Afterthought on progress traps

Twenty-five years have gone by since the start of this project examining the pitfalls of progress. There is little or no disagreement on what constitutes a progress trap. There is much discussion about what causes and contributes to the syndrome. The behavioral aspects have, alas, not received the attention of behavioral experts. Observers advocate that ending the practices that contribute to such failures will end them. If it were that simple it wouldn't be a trap, or what Jared Diamond calls a 'baffling phenomenon'. To the knowledge of this student of the problem, there is no formal recognition or investigation by Science of this behavioral syndrome. Predicting and preventing future reversals of progress requires investigation. The most likely candidate for the cause remains the ability of the mind to pursue short-term gains at the expense of long term interests, as Iain McGilchrist has described at length. 1 2

Notwithstanding the popularization of left brain/right brain research, and some trivialization, little has changed regarding the essential theories. It remains true that the left hemisphere is regarded as the domain of cogitation, calculation, language and sequential processing. The role of the right remains less well-articulated, possibly because explicit articulation is not its role. Considered the home of spatial awareness, parallel processing, intuition, and creativity, the right cerebral hemisphere might turn out to be the mothership to our cognitive enterprises. There is one reliable indication that it is essential to success: in his 2008 article Spheres of influence, neurologist Michael Gazzaniga offered new insights into hemispheric specialization -

  • The left-brain interpreter makes sense out of all the other processes. It takes all the input that is coming in and puts it together in a make-sense story, even though it may be completely wrong.
  • The left hemisphere...tends to falsely recognize new items when they are similar to previously presented items, presumably because they fit into the schema it has constructed.
  • The right hemisphere maintains an accurate record of events, leaving the left hemisphere free to elaborate and make inferences about the material presented. In an intact brain, the two systems complement each other, allowing elaborative processing without sacrificing veracity.2

Accepting then, that rational pathways are not guaranteed to lead to correct destinations, and that hyper-development can short-circuit humans' awareness of their effect on the environment, what courses of action does the present research suggest?

  1. hyper-development, such as led to the collapse of the derivatives market, or to the complete decline of Easter Island society, should be vigorously opposed, in favor of conserving assets;
  2. creative problem-solving, perhaps the greatest asset, should be enhanced, by providing the educational and cultural environment in which it will flourish, as opposed to technical proccupations in the service of hyper-development. Long-term survival instincts must be allowed to moderate the short-term gains of inventiveness;
  3. exponential population growth, a driver of progress and all its effects for better and worse, can be curtailed. The choices for achieving this are difficult, yet there has never been greater opportunity than now in the third millennium, for avoiding those outcomes that raise the death rate. As as Malthus noted, these are extermination, epidemic and famine. Moreover, in societies with modern economies and material comforts, reproduction rates tend to fall to replacement levels. True, the price of these comforts is resource depletion, but there is every indication that the means can be found, eventually, for reconciling human needs and nature's provenance.

Revised July 2014
(see also the electronic edition)


  1. McGilchrist, I. (2010). Reciprocal organization of the cerebral hemispheres. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 12(4), 503–515. Retrieved from
  2. McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. YALE University Press.
  3. Gazzaniga, M. S. (2008). Spheres of influence, Scientific American Mind 19, 3 p33-39