17 April 2010

Shifting Societal Values: How Progress and Development Could Simply Be Illusions

Is there such a thing as “good development” or “progress?” As the semester has moved forward, this question has continued to plague my thoughts. I have continually tried to confront the issues we’ve been studying without bias. I have tried to understand the values and limitations of all actors, especially ones that I do not initially agree with. However, this unbiased approach has left me confused about where I stand and whom I support. I find myself seeing murkier lines between what is considered “good development” and what is considered “harmful development.”

For example, the mines and dams that various Thai villagers are protesting against destroy local culture and livelihoods. Because these local cultures are falling victim to big development, we assume that means that those development projects are “bad.” However, we forget that these same dams and mines also serve greater national and international populations by supplying valuable energy and mineral sources (which are key factors in maintaining modern livelihoods). Thus, to criticize these development projects means an attack on the way human society has chosen to progress for the last century since the Industrial Revolution. This brings to light the strange paradigm of societal values and the consequent actions we take based on these values.

The world is developing in the manner it is developing because we as a human race had previously determined that this is the “right” way. However, now we are beginning to introduce a new discourse that places the preservation of local culture over the progression of modern luxuries. But why? Why are we now taking this stance? Were we previously ignorant as to what “good development” is? Where we “wrong” before? Are new grass-roots development plans necessarily “better?” Is it really that “bad” that 99.9% of people in Thailand have readily available electricity, even though some people had to be relocated to make power lines? Is it really that “bad” that we have the necessary minerals to create computers that allow global levels of information and communication to be readily available, even though they came from mines that destroyed some local environments?

The problem inevitably arises due to the basic question of how we define “good” from “bad” (because progress and development should ideally be the pursuit of good for all). Do these terms carry any inherent meaning beyond what we as a society decide to ascribe to them? “Good” and “bad” are determined by the values a society has at a given moment in time. However, it is true that throughout history these values can change across groups of people and across time itself. An example of these changing definitions is: less than a hundred and fifty years ago, the majority of the world (which consisted of equally intelligent, rational human beings) decided that it was “good” to enslave millions of people based on their race. In fact in their opinion, enslaving these people was a necessary part in developing the world for the future. The triangle trade was seen as progress.

Although it is now our current opinion that this was an atrocious embarrassment to human history, can we truly pass this judgment? The problem with doing so lies in the inherent failure for us as a human race to firmly decide on a clear cut meaning for “good” and “bad.” Our own judgments on slavery are based on our current societal values, which could also be seen as wrong and vile by some distant group of human beings in the future. In Aldous Huxley’s timeless novel, A Brave New World, Huxley presents a new society in which the societal values of today, i.e. love, commitment, individualism, equality and family are seen as base and vile. In fact, Huxley presents a society in which slavery and inequality are re-championed: some people are bred to be subservient to others for the sake of efficiency and the benefit of society.

Along these lines, who is to say that our newly placed value on grass-roots development over big development will not later be judged as “misguided” and “wrong?” So my challenge to the human race is, is there anything inherently good? Is there anything that is timelessly bad? Or are these merely self-imposed terminologies that we attempt to use to better understand the insane (and dare I suggest meaningless) world we live in?

Furthermore, I have come to the serious conclusion that every action has both negative and positive effects. There will always be someone who is sacrificing their potential well being for the development of others, because we all have different values. So how can we decide on what development project to enact? Is there such a thing as true development or progress? Or are we just constantly improving on some things at the cost of others, thereby creating a disguised inertia, an inertia in which our world is constantly changing, but nothing is really improving? Progress and development become nothing more than illusions that we perceive to be occurring when in reality there is no net change. There are only currents and shifts from one value set to a different value set, and it is this that we perceive as “change.”

There will always be problems in the world. But where do we go from here? How do we act if we can never really determine a right from wrong, and consequently can never truly progress? I suppose all we can really do is continue to act along the social and moral values given to us by our upbringing; to continue doing what we think is best, moral, right and good; and to continue hoping that these actions are helping the world in some way.

Michelle Nguyen
Brown University


Ann Kam said...


I think that your analysis on “good development” versus “harmful development” reveals a lot about the conflicting intentions of local, regional, and international actors and society’s moral, collective values. Although there is no clear-cut definition- as you have mentioned- on these two terms, I think that the meaning of development is relative to whatever a communities’ current status is.

For example, this week, our group participated in a homestay in the villages near Na Nong Bong Village in Loei Province. These villagers were fighting against a local gold mining company whose productions have deteriorated the environment and ruined the villagers’ former, subsistent ways of life. For these villagers, and the NGO they work with, the Village Foundation for Sustainable Development, the term development is translated to mean sustainable development. The villagers and the NGO favor development that allows residents to own modern technologies such as television and mobile phones, but that also allows them to live their subsistent ways of life.

In contrast, our group also met with Loei’s Provincial Industry Office. For the office’s representative, development was translated to mean building infrastructure and increasing economic trade.

With such conflicting views, it was apparent that it was difficult for even a small province to agree on a definition for development. So then, how is Thailand, as a country supposed to define the term? The struggle over development and the preservation of local culture can only be settled when different actors collaborate and find a middle ground.

Ann Kam
Claremont McKenna College

Larissa Gaias said...

Development means so many different things, and it's become a word that's become so overused it's almost washed out.

