The Trouble with Progress

By Madronna Holden

In his classic work, The Death of Ramón González, Angus Wright analyzes how contemporary corporate agriculture undermines human health, local economies, and the environment. He points out that even short term productivity of modern “super” crops relies on extensive pesticide, fertilizer and water inputs that are unsustainable in most global climates.  According to the World Health Organization, the pesticides used in this type of farming are responsible for 20,000 reported fatal poisonings a year –and many times that which are not reported. They are also a prominent  cause of the current cancer epidemic.

But even as Wright details the ruthlessness with which agri-business maintains its profits in the face of unfortunate technological strategies, he observes that there are alternative technologies that do not poison our air, food, and water, erode soil, or undermine ecological and economic systems.  Agri-business might just as well profit from these.

So why make bad choices—and pursue them with vehemence?  The crux of the issue, Wright proposes, is the worldview that holds progress in such esteem.  “Progress”, the GE saying famously had it, “Is our most important product”.  But the same worldview that elevates progress in this way never critically examines it. It loosely equates “progress”  with “advancement”, continuing the legacy of Francis Bacon, who asserted that humanity’s purpose is to control nature through science—and anything that humans invent to do this is good.

But when we equate progress with anything humans come up with, we wind up with methods of food production that have so many disastrous results.

Indeed, there is considerable tragedy to unexamined notions of advancement. Throughout history, conquerors asserted they were bringing progress to “backward” societies as they took over their lands.

Today the notion that industrial technologies are progressive as a matter of course licenses one-size-fits-all development that too often subjects third world peoples to debt, cultural disintegration, and ecological ruin. The assumption that industrial nations are more advanced than others inhibits both our partnerships with non-industrialized peoples and our acceptance of alternative technologies tested for centuries on local landscapes.

The destructive consequences of this logic haunts our own society us as well.  According to social historian Ulrech Beck, technology becomes our fate when we accept it without evaluation. That is, when undefined “progress” is considered good per se, we don’t get to choose it, we just have to figure out how to deal with its results.

This lack of critical perspective on progress and the technologies under its umbrella twists perceptions of reality—as in Monsanto’s response to the decimation of its BT corn from pests gaining resistance to its  engineered corn within three generations.  Responding to reports from scientists in Iowa that BT corn fell over in the fields from root damage, Monsanto denied it happened. There is a parallel dynamic with Monsanto’s assertion that its gmo seeds are “high yield”, in spite of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, “Failure to Yield”, which shows just how far such crops fall short of the mark.

Biotech ads asserting that we can’t feed the world without their technologies only work in the context of a worldview which assumes new technologies yield positive results without seriously evaluating them.  Farmers are not the only ones to whom such bogus progress is sold.  Consumer gadgetry hawked on the basis of its being new technology adds to the burgeoning consumerism that is ravaging our planet.

And tragically, a worldview that sets up unexamined “progress” as its shining light also gives its manufacturers dispensation from moral responsibilities. This is an essential historical lesson derived from Wright’s analysis of industrialized agriculture.  If our worldview did not sanction progress in the way that it does, agribusiness would not have this ground with which to license their attacks on presumably “backward” forces that challenge their profits.

The logic involved in fighting such challenges is exhibited in Monsanto’s decades-long battle against the labeling of genetically engineered foods.  Labeling gmo foods, the head of a Monsanto subsidiary stated in 1994, is tantamount to putting  a skull and crossbones on them. (Kansas City Star, March 7).

Such an argument only carries weight if one assumes that manufacturers have the right to impose a new technology on consumers in spite of their resistance—that is, if biotech “advances” override democratic choice.

Monsanto’s fight against the public right to know parallels numerous other violations of justice, public health and the environment in the name of progress.  Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner document such egregious industry practices in their rigorously peer-reviewed Deceit and Denial, using industry’s own internal documents.

For instance, they detail how the lead industry used notions of progress to create an Orwellian double think, in which the very thing that is supposed to make our children’s lives better—progress—winds up destroying their intelligence as well as their health.  Thus there were those ads claiming that lead solder used to seal baby formula cans was a modern technology supporting babies’ health.  Even though industry knew better from its own research, the assertion of progress–and protection of profit–  trumped their ethical choices.

Indeed, when a worldview with an unexamined idea of progress operates in an economic system that rewards profit however it is gained, there results moral as well as environmental disasters. There is, for instance, the case of plastics manufacturers in the 1950s.   At the same time that they boasted that their plastics were the wave of the future, industry leaders had in hand x-rays of the dissolving bones of the workers who manufactured them. Their response was to hide this data not only from the public in general but from the effected workers.

Historically, coal mining, asbestos, steel smelting, lead, vinyl chloride and pesticides industries, among others, have likewise hidden data documenting the disastrous effects of their products on workers, local communities and the environment—sometimes for decades. When such information finally did become public and irrefutable, these industries told the public such negative effects were the necessary price of progress.

I would assert, however, that no society can call itself advanced if its “progress” undercuts justice, community power, quality of life and self-determination for some in order to create profit for others.  Nor can any technology that undercuts the sources of all life by destroying natural systems rightly be termed advanced.

The European Union has a better handle on technological advancement. It puts  health before profit through the precautionary principle which mandates that manufacturers certify a new chemical harmless before it is released into the public domain.  If we were to institute this principle in the US, industry might attend to more land-friendly food production,  just as historically they might have paid attention to a non-toxic gasoline additive discovered—and ignored– as ethyl lead became the additive they pursued.

Indeed, if we had more of an eye to the social and environmental effects of our choices, we might not now be getting around in gas-fueled vehicles with all the attendant problems of climate change. There have been alternatives to this single-car system from the start– alternatives attacked by General Motors, who was only belatedly fined for undermining the street car systems in major cities.

Progress becomes our most destructive product when we don’t critically examine it—but it might be our most beneficial product if we hold it to standards of social and economic justice and sustainability.  The GE commercial was right.  “Progress is our most important product”. This is the very reason it must not be our most unexamined product as well.

Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.