture, run gas stations, manufacture soccer balls, and operate radio stations. More than 1,700 jobs have been created, supporting more than 13,000 family members, and generating a revenue of $6 million that circulates in the local economies. We have only just begun and hope to add many more countries in the future, generating good will, building businesses, creating jobs, and indeed making REAL progress.


Amy Franceschini

Artist, designer

Take off your shoes and go for a walk in the city while thinking about progress.


Doug McCurry

Co-CEO & Superintendent, Achievement First

Low-income students in urban communities are not achieving at the same levels of educational performance as their more affluent peers in suburbs. These differences in academic performance, known as the achievement gap, have serious implications for the future life opportunities of students and for our society at large. When we fail to educate all children, the outcome is predictable: third graders with poor skills become middle schoolers with third-grade skills and eventually high-school students without the ability to succeed in college or to compete in today’s economy. The achievement gap in education is America's most vexing social problem—the modern frontier of the civil-rights movement.

In this context, we are making progress. For example, ninety-nine percent of Achievement First African-American and Latino, low-income fourth graders in New York City achieved proficiency on state math exams, and 92 percent did the same on reading. Perhaps more important than that, we are helping to change the conversation. When we started ten years ago, people said that it was “impossible” to have students of color in poor areas perform at the same level as their wealthier suburban counterparts. We heard it all. The families are dysfunctional. The neighborhoods are too tough. The school facilities aren’t as good. Yes, these are legitimate obstacles, but in the end, they are excuses. Our real progress is that people are making these excuses less often and are increasingly asking a simple question: How do we do right by all of America’s children?


Douglas Irving Repetto

Artist, teacher, and Director of Research at the Columbia University Computer Music Center, New York

There are facts: elements exist, they're distinct, and they seem to have relationships to one another. When you arrange information about them in certain ways, those relationships become clearer, or imply additional relationships. But those relationships are not simple, linear, or amenable to clean, squared-off rows and columns. There are gaps, orphans, and odd asymmetries. There's no arrangement of the elements that somehow reflects "real" nature, a Platonic table in the sky. There were, and are, competing and complementary ways of arranging the elements, and those ways themselves have followed, and continue to follow, complex developmental paths. There are holes in the table—one was filled with copernicium (Cn), atomic number 112, last year. There are more holes, spots for elements that have been discovered experimentally, but not yet confirmed by international bodies. And still other holes exist for elements that are conceptually possible (space reserved), but perhaps physically impossible. The table is, in name and practice, periodic, cyclical. One thing leads to another, but nothing really leads to any place in particular. Each element implies others, even those rarely, if ever, found in nature. If—when—the table is "finished," filled in, not much will change. No one is waiting for that last element before they begin.

Seduction by progress begins with the glimmer that life is about finishing rather than doing.

Page 1 of 3     << < Prev 1 2 3 Next > >>