Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Progress, Pt. 1

My Italian grandparents moved to the States from the Old Country at the beginning of the 20th century. They were from different parts of Italy, both from humble backgrounds. My grandfather Umberto was a woodworker, and to be honest, I don’t know exactly what drove him to move from his village near Naples, but I can only guess that he saw no future for himself there. How he scraped together the fare to make the trans-Atlantic journey I’ll never know, but it was no doubt at dear cost for him.

I know more about my grandmother Giovanna. She came from the south, Basilicata. Her parents were poor peasants, and made money off of her by selling her into slave-like conditions, sending her to work for richer relatives. One of her sisters had already made the journey to the US, and had started a family there, and she helped my grandmother make the same journey herself. I have no doubt that she was not happy with her life, and jumped at the chance to escape, as it were.

My grandfather never returned to Italy. My airline pilot father once brought my grandmother along on a trip back. They got as far as Rome, and on the first day, she said ”get me out of here”. That was her only trip back to the Old Country.

We all want a good life for ourselves and our family. It’s natural for healthy, well-functioning humans to want this. Moving to the US was the first step for my grandparents. The country they moved to was nothing like the homes they’d left. They came from rural areas. Their first stop was Staten Island, and then they both ended up in Chicago, where they met, got married and started their family. No doubt the city air they breathed back then was rife with industrial pollution. But that was before the days of acid rain and Clean Air acts. But the very sight of black smoke billowing from industrial chimneys meant progress back then. Good progress, that brought better standards of living and jobs, and subsequent wealth in society. What could anyone have against that?

If we think back, not even a generation ago, Western societies were seeing the effects of that progress, manifested in an ugly, negative way. Acid rain, as I mentioned above, was a direct effect of the carbon emissions fra factories and transportation. It didn’t burn through the skin, as I believed myself, as a child, but it did result in heart and lung issues, asthma, bronchitis, and premature death in humans.

DDT was once seen as progress as well, an artificial insecticide made to help crops reach their full potential by staving off hungry, unwanted pests. More and larger crops, more food for the people, more profits for the farming industry. The effects it had on wildlife were detrimental, however, and it was also linked to human health hazards such as miscarriages, neurological disorders, and cancers.

In the end, it would seem that progress comes down to a question of aesthetics. How many of us modern day citizens of the West can look at smoke coming from a factory, and deem it a beautiful sight? The spraying of crops, that will one day be ingested by us? Is that still a sight to behold, because it means more crops for us to eat?

Take it a notch further – does anyone look at the orderly pictures of an Ikea catalog and not appreciate the aesthetic value of a clean, organised modern home? Cut to a picture of the Chinese factory where all these organisational and decorational wonders are produced. Is that too, a beautiful thing?

My pilot father, and my stewardess mother both worked for Pan Am, back in the glory days of aviation. My dad was one of the first people to fly the 747 on transatlantic routes, when people would actually dress up before getting on an airplane. It was a glamorous time my mother was a stewardess in. She started her flying career when it was no longer mandatory to wear a corset, but she was still subjected to weekly weigh-ins. Aesthetically, it was a beautiful and sleek, shimmeringly new industry, bringing the world closer, with dashing pilots and dainty stewardesses catering to your on-flight needs.

Nowadays, unless you’re flying first class these days, flying is anything but glamorous. The first image that might pop into your head when someones mentions air travel might as well be of bedraggled passengers in transit, shoes and belts placed in boxes, waiting to be groped by an aggressive TSA officer. The glamour is gone, the dashing pilots replaced with overworked, tired men and women literally eligible for food stamps, depending on which airline they work for. Stewards and stewardesses are overworked, underpaid midair servers, who just happen to know what to do in the case of an emergency where you’re most likely to die.

Not quite the same, is it? And that’s not at all helped by the fact that air travel is an environmentally detrimental, and unfortunately fast growing industry.

But catalogues of glowing, smiling, tanned people enjoying vacations in faraway exotic locales are still appealing to people, because they've shunned the harsh realities and consequences of the lifestyle that allows this to happen. But for sure, progress is also the notion that unions have fought and won people a right to an income good enough to allow such luxuries, and also of course the time off to enjoy with their families and friends. That too is progress.

It is a double edged sword. Progress had enlightened us as much as it appears to have failed us. Or?

To be continued!

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