Well of course, this program, entitled Development and Globalization, has been teaching me about how development relates to Environmental Studies and looking at the pros/ cons of economic, political, and environmental global development. However, although I have learned about all these concepts in ES classes at Bowdoin, the only classes that have actually had the word "development" in the course title have been developmental psych. I know the definition of development is completely different in these two cases, but something is to be said for using the same word in both instances. This program really focuses on the downside of development, how political and economic development can really be harmful for communities who are perfectly happy and capable of being self- sufficient. However, this gets turned on its head once you think about human development. Everyone develops, our brains develop and change constantly, and humanity itself develops and evolves, and this must be taken into consideration when we consider development in terms of more political issues, as well. Human development is not stagnant and our constantly changing. There's a reason we are no longer a hunter and gatherer society and why the Ancient Roman empire fell. No one came down from the heavens and dictated a revolution. Humans changed. Like educational and other institutions change as one transitions from childhood to adulthood, as the human species develops, our politics and economics must develop with us. The global political and economic system needs to strike a balance between keeping up with human development and speeding past it. I don't know exactly what to do with this, or whether research comparing development in these terms has been completed before, or if it is even logical or worthwhile. But I've been searching for my psych/ ES connection all semester, and even if it's a dead end and I don't come back to Bowdoin with a clear research project connecting my two disciplines, I finally found it. I've been reading some crazy crack-pot evolutionary psychology articles and books, and as crazy as they are, I'm beginning to pull out connections between evolution, economics, and development. Maybe this will help us solve issues related to mining, electricity generation, and general consumption.

kaylanolan said...

I think you ouch on a critical question not only in terms of development but in terms of societal constructs and the progression of mankind through history. Who defined these values as moral? Why do we all subscribe to them? Are justice, equity etc. really values that are attainable by every human being on Earth? If so, what needs to be done so that this is true and is this even possible to attain? If it isn't possible for all people to maintain their human rights, then what is the point of pretending that we all have them? Since the beginning of time man has exploited his fellow man and environment to better the everyday life of him. Is this necessarily bad? If it is, is there another viable option? Coming into this program I believe that there was. There had to be way to develop without exploiting the environment or the people. I still hold the values of justice and equity dear but I am wondering if these are actually attainable goals. For example, it has become popular for organizations to provide computers to underprivileged schools in developing nations. This provides students with access to valuable technology that has become critical in our modern society. Yet these very computers are made from resources extracted from mines that could potentially poison the very students that the computers are given to. So now these students are benefactors of a globalizing society and they are also the ones being exploited by it. I think that the term development needs to be seriously reconsidered as human civilization continues to press the human and environmental limits to sustain such progress.

Anonymous said...


I can't believe we did not have this conversation before. Globalization and development has both economic and cultural effects that are unexpected and often unnecessary; despite its undesired effects westerners view this progress as an increase in standards of living. For example, at a home stay my host mother was relatively well she had a kitchen table with four chairs, a sink with running water, and a western toilet with a showerhead. Although by my standards she had a better standard of living she did not use any of these items. She washed the dishes outside with a bucket when she had running water in her sink, and she would eat in the floor when she has a table. She also completely ignored the western toilet and showerhead and used the squat toilet and a bucket shower instead. This helped me see that what we think people want and need is not necessarily accurate, growth and development depends on the country and culture, it cannot be standardized like everything else.
The effects and the how to’s for development are not clear. Although every third world country aspires to become develop they do not fully understand what such a word entails. I think all countries should not aspire for development but should aspire to provide their people with a better life, whatever that might mean for them. Life quality is completely subjective and is determined by cultural values and religious beliefs. This made me realize that even if development does occur through the implementation of such neo-liberal policies, then is what we think people want and need accurate? Are the things that we think make life easier what make other people’s life easier? Moreover, growth and development depend on the country and culture, thus development cannot be standardized like everything else.


Alexander Binder said...

Oh hey,

Progress is just a term we use to comfort ourselves from an uncertain future. It's extremely relative and the CIEE Thailand program does a good job at reminding ourselves exactly why progress is in the eye of the beholder by highlighting the negative effects of large-scale development projects. And obviously I don't have to remind you that concepts of 'good' and 'bad' are very fickle and change over time with society's moral values...

However, you do talk about how we've created this 'illusion' of development and that the reality has yielded not net change. Reality is that which when you close your eyes and stop believing in it, when you open your eyes, it is still there. A lack of food and malnourishment are realities. Being forced to live on less than a dollar a day (as over 1 billion people do) is a reality. Not having access to effective medical treatment is a reality. You yourself state that progress and development should "ideally be the pursuit of good for all". Whether everyone needs a cell phone is debatable. Whether everyone needs clean water is not. Meeting human needs doesn't have to be a question of whether it's good or bad. It can just be about meeting human needs. It may not be much, but it's something to hold on to, right?


Michelle Nguyen said...


My challenge to you is this:

why does everyone need to have clean water?

To take this further:

why do marginalized people need to live?

What I'm trying to get at with these questions is that not everyone values the lives of every single human being. Not everyone values things like "equality" and "human rights." In fact, some people might morally value their continual self improvement over meeting universal basic human need. It's survival of the fittest (and in modern society it's survival of the people-who-have-the-most-stuff)?


Focusing on meeting "basic human need" as a measure of development and progress is flawed in that this assumes that we all share the same value of humanity.

When I say that development and progress should be "the pursuit of good for all," I guess I'm really just demonstrating how impossible such a notion is, because not only is "good" a useless term, but also "for all" is an unrealistic framing.