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Myth of Progress

Toward a Sustainable Future

Tom Wessels

Publication Year: 2013

In this compelling and cogently argued book, Tom Wessels demonstrates how our current path toward progress, based on continual economic expansion and inefficient use of resources, runs absolutely contrary to three foundational scientific laws that govern all complex natural systems. It is a myth, he contends, that progress depends on a growing economy.

Wessels explains his theory with his three laws of sustainability: (1) the law of limits to growth, (2) the second law of thermodynamics, which exposes the dangers of increased energy consumption, and (3) the law of self-organization, which results in the marvelous diversity of such highly evolved systems as the human body and complex ecosystems. These laws, scientifically proven to sustain life in its myriad forms, have been cast aside since the eighteenth century, first by Western economists, political pragmatists, and governments attracted by the idea of unlimited growth, and more recently by a global economy dominated by large corporations, in which consolidation and oversimplification create large-scale inefficiencies in both material and energy usage.

Wessels makes scientific theory readily accessible by offering examples of how the laws of sustainability function in the complex systems we can observe in the natural world around us. He shows how systems such as forests can be templates for developing sustainable economic practices that will allow true progress. Demonstrating that all environmental problems have their source in a disregard for the laws of sustainability that is based on the myth of progress, he concludes with an impassioned argument for cultural change.

Published by: University Press of New England


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Preface to the Revised Edition

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pp. ix-x

It has been seven years since I wrote The Myth of Progress—a book I have greater pride in than any of my others. The reason for that has to do with the fact that I didn’t learn to read or write until the fourth grade. All through school—even at the graduate level—the quality of my writing was way behind my peers.’ ...

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pp. xi-xii

The idea for this book was sparked by a comment one of my students made in my principles of ecology course at Antioch. Although The Myth of Progress evolved into something quite different from its original conception, thanks to Susie Caldwell Rinehart for planting the seed. ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

I grew up during the 1950s in a suburban development spawned by American optimism following World War II. Like so many of these developments, similar looking houses were evenly spaced on tidy one-half acre lots. Luckily for me, across the street from our house was an intact forest probably 70 acres in size. ...

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pp. 1-12

The above statement is an excerpt from a speech that President Bush gave on Valentine’s Day. I heard it while listening to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered news program as I was driving home from Antioch New England Graduate School, where I teach. I found the President’s statement so provocative that I had to pull over so I could write it down. ...

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1 | The Myth of Control: Complex versus Linear Systems

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pp. 13-33

My first exposure to computers based on microchip technology was in 1980. Jimmy Carter had just lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan. An evening news report showed Carter at home writing his memoirs on a “word processor,” which if I remember correctly looked like an early Apple computer. ...

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2 | The Myth of Growth: Limits and Sustainability

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pp. 34-51

On May 11, 1943, American forces stormed Attu—the island that anchors the western end of Alaska’s Aleutian archipelago. At the time Attu was held by more than 2,400 Japanese troops. The next eighteen days witnessed one of the toughest battles in the Pacific Campaign of World War II. ...

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3 | The Myth of Energy: The Second Law of Thermodynamics

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pp. 52-79

Before sitting down to write this morning, I helped my wife, Marcia, clean the house. We swept the wooden floors, dusted the tabletops, and cleaned the sinks and toilet bowls in the bathrooms. If we are good, we do this cleaning ritual about once a week, but longer intervals sometimes pass between cleanings. ...

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4 | The Myth of the Free Market: The Loss of Diversity, Democracy, and Economic Resiliency

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pp. 80-114

As they grow, all biological systems increase their complexity, their parts becoming ever more specialized and tightly integrated. As each part does what it needs to do to sustain itself, it creates conditions that sustain the whole. As a result the entire system increases its efficient use of material and energy resources, ...

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5 | The Myth of Progress: A Need for Cultural Change

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pp. 115-135

In 1978 Marcia and I started building our house by cutting, hauling, and barking one hundred white pine trees from our property. These pines were used to build our scribe-fitted log home. The two-story saltbox has a passive solar design, with interior thermal mass from the log walls and a large central brick fireplace to capture and hold the sun’s heat. ...

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Epilogue: From Consumption to Connection

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pp. 136-142

October 1969 found me as a depressed industrial engineering student at Johns Hopkins University. I felt out of place with my program of study and Baltimore as well. Sensing my distress, a fellow dorm mate gave me a book that he said would be a good antidote to the engineering texts I was reading. ...

Glossary of Scientific Terms

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pp. 143-146


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pp. 147-156

E-ISBN-13: 9781611684643
E-ISBN-10: 1611684641
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611684162

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Revised ed.