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Progress Traps

I just arrived in Saudi Arabia after 17 hours of flights from the U.S.  My wife and I attended our son's beautiful wedding in Sonoma, California, bonded with our children, students and many friends, and I attended the largest Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) conference in Houston, where I realized that I knew most people over fifty.  Kind of scary, but what can one expect after being an SPE member for 33 years?

The Patzek family in Sonoma, California, just before the latest enlargement.

You may ask what are my impressions from America after a nine-month absence?  There are many positive impressions and some are mixed.  First, we miss America. I loved the lush green trees in Texas, and the beautiful live oaks everywhere I looked in my Austin neighborhood.  I loved being with my children, friends and neighbors.  I did not like the rampant inflation of the cost of food and most living necessities.  This inflation has been at least 10% per year in most metropolitan areas, and is not captured by the highly misleading consumer price index (CPI), which registered only 0.4% over the same time period.  I did not like the ever-smaller and more expensive meals often prepared from shoddy food stocks.  The prices of good food in the U.S. are now on par with Europe; not long ago they were one half.  The over-the-counter medications in the U.S. are 2 - 3 times more expensive than in Europe.  I did not like paying $475 for a single night in a rather low standard hotel in San Francisco.  It was "market pricing" for that particular night, I was told, and the next rooms up were $600 - $1100 per night. That's absolutely crazy!

The high inflation in almost everything one needs to live as a civilized human being is coupled with the very noticeable impoverishment of the American society, and that's really bad news.  Why is it happening?  Perhaps now I should mention progress and progress traps.

The idea of progress is at most three hundred years old.  For more details, please read the exquisite short book by Ronald Wright, "A Short History of Progress." Progress is defined as an irreversible chain of events that with time make our lives continuously better.  These events have been mostly linked to the ever-improving technology and social systems that make us live longer, smell better, be happier, and expect more from the future.  The latter expectation has been especially strong over the last 20-50 years, depending on where you live. The myth of progress is strongest in the U.S., where technology has delivered more than in other places.

According to Wright: "Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture's deepest values and aspirations... Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them.  They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time."  Thus, it is almost impossible to debunk a partially true myth, but let me poke a few holes.

The social myth of progress is curiously at odds with the thermodynamic direction of time that coincides with increase of entropy.  In other words, as time progresses the overall mess must increase too.  In fairness, most of our mess is exported by the Earth as heat into the cold universe, but all chemical waste stays here, continues to react, and demolishes all living systems on the planet.  This deterioration is now very visible wherever I go, including my neighborhood in Austin, where the last 500 acres of pristine land are being stripped of wild oaks and paved with concrete for streets and house slabs.  So let's talk about progress traps.

The last two square kilometers of the mostly untouched land are being demolished in my neighborhood in Austin.  The wild animals will be chased out, the groundwater level lowered, the water wells all around will dry up earlier, and there will more flash flooding in addition to traffic congestion, but otherwise progress will triumph. Such progress is defined by the Hays county officials, whose minds never left the nineteenth century and myth of the wild conquest of endless new territory.  This is exactly how quality of life for all diminishes because a few convert the local environmental services into dollars and run.

The seductive promise of technological progress leads into progress traps.  Let me begin with Austin, Texas.  In 1983, it was a wonderful place with roughly 350,000 people, so livable that it became the most desirable city in the U.S.  By 2015, Austin had 900,000 people, and the great Austin area 1.5 million and counting.  Austin is congested beyond belief, very expensive to live, running out of water, and the people who work there are the fifth most unhappy bunch among workers in all American cities.   Austin fell into a progress trap by not noticing that if 1x is beautiful, 5x usually is a disaster.

Perhaps the most classical progress trap is weapons.  Spears were better than clubs, arrows better than spears, guns than arrows, and bombs than guns.  Nuclear warheads are better than all other weapons, and they can extinguish humanity and most life on the Earth.  Technological progress has lead to a deadly and irreversible progress trap.  Humans have become smart enough to terminate themselves in a few hours.

On a retail scale, fire arms killed 406,396 Americans between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2013, when the national gun-death statistic stops.  Only 3,380 Americans were killed by terrorists, including 2,990 in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania. The technological and social progress traps - the myth of unbounded personal freedom won with arms and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution purchased by the gun lobby - have led to a 120 times higher likelihood that an American dies from a fellow citizen's fire, including himself, rather than from a terrorist's hand.  The factor of 100 separates speeds of running and flying a jet (6 vs. 600 miles per hour).

If you live in Chicago, you are 20 times more likely to die from a bullet than a civilian in the last Afghan war that also started in 2001.  When you live in Washington, D.C., this ratio is six!  Just the massacres in the Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the Umpqua Community College killed 85 people.  Now, that's progress!

