Public Comment

Commentary: Doing Good Without Doing Harm

By Sharon Hudson
Friday February 29, 2008

These days, a lot of usually “progressive” people seem to be just saying no to a lot of traditionally progressive ideas. 

Nationally, there has been a backlash against a controversial Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of governments to transfer property from one private party to another through eminent domain, a power originally meant to increase the commons. The ballot “solutions” to this problem have so far been worse than the problem, but eventually we may see a good one. 

Back in 2004, Berkeley had its very own “tax rebellion,” which is normally a right-wing form of protest, and we will likely have another one this year. Why? Even die-hard Democrats have become disgusted with their own government and its overbearing unions. Likewise, many progressives have been voting against state and county bond measures for their traditional causes.  

Most Berkeleyans support higher education, yet opposition to the university’s 2020 Long Range Development Plan was vehement, and not limited to the university’s immediate victims. A band of idealistic arboreal demonstrators, and their many progressive supporters, continue to show that they prefer staid old oak trees to the university’s idea of “progress.”  

Meanwhile, almost every significant property development in Berkeley engenders angry opposition, as did the proposed 12-story expansion of Children’s Hospital just south of us. Berkeleyans’ opposition to another supposedly “progressive” proposal, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), is intense and almost universal among those who know much about it. More ambiguous are the divisions among progressives over People’s Park and the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative: Is it progressive and commons-sensical to maintain the commons in civil order, or is it reactionary and repressive to keep people from making their homes in the commons?  

Progressivism seems to be having an identity crisis. But even more important, Progress itself is having an identity crisis. And not a moment too soon.  

During the 19th and 20th centuries, “progress” meant doing things that people then and now mostly think of as “good,” but at enormous cost. Entire races were abused, enslaved, and eliminated; millions of people were crowded into unhealthy and unhappy cities; sustainable ways of life were replaced with unsustainable ones; the earth, her beauty, her wildlife, and her resources were brutally raped and pillaged. The ultimate consequence of all this technological “progress” may be the destruction of a planet many of us are rather fond of. Meanwhile, economic “progress” in America has meant the metastasis of capitalism into a cancer that has devoured almost all our non-economic values, including our democracy. 

And what has been the benefit? Scholars have verified repeatedly that, above a minimal standard of living, further “progress” as we have come to know it has not, and does not, make people any happier. But thousands of happy communities and sustainable ways of life have been destroyed by progress.  

Over the past two centuries, some people got somewhat happier, but only because the baseline typically employed for comparison is the abject human misery created by the Industrial Revolution—ironically, misery that was originally created by progress. Granted, 21st-century Westerners are probably happier than people forced off their farms into crowded urban tenements, slaving long hours in unhealthy factories.  

But Americans today are, according to research, no more happy than many people living in pre-industrial societies. The most important determinants of individual happiness are not material gains, but human relationships, physical health, and expectations that approximate reality. The most important correlates with societal happiness are economic equality and job security. All these things are components of many pre-industrial, pre-urban societies, but few of them are prominent in American culture, and all are on the downswing today.  

Therefore, if human happiness, environmental sustainability, and global survival are our goals, we must relinquish our past models of progress. We cannot cling to the idea that what we have been calling “progress” ipso facto increases human well-being, or is so good that its “collateral damage” can be discounted or even ignored. Those benefiting from the harm argue that because most people and some animals can adapt to unpleasant changes (“they’ll get used to it”), everything will be fine. But recent history discredits this argument: dysfunctional social, economic, and environmental systems are not fine.  

Everyone now realizes that we cannot have another century of blind ambition. We can no longer let bankers and engineers and developers—or even scientists—decide what “progress” is. We can no longer afford to ignore the harmful consequences of change. If we are to have progress at all, what we must find—fast—is a model for doing good without doing harm. And evidently that model will have to come from the bottom up. 

I propose that the recent backlash against various kinds of change and “progress” constitutes the first widespread expression of this new model (narrow manifestations include the “simple living” and organic eating movements). What looks like a purely defensive response can be seen as a proactive and positive one, though still inchoate. What the voters and neighborhood activists (a.k.a. NIMBYs) are really saying to our elected officials (I can’t bring myself to call them “leaders”), developers, the university, and other mindless “progress”-mongers is this: “We are tired of your laziness, your lack of imagination, and your lack of will to fashion projects that do not harm people. We believe it is possible for society to achieve its goals without damaging people or their environment, and we demand that you do so.”  

Our city council has obviously not yet decoded the message, or they would not, for example, be thinking up yet more tax increases while continuing to harm Berkeley residents. They would not be chasing from West Berkeley local artisans and manufacturers, which are important components of cultural well-being and environmental sustainability. They would be very skeptical of BRT, a dubious form of top-down “progress” that would create an experimental urban form designed to benefit not people, but transit companies; to do so, BRT would disrupt stable (sustainable) neighborhoods that currently enjoy a good quality of life (level of human happiness).  

And of course, they would not be approving abysmal development projects. These projects harm future residents with their poor interior designs; they often harm the community with their size and unattractive exterior designs; and most of all, they harm neighborhoods by destroying their access to sun, views, parking, greenery, quiet, community, and so forth. It’s quite a stretch to call this mediocrity of expectation “progressive.” 

Progressives agree that eminent domain, taxes, unions, universities, hospitals, some developments, most public transit, and compassion for the unfortunate are all good things, when employed correctly. What alert Berkeleyans rightly oppose is the unnecessary harm that habitually accompanies, and sometimes even surpasses, the good.  

If good must always be accompanied by harm, then our costly and debilitating battles over who gets the good and who gets the harm are both inevitable and very well advised. We should expect to commit huge amounts of our resources to fighting those battles, just as we have been. Obviously, the “little guys” should fight doggedly for their right not to be harmed. By so doing, they advance everyone else’s right not to be harmed, too. So thank you, NIMBYs. Much less clear, however, is why taxpayers’ money should be spent to cause harm to average folks.  

The voters and the NIMBYs are correct to “just say no” to mindless and harmful projects. Insisting on doing good without doing harm is exactly what the environmental movement, and the sustainability movement, are all about. So progressives who want to “think globally, act locally” might focus less on changing the cityscape, and more on changing our thinking patterns, based on two hundred years of experience. I think we’ll all like the results a lot better.  


Sharon Hudson is a Southside tenant.