Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Progress for Progress’ Sake

Newton’s third law of motion says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is true for progress too. Every time we move forward, part of our society moves backward.

What I mean by this is that every time a winner emerges from some new technology, a loser emerges along with it. For example, when renewable energy progresses due to advances in solar technology or wind technology, coal and gas take a hit.

When the railroads took over many of the transportation needs of the country, other forms of transportation (like the stagecoach) suffered. Those who aligned themselves willingly or not with the railroads fared better than those who stayed with the older technology.

When air travel supplanted the rails, a similar economic outcome occurred. Rail travel never went away, but its ubiquitous nature changed. Now it’s used mostly for transporting large and heavy objects like oil, vehicles, lumber, etc.

When computers became affordable, they eventually began to take away jobs even as they created new ones for programmers and technicians. So progress always comes at a cost.

And this holds true for more than economics. Consider the presidency of Barack Obama. Many thought this a transformative occurrence (and it was), but it also produced a backlash of sorts, composed in part of people who felt we were moving too fast away from the kind of nation we had traditionally been.

Some of these people thought it was a bridge too far to vote for a woman after seeing a black man in the White House. “This far and no farther,” they decided.

There were also those who simply didn’t like the system, who wanted it blown up, and who saw in the alternative someone who wouldn’t be afraid to change the status quo. They felt that not enough changed with the previous few presidencies and they were still being left behind.

The progress that had been made had excluded them. Yes, the economy was humming along, but they weren’t seeing the benefits. They were in the group that had been left behind by progress.

This holds true for the natural world as well. We build roads and factories and cities. We transform “waste” areas into parks or ballfields. We make these spaces better for humans. Progress. All the while, we’re making these areas worse for other creatures. Coyotes and bears and pumas find themselves squeezed into tighter and tighter habitats so they begin to roam where they’re not wanted.

Inevitable confrontations ensue. More natural resources get consumed, changing not only the climate but other aspects of our geophysical world too. We dam up rivers and tunnel through the ground, every action bringing progress of one sort and harming someone or something else.

We use pesticides and herbicides to kill weeds, in the short term succeeding, while in the longer term nature adapts, creating stronger weeds, better able to withstand our poisons. Ditto for antibiotics.

Not all progress is progress. Perhaps no progress is progress. Perhaps it’s just change. The winners call it progress because winners always get to write the history books. But make no mistake: progress always comes with a cost. And sometimes that cost is too great.


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