Progress Traps & Unintended Side Effects 

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

- Albert Einstein

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Water droplets reflecting the world (photo courtesy of Andreas on Flickr)

Nature is infinite in her complexity Like Indra’s net of jewels, each part of her reflect every other part Each aspect of her is but one facet she reveals to our limited consciousness while the rest of her remains hidden from prying eyes

Like a rubber sheet, if we pull one part of her it cannot help but move all her for in reality, she is completely interconnected completely inter-dependent at every conceivable level Truly we can see the world in a grain of her sand And while human beings are ourselves a product of her we are an experiment, one of countless many but one which carries a most peculiar trait of self-reflexive consciousness which is inherently limited in its ability to know itself

The analytic thinking upon which so much of modern technocractic society rests has a peculiarly limited scope In her perfection nature has created herself in the image of a human form and endowed herself with a perfectly limited form of knowing itself While there may be other forms of more direct, intuitive and imemediate knowledge the majority of humanity relies on the more common and limited analytic means of acquiring knowledge which is piecemeal at best and dangerous at worst

A progress trap is the inadvertent condition created by  human ingenuity in which solutions to problems create new unforeseen problems. Progress traps are inherent and unavoidable aspect of human consciousness, a particuliar result of our dualistic, abstract and ultimately incomplete way of gaining knowledge about nature. While nature herself is limitless in her complexity, human knowledge, for all it’s lofty achievements will forever remain incomplete. Indra’s Net, an ancient Buddhist parable, provides us with an enlightening metaphor.  It tells the story that every single jewel in Indra’s universe reflects every other jewel. Nature is infinitely inter-connected and inter-dependent at every level. Our analytic knowledge is only ever capable of revealing a small portion of the infinite number of relationships between one aspect of the universe and any other part. When we attempt to manipulate any part of nature, we are playing an infinitely complex game of Pick-up-stix. pick-up-stix2

When we make a small change to our environment, it ripples throughout to touch the entire universe because of the limitless levels of interconnectivity and interdependency. Technology is the product of scientific research and all modern day scientific research is based upon linear analysis. We can only investigate one very small part of reality at a time. Because language is a fundamental tool or research and language is inherently limited to dealing with abstractions of our reality, our research can only deals with one limited aspect of reality at one time as well. Ultimately, no matter how much we research a technology prototype and how it interacts with the environment, it will always only ever produce a finite amount of knowledge. At a certain point of finite analytic knowledge accumulation, we have to make a decision to scale that prototype to production. When a technology is produced for the world, the untested, unknown aspects of a technology knot investigated during research are always the areas where all future progress traps lie. pt

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

- Mark Twain

Within our culture, stories of technological marvel and human ingenuity fill reams of history books. We are constantly reminded of the power of our rational mind, and stand in awe at the achievements of human civilization with more than one historian claiming homo sapien as the pinnacle of life forms. Yet, there is a dark side to this success which has never been much discussed for fear of stopping progress. pt-sugar It is the confounding issue of climate change was has made us fundamentally re-assess our unquestioned program of control and dominance over nature. The development of carbon-based energy and all the technology that depend on it has been one of the greatest success stories of modern times. The founders of sweeping parts of science, engineering and technology, the who’s who of modern research have all missed the progress trap they have helped to create. This entire carbon-based modern industrial technocracy now threatens human civilization and many other species with near term extinction. This shock is a rude awakening to our endearing myths of intellectual prowess, forever shattering the illusion of human progress and revealing the surprising depth of our collective human ignorance.
Progress traps are unavoidable. The end of a product development cycle occurs when human beings have subjectively reached a decision that sufficient research has been done to commercialize a product.  In particular  an implicit assumption is made that no harm will arise from this technology – an assumption that often turns out to be wrong.
That which we proudly mistook for our reasons for success is now paradoxically revealed as the greatest reason for our massive failure. It is as if nature has played a cruel hoax on us, misleading us to believe in our superiority over her. Subsequently, we continually act to control her – as if  we were the master, and she, our slave. The false pride of the human intellect is also like the parable of Icarus, who had the arrogance to think he could fly anywhere – even to the heart of the sun. When we feel vastly superior to nature and no longer consult her, no longer work in relationship with her, we can only act for a limited period of time before the stored karma reveals itself. As Dr. Guy McPherson famously says “nature bats last”.  Progress traps are unavoidable because nature is infinitely complex with untold degrees of interdependencies while human knowledge is always limited. The commercialized technologies which come from inventive human minds always grows out of a limited knowledge of the world.  At a certain point in the research cycle, we must make a subjective decision to say “enough”. Today, we witness firsthand how high the cost of scaling technologies without knowing the full consequences of their unintended side effects. One of the very first episodes of human history that demonstrate this has been revealed by anthropologists.  Our ancestors first began building basic weapons used o kill mammoths for food. These weapons and our hunting technique advanced to such a point that we drove herds of thousands of wolly mammoths off the cliff. This practice certainly gave our ancestors plenty of food for awhile but it ultimately drove the wolly mammoth to extinction. In generations of fossil fuel usage, we remained collectively unaware of the dangers of scaling up to a planetary scale. Only now, after we have built an entire civilization based upon fossil fuel, are we beginning to see the perfect trap we have laid for ourselves. Today, with climate change threatening to extinguish human civilization, it may be too late to learn the lesson. We have unmasked the very technologies which have made our lives easier, revealing the true nature of the triumphs of human civilization as a tragedy of epic proportions.


