Faith in progress
Last updated 4/11/2023 at 1:36pm
My 95-year-old dad never saw a construction project he didn’t like.
A child of the Great Depression and World War II, development to him has always signaled growing prosperity, more people accessing an American Dream he fervently believed in.
And why wouldn’t he? The 10th of 11 children of a Swedish father and an Irish mother who came West to Washington and then California in the 1920s seeking opportunity, he found his trade as a printer when he was 12 years old, and rode that trade to a level of middle-class prosperity his railroad brakeman father worked himself into the grave trying to achieve.
My dad believes that things are getting better every day; that every problem has a solution. He’s what you might call (referencing a lyric from one of his favorite musicals, “South Pacific”) a cockeyed optimist, a trait that gave him great resilience in the face of family trauma that … well, let’s just say that it didn’t lend itself to optimism.
My dad is a remarkable man — and he has always had a quasi-religious faith in Progress.
Bob can’t make his annual trek to Sisters anymore; he’s living full-time now with my brother in Southern California. But if he were here, he would surely applaud the development happening now in Sisters.
“Lot of building going on,” he’d say. “That’s good. That’s Progress.”
Not everybody thinks so. The growth=progress equation doesn’t work for a lot of folks anymore. My dad’s faith might seem to many to be quaint, maybe even a little suspect. For a lot of folks in Sisters right now, growth and development doesn’t feel like progress — it feels like something slipping away.
Trouble is, it’s never been a binary equation. Economic development has always been a process of destruction as well as creation — bringing along with unprecedented wealth and technological advancement problems of environmental degradation, species extinction, the dismantling of once-viable livelihoods and traditional ways of life. Through my dad’s generation, the price seemed worth paying, because the rewards were right at hand, if not for all, at least for a large proportion of the population. Each generation lived in better material circumstances than their parents — in the richest society, by far, in human history.
My dad bought a nice middle-class house with a $13,000 mortgage in 1954. With a single income from a good job, he didn’t strain to pay it off. Young people in their 20s today question whether they can ever afford to buy a home.
With narrowing prospects comes a questioning of the fundamental tenets of the faith. And we know something is off about the promise of Progress when, despite our vast wealth — or because of it — so many of us are overweight, unhealthy, stressed out, and depressed.
Last week, my family traveled in the soggy moccasin prints of Lewis & Clark where they reached the Pacific Ocean at Cape Disappointment. We walked Cannon Beach, where they took meat, blubber, and baleen from a stranded whale, and Sunset Beach, where they boiled seawater for salt, which they carried back to Fort Clatsop to preserve and flavor the elk and venison that was their main subsistence during the winter of 1805/06.
It’s mind-boggling to contemplate the scale of change wrought on the landscape and our ways of life in the 217 years since the Corps of Discovery packed up and left Fort Clatsop to return across the continent to their homes.
My dad would extol the great industries — logging, fishing, shipping — that thrived in Astoria in the past two centuries, and marvel at the mighty bridge that spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. That’s Progress.
The Clatsop and Chinook might see it differently.
Ironically, industries like logging and fishing — and the cultures built around them — are themselves being pushed aside by a tsunami of what we might call the Progress of our digital age.
And we may all soon be questioning the secular faith that has underpinned Western Civilization for centuries when the rise of AI hands unprecedented power to a nonhuman intelligence, one that may not be so benevolent when it shrugs at the remains of our humanity and says, “That’s Progress.”