The second technological progress mega trap is agriculture.  Much of agriculture started across the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East about 5000 years ago, but there are glimpses of plant domestication going back perhaps another 5000 years. Regardless of what enthusiasts of the "Green Revolution" and GMOs claim, no new major plant species has been introduced for massive cultivation relative to those cultivated 5000 years ago.  Five or six top cultivar crops that colonized humans just as much we colonized them represent most of agriculture on the planet, with an area equal to that of the Indian subcontinent. And those cultivars that were improved, got better through the painfully slow plant breeding, not through instantaneous genetic manipulations.

Today, much of the Fertile Crescent is a parched desert, most of the fertile soil went to the sea, and salt built everywhere because of irrigation.  Half of all soil in Iraq is dead because of salination. In Egypt this fraction is one-third.  The Central Valley in California is well under way into oblivion, while ground water there is being robbed everywhere and sea water is encroaching on the aquifers along the coast.  Have we learned anything from the Middle East history's wrecks?

One can ask why did agriculture explode around the world just 5000 thousand years ago?  The most plausible answer is that climate on the Earth calmed down sufficiently to allow this to happen.  Earlier climate was too unstable, switching between warm, dry, and ice on a geological dime.  Today the seven billion people on the Earth totally depend on industrial agriculture for their survival.  More than 1/2 of humans today owe their lives to chemistry as nitrogen fertilizer and field chemicals.

The agriculture progress trap is as final for humanity as the nuclear weapons are.  We have become narrowly specialized in obtaining and moving food supplies around the world to keep us alive.  All cities of the world must import vast quantities of food from equally vast areas elsewhere.  We are as finely tuned to the current calm climate as the mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers were to their climate before they went extinct.  Now what if our climate becomes unstable again, and agriculture starts failing at the same time in too many places around the world?  Here I must remind you about chemical entropy generated by us as time progresses.  Regardless of all other causes of climate change, the gigantic volumes of greenhouse gases generated by humans can not be helping in climate stabilization. 

This brings me back to the high rate of hidden inflation, and the increasing poverty and social instability everywhere.  As humans are exploding in numbers thanks to their agriculture and life-saving technologies, the entropy bill for all of this progress also explodes.  This bill appears as depletion of clean air, drinkable water, fertile soil, rich mineral resources, and all other environmental services that keep us alive.  For a while, we have been pretending that finance can replace the physical earth.  Well, it cannot and this impossibility translates itself into the degradation of living conditions everywhere, including the insular America.  We have had an excellent ride and will continue for a while, but in the end time and entropy will win over anything else.

So how many more years do we have without a major war to control the dwindling environmental resources or lebensraum defined by a last century classic? Notice that if this war is for water and food, it cannot be nuclear.  Talk about progress traps.

P.S. Technological complexity is yet another important progress trap described in our book.  BP could not properly handle the complex drilling process for the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, and the resulting environmental disaster cost it 62 billion dollars and counting.  Volkswagen armed its diesel engine cars with millions of lines of computer code to make them more efficient.  But the new engines did not deliver and Volkswagen decided to cheat on emission tests by hiding the much higher GHG gas emissions than those falsified from the sensor readings.  This technological and environmental fiasco might cost Volkswagen 87 billion dollars.  Both companies will emerge broken from their self-inflicted disasters rooted in system complexity and inability of humans to grasp this complexity.

By the way, how is your closest friend, Smart Phone, doing?  It must feel good to caress him/her/it tenderly in your loving hand, doesn't it?

P.S. 01/28/2016.  I just came back from Austin, where driving got so much more miserable that I am glad I don't live there now.  Austin is booming, real estate prices are at an all-time high, and as with exponential growth anywhere no one has any idea how rude the awakening will be because of the obviously prohibitive cost of such growth.  It seems to me that the county and municipal governments there are ideal for the late 19th century settlements, but miserably unimaginative and dumb for a 2-million people strong metropolis century and a half later.


  1. Thanks for another great post. I feel like entropy is an oft forgotten reality: to make something, you must break something else. The perpetual exponential growth paradigm is not compatible with the disorder it introduces simply by happening.

    Austin may seem to be growing up if you live near downtown, but you do not see the true scale of the growth until you drive out a little ways and see the land being cleared for ever more development. The lack of reliable transportation is the true cause in my eyes, as it does not allow density to occur and thus prevent the sprawl that is the norm.

    And on smartphones, IEEE put out a few years ago that standard usage draws about as much electricity as two refrigerators, once the networking energy is factored in. Sustainable? At least you can control your Nest (R) Smart Thermostat from anywhere now and save energy that way!

    The technological panacea narrative no longer is holding water: technology cannot solve a problem it caused, the solution will need to be far simpler. The essence of technology is man's dominion over nature, not man's coexistence.

    1. @Tristan
      Thank you for the thoughtful comment and picking up on the Smart Phone. I closed with the phone question to challenge the Reader to think about yet another serious progress trap.

