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What is this thing called "Progress"?

Many people look forward uncritically to a future not too different from the cartoon-world of the Jetsons, where people have mechanical maids, whiz around in airborne cars, and take space-cruises to asteroids and far off planets. Politics continue benignly and poverty has no place. Political rank is preserved in the form of cheerful paternal talking heads, but the slave and servile ranks have been transformed into machines which cannot feel pain or humiliation. A wealthy, not too intelligent middle-class has inherited this astro-playground and keeps order among itself by switching from child to parent in an artificial recreation of the family and original clan system.

The explanation for this apparent chronological march to perfection is 'progress'. Belief in 'progress' is the 'modern' state religion, shared by communist and capitalist alike. This is the religion that the West seeks to bring to the East that the United States takes as its holy war against the Muslim defenders of Arab sovereignty over oil who may still seek their reward in heaven, sublimating their rage in the arms of many virgins. It was Calvin who first unleashed the great God of progress, whereby the righteous were rewarded with power and wealth on earth. It was Darwin's thesis, but not Darwin's view, that was adapted to secularise this notion. The variables of population and resources and technology are constantly confused. An interpretation of the demographic transition by Ronald Lee relies on the idea that population growth forces the invention of new technology, although it doesn't say why population grows in the first place and has no predictive ability.

There is a space and volume aspect to progress. Progress demands huge amounts of materials and fuel for technology and mass production. As these materials and fuel run out in one locality the progressive economy and its population must expand to locate and liberate them wherever they can be found. The factories of progress demand many workers and their products require many markets. To a point yet to be located, the more workers available, the more materials and fuel can be liberated, the more factories can be built to produce products. Population growth is required for this expansion and expansion would be impossible and pointless without this population growth which creates more markets for the products of progress.

This is why we have, on the one hand, an ideology that suggests that overpopulation is a bad thing and another one that suggests that drops in population growth are reasons to panic. The two attitudes have become hopelessly confused by the 'benign demographic transition' which suggests that for industrial societies you must first have overpopulation in order to have populations stabilise at some optimum level. The problem is that wherever population has been inclined to stabilise the priests of growth economics do everything they can to drive population growth up, by promoting higher birth-rates through tax rebates and by promoting immigration because economic growth depends on population growth to drive consumption and to multiply transactions.

In the ideology of progress, time is relative only to human aspirations. Einstein notwithstanding, time is goal directed. According to this perspective, we humans face forward and march onward to perfection, every day getting better and better, continuously improving. We are taught to regard the past and old people with contempt because the further away from now, the further away from the future you are, the closer to imperfection, to ignorance, to naivety, to 'inefficiency', to 'primitiveness' or an earlier stage of 'development'.

Progress is not just an attractive option; we must have progress. We have no choice. Anyone who would stand in the way of progress stands in the way of wealth and human destiny and must be swept aside for … for …progress. So goes the circular argument.

The media market 'Progress' and manage any little rebellions along the way. For instance, as human population growth drives competition for land it brings about ecological destruction and denies people access to familiar places and activities. These changes give rise to concerns over loss of sovereignty and outrage our sense of place. Our reactions to being boxed in and dictated to then tend to stick in the gears of the progress machine. These human limits to the machine of progress are a part of wider thermodynamic processes by which everything from landscape to metabolism simplifies and eventually loses its identity. Progress hastens this process of 'entropy'.

The modern mainstream media has evolved as the mouthpiece of corporations. Indeed it has become inseparable from them. It is owned by them and it owns them. It is a collection of corporations with interests in just about everything. It is a collection of seats of power. Media corporations do not just sell TV programs and newspapers. They own and sell property, mines, materials, natural resources, technologies etc. Increasingly they own governments because politicians and governments depend on the mainstream media to deliver their campaigns to the electorates. The corporatised media does not deliver campaigns for politicians that do not do what it wants or who wish to reform it. Politicians who condemn the progress ideology are characterised as kooks by the mainstream media.

This does not mean that they really are kooks, but perception is what matters and the media control perception.

As limits begin to impose themselves in many different ways on this principle of endless human expansion and populations groan with resentment at being manipulated to serve economies, ideologies and spins must be found to keep the mob moving. In early 21st century Australia, aggressive, self-styled 'no-nonsense' stances set the tone for coercion, as in this manic article for the Brisbane Courrier Mail, Australia, entitled, "Damn 'em all". [Paul Syvret, 'Damn 'em all', 23 May Courrier Mail, Brisbane, Australia.] In it the writer is talking about the Queensland State government's attempts to force a new dam on a region in order to cope with a growing population's increasing demand for water. That the same government invited interstate immigrants to the region and caused the problem in the first place is glossed over.

