I first visited Disneyland around 1971. My father, then in the Air Force, was back from his second tour of duty in Viet-Nam and got stationed at a small town in Nevada called Fallon, about sixty miles east of Reno. That first summer back in America, he decided to take us all to Disneyland.
One of my fondest memories of that trip was a large, rotating building called the “Carousel of Progress.” We sat in an auditorium while the building swung from one stage to the next, presenting a “typical” living room at various stages in American history, from pioneer days to the present. It was sponsored by General Electric, so I suppose it was also an advertisement of sorts for that corporation’s products.
Nevertheless, it was entertaining. Each of four living rooms was populated with animatronic people and animals who talked about their lives during their particular era. As we rotated from living room to living room, we got to witness progress.
The idea of progress used to be at the forefront of America’s thoughts. But today, it’s a concept that rarely enters our heads. Many have lost faith in it. Many don’t believe in it at all. Many think it’s just an illusion.
Instead, our leaders and pundits focus only on our problems. Some speak as if our best days were in the past, with only endless decline before us. Those things that we had thought were beneficial, we are now assured are actually delusions devastating the world and our futures. Our attempts at progress, some say, have cheapened and degraded our lives: all our gadgets and processed foods, chemicals and carbon spewing have destroyed paradise.
Despite the Malthusian malcontents, Disney’s carousel reminds us that progress is real. The past really wasn’t better than the present. We are not making our world worse. Our children’s future is not dim.
It is hard to argue that living in a dark and dirty hovel, or traipsing to a smelly outhouse in the middle of a cold winter’s night, is somehow preferable to our modern homes with bathrooms. Or that bathing in a basin in the kitchen is better than a hot shower. Or that cutting wood, hauling it into the kitchen, stuffing it into the stove, and then struggling to light it is somehow better than flipping a knob on our gas or electric range.
Kings of the eighteenth century did not live as comfortably as today’s average welfare recipient. The mummified remains of ancient pharaohs show many suffering from the abscesses, parasites and disease that today afflict only the most impoverished of third world nations. When an ancient king had to go in the middle of the night, he pulled a pot out from under his bed. Then he had to let it sit there smelling up the joint until his servants arrived in the morning to haul it away.
The state of humanity before the industrial revolution was nasty, brutish, and short—to paraphrase Hobbes. The children of farmers flocked to the cities to work in the factories because life in a dingy city was better than life in a filthy, bug-infested muddy shack with a backbreaking sunup to sundown plowing and harvesting routine. My short stint on a kibbutz in Israel when I was in college disabused me of any and all romantic notions of farm life. Capitalism and industrialization have been good for people.
The Disney Carousel of Progress which told us that the future was going to be better than our present wasn’t dispensing a pretty little lie. Overall progress has been the steady pattern of history. There is no reason to think that the pattern has ended. Despite economic slumps and periodic upheavals, there has been an unending upward trend in human prosperity.
When I was a child, the largest telescope in the world was at Mt. Palomar Observatory. Its mirror is 200 inches across. For more than forty years, from 1949 to 1992 it reigned supreme.
In 2018 the James Webb space telescope, the successor to the Hubble telescope, will rocket into space. Its mirror is more than 250 inches across.
Designed to observe the infrared, it will be able to see further than any telescope in history. Since the universe is expanding, the more distant an object, the more its light shifts toward the red end of the spectrum. As a result, the most distant objects are no longer shining in a visible wavelength. Night vision goggles work because they translate that invisible infrared—what we normally experience only as heat—into something perceivable by eyesight. Webb will do the same thing for distant starlight.
Because of all the heat put off by the Earth, the far infrared regions of space cannot be seen from the surface of our planet. The Earth and the moon glow too bright: trying to see the far infrared from Earth is like trying to see the stars during the day.
For this reason, the new Webb telescope will be sent very far away from our planet. While the current Hubble Space Telescope orbits barely three hundred miles up, Webb will be parked at the Earth-Sun L2 point—more than a million miles away—in fact, about four times further from Earth than the moon.
Besides being able to view far distant parts of the universe, Webb should also be capable of imaging the tiny specks of other worlds—worlds like Earth—circling far distant stars.
Such obvious advances in space technology are simply a tiny subset of the progress being made in all human activities. We need merely to look past our natural pessimism to recognize it. The Carousel of Progress may no longer be an attraction at Disneyland, but the human race is still riding it just the same.