What Could Have Been the Proverbial Stick in the Wheel of Progress?

Since 1932, some of the smartest Canadians would gather every summer at the Couchiching Conference to discuss progress: What drives it, what brings it, what creates it. Some of the early topics contemplated facets of the New World, peace, democracy, as well as Canada’s place in that ever-changing world. In more recent years, the conference participants pondered the scope and effects of social policies, global, economic and political adversities, and the relationship between ethics and science.

The last Couchiching Conference was held only a couple of weeks ago, and I found its theme intriguing: “Wedded to Progress: For Better, For Worse.” Among numerous questions the participants tackled was a definition of progress, who is supposed to benefit from progress and what criteria is used to determine such benefits, as well as where are all our ‘progressive’ efforts leading to.

Surely you agree these are the questions that had to be asked and definitely had to be answered. Still, I liked the one question asked by a journalist that did not quite make it to the mainstream. The question was a bit cynical, considering the overall tone of the conference, and it asked of the participants to identify which moment in history would they find the most overrated?

The range of answers was both humorous and insightful. One participant pegged it to sliced bread. I guess he missed seeing homemade look-alike breads on grocery shelves. Another keynote speaker at the Conference had it in for the rowing machine because it holds the promise of a new Holy Grail–fitness–while it fails to deliver on it, at least in most cases. The funniest answer came from one of the longest-time participants who put the entire “blame” on the invention of a woman’s bra. I guess I don’t have to explain the argument for that one, at least not to men.

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All joking aside, there were two answers I can definitely relate to as major hurdles to progress. Zine Magubane, a professor of sociology at Boston College, found the invention of a credit card as one of the worst evils to befall the developed world. His reasoning is simple–credit cards give the illusion of acquiring something for nothing,

Professor Magubane’s equates credit cards to an experiment in financial alchemy gone horribly wrong. This “experiment” is further exacerbated by the fact that an illusion of buying, but not spending, has led to the development of psyches obsessed with material things that hardly anyone needs, but everyone absolutely must have. On the path of credit cards’ destruction, one can find bankruptcies, failed marriages, and, the worst case scenario, crime and death.

Dr. Sheela Basrur, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer and also Couchiching speaker, took Professor Magubane’s brooding about credit cards to a much broader category, “accusing” money to be the root of much evil. While money has the ability to conquer numerous kinds of barriers, it can also have catastrophic consequences, particularly if it is pursued with complete indifference to the overall human condition.

Don’t get me wrong, I like money as much as the next person. But, I always managed to view it as a tool in life, rather than its whole purpose. Such a life philosophy helped me stay sane, and by extension, it liberated me from the usual trappings of the modern (wo) man–financial dependency.