Nothing much stands still for very long. Constant care must be taken to slow the effects of entropy, the gradual decline that is built into all structures. Even then, the good often become overwhelmed by the bad. Corruption rears its ugly head. For example, the laptop on which I am typing this essay has developed a problem with the letter “h” which now sticks and requires extra effort. Sometimes, the cursor randomly hops around the page while I write. Four years ago this was a high-end laptop. In four more years it will be sitting in landfill.
Even rarer is when things get actually better. Progress is an elusive butterfly, and rare because there are illusions of progress which when examined closely and over time prove not to be progress at all. False progress is even worse than entropy!
In Saint Louis, Missouri, the city fathers had come up with what they thought was a progressive idea. They tore down miles of old Victorian brick homes lived in by poor people and built a complex of eleven-story apartment towers to house those displaced by Progress. The Japanese architect who also designed the World Trade Center in New York City designed this complex, which was named Pruitt-Igoe. Despite the architect’s drawings, which showed happy families relaxing on the common lawns, it rapidly became a war zone of sorts.
Gangs occupied the elevators, extorting money and sex from occupants who could not easily use the stairs to reach their homes on the upper floors. Drug dealing went on night and day. Within a decade those city fathers had to admit defeat and the entire complex was razed through the same sort of controlled demolition that brought down the World Trade Center thirty years later.
How did they get it so wrong? This debacle was a terribly expensive boondoggle, a black eye in urban renewal that proved myriad experts to be dead wrong every step of the way. At one point the United States army had secretly installed blowers on the roofs of the Pruitt-Igoe towers to disperse radioactive zinc cadmium sulphide into the air in order to test rates of possible mass poisoning by an enemy. The inhabitants of this failed social experiment must have felt like laboratory rats in more ways that one.
Rarely do we get things so wrong on such a grand scale. But when we do, we do it with great verve. The Vietnam war lasted for a more than a decade, as did our secret invasions of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. We’re still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, seventeen years after invading those countries. Looking back, it’s hard to remember why anyone thought these military actions were a good idea. But someone did, and the rest of us are still paying for it.
Compared to amount of our planet’s surface taken up by oceans and deserts, there really isn’t that much fertile land on the planet, but the Russians managed to remove millions of acres of some of the best of it when they contaminated Chernobyl. In ten thousand years or so it may be useful again. Meanwhile, Fukushima continues to pour radioactivity into the ocean at a steadily increasing rate.
When you’re headed down the wrong trail, there comes a time when you have to stop and admit to yourself that this is the wrong path. You’re not getting any closer to where you wanted to go. With each step, you’re making it harder to fix this problem. Walking faster won’t help. Wishful thinking won’t make it magically become the right trail. You’ll have to retrace your steps and start over again. This is a painful choice, but the only choice that has any chance of success.
Nobody said finding Progress would be easy, but it does help to remember that there are good choices as well as bad, that sometimes Entropy can be forestalled, that things can get better and stay that way for a considerable amount of time. Becoming teachable and staying flexible are more important than saving face and defending yourself against criticism.
when it’s time to find a new line of work: