Our son David inherited his grandmother’s 1969 white Pontiac convertible with red vinyl upholstery. It was sexy, but it was a beast, a gas-guzzler and perfect example of the dangerous designs Ralph Nader successfully fought against during the same era. Just to list a few of its more egregious features, it had a rigid frame, lap belts, bench seats, tiny rear view mirrors, manual windows and door locks, carburetor, spongy suspension and a big V-8 motor that drank a half-pint of fuel every mile. Its heating, air conditioning and ventilation system hardly functioned and the radio was a joke. The bumpers could not withstand a 5 mph collision. It did have power steering and power brakes – drum brakes. It was huge.
In 2015, when we sold the Pontiac, I still owned a 1992 Camry station wagon I had bought used many years before. In the 23 years between 1969 and 1992, all major mechanical, safety and comfort issues had been addressed. It had a transverse V-6 engine with fuel injection driving the front wheels that delivered 25 mpg on the highway (its in-city mileage is not that great because of the big engine, but still was more than twice that of the Pontiac). It had a driver’s side air bag, over the shoulder seat belts, individual adjustable front seats, electric windows and door locks, rear window wipers, big motor-adjusted mirrors, cruise control, an impact-absorbing frame, highly effective rust protection, ABS disk brakes, impact-resistant bumpers, a modern suspension system, and an excellent radio with tape and CD players. It was quiet, comfortable, capacious, compact and reliable. In short, it was a fully modern car.
In the twenty-three years between 1992 and 2015, what important features have been added? More air bags, endless electronics and other small refinements, some very nice but of minimal importance and at a substantial increase in maintenance. All aspects have been refined, but there have been no innovations that increase safety, durability or efficiency remotely comparable to the dramatic changes that took place between 1969 and 1992. In addition, the progress made in compacting the car between 1969 and 1992 has been reversed. We are now used to tall huge vehicles instead of the low and wide huge vehicles we loved in the 60’s.
This is an example of one way in which “progress” is a misnomer: adding expensive, high-maintenance incremental changes to mature products. An important factor in the escalation of medical care in advanced societies is expending large sums to add a small increment of time at the end of life. I am very glad I have a titanium knee and a piece of cow in my heart, because otherwise I would not be nearly as active as I am, and might well have expired. But these surgeries cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it is simply impossible to extend such benefits to billions of people; we can’t even do so for a large fraction of our own citizens.
And can anyone argue that the difference between iPhones six and seven is remotely comparable to the difference between a flip phone and an iPhone? Or between no cell phone and a cell phone?
Another form of spurious progress is the loss of functionality in the service of reducing costs. Not only is ours a throw-away economy, but the products often break down after only a few hours or even minutes of use. In countless cases, new products are less reliable, less durable and less functional than those they replace.
We purchased a cheap set of wooden lawn furniture made with some kind of tropical hardwood (Americans import 95% of the tropical hardwoods, a large fraction of which are harvested unsustainably). To reduce the assembly cost of the chairs, the slats that formed the seats were designed with joints that were guaranteed to fail if a robust adult sat on them. Edward O. Wilson once commented that cutting tropical rain forest for profit was like burning a Renaissance painting in order to cook dinner. Our tropical chairs made a nice fire one chilly evening.
To keep the economic growth engine running, governments, corporations and consumers (previously known as citizens) need to buy more stuff. Some of the new stuff is indeed useful, notably electronic devices. Even in that case, functional innovations are becoming marginal, and sometimes (as in the case of Microsoft operating systems) run in reverse.
There are exceptions. One is scientific instruments, where innovation and refinement allow us to uncover entirely new layers of natural phenomena, genome sequencing and deep space imaging being only two examples. Another is technology that has enhanced the arts.
It’s too bad all this extra stuff isn’t making us happier: even though at the moment Americans are the safest people who have ever lived on earth, we don’t feel safe. And the religion of growth is making us much less safe in the long run.
As I argue in other essays, the survival of human civilization requires moving from the economy we have to one where growth is parceled out in ways that are productive, equitable and sustainable.
This will require a fundamental shift from an emphasis on competition to one of cooperation, sharing, redistribution and making hard choices to shed amenities we can’t support. No one has yet figured out how to make these hard choices in a way that will be acceptable to a free people in a liberal economy.
My wife and I, my daughter and her family, and almost everyone I know continue to consume like mad, just like everyone else who can afford it and way too many who can’t (our son is admirably abstemious). We don’t know what else to do, and I suspect you are in the same boat.
It is time to put the sapiens back in Homo sapiens, but it will require us to work together, give up many luxuries, and base our actions on science. This is not exactly a recipe for getting elected to public office.