Progress and the sacrifices we make for it

Lowell Harp

Imagine, if you can, this scene from about 50 years ago. You pull into a gas station, where you’re greeted at the pump by an attendant who fills your tank, washes your windshield — even checks your oil, coolant and tires if you wish. You pay him and drive away, all without leaving the comfort of your car.

We can only dream of that kind of service today, as we stand in the cold and rain at a so-called convenience store, and watch the gallons and dollars roll by on the pump. It’s a sacrifice we make in the name of progress. We can add it to a list of modern inconvenient conveniences, one that also includes self-service checkout in stores and airline travel in general.

All of them are here to stay, and will become more entrenched with the passage of time. New ways of doing things don’t necessarily take over because they’re better, but instead simply because they have to. We can see it by going back in time, 10,000 years ago, when people began to abandon their hunting and gathering ways and took up farming.

The so-called agricultural revolution was far from the unmixed blessing we might imagine. Jared Diamond, in his book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” reports that early farmers suffered from more diseases and physical ailments, ate less well and had shorter life spans than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. Agriculture, with its more organized and layered society, also gave rise to social inequalities and conflicts that hadn’t existed before.

It nevertheless won out because it produced more food per unit of land than nature could provide — at the price of a more narrow and less nutritious diet. Farmers and herders were therefore able to have more — although less healthy — children, who in turn needed ever more land in order to be fed. And so it went, on and on.

Yuval Hariri, in his book, “Sapiens,” puts it this way: “This is the essence of the agricultural revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.” Wheat and other domesticated plants and animals thrived in this system by enticing humans to work and suffer in order to care for them. “We did not domesticate wheat,” says Mr. Hariri. “It domesticated us.”

Once it started, there was no going back without starving. Hunters and gatherers couldn’t compete against the overwhelming numbers of farmers, and gradually joined, retreated from, or were killed off by them. Humans as individuals suffered, but humanity as a whole multiplied and spread throughout the planet, and became its dominant species.

We, like our farming ancestors, believe we’re making decisions in pursuit of a better life. In fact, we too are driven by forces that we don’t control and only vaguely understand. Progress serves its own needs first, and only incidentally benefits individual people.

Self-service, a triumph of efficiency over convenience, is one example. So are the so-called time-saving devices that we work so long and hard to own, but that merely speed up the pace of our lives instead of expanding our leisure time. “One of history’s few iron laws,” says Mr. Harari, “is that luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations.”

Ten thousand years after the agricultural revolution, we seem less happy than hunter-gatherers. They live in the present, and their few wants are easily fulfilled. We strive to have ever more, always looking to the future, and are never satisfied.

We mustn’t forget the blessings that agriculture eventually brought to humankind, at least in the advanced economies of the world. The same is true of today’s competitive economic system. There’s no going back for us, at any rate, any more than there was for early farmers.

What we can do is keep a grip on what’s truly valuable in these changes, and to refuse to be lured into striving for the rest. It’s critical to distinguish between wants, which tend to be many, and needs, which, when we look closely, are few. We’re in control of our lives, and our destiny, to the degree that we do.

Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs monthly in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at