Human beings are the only species on Earth able to advance beyond the rather pedestrian pace of evolution.
While other animals adapt incrementally over hundreds of millennia, we, with our big brains, have succeeded in speeding things up with clever inventions.
We don’t have wings, but we can fly. Computers allow us to think far beyond the confines of our own minds.
We’re comparatively feeble, but given enough notice we could beat a polar bear in a fight, thanks to the awesome array of weapons at our disposal.
But human advancement all too often comes with a downside.
People are uniquely innovative, but also uniquely bad at weighing up possible, even probable, unwanted outcomes – meaning that collateral damage accompanies almost every step we take forward.
It all started in the Stone Age, when early modern humans called Cro-Magnons started to up their hunting game with new, deadlier weapons and a better strategy.
For a while, it led to an uptick in welfare with plentiful meat and warm clothing, but so industrial was the production line of dead animals that humans eventually wrecked their own food supply.
That’s one explanation for what experts believe was a considerable decline in the human population heading into the late Mesolithic period, evidenced by the rarity of sculpture and rock drawings from that period compared with the cave art and carvings of the preceding Palaeolithic era.
The development of horticulture, in other words small-scale crop farming, saved the species’ bacon on that occasion. But history tells us that we don’t always get away with it.
On Easter Island the going was good for the settlers who arrived on the South Pacific territory between 1,600 and 1,200 years ago.
They enjoyed plentiful trees, edible and fishable marine life, plus rich volcanic soil for crops.
But by about the year 1600, around the time Elizabeth I was breathing her last, this sophisticated and entirely peaceful island society had degraded into ecocide – a plunging spiral of war and even cannibalism brought on by scarcity.
The problem with progress
Overly intensive cultivation of land and sea was humanity’s first major blunder.
But many more have followed, and with increasing regularity, so much so that there are fewer opportunities to repair the last man-made problem before the next one crops up.
It seems no field of human innovation is immune, with advancements in communications, transport, industry, food production, energy, medicine and, of course, warfare all coming with distinct and in hindsight pretty obvious threats.
Collected together, these pitfalls are known as progress traps, a phrase minted by Daniel B. O’Leary in his 1990 study on the subject, then further popularised by the historian Ronald Wright with his book ‘A Short History of Progress’.
The industrial revolution was a leap forward, but it also led to widespread pollution, social inequality, too rapid urbanisation and new levels of intensity leading to disasters like London’s great smog of 1952 and the dustbowl that wrecked American prairies in the 1930s.
The invention of the atomic bomb arguably ended World War 2 in 1945, but over subsequent decades the proliferation and falling cost of nuclear weapons now means any fresh conflict involving a major power jeopardises humanity itself, ticking the doomsday clock a few more minutes closer to midnight.
Today, progress traps are a bit less obvious than they used to be. The invention of the internet sent global productivity soaring in the 21st Century, but while online banking, shopping and messaging was meant to free up our time, the reverse has occurred, with most people now feeling busier than ever.
Social media has caused a spike in mental health problems and addictions; bullies can now target people in their home, not just in the playground or the workplace; more money is stolen via cybercrime than stick-up gangs could ever make off with in person.
Our privacy is degraded, stress levels are up, and our data is traded freely for pennies on the dark web.
But then, you know, Wikipedia right?
Then there are the internet’s offshoots, like cloud computing, which means you can never really leave the office, and artificial intelligence, that golden goose which might or might not eventually bring about our extinction…either intentionally, or by misinterpretation.
Even hard-to-argue-with advancements like green energy come at a cost: from micro things like the impact on your house price if a wind farm is installed next door, to macro things like the colossal amount of CO2 being produced to make the machines, components, factories and infrastructure that will enable clean power in the future.
Since 1900, global life expectancy has doubled thanks to forward steps in nutrition and healthcare, which is remarkable progress, the trap being a surge in later life chronic illness and a huge increase in the need for social care, not to mention the struggle to sustain the planet’s population of 8 billion souls, up from 1.6 billion just 120 years ago.
Other great things come with a catch. More women in the workplace has contributed to inflated house prices and a drop in the birth rate, smartphones require destructive earth metal mining and create mountains of electronic waste.
Antibiotics are a ubiquitous cure for diseases that once killed everyone, but their ubiquitous use has allowed bacteria to build resistance and make them less effective.
Progress traps, then, are among modernity’s biggest pitfalls and, often, the greater the leap forward, the bigger the drop at the end.
Solving the problem of progress traps is not easy.
Humans must patch the worst impacts of past missteps while putting in place measures to limit the damage of future ones – or better yet somehow how preventing traps altogether.
Devising patches to problems is the daily preoccupation of politicians, technologists and researchers the world over.
When a new iPhone suffers a glitch, the good people at Apple devise a patch.
When a global pandemic threatens to bring humanity to its knees, we spend billions formulating vaccines in a flash.
And when an overlooked dictator starts a war, or a long running international blood feud suddenly ignites, we funnel military and humanitarian aid to the victims.
But by contrast, the second part of the equation, that of minimising future problems, is barely given any thought at all.
According to Ronald Wright, one of the founders of the notion of progress traps, human civilisation is predicated on short-term interests and cares too little for negative outcomes beyond the near future.
Listed companies focus on short-term goals such as looking strong in quarterly reports, and in many ways are disincentivised to plan and invest for longer-term stability.
Politicians focus on blink-of-an-eye electoral cycles. Anything further off is essentially just words.
The people in charge of the world’s progress seem to agree with John Maynard Keynes who wrote in 1923 that: “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead”.
Wright thinks this is a mistake, no better reflected than in the way we treat the planet.
We were quick to at least partially ruin it via the unintended consequences of progress, and way too slow in addressing the kaleidoscope of problems the world now faces.
But with nature, as with technology, as with farming, health, population growth etc etc, humans had better get better at identifying and avoiding future progress traps.
As our global footprint increases, so does the potential harm done by our blunders.
As Wright put it in his book: “We have a presence so colossal that error is a luxury we can no longer afford.”
Right, that’s it, hope you enjoyed it. If you got this far, then maybe you have an interest in this sort of thing and if so, why not take a quick butchers at my video on a scientific explanation as to why you see ghosts, or the epic nonsense happening in the depths of Nova Scotia’s Money Pit.