Progress Trap

A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse.

The central problem one of scale and political will. The error is often to extrapolate from what appears to work well on a small scale to a larger scale, which depletes natural resources and causes environmental degradation. Large-scale implementation also tends to be subject to diminishing returns. As overpopulation, erosion, greenhouse gas emissions or other consequences become apparent, society is destabilized.

In a progress trap, those in positions of authority are unwilling to make changes necessary for future survival. To do so they would need to sacrifice their current status and political power at the top of a hierarchy. They may also be unable to raise public support and the necessary economic resources, even if they try.

A new source of natural resources can provide a reprieve. The European discovery and exploitation of the ‘New World’ is one example of this, but seem unlikely to be repeated today. Present global civilization has covered the planet to such an extent there are no new resources in sight. Current economic crises, population problems and global climate change are symptoms that highlight the interdependence of current national economies and ecologies.

The problem has deep historical roots. In the early stone age, improved hunting techniques in vulnerable areas caused the extinction of many prey species, leaving the enlarged populace without an adequate food supply. The only apparent alternative, agriculture, also proved to be a progress trap. Salination, deforestation, erosion and urban sprawl led to disease, malnutrition and so forth, hence shorter lives.

Almost any sphere of technology can prove to be a progress trap, as in the example of medicine and its possibly inadequate response to the drawbacks of the high-density agricultural practices (e.g. factory farming) it has enabled.

Individuals and societies can become committed to an exclusive form of technocratic rationalism. In this scenario, technical preoccupation prevents creativity and problem-solving from taking effect. Where problems are created by technical specialization itself, such as desertification resulting from mismanaged irrigation, this trend can be irreversible.

In a contemporary context, unabated oil consumption in a time of climate change is an illustration of the problem; sustainable development is viewed as a solution.

Avoiding the progress trap pattern can be achieved by ensuring, through education and cultural vitality, that individuals and societies do not become primarily technocratic. The intuitive, divergent side of the mind/brain must thrive, so that lateral thinking will be an option for seeing and preventing progress traps.

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