Is Growth Progress?
by Christine Westland
“In the Heart of the Sea” is a thrilling movie — a true story and the impetus for the novel “Moby Dick.” The story is about whaling and takes place about 200 years ago. People had no electricity then, thus the need for something other than candles. Whale oil became a commodity earnestly sought after. Harvesting whales was only for a few, exceptionally strong and brave persons who often sacrificed their lives. Therefore, it was a blessing when electricity became available, followed by gushing oil wells in Pennsylvania and the “Industrial Revolution” which forever changed lives and fortunes worldwide.
If you were born in the 1930s or 40s, you may remember as I do that growing up seemed dramatically less complicated and dangerous than now. There was a thriving middle class, and jobs with retirement benefits, etc., were the norm. Most people had “enough” and could afford modest luxuries. Since then, we’ve had unprecedented economic growth coupled with massive media advertising and a worldwide population explosion. Materialism and consumerism have accelerated in pace with industrialization, which doesn’t necessarily mean that “growth” is altogether a positive thing anymore.
Technology is a double edged sword: creation of the worldwide web about 25 years ago has provided instant access to as much knowledge as is available, opening doors of progress for every culture. But technology is also used in ways that are unwise and wasteful: consider “X-boxes,” video games, and other distractions which can completely absorb a child’s mind, robbing many of a healthier growth pattern, use of imagination and interpersonal skills, while exposing them to violence, drugs and war. Thus the generations we have created are missing out on forming interpersonal skills and learning about the natural world.
When whales were hunted to near extinction, we did not acknowledge that whales were much more important than the oil they carried: being at the top of the food chain, they were an irreplaceable link in interconnectedness of sea life. Now, our endless dependence on petroleum, while bringing more luxuries and leisure, has created a false reality which has transformed everyday life. In America, there is no longer oil that is easy to find; we have resorted to fracking and drilling for the dirtiest and most dangerous crude oil reserves, often resulting in “dead zones” poisoning water and soil and the health of nearby populations.
Since hydropower and thermoelectric power provide about 98 percent of the world’s electricity, we cannot afford to sacrifice clean water for limited stores of toxic, dangerous oil. We can’t have both.
Technology, science and a thirst for knowledge has led us to finally know what has caused the gradual increase in global temperatures in a mere “speck” of geologic time (about 200 years) to rise. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now 400 ppm, a much higher and increasing level not seen in more than 400,000 years. It is the unfettered overuse of fossil fuels (coal and oil), beginning with the “Industrial Revolution” and deforestation which has caused unnatural quantities of CO2 to be released and stored in the atmosphere and oceans, resulting in a startling rise in average heat and life-threatening chemical changes in ocean waters. Our “contributions” have upset the normal and delicate balance which governs weather patterns and ocean currents. Thousands of ecosystems are being upset and many species are being forced to make abrupt changes in order to survive.
It is alarming — within only about 100 years, human activity, mostly in industrialized countries, has caused the ice caps to begin serious melting while oceans and atmosphere to continue warming and rising at unprecedented rates. But now that science has exposed some of humanity’s most monstrous mistakes, we will have to adapt or die. That means much sacrifice and lifestyle changes, but you cannot progress without change. To live in denial means stagnation and immobilization as we witness and become a part of the interconnected, cascading results of a warming and unstable planet.
Positive changes can continue if we cultivate a deeper understanding of the consequences of misuse and overuse of what natural resources remain. We would be well-served to change outdated ideas about energy production and acknowledge and use sustainable ways to achieve success. We may have to measure prosperity not in dollars any more but in the overall health and harmony of our lives. To retain “business as usual” methods of supplying our needs will force us to watch ecosystems collapse while we struggle to survive on the only place we have to live.
Christine Westland has been a resident of Whatcom County since 1997. She is retired but is very busy with many interests, including writing, reading, and learning more about the natural world and how human life must live in conformity with natural laws. She hopes to help others expand their awareness of the many issues related to the natural world.