09/13/2011 08:21 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2011

Progress Can Make Us More Spiritual, Not Less

Modern cultures have put great emphasis on measuring "progress" in terms of material growth. Does the understanding of progress change in a world with dwindling supplies of cheap oil, climate disruption, looming shortages of fresh water, massive extinction of plant and animal species and much more? As we run up against the material limits of growth and move into an era where sustainability is key to our survival as a species, this historically narrow but successful view of progress could hold back realization of a larger vision of human advancement.

The eminent historian Arnold Toynbee invested a lifetime studying the rise and fall of civilizations. In conducting his wide-ranging scholarship, Toynbee found a strong connection between simplicity and human progress. Drawing upon his vast knowledge of human history, he summarized the essence of a civilization's growth in a single law that he called "The Law of Progressive Simplification." He wrote that the progress of a civilization could not be measured accurately by its conquest of land and people. Instead, the true measure of growth lies in a civilization's ability to transfer increasing amounts of energy and attention from the material side of life to the non-material side -- areas such as personal growth, family relationships, communing with nature, cultivating the arts of civilization such as community relationships, theatre, music, citizenship and democracy.

Toynbee invented the word "etherialization" to describe the process whereby, over time, we humans learn to accomplish the same, or even greater, results using progressively less time and energy. "Ephemeralization" is the word that Buckminster Fuller used to describe a similar process of getting greater material output for less time, weight and energy invested.

Material ephemeralization is evident in many areas of our lives. For example, computers have evolved from room-sized giants to slim laptops or even handheld phones with vastly more computing power. Libraries are being transformed from massive buildings that warehouse millions of books to small computer chips that can store -- and intelligently retrieve -- an even greater volume of knowledge. Telephone technology has evolved from a heavy network of telephone poles, wires and transformers to cheap, light and far more powerful cellphone technologies that use transmitting towers and no longer require cumbersome copper wires strung across the landscape. Automobiles have also ephemeralized as they have advanced from heavy works of iron and steel to an increasingly lighter architecture of high-strength plastic, aluminum and exotic materials.

Integrating the historical insights of Toynbee and material insights of Fuller, we can redefine progress as follows:

Progress is a two-fold process involving the simultaneous refinement of the material and non-material aspects of life. With ephemeralization, the material side of life grows lighter, stronger and more eco-friendly in production, consumption and recycling. At the same time, the non-material side of life grows in vitality, expressiveness and insight. Ephemeralization involves the co-evolution of inner and outer aspects of life in balance with one another.

The life-cycle of an individual provides a useful analogy. From the time that a person is born until his or her late adolescent years, there is usually a tremendous amount of physical growth. Then, in the late teen years, physical growth stabilizes, and the person continues to develop for the rest of their lives in ways that don't involve growing bigger physically. Likewise, as a species, we can grow in empathy and compassion, in the breadth and depth of intellectual understanding, in creative expressions such as music and poetry and in soulful connection with life. In keeping with Toynbee's "Law of Progressive Simplification," a powerful measure of the progress of civilizations will be the degree to which we shift from a global economy based on material growth to one that consciously includes non-material development. A growing appreciation of non-material wealth could liberate resources for those in desperate need and contribute to a more peaceful world.

Progressive simplification or ephemeralism is a co-evolutionary approach to living that invites us to continuously balance two aspects of life -- maintaining ourselves (creating a workable existence) and surpassing ourselves (creating a meaningful existence). Philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir helps clarify this when she writes: "Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying." On the one hand, if we seek only to maintain ourselves, then no matter how grand our style of living might be, we are doing little more than "only not dying." On the other hand, if we strive only for a meaningful existence without securing the material foundation that supports our lives, then our physical existence is in jeopardy and the opportunity to surpass ourselves becomes little more than a utopian dream.

Ephemeralism does not turn away from the material side of life; instead, this principle of living calls forth a new partnership where the material and the non-material aspects of life co-evolve and grow in concert with one another. Working together, they can produce ways of living that are materially sustainable, personally rewarding and culturally rich. In place of the failing paradigm of materialism we could choose the promising paradigm of progressive simplification that includes both material sustainability and non-material development.

Duane Elgin is a speaker, author and non-partisan activist for media accountability. He is the author of "Voluntary Simplicity," "The Living Universe," "Promise Ahead," and other books. Please visit his website, for free articles and videos on thriving in these challenging times.