Surviving “Progress”: A Report From Heartbreak Hill

During the very little time that I’ve had to read anything over the past week, I recall a piece chastising the anti-GMO crowd for condemning Third World residents to lives of misery and brevity.  Most people, claimed the author, don’t want to toil several hours a day in the field behind an ox or over a hoe.  Most people prefer air conditioning in the summer to the sticky, smelly, mosquito-ridden shade of a hovel.  Most people are willing to pay to have something done which will make their existence substantially easier or healthier rather than sap their strength every day to reach a bare minimum of sufficiency.  It’s called progress. Most people like it.

Here I sit, having finally unloaded—after almost a week—the 28-foot trailer that contained all of our worldly belongings, a trailer that I had spent the previous week stuffing to its nine-foot ceiling four states away.  My do-it-yourself approach probably saved me about $7,000… but the situation became almost suicidal when the haulers informed me at the other end that they couldn’t negotiate our quarter mile of winding rural driveway to our front door.  I had mistakenly assumed that a tractor-trailer could take on anything that the 18-wheelers of the building crew had surmounted; but, in fact, the builders had produced a road fit only for their species of big rig.  They appear to have dumped more loads of rock whenever heavy rains fell (and rains fell at a record rate this spring in Georgia). Never in this debauch of rock-dumping did they give a second thought to whether my wife and I could make the same drive comfortably—or at all—in our smaller vehicles.  Their convenience came first and last; anything else was exclusively our problem.

My worst day, in terms of desperation, was last Saturday, when another heavy rain came playing through and left our shuttling pickup truck mired along a steep upward slope, a heavy dining-room hutch pressing its bed.  I thought of wagon trains that had left pianos and massive oaken sideboards in their wake as they tried to grind along the Oregon Trail.  Eventually I discovered the technique of cutting down pine saplings (which grow here like weeds) and strewing them diagonally up the slope.  The hutch endured a few scratches, as did just about everything else… but we reached our objective.

My personal scratches, frankly, number a little more than a few.  My left thigh (where I instinctively catch loads about to slip from my hands, apparently) is such a complex constellation of bruises that an Ancient Alien theorist would suppose ET to have tattooed Orion into my skin.  My fingernails (one of which is about to fall out over a blue blister) and toenails are a wreck.  My left eyelid somehow got severely scarred, perhaps by a pine sapling that didn’t want to be enlisted for road duty.  My sides have been gouged repeatedly by staircase rails (since the haulers didn’t include the right kind of dolly to take heavy loads easily over step overhangs—and my builder, who promised to loan me his miracle-on-wheels, kept that promise about as well as he had many another).  I have some kind of strange rash which I mistook for sun poisoning, but which seems instead to be related to sweating profusely without taking in enough water.

The night before last, I lay shivering in bed for half an hour on a hot July night, wondering, “What in hell is this?  Is my body shutting done?”  I pride myself on being in very good condition for a 64-year-old man (and ex-academic)… but I do believe that I had just about hit the boundary wall of my physical ability.

So exactly why do people choose to undergo such hardship when progress offers a better way?  I know there are people in the world who slave in this manner for pennies on an almost daily basis… but is the image of a virtuous primitive deliberately embracing the life of manual labor just another idiotic Ivory Tower fantasy?

I pondered that question during many of my “runs” to and from the trailer in my pickup.  In the first place, I should point out that progress had failed me several times in my present circumstances.  The haulers had declined to tackle Heartbreak Hill. The construction workers had laid a road that gave them on-the-spot, for-the-moment transit without paying any attention to the points where rainwater kept cutting through and jumbling their crude stone pavers.  The builder had designed a dolly-resistant staircase.  Nobody, of all these “seasoned professionals” representing our high-tech society, had cut me any slack at all.

And this actually raises a second, more significant point about progress.  Things become generalized and regimented.  Operatives are unaware of the situation “on the ground”, or else they are so busily lining up new customers that they give current ones only as much notice as is contractually required.  The robust paycheck that allows a white-collar worker to scoff at the $7,000 I pocketed and spare his old body is generated by business practices emphasizing volume and speed.  I very much suspect that, even in the contested area of GMO’s, we would find hidden losers farther along the future’s road of a malaria-free, malnutrition-cured society.  Genetically modified crops don’t really seem suited to the lifestyle of the small farmer, if only because (once again) they favor volume and system.  So more small farmers sell their little plot of land and move to the city, where ever greater masses of unemployed are competing for ever fewer blue-collar positions as mechanization takes over assembly lines… and at the end of the day, our erstwhile farmer is consuming filthy air and water in a crime-ridden tenement rather than trying to survive on a bowl of rice per day under a blue sky where the rain is free.

My wife and I haven’t enjoyed the last two weeks, and I’m not romanticizing them.  The three physically most arduous days of my life have to be contained somewhere in those two weeks.  Labor isn’t virtuous when it beats you down until your body can take no more.  But who will save us from our “saviors”?  I wouldn’t have been so obsessed with keeping seven grand in my bank account if a conspiracy of realtors, building contractors, insurers, and bankers hadn’t just forced me to replace the perfectly sound roof on my previous house for a third of that amount.  No, nobody really wants to put in the sweat required to grow beans and potatoes out of the soil… but the alternative is to eat whatever “they” serve up to you, whether you think it’s healthy or not.

A subject for another day would be the curious espousal by “conservatives” of this “progress is good” position which commits us not only to constant change but also to a naive dependency upon the moral decency of our suppliers.  I agree that the Left far too often adopts tree-hugging as a strategy without bothering to question whether this particular sapling would better serve humanity lying in a mud slick.  Conservation on the Left tends to be all pose and no understanding.  But “progress” on the Right—usually from the very people who endorse Ayn Rand’s nihilist rationalism of self-interest—tends to leave you standing at the roadside with a sophisticated container holding all of your possessions on earth… and no way to get it home, unless you have deep pockets.

That’s why young voters don’t abandon the Left en masse and swing Right: because, ironically, they seem to sense with a child’s intuitive radar that “progress” nudges you into the car of a stranger offering luscious candy.  Will we ever find our way to a conservative conservatism?