Egghead sees decline, but we're counting chicks

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It was just serendipity that a think-piece on the future of human progress, and not one but two articles on newly chic chicken farming, surfaced in my reading stack as Labor Day approached.

You can't plan something like that. But with the right holiday beverage at hand, the two things -- keeping hens in your backyard and mourning America's post-modern stagnation -- can seem closely related.

"The Blip," by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, appeared in the July 29-Aug. 5 issue of New York magazine. It explores the thinking of economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University.

If you remember Macroeconomics 101, reading this essay might conjure the name of Robert Malthus, the cheery British economist who thought population growth and progress are, and always will be, constrained by limited food supplies and unlimited human vice. In short, Malthus said, we are doomed.

We have proven him wrong by our management of Mother Nature and right in our non-management of human nature. But in terms of pessimism, Robert Gordon gives Malthus a run for his money.

Mr. Gordon thinks the recent era of great economic growth is almost certainly over. Over thousands of years of human existence, he points out, nothing much really changed. In 1750, "the state of technology and ... quality of life [for] the average individual were little better than they had been two millennia earlier."

And then the Industrial Revolution began. It started in Britain (and -- bizarrely -- happened to coincide with Malthus' life). And in the span of a few decades, life for the average person became much more prosperous and comfortable.

Then it happened again. Just as the effects of the first Industrial Revolution were waning in the mid- to late 1800s, the Second Industrial Revolution began, with the invention and application of electrical power, the internal combustion engine, Bessemer steel, assembly lines and mass production.

But by the 1970s, it petered out. For Mr. Gordon, the technology revolution that stretches from the 1980s to the present is not nearly as significant as the preceding era.

And he doesn't see it happening again. As he puts it, "some things only happen once."

Never mind that an Industrial Revolution happened twice. He nonetheless insists that such transformative progress may not happen again: The "American dream" -- our expectation that each new generation may live significantly better than its predecessors -- is no longer a given. It's no longer even a dim possibility.

Not for nothing is economics called "the dismal science."

For Gordon, the latest revolution -- the one that's given us desktop computers, the Internet, laptops, cell phones, gaming consoles, real-time everything, texting and Twitter -- has not improved quality of life like earlier revolutions did. (Isn't it too soon to tell?)

But he's an economist, and to a great degree he's measuring quality of life in dollar signs. What if the rest of us are thinking ahead of, and above, the economists?

What if we lesser mortals have responded to two Industrial Revolutions and the Technology Revolution by looking backward at what we've lost?

Nostalgia for the old days and the old ways seems to be a constant of human existence, but today's nostalgia is more than just wistfulness. Some growing portion of the population has decided that certain pre-industrial practices are better.

I don't think the second annual Sewickley chicken coop tour is a passing fad. Fancy, $5,000 Williams-Sonoma coops may be indulgences of latter-day Marie Antoinettes, playing at farming, but chances are the new agrarianism is here to stay.

We've realized that the more our food passes through machines, the less nourishing and flavorful it seems to be. The more we work in antiseptic labs and cubicles, the less we feel connected to the Earth.

So we seem to be re-defining "labor" and "quality of life." The re-evaluation has many of us embracing chicken coops, compost heaps and vegetable gardens, homemade preserves and handmade furniture. Eat local? There's nothing more local than your backyard.

The stock exchange and personal incomes may remain stagnant, but what if we rediscover a kind of wealth economists can't measure?

My Deutschtown neighbor added a rooster this year to her brood of chickens. He wakes us up many a morning. Sneaking up to photograph his brilliant red and blue plumage when he wandered down the block and onto our back deck is a highlight of 2013.

Human ingenuity, focused on labor-saving progress, has given us the luxury of choosing labor with meaning -- and feathers.


Ruth Ann Dailey:


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