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Beware of progress traps

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st March 2013


The excerpt is part of a must-read analysis of the neoliberal neo-environmentalist movement, which unfortunately sees no alternative between the dead-end of commodifying nature and green defeatist survivalism.

Midway in the essay, author Paul Kingsnorth discusses the important notion of the ‘progress trap’:

“IN HIS BOOK A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright coins the term “progress trap.” A progress trap, says Wright, is a short-term social or technological improvement that turns out in the longer term to be a backward step. By the time this is realized—if it ever is—it is too late to change course.

The earliest example he gives is the improvement in hunting techniques in the Upper Paleolithic era, around fifteen thousand years ago. Wright tracks the disappearance of wildlife on a vast scale whenever prehistoric humans arrived on a new continent. As Wright explains: “Some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size: 1,000 mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another.” But there was a catch:

The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game. Most of the great human migrations across the world at this time must have been driven by want, as we bankrupted the land with our moveable feasts.

This is the progress trap. Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.

Spencer Wells takes up the story in his book Pandora’s Seed, a revisionist history of the development of agriculture. The story we were all taught at school—or I was, anyway—is that humans “developed” or “invented” agriculture, because they were clever enough to see that it would form the basis of a better way of living than hunting and gathering. This is the same attitude that makes us assume that a brushcutter is a better way of mowing grass than a scythe, and it seems to be equally erroneous. As Wells demonstrates, analysis of the skeletal remains of people living before and after the transition to agriculture during the Paleolithic demonstrate something remarkable: an all-around collapse in quality of life when farming was adopted.

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller—and thus, by implication, healthier—than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since—including the present day. This collapse in individual well-being was likely due to the fact that settled agricultural life is physically harder and more disease-ridden than the life of a shifting hunter-gatherer community.

So much for progress. But why in this case, Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into a progress trap.

We have been falling into them ever since. Look at the proposals of the neo-environmentalists in this light and you can see them as a series of attempts to dig us out of the progress traps that their predecessors knocked us into. Genetically modified crops, for example, are regularly sold to us as a means of “feeding the world.” But why is the world hungry? At least in part because of the previous wave of agricultural improvements—the so-called Green Revolution, which between the 1940s and 1970s promoted a new form of agriculture that depended upon high levels of pesticides and herbicides, new agricultural technologies, and high-yielding strains of crops. The Green Revolution is trumpeted by progressives as having supposedly “fed a billion people” who would otherwise have starved. And maybe it did; but then we had to keep feeding them—or should I say us?—and our children. In the meantime it had been discovered that the pesticides and herbicides were killing off vast swaths of wildlife, and the high-yield monoculture crops were wrecking both the health of the soil and the crop diversity, which in previous centuries had helped prevent the spread of disease and reduced the likelihood of crop failure.

It is in this context that we now have to listen to lectures from the neo-environmentalists and others insisting that GM crops are a moral obligation if we want to feed the world and save the planet: precisely the arguments that were made last time around. GM crops are an attempt to solve the problems caused by the last progress trap; they are also the next one. I would be willing to bet a lot of money that in forty years’ time, the successors of the neo-environmentalists will be making precisely the same arguments about the necessity of adopting the next wave of technologies needed to dig us out of the trap that GM crops have dropped us neatly into. Perhaps it will be vat-grown meat, or synthetic wheat, or some nano-bio-gubbins as yet unthought of. Either way, it will be vital for growth and progress, and a moral necessity. As Kurt Vonnegut would have said: “so it goes.”

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2 Responses to “Beware of progress traps”

  1. Øyvind Holmstad Says:

    A large reason for the transition to agriculture was because of a colder and drier climate which gave less game and less luxuriance in the Middle East. This climate change drove some ingenious people to develop the scythe, which made the start of agriculture possible. So the scythe played the same role for the agricultural revolution as the steam machine did for the industrial revolution.

  2. Øyvind Holmstad Says:

    Oh, I meant the sickle was the start of the agricultural revolution, I mixed the words. But this is the way to improve one’s English.

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