Are we making “progress”?

Progress. The word itself implies a sense of inevitability, when in fact, in the last century, its meaning applies mainly to technological or social/civic planning “advances”.

For example, the invention of plastics, in the first decade of the twentieth century. Or, the invention and widespread use of pesticides in the 1940’s. Both of these “advancements” were seen as almost wholly good at the time. It wasn’t until the birth of the environmental movement, in the early sixties, that a “dark side” to these technologies was uncovered.

Like most inventions, these technologies were invented to solve problems, or to create new markets, or both. In almost every case of a new technology introduced in the last hundred years or so, it wasn’t until much later after its introduction that its negative unintended consequences were discovered (or uncovered).

For me, progress has another meaning, as well. That is, a correction of, or replacement of a technology whose downsides and risks outweigh its benefits. And here, I’m often puzzled and disappointed as to why progress seems so slow.

Take the way we make paper, for example. We mostly plant (relatively) fast growing tree crops for harvest, a process that takes, on average, about ten years. For almost two hundred years, however, we’ve known that hemp is a more efficient crop for this purpose. Hemp grown for paper matures in 90 days, and an acre of hemp can produce 3.9 tons of paper, vs. 10 tons for an acre of trees. Please note that credible sources differ on these numbers.

But these types of remedial progress are often delayed, or almost completely blocked, by irrational attitudes, most often allied with a socio-political stance or set of beliefs. In the case of hemp, it’s the fallacious association with its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, that has given rise to its prohibition. In the 1930s, a widespread (and racist) anti-marijuana propaganda campaign was initiated largely by Harry J. Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). The campaign was effective, and led to an almost hysterical anti-marijuana fervor. This meant that hemp was also considered morally suspect. This seems absurd, when looked at dispassionately, but its results are still very much with us. The cultivation of “industrial” hemp is still illegal in 36 states.

I don’t want this piece to be only about the virtues of hemp, but I’m going to continue on this track a bit further. To go back to plastics, hemp is also a good source of bio-degradable plastic. With plastic waste currently a huge problem, and with most discarded plastics having a half-life of roughly 400 to 800 years, it’s frustrating to me that this technology, this form of “progress”, is not progressing more quickly.

It’s also ironic in that hemp was in widespread use at the time of the founding of the United States. In fact, the growing of hemp at that time was considered by many of the founding fathers as a patriotic duty, so useful was the plant. As late as World War II, the government was urging farmers to grow hemp, and even produced a propaganda film at the time entitled “Hemp for Victory”.

Or, what about the generation of electricity? Until very recently, with the advent of cheaper natural gas, we were generating more than half of our electricity in the U.S. by burning coal. Then, natural gas got a lot cheaper, largely because of the larger reserves of gas available via fracking. I don’t think I need to go into the negative environmental impacts of either of these – they’re well known.

And now, solar and wind power generate electricity at a low enough cost to be competitive with natural gas. But, large sectors of the body politic, and (naturally) the coal, oil and gas industries, are doing whatever they can to shore up these industries that have proven to have negative environmental effects.

And, why is the adoption of solar and wind so slow (at least, it feels that way to me). Yes, I know that there are still some technical hurdles to surmount (such as power storage) but these problems have largely been solved.

My best guess is that a large sector of those in power are invested in the energy status quo. This is a fight that’s been going on for a long time. In the seventies, Jimmy Carter had solar hot water heaters and solar photovoltaic panels installed on the White House roof. When Reagan was elected, in 1980, one of the first things he did was to have them removed. A pretty clear message, I think, in either case. Absolutely nothing was gained by removing the panels and buying coal-produced energy – it was purely a message about priorities.

So, that all makes me wonder – why is it that those on the “conservative” right are usually the ones opposed to any environmentally protective regulations, and seemingly uninterested in renewable energy, while those on the “liberal” left tend to be more concerned about the environment, and interested in renewables?

The easy and obvious answer, with regard to conservatives, is that they believe that regulation is bad for business.

I think they also think that renewable energy is somehow allied with lefty-loosy hippie thinking, although that’s started to change. An important instance of this is Rick Perry, the ex-governor of Texas, and now Secretary of Energy, who was largely instrumental for supporting the dramatic spread of wind power in Texas. That was largely because it made economic sense.

I guess the improving economics of renewables will be the thing that will get us all in the same boat, since money is one thing we can all agree on – the bottom line is the bottom line.