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Have We Progressed Too Far as a Society?

I am a concerned resident of this earth, hoping we can make it a better place for everyone.

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Has society progressed too far? What I mean by too far, is that we have created technology for many superfluous reasons. Do we need all of the luxuries that are present in the first world and why are we so obsessed with progress?

I had posed these very questions to my classmates in university. The overwhelming response was that there are so many problems in the world that we need to still solve and the only way to do that is through progress. I believe that this very mindset, the “reverence” of progress and the view of it as a problem solver is one of the reasons, we have so many issues in society and the world. Why do we de facto believe that progress is a good thing?

Progress: Problem or Solution?

The most common issue raised by my classmates was climate change. They said that we need progress to solve climate change. I find this wholly ironic, especially since climate change is caused by that very same progress. Are the luxuries such as gas guzzling trucks and sports cars, not a significant part of our climate change problem? What about the deforestation caused to produce lumber and paper? Or the population caused by factories manufacturing all the goods we enjoy daily?

According to Alexander Edwards president of Strategic Vision, in America, 75 percent of truck owners use their truck for towing one time a year or less and about 70 percent go off-road one time a year or less. This suggests that general society has a desire for trucks but little need for them. I would assume that trucks are used somewhat has a status symbol for many. However, should society be focused on producing and consuming status symbols that are harmful to the environment?

In order to address much of the climate change caused by fossil fuels, there has been a social push to produce electric vehicles. With car companies such as Jaguar, Volvo and General Motors planning to sell only electric cars from 2025, 2030 and 2035, respectively, the world of electric cars is inevitable. Moreover, forecast by UBS Investment Bank estimate that 20% of new car sales will be electric by 2025, this market share is expected to grow to 50% in 2030 and by 2040, all new cars sold are expected to be electric.

Most people see this as a step in the right direction, a solution to curb our carbon impact but at what cost are we producing electric vehicles? What is the cost of this progress?

Currently, the lightweight rechargeable batteries that are used for phones, laptops and electric vehicles are produced using lithium and cobalt and as production of electric cars is going to greatly increase, so will the mining for these metals. However, the very mining of these metals, which is supposed to help the environment and society, create very serious ecological issues.

More than 60% of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many mines use women and children as young as six as miners. According to Amnesty International, men, woman and children are being made to work without even the basic protective equipment such as gloves and face masks, while having to breathe in cobalt-laden dust that can cause fatal lung ailments within tunnels which are not structurally sound. Moreover, local streams where nearby village get their drinking water are contaminated by discharged wasted from the mine processing plants.

The mining process for lithium is no better and actually causes more ecological harm. In Chile, Argentina and Bolivia enormous quantities of water are pumped from underground sources to help extract lithium from ores. This has caused the lowering of ground water levels and the expansion of deserts. Furthermore, in Tibet, a chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine poisoned the local Lichu river in 2016. Since then, a river once full with fish, hardly has any and hundreds of yaks have died from drinking the river water. However, this was not the first time the river has been poisoned by the mine, as similar pollution occurred in 2009 and 2013. Unfortunately, as demand for cobalt and lithium increases so will the incidents of pollution and child labour.

Similar pollution issues arise from the mining of copper, which also has rising demand. Copper is needed for the creation of wind and solar farms as well as electric cars. However, copper mining has been found to contaminate aquifers and farmland. In some cases, the pollution is so severe that the mine site will generate water pollution forever, such as the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah.

So, are electric cars saving or destroying our society? On one hand, electric cars will reduce carbon emissions but on the other, their production will destroy ecosystems, poison animals and human and enslave children. Thus, while striving for net zero carbon emission, we may produce a net zero benefit.

Reviewing Our Progress

Our progress seems to be extremely unbalanced. We are constantly “fixing” one problem but creating many more. I agree we still have many issues to solve such as world hunger and poverty. Thus, obviously there are areas where we need more progress. However, we still are very wasteful and destructive with a lot of our progress. Do we need a new iPhone every year when the battery was made, in part, by child slavery and water pollution? However, this issue with progress goes beyond the simple luxuries such as iPhones as shown with electric cars. If we blindly pursue progress without first understanding the ramifications of our actions, we run the risk of create far worse living situations than we were trying to fix.

One thing to think about is how many of the world’s problems are caused by our progress. We need to develop cancer medication largely because our progress brought about many cancers, with mining, plastics, pollution etc. Slavery exists around the world to create technology for developed nations such as phones, laptops and electric cars and first world nations waste enough food every year to feed everyone on earth three times over.

Is our need for more progress simply a need to fix the after effects our previous progress? Do we still need to progress? Perhaps, progress may not be the answer, maybe we even need to regress a little; maybe we do not need new technology but instead a new culture, or an old one. Now, I am not suggesting we go back to being "cave men" but we should carefully examine what our "progress" means and what its impact is.

© 2021 Daveed Gittens

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