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The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future

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Wessels describes how we have exceeded carrying capacity and eventually natural order will restore itself. One negative feedback solution the author discusses is global warming and the melting of the ice caps. In the event of global sea waters warming, greater influxes in fresh water which decreases water density at the surface of the north Atlantic could occur leading to the great gull stream stalling which would push the world’s climate into glacial conditions. This would lead to a worldwide decrease in growing seasons and precipitation and dramatic reductions in global food supply would result. In 2004, a report (leaked) was commissioned by the pentagon to investigate the outcome of a worst-case scenario of global warming in which nothing was done to curb carbon dioxide emissions. The findings and conclusions were shocking. They concluded that “famines would decimate populations in the subtropics and densely populated countries like China and India. The global economy would most likely unravel. The threat of nuclear conflict would be grave.” Such a report from the pentagon sends a powerful message that global warming cannot be ignored as to do so would be detrimental to humanities existence and to the future of the planet. If we do nothing to curb the increasing entropy in the currently degrading biosphere, then the findings of this report could very well be accurate in predicting the future of the planet. With current attempts at reducing carbon emissions, through the Paris Agreement of 22 April 2016, based only upon the premise of voluntary emission reductions by participating countries, it is likely that change will be slow. In this book, Wessels was very much optimistic about the global anticipation in sustainability, however a lot has changed. Since then, the US, who’s reduction pledge was to account for a fifth of the global emissions to be avoided by 2030, recently announcing that it will not be taking part in the agreement and with Nicaragua refusing to sign because it believes the agreement is too weak to address the enormity of the consequences of climate change, particularly in vulnerable developing countries, the attempts seem not binding or forward-thinking enough. It is clear that many countries will not push forward on path towards a more sustainable future unless there is some economic gain or pressure from voters at home. “We have the means to dramatically increase energy efficiency and cut unneeded energy utilization. We only need the collective willpower to do so” – Wessels. It may take some longer to realise that the race for sustainable prosperity is on, but with recent backlash at the trump administrations exit of the Paris Agreement, with public figures such as Obama making a statement saying the new administration had joined “a small handful of nations that reject the future” and Al Gore calling the move “reckless and indefensible”, this shows a general public opinion that looks to sustainability as the future. I am optimistic that this public opinion shift will eventually trickle to governmental action but the question is will it be soon enough?

Most people will say that they feel powerless in the face of global warming and that the actions of one single person will have little effect. However, as discussed in this book, this is not the case. There is always time for important action as any decrease in entropy will also decrease the scale of its impacts. Our collective challenge is to dramatically decrease our consumption of energy. In an ideal world, if we weren’t subsidising the markets by passing off the entropic costs of their production to future generations, the price of locally produced environmentally sustainable goods would be less than that of cheaply produced, imported, unsustainable goods. However, this ideal would require institutional and governmental policy changes. Before this happens, consumers must vote with their money and choose, often the more expensive, sustainable goods over the cheaper alternatives. Without waiting for government legislation, even individual changes, such as buying organic food locally to cut down on losses relating to transportation, packaging, and synthetic fertilizers, can make huge impacts. The recent “millennial” movement toward vegetarianism and veganism seems to be one way that consumers are beginning to change their habits – between 2001 and 2011, meat consumption per head in Ireland fell from 93kg a year to 77.5kg according to the Central Statistics Office. A global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruit and vegetables could save up to 8 million lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion (US), Oxford Martin School researchers have found in a recent study. This is a change that I made two years ago when I became vegetarian, and I am optimistic it is a lifestyle that will continue gaining traction.

It can be observed in the natural world, that as systems grow, their complexity and diversity increases and consequently they have greater resistance to perturbations – they are more stable. However, the global economic system is behaving just the opposite; there has been an extended tendency for diverse arrays of local or regional businesses to increase their size through mergers, acquisitions and competitive exclusion. In the US, companies such as Walmart have cornered the market with their impossible to compete with low prices as they cut corners and outsource to cheap labour in less environmentally regulated countries such as China and the middle east and cut employee benefits. It is hard to believe that decreasing prices of consumer products are seen as an indicator of progress when the corners cut to reach these low prices are anything but progression. These are costs that, as a society, we all pay, and they have big impacts on the quality of life for first and third world country citizens alike. Although these low prices are compelling, the culture of Primark and euro stores is extremely damaging and as consumers we must become better at shopping smart and, as mentioned before, begin to take notice of where our goods are being produced and consider paying a slightly higher price to support sustainable development in our own countries without supporting environmentally detrimental outsourcing of production to countries where workers are payed scandalously low wages and work in hazardous environments. This homogeneity in the global markets have also lead to a dangerously high rise of corporate power in recent years with high levels of lobbying and influence in governmental decisions. All of these factors point to supporting local, even if it means taking a price hit, as the current model of increasing homogeneity is unsustainable and contradicts the way natural complex systems function.

