1. They saw it coming

Escaping the progress trap, chapter 1 - Summary: The book is introduced in terms of one ecologist's observation regarding environmental degradation: "they saw it coming but had not the wit to stop it happening". The chapter prepares the reader for a wide-ranging synthesis of knowledge from history, anthropology, neurology, etc. It explains how the historical record is to be the virtual laboratory for this study since the variables are too numerous for any actual laboratory. In finding out where we have been, we can tell where we are headed.


    Their misfortune may remind biologists of the `frog in hot water' phenomenon. This experiment is not often repeated because of its inherent cruelty, but serves as a graphic illustration of the failure to respond to change: a frog immersed suddenly in hot water will jump out. However, when this amphibian is placed in water that is slowly warmed, it will stay put until the water is too hot, at which time it dies. I am not drawing a parallel here between frogs and humans, only making the observation that ignorance of change is not always blissful.

    Today there is no shortage of concerned citizens alerting us to ecological warning signs, but scientific research into overconfident apathy is not forthcoming. Possibly, those who fund such projects have not been given convincing proof that this area has content of real and significant value. Unlike black holes in outer space. The enigma has nonetheless been noted with growing frequency. Protesting environmental degradation, Sarah Parkin of the U.K. Green Party, is quoted by Sandra Postel in the Worldwatch Institute's 1992 State of The World : 1

      Our numbness, our silence, our lack of outrage, could mean we end up the only species to have minutely monitored our own extinction. What a measly epitaph that would make: "they saw it coming but had not the wit to stop it happening."

    In this State of the World report on the tendency of the industrialized world to "deny the severity of environmental threats," Postel raises the issue of behavior:

      Psychology as much as science will thus determine the planet's fate because action depends on overcoming denial, among the most paralyzing of human responses. While it affects most of us to varying degrees, denial often runs particularly deep among those with heavy stakes in the status quo, including the political and business leaders with power to shape the global agenda.

    ...The next best thing is to observe how societies suffered as a result of overtaxing their ecologies in the past. That might answer the questions "what happened?" and "how did we get into this mess?" It will allow us to comprehend those things that laboratories and virtual models cannot offer: a view of how we respond to man-made changes, and how we believe those processes began. This time-laboratory allows us to stand back and see just how paradoxical humans can be. In so doing one is prompted to question conventional beliefs about how the human mind is used. The historical approach also has in its favor the popular conviction that hindsight is twenty/twenty.

    Why bring the mind into this? Because there is no satisfactory answer to the question that if the fully rational mind is an ideal instrument, why has it given us global warming, ozone holes and unsustainable societies? Or from another perspective the Bomb, systematic extermination of humans by humans, and apartheid?

    A reverse look at human progress could provide some answers.

Postel, Sandra. “Denial in the Decisive Decade” State of The World 1992, A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society(1992): p4, p8.