      Today cellular phone, TV, and computer network servers and transmitters easily use 15% of all electricity in most countries. Electrical power generation is the second highest generator of greenhouse gases after agriculture and forest burning. Therefore our phone friends significantly contribute to the giant chemical entropy bill for human progress.

      But there is another insidious effect of holding a phone and looking at it most of the waking hours. For many years, I have not seen so many single and lonely people as I see now. Technological enthusiasts will shout that never in history humans have been so closely and often connected, so what am I talking about?

      Is it really so? Do Facebook, or a text message, or email, or UTube video replace touching, smelling, and seeing a human next to us? Recognize their body language and glitter in their eyes? Our Cro Magnon brains that have evolved over, say, a million years, can no longer cope with the rate of technological change. Our adaptations, therefore, are purely cultural, not evolutionary. When we start thinking about an iPhone with Siri as of the only person around we know and trust, we are socially doomed. On the one hand, this is good, because single people have fewer children, but on the other hand the iPhone has made too many people socially awkward and deep-down unhappy.

      So here we have yet another progress trap: more electronic connectivity is good, but too much connectivity tears the social fabric apart and makes for lonely shooters, jealous of the apparent happiness of other people.

  2. Prof. Tad,

    I see your point exactly with the "smartphone generation". At gatherings people will spend immense amounts of time 'documenting' the experience through photos, videos, snapchats, instagrams ad nauseam, without ever taking the time to experience the experience. At a show one will not be able to see the band for all of the smart - screens shining back at the crowd.

    I see the smartphone mostly as a tool to amuse, but at what cost? This species will amuse itself to death, if given the chance.

    I'm glad that you will discuss having less children as an environmental solution. This simple solution rarely seems to be considered, instead we must think of solar and wind. (not nuclear, god forbid) Instead of using less we must produce more with different means!

    Thanks for your reply,


  3. Friend, Tad: I do wish you could find a way to say everything here in a way that wouldn't send most Americans to their doctors for prescriptions of Nembutal. All these things are not just tied together, but are part of the same core equation, which, of course, creates spasms of panic-induced denial and ultimately self-induced social and political oblivion...heck, I've been writing things like this for almost 40 years, and even I climbed on my roof and contemplated diving into a puddle of well water. Which points as much to the way you showed how these factors/facts are tied together as it does my sensitive nature. But, that we as a specie seem incapable of learning is merely proof of the number of people whose religious beliefs entail some form of Armageddon, thus negating the need to do anything to preserve ourselves. I'm thinking of taking up religion myself, since it seems to create a calmness and measured stupidity I cannot seem to generate on my own. Look forward to your next visit.

    1. Dear Clay,

      Just like cavemen, we live inside several powerful myths and shall not break out from them. After centuries of enlightenment and sophisticated education, we have changed none of our evolutionary traits of agile cunning predators, but adapted culturally.

      Cultural adaptations are subject to manifold manipulations. We thus live in a fluent, malleable world in which most people cannot see the bright light shining into their eyes, just because the myths in which they live do not permit them. This has always been so.

  4. 'Sup perfesser?

    US natural gas has become very cheap. And I'm not referring to the current winter, with warm weather or current glut. But the long term strip has become very cheap.

    Look at JUN2018 contract:

    (use the icon at top to convert to line or area and icons at bottom to resize to show max history...for trend evaluation)

    Price for NG delivery in JUn2018 has crashed from 7+ in 2009-2010 to $4.1 as of year ago. And now it's down to $2.8. That is a monstrous savings for consumers. Shows a market belief in prolonged "shale gale" at least for natural gas.

    The Marcellus is mighty...all hail the Marcellus (and her little brother, the Utica!)

    1. @Nony:

      Your comment is remarkable for what it is not: You are concentrating on the here and now, quoting an authority to support your thesis, and gloss over the fact that in the long run this gas will be expensive and gone.

      Please remember that identical thinking characterized the men who cut the last giant redwood tree in the Corbel valley, the last tree standing on the Eastern Island, and killed the last dodo bird on the island of Mauritius. The same men killed the mammoths by the thousands, wild horses by the hundreds of thousands, and the American bison by the millions.

      In our hydrocarbon progress trap, we have climbed a tall ladder and we have kicked the lower rungs off. There is no return for us, and the hydrocarbons we produce must last for as long as our civilization will. And then we will cease to exist. Another one hundred years? We have existed in human groups identical to us for at least 50,000 years.

      Please think about this.

  5. Of course what I am saying here is nothing new. In Novum Organum, Sir Francis Bacon wrote about human follies, gathering them in four main categories:

    Idols of the Tribe: A tendency to perceive more order and regularity in the world than truly exist

    Idols of the Cave: Individuals’ persona weaknesses in reasoning caused by their personalities, likes and dislikes.

    Idols of the Marketplace: Confusion stemming from the imprecise use of language.

    Idols of the Theater: Following a dogma or orthodoxy (the dominant mythology) rather than skepticism.

    Just like all others, I am a victim of my own fallacies.


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