Exploding the myth of progress

Tom Wessels had to pull over when he heard President Bush’s statement: “Economic growth is the key to environmental progress.”

As an ecologist, Wessels was stunned.

Bush’s comments, made on Valentine’s Day in 2002, aired on NPR. Wessels’ response, The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, published in 2006, explodes the myth of growth as a scientifically unfounded—and unsupportable—idea.

“[I]f everything that we observe in the world around us honors limits to growth as a means to sustain itself, why is the underlying foundation for out current paradigm of progress ever-increasing growth?” he asks in his book. “The idea that unlimited economic growth will bring continuous progress has no scientific foundation. In fact science tells us just the opposite—unchecked growth generates its own negative feedback.”

Drawing on ample examples from the ecological world—particularly time spent among a stand of old-growth forest in New Hampshire Pisgah Forest—Wessels demonstrates how nature creates self-sustaining systems. Energy comes in as sunlight and then gets constantly converted and reused. Nothing gets wasted.

It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics played on an ecological scale, he explains.

Systems that overextend their capacity—a population explosion in a particular species, for instance—get thrown out of balance and crash.

“Our current notion of progress is based on the idea that to keep progressing we will need to use ever-increasing amounts of energy to stay ahead of resource depletion and waste generation,” he says. “This is where our paradigm of progress collides with the second law of thermodynamics.”

Original economic theory didn’t take the Second Law of Thermodynamics into consideration because the vastness of nature made it seemed infinite compared to human scale. “Since resources appeared unlimited and industrial waste was nonexistent,” Wessels said, “it is understandable that classical economic theory was based solely focused on human commerce, wealth, and market dynamics—excluding any interface with the natural world. Economics was birthed in a void.”

But a world population of 6.5 billion people changes the game. “On a global basis we have exceeded carrying capacity; global climate change is one outcome of a degraded biospheric system,” Wessels says. That will lead to further problems. “Global conflicts would be fueled by competition for depleted food and water resources, brought on by climate change and associated extreme weather events.”

But the amazing thing about Wessels’ book is that at no time does he sound alarmist. The Myth of Progress is at all times a level-headed, rational discussion.

“When people get anxious they often develop a polarized world-view where things simply become either good or bad, black or white, right or wrong, win or lose,” Wessels says. “For anyone who adopts this view, loss takes on the sense that ‘it’s all over,’ even before we really know what any outcome will be.”

Wessels examines a number of contributing factors that perpetuate the current system. “A large part of the problems we face today has been spawned by individual entitlement and its self-absorbed focus,” he admits. He quotes Steve Dobbins, president of Carolina Mills, to make a point about the hypocrisy that spawns: “We want clean air, clean water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world—yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those conditions.”

Wessels is particularly (and appropriately) hard on the Wal-Mart way of life. “Low prices at Wal-Mart drive quality manufacturing jobs out of the United States, increasing job insecurity in this country, force reductions in employee benefits and wages; and increase pollution and other environmental problems associated with manufacturing goods in less environmentally regulated countries such as Mexico and China,” he says. “Wal-Mart’s low prices have definite costs that are borne by all of us.”

Media consolidation has also contributed to the current system: “This trend is a threat to a healthy democracy because it decreases the scope of views to which citizens are exposed,” he says. “As more and more of the news we see, read, and hear is produced by fewer and larger for-profit corporations, the depth and diversity of views is reduced greatly to increase profits and reinforce corporate interests.”

The drop in citizen involvement in government is also a problem. “Never in the history of democratic societies has the populace been more removed from the decision-making process than it is today,” he says, adding that it not only isolates a large part of the populace, “but also disenfranchised the vast majority of people in decisions that directly impact their lives, their culture, and the lives of future generations.”

Wessels also challenges the ways in which “progress” gets measured. Although economic indicators like the Gross Domestic Product suggest economic vitality, they don’t adjust for the social, environmental, family, or medical costs associated with growth. “Most people would agree that increasing levels of air pollution would not indicate progress,” he says. He points to other problems like rampant obesity, unprecedented of social anxiety and pharmacological remedies, teen suicide, and a host of other quality-of-life factors that all suggest dysfunction.

“An economy is supposed to serve its people; however, in the world today, people are to serve the economy,” he says.

As a college professor at Antioch University of New England, Wessels has an established talent for conveying complex scientific ideas in a clear, accessible way. The Myth of Progress makes an excellent primer for anyone curious about the implications of consumption and growth. It’s not some “crazy liberal college professor environmentalist” talking, either. As an ecologist, Wessels is a man deeply in tune with the workings of the natural world and the scientific principles that govern those workings.

It’s the track record ecology offers that makes the economy look so scary.

“Just as the notion that ever-increasing growth will generate further progress has no scientific grounding, our current global economic system is behaving in a way that is absolutely contradictory to the way all natural complex systems function,” Wessels says. To pretend differently is to ignore the way the world works.

No wonder so many vested interests cling to the myth.

1 reply »