Sunday, July 4, 2010

Paradox of Progress

One would think the increased agricultural bounty, elevated personal convenience and comfort, and improved living standards of the last century would result in heightened awareness of the goodness of God and a greater degree of thankfulness to our Creator. In our modern society, however, it appears that just the opposite may be true.

My father was an agent for a hybrid seed company in the late 1940s. His charge was to educate traditional farmers concerning new hybrid grain varieties, inorganic fertilizers and herbicides, and new horticultural practices. When I was in grade school, the advantages of such innovations were just beginning to be discovered.

Thanks to my newly-arrived Illinois Country Living issue, a production of our local energy cooperative, I was statistically reminded of the startling increase in agricultural productivity which has occurred during my lifetime: 474 percent more corn is produced with only 4 percent more acres; 29 percent more eggs with 36 percent fewer hens; 145 percent more pork with 45 percent fewer sows; and 63 percent more milk with 68 percent fewer cows.

Improvements in agricultural technology parallel technological advances in a host of other fields during the same time frame. Who would prefer the gas-guzzling automobiles driven by our parents or grandparents to the low-maintenance, mileage-stretching, long-lasting, safe and comfortable vehicles of our day? Would we trade our smartphones or even our primitive cell phones for a return to phone booths and costly long-distance rates on our early landlines? How does a small screen black and white television receiver blinking out the World Series of 1950 compare with our current choice of any of over a dozen major league baseball games broadcast simultaneously in widescreen, high definition color via satellite or cable?

Electronic technology also enables the modern farmer to use global positioning systems to locate the precise position of his field equipment to within one meter and immediately adjust his sowing, feltilizing, and pesticide applications to account for variable conditions in his fields. GPS systems in our cars guide us to our destinations with friendly instructions in your own choice of audible voices, eliminating the need to fumble with roadmaps while driving.

The quality, variety, and bounty of our agricultural product availability inspires a sense of awe whenever I enter a large supermarket. I have reverently joked that such a visit amounts to a "worship experience" for me. The adventure is heightened when I consume the genetically improved produce which seems superior in taste and even cost to that available a few short years ago. I wonder how much larger, tastier, and cheaper strawberries can become!

Perhaps my supermarket experience captures a small portion of Samuel F. B. Morse's emotion when he sent the world's first, modest telegraph message through fragile wires between Washington and Baltimore in 1844: "What Hath God Wrought?" My exultation is tempered, however, by knowing that our modern culture credits the genius of man for these ongoing innovations. We must be mindful that inventors and innovators operate with the genius gifted to them by God who commanded mankind to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it" in Genesis 1:28.

Paul the Apostle decried the corruption of early man in Romans 1:18-32. In that passage he attributed their downfall to a lack of thankfulness, among other things. "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools" (Romans 1:21-22 NAS).

Technological progress of the last century is largely the result of application of the principles of science--principles advocated in scripture. "Subdue," therefore, could relate to the use of "applied science" in 21st century terms. The Paradox of Progress is that in our modern culture, God, the source of all wisdom and knowledge, too seldom gets the credit or thanks for His gifts to man.