"…. The sky is falling. The end of the world is upon us. Our cities are too big, choked with gridlocked traffic and toxic fumes. …We're running out of energy resources, the greenhouse effect will end up frying us all and as the temperature rises we won't even have enough water to drink. …Fix it, but please, not in my backyard. Or, as the new acronym BANANA, build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. … Tough."

The writer acknowledges that there are scary problems. A stoic supporter of Progress, he doesn't protest at the costs; he volunteers for sacrifices.

"Someone has to pay a price for progress. And I for one accept that living in a big, fast-growing city comes with noise, air pollution and, increasingly, higher-density living."

Living in a big city is posed as an unquestionably desirable thing. In this way any challenge to the idea that population growth itself might be halted is pushed aside. Anyone who would not desire to live in a densely populated city is crazy, ungrateful, or unrealistic. The costs of supplying water are trivialised; at no time does the writer canvas anything more than the near future. At no time does he question the constant additions to the population.

"…Now we are … looking at dams in catchment areas where occasionally water does still fall from the sky, such as the Mary River dam. Yes there will be communities hurt by this. Yes there might be a rare purple-striped eighteen-hyphen gilled trout … inconvenienced by… extra megalitres of water washing around. If you don't like it, come up with a viable alternative."

By avoiding questioning the necessity or inevitability of population growth, the writer can use the arguments of conservationists against them by pretending that there is no choice. If there really were no choice then protest would indeed be unreasonable. He hints that more unpleasant decisions are in the wind: recycling of effluent, desalination plants, and nuclear power plants. We are expected to swallow a lot of s*** for Progress. The writer reviews the menu, as he sees it:

"Recycling effluent? No, can't have that because, well, because it sounds yucky. Desalination plants? No, no, no … can't have them, they use too much energy. Ah, energy. There's a touchy subject. The tree-huggers don't like coal-fired power because the gases the power stations emit allegedly will cause global warming. But wait, we can't have nuclear power because before you can say Chernobyl we'll all be glowing more brightly in the dark than one of the mutant cannibals from the hills have eyes. Oh, and wind farms are out, too, because a lesser known pink-speckled migratory stuttering sea-albatross might inadvertently fly into a whirling turbine. Buggar. Solar is good, they say. Terrific. Try powering a city with solar panels, which one would think rely on massive amounts of energy in a nasty factory to be produced in the first place, probably using stuff made by a petrochemical plant for their components."

The writer is correct to say that many who identify as part of "the Green movement" are energy, technology and population ignorant, believing that we can adjust to endless growth benignly. But the writer himself has no idea of the size of the problem. Most of his proposed solutions are not only finance and energy costly; they are also finite and their expiry dates are constantly brought forward with population growth. But we are assured that the Emperor really does have a wardrobe of new clothes. Granted they will be costly, but the outcome will be splendid:

"…Three cheers to Prime Minister John Howard then for truly opening up the debate about nuclear power. Yes, it does work. Yes, its emissions are nothing like carbon-based power, and yes, it's reliable."

In fact the cost of building conventional nuclear plants and the energy cost of processing nuclear and managing the products and bi-products are hugely fossil-fuel expensive and pollutant. They are not carbon neutral at all. They use halogenated compounds with climate change impacts many times that of carbon dioxide. In the same way that an internal combustion engine requires a car to be built around it and roads to run on, factories to build these, mines to find materials and economies of scale involving mass production, the nuclear power plant needs huge amounts of infrastructure, mines, chemicals, land, water and transport systems. But clearly Syvret believes that the new 'solutions' will be as elegant as the alternatives will be ugly and atavistic.

"New transport corridors. New sources of energy and new water supplies. Go for it fellas, I'm happy my rates and taxes are going towards them. If you don't like it, leave. Go and find some drought ravaged shrubbery outside civilisation to live under, build a bicycle made of dead tree roots and make fire from the leftovers. … ."

Needless to say, there are few places to run to due to 'development' and there isn't much firewood, due to land-clearing. We are captives of this 'Progress'. We cannot easily get free. And the writer of "Dam 'em all" wants to dig us in even deeper.