An ode to advancement

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I would like to share a few observations that I’ve made about us, the Homo sapiens, and the inextricable relationship that we have with the natural world. Since the emergence of anatomically modern humans, approximately 200 000 years ago, there is one trend so obvious that it can’t be ignored: progress. What is it that drives human advancement? It can be explained with one word: selfishness. The biologist may call this “survival” or a “biological imperative,” whereas in a modern context, the investor or businessman may define it as “success.” It is nevertheless the same underlying principle—namely, actions or motives that are primarily concerned with self-interest and well-being.

To better understand the origins of human progress, we can examine the biologist’s interpretation of human selfishness—survival. The image of an early human comes easily to mind: a caveman dressed in a drab outfit made of various animal skins. Consider a scenario: a caveman leaves the cave for the day. As he takes his first step out of the cave, his cave-mate calls him back and gives him a shopping list. The list is simple: “Anything to keep us alive until tomorrow.” As silly as this example may be, this is indeed the inextricable relationship between human beings and the natural world. That is to say, human progress was shaped by what was available in the natural world. Essentially, one would just follow the proverbial ‘rules of the jungle’; take anything that is likely to benefit you, and give no consideration to where it came from, and no consideration to what the effects of taking might be. That is what it means to be selfish in terms of survival, and this can be found throughout the entire realm of living things.

Although still constrained by various natural vices, a gradual shift eventually began for humanity. Our societies became more advanced, and we transcended mere survival by floating on the wings of invention and ingenuity. The selfishness of survival became the selfishness of success and comfort; necessity became perceived necessity. The competition of motor vehicles in the early 1900s is an excellent example of perceived necessity. Among the first widely used vehicles were electrically powered cars, along with the internal combustion engine. The hydrocarbon-fueled internal combustion engine eventually proved to be more powerful, and this was seen as more desirable; a perceived necessity. Residual ‘jungle rules’ prevailed, and only now, 100 years later, we are starting to seek more environmentally friendly ways of powering our vehicles. Ironically, the electric car has re-emerged as a solution to the internal combustion engine.

A brief historic analysis of our diets also provides an example of human progress driven by selfishness. In the mid-1900s, experiments with raising animals in controlled environments provided human beings with massive livestock output, particularly when compared to raising animals in a more natural way. These techniques were cheaper, easier, and more productive. Raising livestock in controlled conditions became the norm. The motto “more is better” nicely summarizes this trend toward excessiveness, an idea prevalent in the food industry. This mentality of “never enough” has given rise to things such as the horrors of modern factory farming, and an uncontrolled increase in diet-related health problems. Although the food industry still effectively cloaks its methods, a marked growth in alternative diets such as vegetarianism and veganism shows that, like with the electric car and the vehicle industry, people are realizing that industrial processes developed in a bygone era should no longer be the standard. We have moved from necessity to perceived necessity to abuse and overuse.

It is undeniable that the past mechanisms for progress, such as the internal combustion engine, have facilitated the expansion of humanity and technology to present. However, I’d like to argue that it is no longer acceptable to focus purely on selfish growth and advancement. A transformation is necessary so that we can continue to advance in the most efficient and practical way possible. Ultimately, human beings need to compromise, even if this means slowing things down, producing less, using less. You may be thinking that massive change can only be accomplished by large corporations or governments, but who makes up corporations and governments? Individuals. A global re-prioritization must take place at the individual level. However, this is where things get personal. That basic rule of the jungle still permeates throughout our society; we are all still selfish. Do you use paper towels to dry your hands? How many? Why? Is it necessary? Do you take the escalator, when the stairs are just as accessible? Do you idle your car? Do you throw recyclable items in the garbage? Do you leave lights on even when you don’t need them? Not a single one of these actions is defensible; still they continue to happen on a daily basis, because people are selfish. And because we live in a privileged society, hundreds of these types of questions can be asked. Sadly, we seem to care more about trivial comforts than we care about the greater good of the world and developing a form of advancement that is respectable.

This is why I implore you, challenge you, to forgo the petty comforts that present themselves in your life. Examine the choices you make every day and decide whether or not they are defensible. Understanding what is actually necessary in our lives will grant us the ability to foresee the consequences of our actions more clearly. This understanding at the individual level has the potential to penetrate higher levels of societal organization, such as corporations and governments. Without a collective change of mind, the pursuit of healthy and maintainable progress is impossible. Furthermore, it will be impossible to effectively combat the global problems that currently face us. Being unable to regularly make small self-sacrifices is weakness. Our society has a fever, and it won’t be cured with more cowbell. The only cure is to rid it of lazy, average-minded people unwilling to weigh the greater good over themselves. We are no longer prehistoric beings, but the inextricable relationship we have with our world still remains. Human advancement can no longer be driven by selfishness

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