The Failure of the Grand Scheme to Control Nature

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. 

- E.F. Schumacher

Small is Beautiful economist E.F. Schumacher’s words are more prophetic than ever. Our desire to control nature at all costs has backfired in the most unbelievable way. The situation humanity finds itself in is so surreal that a hollywood writer could not have come up with a more tragic and compelling storyline. Human civilization is threatening to completely unwravel and, unlike a hollywood movie, there are no supehero’s in sight. Author Charles Eisenstein echos Schumacher‘s sentiments. In his books Sacred Economics and especially The Ascent of Humanity, Eisenstein paints a  picture of a civilization spellbound for millenia by the self-story of control and separation. Both Eisenstein and Schumacher’s approach draw strongly from Eastern philosophy, tracing our social, economic and environmental problems back to a fundamental spiritual crisis in modern civilization – the lack of ground and spiritual meaning in one’s life. Eisenstein’s astute observations compare human civilization’s long march to human progress as akin to the construction of the tower of Babel. Eisenstein explains the analogy beautifully:

Pieter Bruegel’ s Tower of Babel, an analogy to the epic progress trap humanity has built for itself

The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel provides one of the central metaphors of the book. In the story, the builders sought to build a tower that reached to heaven—a metaphor for the attempt to reach the infinite through finite means. Similarly, human beings through their technology—social and material—have sought to create a perfect world, a Utopia. Social technologies, such as systems of law, and physical technologies of energy, materials, and biota, have created an edifice that reaches high indeed. We call it civilization, but are we really any closer to Heaven? Are we better off today than the hunter-gatherer, the Roman peasant, the 1950 American? No matter how many problems we solve, the sky seems just as far away as ever.

Meanwhile, the higher we build the more problems appear in the base of our structure, as if our civilization were beginning to collapse under its own weight. Look at Pieter Bruegel’s painting. The lower sections begin to crack and crumble even as they build the tower higher. Similarly, even as technology achieves new wonders, fundamental problems as old as civilization proliferate. We have microchips and nanotechnology, yet a large and growing portion of humanity cannot meet basic human needs for food, health, and security from violence.

One look at the Tower in the painting is enough to see that the builders’ project is obviously doomed. It is absurd, in fact. The higher the building goes, the greater an insulation from reality is necessary to continue the effort. Yet continue it they must, because their whole way of life is built around its construction. Jared Diamond gives a similar answer to the question of why the Easter Islanders continued to destroy their ecosystem to erect huge monoliths, even when their doom should have been obvious. Their politics, their economy, their social organization, all depended on the construction. We as well are addicted to the ascent of technology. Faced with the problems caused by previous technology, we know no other way to solve them but through new technologies that generate their own unintended consequences. Helplessly, we build the Tower higher.

