The End of Progress 2

Everything comes from the land. Everything:  the chair you’re sitting in to read this newspaper, this newspaper, the car or truck that delivered the newspaper, the gas in the car or truck, the computers that automatically typeset the newspaper, the reporters’ desks and offices, you, me—everything. We know this of course, and yet we don’t. That’s because the more stuff we have, the more we are separated from where it all comes from. What does Wal-Mart or IGA or GM (General Motors aka Government Money) have to do with the land? Well, everything.

We’ve raised our standard of living to record heights – so high, in fact that, if everyone lived like we do in North America, we would need 3 or 4 earths. To keep our way of life rolling along, we need to make more things. As the satirical newspaper The Onion put it, quoting a fictional Chinese worker: “Often, when we’re assigned a new order for, say, ‘salad shooters,’ I will say to myself, there’s no way that anyone will ever buy these. … One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. … I hear that [North] Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them. And I also hear that, when they no longer want an item, they simply throw it away. So wasteful and contemptible.”

But such is our personal measure of progress: whoever has the most stuff when they die, wins.

But having stuff is also how we measure the progress of civilization: more antibiotics, more books, more electricity to more people, more MRI machines, more people in space, more doctors, more lawyers (OK, maybe not more lawyers). How incredible is the earth’s bounty. There seems no end, either to her resources or to our progress.

Except there is. Scientists at MIT, in 1972, determined that the growth of populations and material goods cannot be sustained. If our material growth were not halted soon, they said, the world as we know it would be over by 2042. The IEA puts the date at 2020.[1] That’s the date that the International Energy Agency – the world’s most trusted name in energy analysis – predicts we will have reached peak oil, when we will
have burned half of the world’s oil reserves.

Some ecologists and most economists say there’s plenty of time for companies to retool, to come up with the efficiencies and new sources of fuel that will keep our economy chugging along. They say that even if high oil prices drive transportation costs of TVs from China or cherries from California through the roof, cheap labour in China and of migrant workers in California will keep our stuff coming.

Now before you start seeing the gas tank as half full, bear in mind that whatever oil remains in the earth will be as hard, or harder, to mine than the black gold in the Alberta tar sands where it takes two barrels of water and a lot of electricity to extract one barrel of oil. The next generation of home and car buyers will be paying for oil that will be a hundred times more difficult to get out of the earth. A dollar a litre? Try 50 or 100 dollars a litre.

Also bear in mind that we in Canada didn’t elect the guy who told us we had to change our way of doing business. Instead, we bought the Tory smear against green shifts and carbon taxes. Oh well, maybe now that Barak Obama is talking up green shifts and carbon taxes we’ll buy in. Who says Canadians march to the tune of “Hail the Chief”? Well BC, for one. People there re-elected Gordon Campbell, whose party vowed to keep, yup, a carbon tax.

We could buy energy stocks and hope for the best, like the auto industry executives I saw on CTV’s Car Business show a few weeks ago. From the GM and Chrysler execs being interviewed, there were no new ideas – no real indication that the world is about to change forever. They are not listening to what the land herself is telling them: that they are too far in her debt and she has no more to give. Instead they are clinging to their old, discredited business model. Oh, they’ve axed the Hummer, they said, and a few trucks and vans, and fuel efficiency is now job 1, they said. But all they’ve really done is accelerate a couple of new designs. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.

And it turns out GM hasn’t really scrapped the Hummer at all. They tried to unload the thing on China – even had a Chinese buyer ready to buy the beast. But the Chinese government will probably block the deal because they want car manufacturers to put their energy into making full-efficient cars. Who says government has no business in the boardrooms of the nation?

Or, we could ask ourselves: Even if we can figure out how to keep our old ideas of progress and hold on to our standard of living, should we? Our real debts as a civilization include the things we use (the earth’s resources and labour) and our credit the stuff we make from the land and labour. Is it progress when our debts outstrip our credits – when our achievements no longer, as the saying goes, “do us credit”?

Well? Should we stay the course or change our notions of progress?
No matter how you answer that question, we have our work cut out for us.

David McLaren is a writer living on the Bruce Peninsula in
Ontario.

_________________________________________________

Further Reading

“So wasteful and contemptible.” The Onion in Thomas L Friedman, “The Inflection is near?” New York Times, March 7, 2009.

“The IEA puts the date at 2020.” Chris Turner, “An Inconvenient Talk” in The Walrus Magazine, June 2009, p25.

“The next generation of home and car buyers will be paying for oil
that will be a hundred times more difficult to get out of the
earth, C. Turner, ” An Inconvenient Talk in  The Walrus, June 2009, p 27.

Who says government has no business in the boardrooms of the
nation?” “Econowatch” Maclean’s June 22, 2009, p 51.

The Myth of Human Progress” Chris Hedges in Nation of Change, 15 January 2013.

A Short History of Progress Ronald Wright, 2005

June 18, 2009
© David McLaren

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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