Please excuse this departure from my normal posts about nature and the wonder of life. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.
Today I am a grumpy old man, somewhat puzzled by the world, a little misanthropic.
I feel that, somehow, my society is broken. We can do some incredibly complicated things. I can buy an avocado any time I want, day or night, all year round. If I want a microwave oven, or a trip to Japan, I can just do it. We’ve got all this consumer stuff sorted out. But we don’t know how to care for our old and ill, and we can’t educate and parent our young. We seem to be prepared to live on a planet we are turning into a baking hot rubbish tip, and we have not yet bothered to work out how to feed our own species. I remember, in 1963, going with my sister from door to door, collecting for the United Nations Year of the Refugee. We thought we could solve that problem, but no-one seems bothered anymore.
I’m not suggesting, in any way, that life was better then. We still had diphtheria and polio in England then. The poor still lived in slum housing, though I don’t remember anyone living in a cardboard box under a railway arch in London.
It seems that so-called progress always comes at a price, and we never know the price until after we’ve bought it. We wouldn’t do that in a shop!
It has always been so. It is why older people irritate the young so much. Each generation needs a lifetime to discover the cost of progress. Whoever you are, you will discover it, too, and, like every single generation before you, it will be too late to do anything about it.
We all sign a direct debit to the future, and then watch open-mouthed as the future empties our bank accounts.
When the first person invented agriculture, he or she probably sold the idea to the other bands of hunter-gatherers by calling it progress. “Buy my new invention called “Farming” and you will never need to go hungry again, your family will be stable and safe, and then you can save up for our new, improved plough.”
Sounded like a good idea. This was progress, indeed. No more moving on when the season changed, no more need to catch spiders for a snack.
But they didn’t tell you the price, did they?
The price for most people was a life of hard, repetitive labour, growing a limited diet, in the form of a crop that, when it failed due to drought, flood, disease or war, meant almost certain starvation. The safety that was sold came at the price of subjection to kings, emperors and strangers. What was lost was a life of small groups, a life of following the seasonal patterns of migration, and an incredibly varied diet. If the food disappeared, you followed it, or ate something else. If you were threatened by a more powerful group, you just moved on.
Of course, you didn’t have the latest, turbo-charged plough, but you didn’t need one, did you?
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were living in the Garden of Eden. The Serpent was the first entrepreneur, and the Tree of Knowledge was the concept of progress.
Progress is not an unqualified good thing. The steam engine’s price was factories and slums and the enslavement of most of the people; the combustion engine’s price has been the destruction of the environment and of local communities; the price tag on the free market is monopoly and the end of the nation state. The list is endless.
So, buyer beware. Be aware that no-one will give you anything for free. When you think of the price of something think beyond the immediate price.
There. That’s better. Now I can get back to chronicling the arrival of another spring.