The Miracle of Incremental Progress

A few days ago, I stumbled across a photo of our farmyard from a couple decades ago. Seeing the yard as it was in the early 2000’s was stunning enough to stop me in my tracks. The changes that we have created in this yard are remarkable, at least to me. True, this was from long enough ago that I wasn’t even on the farm in any real capacity yet, but it was a startling photo, nonetheless. When I think back to this time, when cattle were still on the farm, when our new binyard out east of the yard was little more than a dream, it reminds me of how far we’ve come, of all the progress we’ve made.

Our farm as it was in 2002.
Our yard as it is in 2022.

What I’m talking about here isn’t a bragging session about our great big binyard, or anything like that; no, I’m sure many of you reading this post either have seen or have larger set-ups than ours.

No, what I’m pointing out is the quiet, slow, but often stunning changes that happen over the course of many years. How it can feel like ages have gone by with little progress, change, or improvement. It can feel like that despite all the work, the energy, the blood, sweat and tears, the stress, things just aren’t getting better. You’re just spinning your wheels. Two steps forward, two steps back. For many years of my farming career, it has absolutely felt like that. We’d get a good year or two, then another disaster. And so on. It feels like things will never get better, like you’ll be stuck in that same place for the rest of your life. Or, as a friend so depressingly put it to me one day, years ago: “you just work and work and work and then you die.” A harsh statement. But sadly, farming can feel like that sometimes. I’m sure other small business owners feel something similar, from time to time.

What this picture stunned me with, though, was the realization that the place I was trying to get to when I started farming? We’re there. We were there years ago. I just didn’t notice it. I wasn’t looking for it. As soon as we achieved a goal, I just set the next one. And the next. I never noticed the moment we broke through another one of my dreams. I never paid attention to the success we were already having, instead focusing on the things that went wrong, the things I screwed up. Or even the things that Mother Nature unfairly screwed up for me. I was focusing on the negative.

In 2010, several years after this year this photo was taken, I returned home from university to start farming in earnest. Grain prices were, at the time, actually pretty good. I was bullish on agriculture. I’d heard for years that we would never produce enough food for a rapidly growing population and there was no better business to be in than food production. Obviously, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows; everything was too expensive, of course (some things never change). But unfortunately for my area of southeast Saskatchewan, Mother Nature was about to give us a reality check. A bad one. We suffered through two years of severe flooding, mostly missing out on the high grain prices at the time, leaving us quite unable to replace any of our aging machinery or infrastructure. It was a struggle – a rough way to start a career in farming.

After the difficulties and challenges from the flood years, and the very tumultuous years that followed them, it seemed little more than a fleeting dream that we would ever achieve the goals I set out as a young university graduate. It almost seemed silly to write goals down at all. Why bother when Nature holds all the cards? Why set myself up for disappointment? Well, I did it anyway. And you know what? We achieved every single one of them. In fact, we achieved them years ago. And I was too busy setting the next goals to notice.

What’s so amazing about the slow march of progress is that you almost have to take a moment and think about your achievements to notice them. Otherwise, you just get lost in the day to day of your business, your life, and you move on. You forget. And you miss the opportunity to celebrate the little achievements in your life.

Just as I haven’t noticed my own achievements, it seems we as a society aren’t noticing ours either. We spend so much time criticizing all the things wrong with the world today, and all the decisions our ancestors made, that we haven’t noticed all the amazing things we achieved.

We haven’t noticed that we’ve reduced child mortality by 87% since 1950. The fact that the share of the population living in extreme poverty has collapsed from over 80% a century ago to under 10% today has slipped right by us. The miracle of food production should be celebrated in the news every day; like the fact that 68% less land is required to produce a calorie of food since 1970, or that we’ve reduced the land required for meat production by an area the size of Brazil. Even in the poorest countries, the proportion of children who are malnourished enough to be stunted has declined by half in just 50 years. Somehow, we managed to achieve all this in a time when we added several billion people to the world’s population.

People are often stunned to hear that between 1982 and 2016, we have reforested an area the size of Alaska and Montana combined. Few seem to know that carbon intensity for the world has been declining for half a century. The invention of fracking for natural gas development in the US has markedly decreased their carbon emissions by displacing coal.

Few people seem to be aware of how explosively the world’s wealth has increased: by 2008, the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equivalent to Western Europe in 1964. We fail to notice that we have decreased the number of deaths from malaria by 60% in just fifteen years, between 2000 and 2015. We eliminated smallpox, which was responsible for killing over 300 million people in the 20th century.

We don’t celebrate the true super-heroes of our time, such as John Enders, the man credited with developing the vaccine for measles, who probably saved at least 120 million people. Few people know about Karl Landsteiner, who likely saved at least a billion lives by his discovery of blood groups. We don’t celebrate Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the inventors of the Haber-Bosch process that produces nitrogen fertilizer. This discovery alone is responsible for the existence of every second person alive.

What we have achieved in the past century is a string of miracles. And we aren’t done. At least, we shouldn’t be.

Just as I fail to notice my own successes, our species has a terrible blind spot for good news. Every day when you log onto your computer, or read the paper, or watch the news, the first thing you should see is the 1.9 net people per second that are escaping extreme poverty. Good things are happening, all around us, all the time. Instead, we think about how the world will end from nuclear war, climate change, or an asteroid strike. Should we worry about the threats to our species and our planet? Of course. There are a lot of things we’ve screwed up. We haven’t reached anywhere near our potential, and we must continually strive to do better. But believing we are headed for an inevitable apocalypse, as many climate change proponents argue, gives us little hope of a better future. Which, climate change or not, we will achieve.

How did we achieve all our past success? Free trade and open markets. It really is that simple. And that is worth celebrating.

Sometimes, it’s worth your time to take a moment and think about the progress you’ve made. It’s a way to reset and think about the future, with a clear head about what you have achieved in the past. Your mental health will improve. You’ll feel better about where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and where you’re going. Goals should be celebrated when they’re achieved, whether they’re as small as losing a few pounds, or as large as eliminating extreme poverty. Recognizing your successes makes it a lot easier to think about solutions to difficult problems. Why? Because you’ve solved so much already. The next problem is solvable too.

Just as I never thought I’d see the day when I’d achieve the goals I set out twelve short years ago, we all can accomplish far more than we think. We just have to dream big enough, and recognize our successes when they’re staring us in the face.

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