Wessels focuses more on concepts than facts and figures which leads to an easy read. He opens with prologue in which he describes a time in which his childhood fort was destroyed by a bulldozer which was clearing forest for a housing development – “Is progress truly possible if in its wake continually generates loss”. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, resulting in Wessels alternating between scientific explanations and almost anecdotal real-world examples or personal experiences, making this book a nice change from the usual scientific read. Wessels seems to take inspiration from “Black Elk Speaks’, a book by John G. Neihardt that he read while in college. He tells us in the epilogue that this book imparted on him a whole new world view and that upon reading the first paragraph, he began questioning some of the values our culture holds dear for the first time in his life. It is clear that Wessels wishes to impart a similar experience in the reader that he once experienced in that first paragraph. Wessel’s “to the forest” interjections are vital components to this as they attempt to bestow a sense of nature appreciation on the reader. These interjections were welcome and refreshing at the beginning of the book, however I found them a little too frequent and at times the book moved slowly with more examples than necessary. However, despite this fact they did succeed in their role of forcing me to stop to think about nature and, in a world as fast passed as ours, that is sometimes an unusual thing to find time and headspace for. It is easy to get lost in the keeping up with the Jonese’s mentality that seems to never stop perpetuating materialism. I suppose it is only human nature to want to compete with our neighbours and, since in first world countries our basic needs are generally met, we now compete with materialist things that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. This book was a nice reminder or something I already knew but forget often, materialist possessions do not make us happy if we are not connected with nature and hence with the people around us.

Wessels states that the aim of his book was to understand the underlying scientific principles governing complex systems. In this regard, this book is a success as it contains some very well explained scientific principles. An example of this can be found on page 46, where Wessels gives a great example for entropy, a subject that is difficult to grasp for most students first time. He describes two identical rooms with identical furnishings, in which an adult reading a newspaper is placed in the first and in the other an unsupervised toddler. This analogy is used to explain the increase in entropy as energy is dispersed. In the first room, as the pages of the newspaper are turned, energy is dispersed in the form of dust diffusing into the air. In the second room, the increase in entropy is larger as toddlers are inherently more destructive as they explore their environment. They create more energy transformations resulting in greater entropy. I also appreciate how Wessels cleverly entwines scientific explanations and origins of commonly used but often misconceived phrases such as the butterfly effect and the straw breaking the camel’s back in chapter 1. He explains that the butterfly effect is a result of the chaos theory in non-linear systems where slight alterations of conditions could dramatically alter the systems behaviour. The straw breaking the camel’s back phrase originates through positive feedback and the eventual bifurcation event when the camel’s back breaks on the addition of the last straw.

What this book lacks however, are realistic alternatives to our current growth driven model. In chapter 5, “A Need for Cultural Change’, Wessels begins offering alternative solutions. One of these solutions is based upon “The Post-Corporate World: Life after Capatilism” by David Korten in which he advocates replacing MNC’s with smaller local and regional businesses which may be publicly owned, working for the good of the community and regional environment rather than solely attempting to maximise profits. With this he advocates more localized food production, steady state economics, and closer-knit communities, but the means in which we would get there without suffering a major economic collapse in the interim is left unaddressed. Undoubtedly developing countries such as China would not follow suit and would inevitable undercut the market and make the transition even more complicated. The extent of Wessels exploration of these topics seems to be a recommendation to read Herman Daly and David Korten, and in my opinion neither of them really takes things far enough.

Although on paper these socialist ideals that Wessels describes are sound, in practice governmental ownership to such a degree has been shown to give rise to totalitarian states with too much power. Alternatively, I think that stricter governmental legislation and total corporate exclusion from governmental decision making should be the path to follow rather than dissolving MNC’s entirely. This formula of strict legislation was the case after the original founding of large states like the US where the government exerted strong controls over corporate activities and corporations were excluded from being involved in the political process. However, corporations have since gained immense power and with this have wiggled their way into the political process, often making large donations to governmental running campaigns with the view to receiving compensation in the form of legislation changes. This has resulted in the legislation controlling said corporate fields loosening for the gain of the corporations and the loss of the environment and the citizens. A famous case of this was in Vermont when a state law was put in place in 1994 that would require all milk products produced with bovine growth hormone to be labelled so that consumers could decide whether they wished to purchase these products. The federal court overturned the law 2 years later because it violated a corporation’s First Amendment Rights to free speech. This was one of the first cases, and not that last, in which corporations interfered in a states sovereign right to enact legislation that allows its citizens to be better informed. It is easy to see that the current political system is broken and is working for nobody but large corporations or anyone willing to pay a high enough price for what they wish to be done in exchange.

However, this type of socialism, as Wessels suggests, isn’t the answer. We must look instead to opening the closed doors that many critical decisions reflecting our global future are currently being made behind, once again including citizens in the decision-making process because never in the history of democratic societies has the populace been more removed than it is today. An interesting solution that Wessels touched on at the start of the book that he didn’t flesh out in much more detail was the idea of focusing on economic development instead of growth – value added assets replacing the consumption of resources. Wessels also rightly suggests a shift towards basing our progress on social capital – the physical wellbeing of citizens and communities etc which requires a society which is emotionally healthy and fulfilled by their experiences of life. Community outreach and good general health are generally a good measure of emotional wellbeing and looking forward, these indicators should be used more and more in place of standard indicators used today.

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The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future. (2018, December 17). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-myth-of-progress-toward-a-sustainable-future/
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