Progress trap

Progress trap

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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 term gained attention following the historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

 and novelist Ronald Wright
Ronald Wright
Ronald Wright is a Canadian author who has written books of travel, history and fiction. His nonfiction includes the bestseller Stolen Continents, winner of the Gordon Montador Award and chosen as a book of the year by the Independent and the Sunday Times...

's 2004 non-fiction book and Massey Lecture series A Short History of Progress
A Short History of Progress
A Short History of Progress is a non-fiction book and lecture series by Ronald Wright about societal collapse. The lectures were delivered as a series of five speeches, each taking place in different cities across Canada as part of the 2004 Massey Lectures which was broadcast on the CBC Radio...

, in which he sketches world history so far as a succession of progress traps. Daniel B. O'Leary's book Escaping the Progress Trap appeared in 2006, having begun life in 1990 as a presentation at Montreal's Concordia University entitled "The Progress Trap - Science, Humanity and Environment".


While the idea is not new, Wright identifies the central problem as being one of scale and political will. According to him, 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
Diminishing returns
In economics, diminishing returns is the decrease in the marginal output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is increased, while the amounts of all other factors of production stay constant.The law of diminishing returns In economics, diminishing returns (also...

. As overpopulation
Overpopulation is a condition where an organism's numbers exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat. The term often refers to the relationship between the human population and its environment, the Earth...

, erosion
Erosion is when materials are removed from the surface and changed into something else. It only works by hydraulic actions and transport of solids in the natural environment, and leads to the deposition of these materials elsewhere...

, greenhouse gas
Greenhouse gas
A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone...

 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. Deforestation and erosion in ancient Greece may be an example of the latter.

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. Wright concludes that if not averted by some other means, collapse will be on a global scale, if or when it comes. 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
Stone Age
The Stone Age is a broad prehistoric period, lasting about 2.5 million years , during which humans and their predecessor species in the genus Homo, as well as the earlier partly contemporary genera Australopithecus and Paranthropus, widely used exclusively stone as their hard material in the...

, 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
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

, 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
Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, machinery, and procedures. The word technology comes ;...

 can prove to be a progress trap, as in the example of medicine
Medicine is the science and art of healing. It encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness....

 and its possibly inadequate response to the drawbacks of the high-density agricultural practices (e.g. factory farming
Factory farming
Factory farming is a term referring to the process of raising livestock in confinement at high stocking density, where a farm operates as a factory — a practice typical in industrial farming by agribusinesses. The main products of this industry are meat, milk and eggs for human consumption...

) it has enabled. Wright uses weapon
A weapon, arm, or armament is a tool or instrument used with the aim of causing damage or harm to living beings or artificial structures or systems...

Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, machinery, and procedures. The word technology comes ;...

 gradually reaching the threat of total nuclear destruction to illustrate this point. Ultimately, Wright strives to counter at least the Victorian notion of "modernity" as unconditionally a good thing.

Root causes

O'Leary finds the cause of progress traps in neurological studies of cerebral development, specialization and lateralization of brain function
Lateralization of brain function
A longitudinal fissure separates the human brain into two distinct cerebral hemispheres, connected by the corpus callosum. The sides resemble each other and each hemisphere's structure is generally mirrored by the other side. Yet despite the strong anatomical similarities, the functions of each...

. His study of this shows how 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
Desertification is the degradation of land in drylands. Caused by a variety of factors, such as climate change and human activities, desertification is one of the most significant global environmental problems.-Definitions:...

 resulting from mismanaged irrigation
Irrigation may be defined as the science of artificial application of water to the land or soil. It is used to assist in the growing of agricultural crops, maintenance of landscapes, and revegetation of disturbed soils in dry areas and during periods of inadequate rainfall...

, this trend can be irreversible. The classic case would be Sumer
Sumer was a civilization and historical region in southern Mesopotamia, modern Iraq during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age....

, where output-raising irrigation canals and logging slowly combined to make the fields far too salty to continue supporting the crops Sumerians had to rely on.

Other examples, such as Seymour Cray
Seymour Cray
Seymour Roger Cray was an American electrical engineer and supercomputer architect who designed a series of computers that were the fastest in the world for decades, and founded Cray Research which would build many of these machines. Called "the father of supercomputing," Cray has been credited...

’s overspecialized Control Data Corporation
Control Data Corporation
Control Data Corporation was a supercomputer firm. For most of the 1960s, it built the fastest computers in the world by far, only losing that crown in the 1970s after Seymour Cray left the company to found Cray Research, Inc....

 or the Medieval Church's rejection of Roger Bacon
Roger Bacon
Roger Bacon, O.F.M. , also known as Doctor Mirabilis , was an English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empirical methods...

's science follow the pattern: The mode of development itself excluded solutions to problems arising from that development. In a contemporary context, unabated oil consumption in a time of climate change
Climate change
Climate change is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years. It may be a change in average weather conditions or the distribution of events around that average...

 is an illustration of the problem; sustainable development
Sustainable development
Sustainable development is a pattern of resource use, that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come...

 is viewed as a solution.

According to O'Leary, avoiding the progress trap pattern can be achieved by ensuring, through education and cultural vitality, that individuals and societies do not become primarily technocratic. Citing research into creativity
Creativity refers to the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new that has some kind of value. What counts as "new" may be in reference to the individual creator, or to the society or domain within which the novelty occurs...

 and resiliency theory, he argues that the intuitive, divergent side of the mind/brain must thrive, so that lateral thinking will be an option for seeing and preventing progress traps. Spelling this out in scientific terms may be necessary for policymakers to take notice.

Art and the progress trap

Aurora Picture Show, a microcinema in Houston, Texas has released a collection of "informational videos by artists who use recent technological tools for purposes other than what they were designed to do and, in some instances, in direct opposition to their intended use." The title of the DVD is At your service: Escaping the Progress Trap.

See also

  • Escalation of commitment
    Escalation of commitment
    Escalation of commitment was first described by Barry M. Staw in his 1976 paper, "Knee deep in the big muddy: A study of escalating commitment to a chosen course of action"...

    , also known as irrational escalation
  • Resilience (ecology)
    Resilience (ecology)
    In ecology, resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. Such perturbations and disturbances can include stochastic events such as fires, flooding, windstorms, insect population explosions, and human activities...

  • Societal collapse
    Societal collapse
    Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses , as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers...

  • System justification
    System justification
    System justification theory is a scientific theory within social psychology that proposes people have a motivation to defend and bolster the status quo, that is, to see it as good, legitimate, and desirable....

  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
    Collapse (book)
    Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is a 2005 book by Jared M. Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at University of California, Los Angeles...

    by Jared Diamond
  • The Icarus Paradox
    Icarus Paradox
    The Icarus paradox is a neologism coined by Danny Miller, and popularized by his 1990 book by the same name, for the observed phenomenon of businesses that fail abruptly after a period of apparent success....

    : How Exceptional Companies Bring About Their Own Downfall
    , by Danny Miller
  • The Geography of Hope by Chris Turner
  • The Ingenuity Gap by Thomas Homer-Dixon
  • The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization
    The Upside of Down
    The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization is a non-fiction book published in 2006 by Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor at the University of Toronto....

    by Thomas-Homer Dixon
  • The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter
    Joseph Tainter
    Joseph A. Tainter is a U.S. anthropologist and historian.Tainter studied anthropology at the University of California and Northwestern University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1975. He is currently a professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University...

External links