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Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Illusion of Progress

Sometimes it seems that the world is getting warmer and warmer, This summer, for a while, it looked that way to me. And then one day it got very cold, and the wind blew, and it rained, and everything was wet and dreary.

We have had some very hot days recently, almost unseasonably hot. But yesterday when I went for a walk in the pasture, there were no bumblebees on the thistle flowers, only cold little droplets of rain. It was so cold, I had to wear a jacket. What happened to the weather?

Even the spiders could no longer ply their trade. Their delicate little webs were full of sparkling droplets, looking like rare jewels in the dreary light.

The goldenrod, till now unnoticed, seemed to shine out against its dull surroundings.

 If I did not know any better, I would say the world was coming to an end! But then I remembered that it's almost fall. And nature works in cycles. And so it's actually going to be okay. These things are supposed to be happening. Summer will come again, but first we have to get through fall, winter and spring.

Is the globe getting warmer? It's entirely possible. And that trend will continue,  until the next ice age! Our planet lives on cycles. Some of the cycles are small, like day and night. Some are bigger, like the seasons. And some are bigger still, so big that you can't even observe them in a single lifespan.

You can watch the days grow brighter and longer and project that trend far, far into the future and call that progress, and then be totally undone when growth and warmth come to a screeching halt. Or you can recognize that it's a cycle. Unlimited growth is not possible. Growth and decay come each in its turn.

But there is even more at play here. Unlimited growth with limited resources is not possible. There are conservation laws in place. More of one thing always means less of something else. Reduce infant mortality and you get more abortions. Raise more cattle and you get fewer wolves. Start to use tools to enhance your prowess, and your muscles will shrink. It's not progress. It is this for that. There's an equilibrium in place that you cannot escape.

Bow can crack a hazelnut with his teeth. That's because he comes from a long line of beings that use their teeth as weapons and as tools and who have not resorted to nutcrackers or swords. Yes, I know that really big nuts are cracked on stones by resourceful chimpanzees, and that they can use sticks as weapons. But by and large their failure to develop a higher technology has left their bodies strong. We come from a common source. We, too, used to be that strong. We did not develop technology to make up for our physical inferiority. We lost our prowess when we started relying on implements. The selective pressure was lifted, so weaker individuals were not eliminated.

Should we choose one path, or should we choose another? Is there one way that leads to heaven and the other to hell? Does eating from the tree of knowledge cast us out of paradise? Or is it simply that there is a natural price for every choice we make?

There are conservatives who think everything should stay the same all the time. There are progressives who think we should have endless progress. They are both wrong. What we have always had, and always will have, is cycles.

We can change certain aspects of the way we live, and in so doing, we change ourselves. We can sometimes have more of one thing, if we are willing to have less of something else. Less of  natural disease means more of  genetic degeneration. More prosperity means less wilderness. More security means less freedom. We can change our preferences, but we can't change the laws of the universe.

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