Will We Survive Progress?

Submitted by One Thousand Trees on April 8, 2013 - 7:42am
by Fred Oliff

We humans are a sorry lot. We are gifted with intelligence, with which we have built
great cultures and civilisations. We have developed a knowledge of the sciences which
has allowed us to travel into outer space, to the depths of the oceans and to discover
our ancient past.

Through these discoveries of our past, we have come to some grim conclusions.
Ronald Wright, in the book A Short History of Progress, which inspired this film,
describes what he calls “progress traps”. For example, the nuclear bomb, is one such
progress trap. The development of something which can, or has, led to the extinction of
a culture or civilisation, is such a thing. Easter Island is a very good case in point. The
building of bigger and bigger moa led to the deforestation of the island and the eventual
demise of their civilisation.

Homo sapiens is a doomed species. Why, you might ask? Our first enemy is hubris. As
the top of the food chain, we compete with other creatures for nourishment. When we
find these other creatures convenient to blame for the demise of another species we
have over-utilised, we barbarically butcher them (until Brigitte Bardot comes along and
the world media finds out about it. Mankind can be likened to a warm-blooded version of
the asteroid, which when it impacted the Earth some 65 million years ago. No other
species has been responsible for the extinction of so many others. But we do have a
distinct advantage over some of those other species, the sabre-toothed cat, for
instance. The cat was so specialised that when its prey species became extinct, the cat
soon followed. Humans will not soon follow their fate.

However, the same cannot be said about Cro-Magnon manʼs main competition and an
earlier human ancestor, the Neanderthal man. It might come as a surprise to some and
a shock to others, that in our present guise, we have been the perpetrators of genocide
on a massive scale. In fact, there is evidence that we delivered this upon the
Neanderthal man as well.

One of manʼs greatest discoveries was agriculture. By following after animals who
would eat seeds, he soon realised that these seeds were being propagated and he, too,
could propagate them. But we have driven this technological marvel a little too far and
we are heading towards one of these “progress traps” due to two things. One of these
is the development of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) which are dependent on
specific pesticides to ensure their safety. The other more insidious (as if anything could
be more so than GMOs) is the population explosion on the planet since the onset of
agriculture. We are rapidly approaching a situation where the human population is
increasing to a level where the Earth will no longer have the ability to feed itself. Nations
bent on building more gadgets are paving over their arable land to build factory towns.
They have to buy up arable land in places like the Amazon, destroy the rainforest and
displace the people living there, and plant crops never meant to grow there on marginal
soils. All this to feed those nations whose population explosions and march towards an
unsustainable progress threatens us all.

We like to think of ourselves as progressive, intelligent, cultured, all those lofty things.
However, we are the only species who have soiled their own nests. Even our lowly
breast friends, the domesticated dog, learns early on its life, not to shit where it lives.
We are not that bright, not nearly as we seem to think; Enter Hubris. Nay, we depend on
clean air for our very existence yet we pump unknown toxins into our life force, for
example, creating holes on the ozone layer which could burn up huge areas of the
planet. We do not know how the cocktail of chemicals we breathe interact with one
another. We are a living chemistry experiment, and it might very well explain the myriad
of diseases which now afflict our very young, such as childhood cancers and other birth

Man is more than 60% water and depends on it almost as much as he does clean air.
Yet, many people on this planet do not have access to clean drinking water or sanitary
systems. Water-borne illnesses kill untold millions every year. Yet, we in the western
world would spend more on a bottle of water than we do a litre of petrol. It is suggested
that the next world war might yet be fought over water rights. Water pollution is also the
subject of much debate and, again who knows what the ingestion of all these is doing to
our bodies. We are living breathing chemical soups. And we not what we have wrought.
This march toward progress has resulted in untold misery not just for other humans,
whose lives have not benefitted from the fruits of their labours. Indeed, in many places,
Bhopal, India for example, the export of toxic industries from countries with strict
environmental laws to those none, is a sick testament to how far man (some men) will
go to benefit their shareholders.

And it is this latest arena of greed which might very lead to our eventual demise. When
public money goes to pay for private debt, many more people are impoverished. One
day, the poor downtrodden masses, whether they be the direct recipients of this theft or
not, say enough is enough and rise up. When revolution occurs, it can happen
anywhere. What if it were to happen somewhere there are nuclear weapons? Yes, it all
comes down to the poor taking back what was unlawfully taken from them.
Joseph Tainter, writing on the collapse of past civilisations, termed three phrases: all
trouble, those being the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, and the House of Cards. Those
civilisations whose innovations run amok are said to be Runway Trains. Those
civilsations which fail due to the inabilities of their leaders to solve the problems qualify
as Dinosaurs and a House of Cards is demonstrated by a societyʼs swift collapse.
As a civilisation reaches full demand on its ecologies, it becomes ever the more
vulnerable to natural perturbations. This will be seen to be true in the coming years as
global climate change begins to wreak havoc with crop failures, violent storms, and
disruptions in population migration patterns.

The future is still in our hands. We still have the ability to change the course. But there
has to be change, real change and it has to be soon. And it has to be driven by policy,
painful policy change that will put more of a burden on the wealthy, allowing the poor a
greater share of the Earthʼs dwindling resources.

Will we Survive Progress?