When is Progress Progress?

Books are interesting things, especially if they are well-written. They can give your emotions a workout, educate you with or without school, inspire you to travel or help you travel from the comfort of your home. A book I’m currently reading is doing all of the above while challenging my concept of progress. 

Most of us have some quarrel with progress. For example, I miss telephone operators; technology has simply failed to replace them. A human who could make sense of my quandary and help solve it is not always replaceable by Google. Or take cars that avoid accidents: yes, marvelous! But an abundance of them jammed together in one place at one time? Not progress.

Still, we Americans tend to pursue change in expectation of progress. The word embeds the aura of goodness into itself in a way that the word “change” does not. Change can be either good or bad, whereas progress can only be good. So now let’s get to the substance of The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong. It tracks the changes occurring in the vast watershed of the Mekong River, and, with minimal judgment, describes the rapid changes taking place along the course of the river.

The author, Brian Eyler, has extensive experience in southern China and Southeast Asia. He takes the reader on a journey from the headwaters of the Mekong in Tibet, through the Golden Triangle where China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet, to the massive developments in the delta. At each point along the journey, he describes the people who have lived along the river with little contact with the developed world, those who have survived in the mountainous areas, communities that developed along lakes and river confluences. We get a feel for the cultures as they have been historically and ways they are changing as China pushes the development of hydropower on every river and many tributaries. 

I’ll confess to limited knowledge of China and its neighbors; my ignorance of the area cannot be overstated. But the joy of this book is learning of the diverse communities on the edge of China, how China has tolerated these ethnic enclaves as long as they haven’t challenged the state, and how new roads and access to electricity are changing everything about life in these remote areas. As I read of each new (to me) culture, I was challenged to think about the concept of progress. 

I’ve reflected back on the changes my family experienced since the 1880s when my grandparents were born. We had no trouble considering these changes to be progress. Cars were an improvement over horse-drawn carriages. Telephones, electricity, refrigerators, and central heating were good things. 

For me, writing with a word-processing program was an amazing improvement over typing and using whiteout to correct errors. Email and texting are so convenient. So why has change been readily accepted in my family but resisted in others? When is progress progress?

The various ethnic communities along the vast Mekong bear some resemblance to our Native Americans, yet their situation is not identical. They were never unaware of the more numerous Han Chinese who dominated most of China; often they had trading relationships. Yet their unique cultural traditions led to strong community ties. China was slow to modernize, so the technological gap simply wasn’t that great until recent years. 

When rapid change did begin to penetrate the remote areas along the Mekong, it was not the sort of change that enabled people to do what they were already doing but with greater efficiency. My parents and grandparents greeted the telephone with excitement because it enabled them to hear from distant friends and relatives. Communities that stayed close didn’t experience the same benefits.

A new paved road into your community might not be considered a blessing if it only brings curious strangers who want to see the scenery you have always lived with, yet want to eat and sleep in ways they have been accustomed to. This replacement of community space with posh guest houses is one of the major changes in many areas with historic or scenic attractions. Is this progress? Or just change? 

Most of us regard electricity as a necessity. Any power outage is a challenge; one that drags on is disruptive and rarely a cause for celebration. But imagine if electricity brings with it night life along the shore of a previously peaceful lake. Tourists, those same folks who want to eat food they know and sleep in comfort, don’t quietly sit to relish the tranquility of your remote village. Rather, they come on vacation with friends or family; they want to hear music over loud speakers and drink and laugh and toast and cheer late into the evening. Is this progress? Or just change?

I was surprised to learn that China has an oversupply of hydropower, the same hydropower that has disrupted countless communities along its major rivers. It’s not that China could not use all of the hydropower it has created; rather, it’s proving politically challenging to displace the thousands of workers employed at coal powered plants. Surely, all this disruption to create power that is not being used is only change, not progress.

Some communities are doing better than others in this era of rapid change. One has added pigs to its basket of farm products and sells them to restaurants in distant cities. It has managed to cultivate a “brand” for its pigs (think Copper River Salmon); it has gained income while avoiding much of the disruption that has come to other communities. Perhaps this is progress, not just change.

Despite a history of ecosystem destruction, the US now participates in the Pacific Salmon Commission, a vehicle for cooperation between many national, state, tribal and local governments to preserve fish populations. No effective vehicle for ecosystem planning exists along the Mekong. A more cooperative effort is desperately needed since every project along the river affects people and ecosystems above and below. 

I enjoy any book that is well written and challenges me to rethink a concept as basic as “progress.” I thank Brian Eyler for this beautiful exploration of cultures and challenges I knew little of.

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