Essays About


Throughout history, solutions have led to more solutions. The invention of the wheel gave rise to the cart, the paddleboat, and hydropower. Mendelian genetics led to DNA forensics. But progress stalls as it nears its goal of the good life. The internal combustion engine produced the automobile, but the automobile produced global warming. Special Relativity made nuclear fission possible, which made Hiroshima possible. Because our grandfathers discovered how to amplify crop yields with pesticides, we must discover how to unpoison rivers and nurse dying species. Scientists seek cures for cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis, but if they succeed, our grandchildren will seek cures for overpopulation. In the beginning, humanity solves the problems nature made; in the end, the problems our own ingenuity made.

The poverty line has risen throughout history. The tenants of modern trailer parks live in more luxury than early Sumerian aristocrats, whose mansions were reed huts with dirt floors. The motor scooters of unemployed college students travel faster than the horses of medieval lords. Civil War generals communicated by courier, but now every private has a mobile phone. Progress impoverishes the past. Complaints lose power when you think of your ancestors. We decry the cost of health insurance, but a century ago, there existed neither health insurance nor cures for it to pay for. I grumble when my air conditioning breaks in summer, but in ancient Egypt even Pharaohs had to sweat.

Space is the dimension of human greatness, time of human nothingness. Space is a dimension under constant conquest. The wheel, ship, chariot, train, truck, and space shuttle are humanity's inventory of ever-improving weapons. Born on a clump of grass in the African savannah, we quickly spread out from Spain to Siberia. When we reached the edge of Australia, undeterred, we rafted to Hawaii. When there were no more oceans to cross, we made the moon our mission. Today, with television and the internet, rather than travel we command the world into our living rooms. Yet, to complement these conquests of distance, what single victory have we scored against time? Though technology can get us to New York by lunch, it cannot slow one tick of the clock's countdown to death. Our freedom in space is like a bottle's freedom to roll side to side on a conveyor belt carrying it toward a trash heap.

A book I am reading notes that the idea of being "modern" originated in the Middle Ages. It is odd to think of flagellating monks and Canterbury pilgrims regarding themselves as modern. Even odder to think how, like them, we moderns will one day seem medieval. In a few hundred years, today's books will appear silly with their solemn talk of the modern world. A book about recent trends in capitalism will sound as contemporary as a book about recent trends in feudalism. "The War on Terrorism" will have the ring of "the War of the Roses." Solar energy will be as cutting edge as firewood.

During campaign seasons, I tire of the candidates' attack ads and mutual rummaging through one another's past sins. Such faultfinding, most of it false or exaggerated, seems not only mean-spirited but also petty and immature, like children too eager to tattle. One expects rudeness from taxi drivers or football fans, but not from men and women seeking the highest offices of government. Are these self-promoting finger-pointers to be the leaders of nations? But then I remember the old days, when would-be kings, backed by armies instead of campaign teams, rode out to bloody battles, took their rival's children captive, and cut off each other's head to gain the crown. From murder and kidnap, to mere lies and slander. Civilization is making progress.