Eisenstein in particular, argues that the beginning of the period of major separation from nature began in a big way with the discovery of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Since that time, humanity has continued to separate more and more from nature, breaking the traditional feedback loops we once had and which helped us to live within the boundaries of ecological balance. Eisenstein feels we have two divergent pathway before us:

One of two possible fates is in store for such an enterprise. One is a stupendous collapse, when the weak- ened foundation can no longer bear the structure’s weight. Many thinkers foresee precisely such a finale for civilization as its ecological basis degenerates. Another possibility is that, like in the story, the builders abandon their attempt. The Babelians woke up one day to find themselves speaking different languages—a metaphor for a breakdown in communication, consensus, and comity. The grand project of civilization is fragmenting; scien- tific hyperspecialization renders various fields mutually unintelligible; and we are doubting the possibility and desirability of building yet higher.

Instead, people everywhere feel the pull to go back to nature, back to the land; to live more simply, more freely, more slowly. This trend points to the great irony of the all-consuming effort to build a tower to the sky—the sky is all around us already! A perfect world is available right now, and has always been available. We are no closer than our hunter-gatherer forebears, and no farther either. All that is needed is a shift of perception. We might still build towers, but the motivation will be entirely different. To what purpose would we turn the human gifts of hand and mind—technology and culture—when we are no longer driven skyward?

Dynamic and humorous organic farmer Joel Salatin talks about  the progress trap of the modern food system and reclaiming our it from Big Ag
Our software is running on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for the past 50,000 years and this is the source of much of our problem.

- Ronald Wright, author, a Short |History of Progress

Author Ronald Wright is the first person to coin the term “progress trap”. Writing in his book A Short History of Progress

While humanity prides itself on its achievements, the results of human progress have an accompanying dark side. Historian Ronald Wright coined the word Progress Trap to describe this.  a condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse. Wright begins arguing his case with archaeological evidence that strongly suggest that human hunter gatherers are thought to have caused the extinction of woolly mammoths due to hunting techniques that became too efficient – driving them off cliffs and killing them off by the hundreds at a time. Today, as technocrats come up with countless technological solutions to engineer our way out of our multiple ecological crisis, it will be folly to forget the major role that “human progress” has contributed to it in the first place.  
Indeed, the industrial revolution which created a global socio-economic system dependent on cheap energy is also the root of the runaway pollution that now threatens us all. Human beings of modern industrial societies now find themselves  in the unenviable position of having to pollute the planet as a corollary of their ordinary economic survival. Betrayal of our grandchildren’s future is the tragic consequence of living our modern lives today. Predictably, the technocrat’s solution is to throw more fuel onto the fire. Geoengineering, engineering on massive global scales on our weather and climate systems that would affect huge areas of the planet – entire climate zones, oceans, etc…is now being proposed as a means to stop global warming. It is not at all clear whether throwing more technology at the problem will solve it or fan the flame higher. Given our poor past performance, many scientists believe that it’s a very bad idea. Tampering with such a complex system exposes the arrogance of the human intellect and may very well create unexpected problems that will exasperate an already dire situation.

A short cartoon on progress trap

A panel discussion between author Ronald Wright and attendees of the National Green Party of Canada convention August 2012

Ronald Wright joins Piya Chattopadhyay to discuss what contemporary policy makers and economists can do to alleviate the pressures of progress.

What are the solutions?

Today, we stand at the cusp of the millenia-old story of separation and domination. Our one dimensional creations, towering icons of concrete and steel stand in stark contrast to the earth, water and air which we lay waste, collateral damage to our drive to build civilization in the image of ourselves. History has already given us many stark warnings.

The earth is littered with monuments that mark the failure of past civilizations,  history lessons for anyone attentive enough to detectives willing to decipher them and warnings of mistakes current civlizations should avoid repeating. And yet, we are an obstinate species with a vision that seems to be inherently myopic. Jared Diamond, in his book COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, provides a detailed account of sudden civilization collapse spanning time and space. In Diamond’s own words: “Collapse arose as an attempt to understand why so many past societies collapsed, leaving behind ruined or abandoned temples, pyramids, and monuments as romantic mysteries to baffle subsequent visitors and modern tourists.  Why did societies that were as powerful as the Khmer Empire, and as brilliantly creative as the Maya, abandon the sites into which they had invested such enormous effort for so many centuries? “

Amongst the civilizations that failed, Diamond’s work thoroughly investigated:

  1. the ends of Polynesian societies on Henderson and Pitcairn Islands, where everybody either did abandon the island or else ended up dead;
  2. the end of the Viking settlements on Greenland, which similarly disappeared completely;
  3. the disappearance of Anasazi settlements in desert areas of the U.S. Southwest;
  4. the decline and abandonment of Classic Maya cities in the Southern Maya lowlands, while Maya cities survived outside those southern lowlands;
  5. the decline of Easter Island’s Polynesian society, famous for erecting giant stone statues.

