Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Authors, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide 

People often ask us if it isn’t psychologically draining to talk to survivors from war zones, brothels, and slums. Yes, sometimes it is—but it’s often inspiring as well. We see the arc of progress in the most unlikely places. An escapee from a Cambodian brothel devotes her life to helping other girls flee. An Ethiopian girl who was raped is studying law and aims to prosecute rapists. A Yemeni girl who was married against her will at age 10 took a taxi to a courthouse, found a judge, and demanded a divorce—and now is part of a campaign against child marriage there. The world is changing, largely in ways that reassure and even inspire. So although it may surprise people to hear it, progress seems to us even more visible in places like the slums of Calcutta or Rio de Janeiro than in the financial districts of New York or London.


Dickson Despommier, Ph.D.

Founder, The Vertical Farm Project

Imagine living in an environment where everything is sustainable and recyclable. This defines the biosphere as it existed before humans evolved some 150,000 years ago out of the verdant forests and grasslands of East Africa. Over the last 12,000 years, 1 million grew to 6.8 billion, creating a techno-sphere in which the word “waste” figures prominently. Nature does not know that word. Waste poses the greatest threat to life on Earth. Clearing half of the world’s forests to raise crops led to agricultural waste, the world’s worst source of pollution. We are now trapped in cascading downward spirals of manufacturing/consumerism, threatening to disconnect every living system that clings tenuously to its own ecological setting. It will cause another mass extinction, with us as one of its’ victims. What can be done to slow down our impact on Earth’s ecosystems? To begin with, we can grow most of our food using hydroponics and aeroponics. Locating these indoor systems within the built environment as vertical farms allows for the mass production of fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices without further encroachment. If cities converted to vertical farming, it would save vast tracts of farmland. Left alone, nature would reclaim them, slowing down rapid climate change. With food production at its center, cities could then bio-mimic ecosystems, reclaiming waste and converting it back into usable water and energy. “Off the grid” would take on a completely new and enlightened meaning for Earth’s life forms. True sustainability would be the final reward.


Lawrence R. Samuel

Author of Future: A Recent History and The End of the Innocence: The 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair

Like most great ideas, the notion of progress is a leap of faith and an investment in the future. Moving forward keeps us moving forward, our conviction that tomorrow will be better than today helping us get out of bed in the morning. Much more important than the gadgets and gizmos it has produced, progress has served and continues to function as an important stabilizing force, taken as evidence to suggest that life is not the chaotic, random series of events it often appears to be. Progress also helps us forget the failures of the past and uncertainties of the present, its focus on what will be of considerable therapeutic value. Few things can compete with the promise of unlimited possibilities, after all, the concepts of “better,” “bigger,” “new,” or simply “more” an almost unbeatable hand. Plunging headfirst toward the great unknown is a risky business, however, with history showing over and over that a blind faith in the shape of things to come often leads to disaster. Our love-hate relationship with technology, foolish obsession with both utopias and dystopias, and distraction from the things that really matter are just a few of the nastier side effects of progress. Is it real, this notion of progress, or just an illusion? I’m still not sure, but agree with author Chuck Klosterman that air conditioning is a wonderful thing in the summer.

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