Progress is not the enemy of mankind.This morning, the New York Times published an essay by University of Notre Dame English professor Roy Scranton that began with this remarkable paragraph:
I cried two times when my daughter was born. First for joy, when after 27 hours of labor the little feral being we’d made came yowling into the world, and the second for sorrow, holding the earth’s newest human and looking out the window with her at the rows of cars in the hospital parking lot, the strip mall across the street, the box stores and drive-throughs and drainage ditches and asphalt and waste fields that had once been oak groves. A world of extinction and catastrophe, a world in which harmony with nature had long been foreclosed. My partner and I had, in our selfishness, doomed our daughter to life on a dystopian planet, and I could see no way to shield her from the future.
I couldn’t help but think back to the day when my son was born — my second child. I had tears in my eyes twice that day as well. The first, when he was born (seemingly healthy), and the second time when he was pulled out of our arms for emergency care. He had pneumonia. His breathing was labored. And for almost two full weeks he received the best care that modern medicine could provide. He wasn’t born on a dystopian planet. He was born in the only era of human history when he could survive.
Think for a moment about the elements of modern life that Scranton condemns in his essay. Cars and roads that enable people to travel to hospitals for the births of their children, box stores and drive-throughs that provide goods and comfort and nourishment without the necessity of scratching out a living from the land. Curiously, he even decries “drainage ditches” and “waste fields” that keep our communities sanitary and protect public health.
Indeed, it is the very spread of this progress — the spread of the very things that Scranton decries as the instruments of our doom — that has contributed to longer life expectancies across the planet and a stunning 74 percent plunge in extreme poverty from 1990 to 2015. I wonder: Are the speculative projections of a dystopian future ever weighed against the very real relief from a dystopian present? Do the many millions of lives saved now matter when we calculate the “costs” of progress?
And even if your focus is on the future, does our past ability to triumph over the challenges of the natural world — challenges that shortened human lives and impoverished generations past — give you any confidence for the days ahead?
Consider this: The United States — the nation that activists constantly decry as not taking the challenge of climate change seriously enough, the nation that allegedly is dilatory in mobilizing its government and national resources to combat a mortal threat to our planet, and the nation that continues to grow in population and national output — also happens to lead the world in reducing carbon emissions. And it’s not close: