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I found myself thinking about progress at 8:30 yesterday morning, when someone in the neighborhood was already using a leaf blower to clean up his yard. Here is a real time- and effort-saving product, and in my part of the world anyway it has near universal adoption by householders and lawn-care services. This machine, along with power mowers and weed whackers, has to be an example of progress, no?
When I was young leaves were raked or swept. Lawns were cut with a hand mower, weeds pulled or hoed, yards edged with an edging tool. The sounds of yard care were pleasant sounds, unless nostalgia misleads me: the whir and click of the mower, the gentle chink of the edger against the stone curb, the satisfying crunch of some well uprooted weeds, the rustling of leaves along with the scraping of the rake. The smells were pleasant smells: cut grass, dry leaves, earth — even burning leaves if you lived somewhere where you could get away with it.
Of course, it all took more effort and time than a power mower, a weed whacker and a leaf blower require, and progress is all about saving effort and time. The near universal adoption of the new tools suggests that this kind of progress is something people really want. But some things about this example of progress remain obviously true. The new tools are noisier and therefore more intrusive, they are smellier and more polluting, they are more expensive to purchase and maintain than the old ones. From a lawn-service point of view, my guess is that the power tools reduce employment opportunities, and increase the capital cost of entering the business. My guys use ear protection; the many yard-care workers whom I see who do not are doubtless compromising their future hearing.
But we save time and effort, and that is progress. It would be ungracious to suspect that the result of saving this effort and time is that we can become more torpid couch potatoes were it not for the fact that we are bombarded with warnings about our having become ever more torpid couch potatoes. So this chance to expend less effort doing yard work is plainly at best a mixed blessing. It’s a little ironic if we spend less time in the yard in order to spend more time on home-exercise equipment or at the gym…
My point is not the truism that there are “costs and benefits” to what we call progress, but, despite what I just said about a “mixed blessing,” to suggest that this is a case where I at least am hard pressed to see any real benefit at all. And yet here we are, living in a world of noisy, smelly, expensive power tools for the sake of our lawns — whose own existence probably doesn’t bear much thinking about. I wonder how we got here. Was it some conspiracy of the internal-combustion interests? Is there a “tragedy of the commons” dynamic at work? Do we convince ourselves that our noise and exhaust are ok, it’s the other guys who are creating the problem? Whatever it is must go pretty deep — I have not heard tell of any community that has banned all such power tools for contributions to greenhouse gases, or particulates or noise pollution, although L.A. seems to have an unenforced ordinance again gasoline leaf blowers.
Here at any rate is an example of Gresham’s law applied to progress. I wonder how many more we could find if we just had enough distance to see our lives clearly?