In Robert Zemeki’s motion picture “Back to the Future Part II”, filmed in 1985, Michael J Fox travels to 2015, and a lot of the technology seen in his trip to the future actually exists today. Nike’s self tying shoes, “smart glasses”, and video calls all once seemed like far off, futuristic technology and now are reality. More modern sci-fi movies have also placed their bets on future tech. In Cardog W. James’ “The Machine”, a conscious artificial intelligence is created that has all human capabilities, and even believes itself to be human. The “robot” ends up killing tons of people because its brain was programmed, and the movie ends horribly. Hollywood can justify, and so can history that there are two inseparable sides to technological progression.
Every civilization has thrived off of progress, economically, socially, and technologically. Ancient Rome, China, and Europe during the industrial revolution, all saw extreme success due to their technological advancement that led to economic strength and social order. Our scientists and engineers are who we turn to when our livelihood is threatened, and the groundbreaking technology that they create all aim to make life easier and more enjoyable. Progress is generally given a positive connotation that inspires excitement and dreams for the future, but unfortunately too much of what we believe to be good is causing problems on the global scale. Fixes to our short run needs will inevitably take a long term toll, potentially leading to catastrophe. The Canadian author Ronald Wright has a name for these: progress traps.
“The people who discovered that they could kill two mammoths instead of one had made real progress, but the people who had figured out how to drive a whole herd of mammoths over a cliff and kill 200 at once had fallen into a progress trap” — Ronald Wright
Almost every facade of large scale modern production is a progress trap. The positive effects satisfy us and effectively shield us from the negative effects that are leading us into ruin behind the curtains.
At first glance those look like skyscrapers and it looks like we are above the clouds on a beautiful morning. Majestic, right? Wrong, those apartment buildings are actually not that tall and the “cloud” is smog settling at ground level in Tianjin, China. Looking through the smog, China boasts a legacy of having a powerhouse economy and is projected to be the world’s largest in due time. In a culture in which productivity is highly valued, the Chinese can attribute their 10% economic growth rate to a surplus of factories, and a never ending fountain of laborers. Industry makes up 76% of China’s GDP, and its progression in China has tended towards technology allowing increased quantity of output and decreased price of production. China can produce just about anything from steel to garments to nuclear energy for cheap and the factories, power plants, and farms have turned shoulder on the environment, making China a deadly place to live. The numbers don’t lie, 150 million miles of China’s once-arable land are polluted, 300,000 people die each year due to air pollution, and 500 million people don’t have access to clean drinking water. It is highly debated as to whether China’s levels of production are causing too much harm to justify the gains. Time is ticking and now China must work to reverse their damage as there is a cap to how much time life can be sustained in a “smogpocalypse”.
China’s looming fate should act as a warning for the rest of the world so it doesn’t become a model for future earth. The environmental effects of over-production are becoming so visible to the point that denial consequences like climate change and sea acidification is just nonsensical. It’s ironic how the things intended to make live easier are beginning to make it harder.
Enter Brazil, a country widely renowned for its natural beauty, and a unique fusion between the developed and undeveloped worlds. Approximately 60% of the Amazon rainforest covers Brazil and is home to 24 million Brazilian people and thousands of animal species. Due to poor farming conditions and lack of development in other economic sectors, Brazil has been pushed by the world economy to specialize in the destruction of its largest and most sacred resource, the Amazon rain forest. On this front industry is confronted with an ethical obstacle, one that they have decided to plow right through. Without logging the people are poor, but without the Amazon the world can’t breathe. Modern day mechanization, allowing for clear cut of forests has made it too easy to turn a profit from the dense towering tree cover despite Government attempts to regulate it. Logging in Brazil has turned into a progress trap, and the rain forest is paying for it.
“Instead of thinking that nature is an endless credit card that we can keep drawing from, we have to think about the finite nature of that planet and how to keep it alive so that we too may remain alive” — Margaret Atwood
What we take from the earth isn’t always going to return to the earth, and by falling into progress traps we are digging into a finite amount of resources. If the earth was an hour old, industrialized civilization has only existed for a second. A second in which we have increased the amount of resources we take one hundred-fold. In the future for the same reason the mammoths went extinct, there may not be trees to cut down, oil to drill, fish to catch or air to breathe. This could mean the demise of the human race as demand will always be present, but supply may not.
These case studies are only a few of many, and the destruction that current technology creates is globalized. Despite this our future isn’t so black, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Now humans are challenged to progress past the point where our technology only satisfies consumption needs, to a point where the effects of progression only justify its positive connotation. This challenge is not solely the responsibility of the scientists and engineers, but the politicians and the people on earth too. In order for change to be made society as a whole must progress, and together we must work to curb consumption, change policy, and finder cleaner less harmful methods of production. We only have one earth and we must learn to coexist with it or we will die with it.
“Control yourself, take only what you need” — Andrew VanWyngarden