Archaeological and paleoclimatic research shows one common factor in all these collapses, environmental degradation. Diamond summarizes eight other cases which he did not have time to investigate and there are numerous more examples.

Diamond then goes on to study three civilizations that succeeded and flourished for several millennia, over 10,000 years, and over 40,000 years respectively:

  1. Tikopia Island;
  2. Tokugawa Japan;
  3. Highland New Guinea;

Diamond shows another important common factor that assured the success in these three examples, conscious planning to deal with serious environmental issues.

Finally Diamond looks at 5 examples from the planet today:

  1. Montana, seemingly the most pristine and underpopulated U.S. mainland state south of the Canadian border, actually proves to be at risk from most of the environmental problems that threaten the rest of the world.
  2. Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Africa, suffered possibly the most ferocious convulsion in late 20th-century African history, when in 1994 six million Rwandans killed nearly one million of their fellow Rwandans and drove two million more into exile.
  3. The Caribbean island of Hispaniola is divided between two nations, of which Haiti is the poorest and one of the most overpopulated nations of the New World, while the Dominican Republic is many times more prosperous.  Those contrasting outcomes arose to a smaller degree from environmental differences, and to a greater degree from differences of human history.
  4. China, the world’s most populous nation and its most rapidly growing major economy, is grappling with big problems that inevitably affect the rest of the world, because China releases its gases and wastes into the same atmosphere and oceans that bathe the rest of the world as well, and because China imports essential natural products from the same overseas sources on which other countries also depend.
  5. Australia is instructive as the First World country occupying the most fragile environment (rivaled only by Iceland), and as the First World country now contemplating the most radical solutions to its resulting environmental patterns.

Diamond’s book is the latest to survey rise and falls of civilizations. In the early 20th century, Arnold Toynbee wrote his twelve volume Study of History (1934-61) which analyzed the life and death of 26 civilizations.  In Toynbee’s view, societies fail when the creative minority becomes a threat and are devalued and banished from society. Their views missing, difficult problems become insurmoutable, leading to societal collapse.

 As 3/4 of the planet struggles to ascend the material model offered by the west, we are faced with the dilemma of breaking the natural resource bank. From recent ecological footprint science, it is clear that the planet does not have the resources to support such a scenario. However, it can support a well designed future where we all live within planetary boundaries, within the doughnut. Living within the doughnut requires the wealthy 1/4 of the planet to make a dramatic course change, one which dematerializes and decarbonizes the society thusfar created.

To do this, we need to urgently shift the narrative:

  1. from consumption beyond our means to consumption within our means,
  2. from a self-centered perspective to a global and democratic perspective where we think of others in everything we do
  3. from domination and separation that has characterized our one dimensional success and multi-dimensional failure to a living in harmony with the environment

The earth was not created for one species to plunder. The cost of blind, thoughtless consumption is the civilization collapse singularity we are approaching if we do not make rapid course change, there’s no other way to put it. We are nearing a choke point where extremes in pollution and resource shortages driven by relentless consumption will lay to waste the entire natural world. We need our economic system to find a balance point with our ecological one.

We need to use science and technology wisely by designing in regenerative ways that minimize both waste production and resource use. We need to reduce consumption radically – and this requires a fundamental shift in worldview and values. We need a fundamentally new economic system which no longer externalizes people and environment. Knowing that progress traps are inherent, we must temper them so that expensive long term studies are prioritized, because without them, the expense of the chaos created by neglecting them is infinitely greater. We need to mobilize a planet of people to stand up for the more beautiful world we all know can exist.

(Source: Jared Diamond)