1 January 2005

Things can only get better?

By Rupert Read

Some say that progress is inevitable. As the wrapping paper gets recycled, as the January sales barrel on - and as the 'New Year' begins - it's worth thinking about what 'progress' really means.

Take computers. Apparently computers double their capability every 18 months. So they become more efficient and cheaper. Transistor radios are now lower in price than they were 40 years ago. So, when inflation is taken into consideration, are cars. A Mini in 1959 cost £600. Small cars can now be bought for around £6000 - much cheaper than the 1959 model, in real terms.

You can carry the analogy too far: if cars were 'progressing' at the same rate as computers we would be able to buy a Rolls-Royce for £1.35, it would do three million miles to the gallon and it would deliver enough power to drive the QE2. It would also have been miniaturised enough to get half a dozen onto a pinhead! (But then it would be pretty useless as a car.)

The above examples only prove that there are areas of our lives where the application of the latest scientific expertise can have dramatic payoffs. What if we move our consideration of 'progress' away from commodities and focus our attention onto attitudes or human relations? Do people regard other humans and the environment around them with greater respect than in the past? Two simple examples suggest not. It seems more of today's families leave litter behind after a family picnic. And fly-tipping is on the increase in the greater Norwich area.

Perhaps I am being picky. Life is in many respects better for most of us in the Western world. However, the wealth of the poorest countries in the world has declined in absolute terms over the last two decades. Not to mention those, such as the homeless, and those perplexed by the over-complicated claims forms produced by the Government for means-tested benefits, who are hardly living in paradise, even right here in Norfolk.

And think about the world we are leaving for our grandchildren. We have been overstretching the global system for longer than anyone can remember: a lot of the system's parts are starting to creak rather badly. Fish - at least the kind people buy at the fish-shop - are running out. One reason why is that many of the smaller fish that big fish eat are being scooped out of the sea and used as fertiliser. Or take water supply: As the industry and agriculture swallow up ever more water we find that the water-table is sinking. 'Fossil water' that has been below ground for centuries is now being used to create the 'miracle' of golf- courses in places like Phoenix, Arizona - a city in the middle of a desert! Talk about unsustainable…

Some will say that technological progress will come along to solve these man-made problems. But this depends how that technology is used. It could be used to ensure that non-animal methods of testing new medical cures are used and that barbaric and scientifically inaccurate animal testing comes to an end. And to make more goods from recycled materials so that we do not continue to use up the Earth's resources at an unsustainable rate.

But some of society's problems do not require technological solutions at all, but political and economic solutions. Buying local produce, such as from farmer's markets, helps cut down on pollution from unnecessary transport. And more could be done by governments to promote Fair Trade - to ensure that the 'third world' workers producing those goods that we need to import (goods such as tea and bananas) are paid a living wage. In the field of health, the promotion of preventative medicine must be a higher priority. This includes eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and making more journeys on foot or by bike to get more exercise.

Preventative action is also necessary when it comes to transport. People drive so much partly because it was decided that supermarkets would be able to make larger profits if they were located at highway intersections, where people would be forced to drive to - because many small shops would close after building the supermarkets! And if you build hypermarkets you can close down an entire town centre, not just the grocers'.

Does anyone care if we lose the character of our town centres? Yes - I certainly do!

Things will get better - if we keep things local … and make them sustainable. May I wish all readers of this column a sustainably happy New Year.

Many thanks - for huge help with this column - to Bob Gledhill

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