By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, September 2012
We’re very good at convincing ourselves we’ve progressed, not so good at the actual progress.
During the glorious days of summer I shamelessly abandoned a chronically thirsty garden and most of my other duties to join the legions of Canadians plunked in front of televisions everywhere to watch the Olympic Games. Cheering is a sport in itself, and I happily gave my best to our hardworking athletes who did a great job and made us all proud.
Advertisers traditionally bring out a new crop of sumptuous ads during major sporting events, and the Olympic Games especially seem to induce sentiments that unfailingly strike a universal chord. Several of the ads launched during the opening ceremonies managed to underscore all the quintessentially important elements of a well-lived life. The value of country, family, social connectivity, good health, hard work, and perseverance was so artfully showcased that I was momentarily lulled into a pseudo assurance that we had finally become clear on what really matters. If we know this, I reasoned in my short-lived catatonia, then everything might finally start going well for the world.
The fantasy quickly faded away. Even though we know what it would take to make our world and its people thrive, and can speak of that knowledge and present it to ourselves in a lovely greeting-card moment, any real steps taken in that direction are almost always tripped up by the more urgent short-term needs of the economy. That inevitably translates into ramping up consumerism since the current economic model is an idling engine unless something is sold to someone else.
At the grassroots level this exchange of goods for goods or money or services is mutually beneficial and could be called progress. But on a global scale our insatiable appetite for more and more has resulted in a tangled, unsustainable nightmare, much of it brought on by the unanticipated consequences of compartmentalized thinking. Ronald Wright, in A Short History of Progress (2004), calls this a “progress trap” and explains how we’re prone to falling into them. “A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea; but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea.”
My summer reading also included Brian Brett’s brilliant combination of memoir, story and insight, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life (see Focus archives January 2010). The Salt Spring Island writer and farmer has come up against progress traps himself and maintains they are the result of “our tools and technology evolving faster than our social structures and brains.” He offers several examples of how progress traps are systematically killing biodiversity and the local food supply. Here’s one: “First came the spinach, then came the varieties, then came the hydroponic factories thousands of miles away, and the mechanical sterilization and packaging in plastic containers injected with carbon dioxide so you can eat a ‘fresh’ spinach salad—untouched by human hands—that is forty-three days old. With or without the salmonella. Then the packaging is shipped to China for recycling.”
There’s no doubt our tremendous capacity for ingenuity and technology has given society untold benefits. But we’re also injecting fish genes into tomatoes, impregnating elderly women, destroying rare ecosystems, racing to put people into space, and toying with euthanasia, all without any real study of where these developments might eventually lead us as a society and a species. What’s driving us to be so reckless?
Maybe criticizing the Olympic ads is a little harsh; after all, many were beautiful and pristine and full of the best in people’s hearts. But that, even more so, made them the pawns of clever corporations for whom the ultimate motive is always business. As long as there are profits to be made, they’ll never be the ones to say enough is enough. And why would they? All cynicism aside, the progress traps themselves—the unanticipated social, health and environmental strife—provide enormous opportunities for even more enterprise. The 2010 BP Oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, has spawned an ongoing multibillion dollar clean-up industry as well as costly lawsuits and a whole new flurry of after-the-fact scientific research.
The planet is our only life-support system. The only way to keep it as magnificent as the world portrayed on our television screens is to make the connection, every day, between what we do and how we are doing.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a writer, mother and Master Gardener. Her books include People in Transition and Ernie Coombs: Mr Dressup (both from Fitzhenry & Whiteside).