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Originally published October 13, 2013 at 8:04 PM | Page modified October 20, 2013 at 10:27 PM

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Mixed bag from years of progress

Progress usually has some downsides, and those grow as society gets more complex, but with good information and empathy they’re fixable.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Progress has been oppressing people since the first hunter-gatherers got hand cramps from knapping flint for spearheads or sewing skins together all day. Of course, the benefits can be great, but there are always trade-offs, and we have many more of them than our ancestors ever did.

Industrialization, urbanization and rapid technological transformation pile up complications. We struggle with global warming, crime in packed cities, education and health care chasing changing circumstances.

I dug into some recent research that covers a broad range of topics, but basically it’s about some of the complications of our times. We change the world, we change ourselves and sometimes we get it wrong, but if we understand what’s happening, we can fix it or do something different in the future.

Last week, the British Medical Journal published a study that found people who live near airports suffer higher rates of several diseases than people who live farther from high levels of aircraft noise. Hospital admissions and deaths from stroke, heart and circulatory disease were 10 to 20 percent higher among people living where noise from London’s Heathrow Airport exceeded 50 decibels.

An earlier study first published in the same journal in May found that living near major roads in the Boston area is associated with increased incidents of heart disease, stroke and kidney damage. Air pollution from cars is the likely cause of the increased health problems.

Other studies have made similar findings, and they usually note a strong connection between income and location. The more money you have, the more you are able to enjoy the benefits of the modern world — a nice car to take you to the airport for a flight to Maui — and distance yourself from the downside.

Education is the modern world’s main tool for moving from one side of the tracks to the other. As society grows more complex, economic success requires more education, even as education becomes harder to access. The stakes can be as high as a person’s life.

University of Wyoming researchers used data from a national survey to examine the fates of two groups of white women, those with and those without a high-school diploma or the equivalent, and they found the difference in mortality rate between the groups grew wider during the study period, 1997-2006.

The study of women 45 to 84 years old found the chances of dying were higher for less-educated women, and increased from 37 percent higher to 66 percent higher between the first and second half of that period.

Several factors contributed to the gap, but the most potent were smoking rates and whether a person had a job. Smoking, we know about, but the power of employment hasn’t been factored into previous studies of the gap, the authors reported.

So you get an education, move up in the world, and modern life will be a lot longer and easier to deal with. But not always. It’s never that simple.

There’s a new theory as to why there is an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes in the South. It may be an aspect of the movement from multigenerational poverty to prosperity, according to Richard Steckel, professor of economics, anthropology and history at The Ohio State University.

Deep poverty has been part of the South for generations, particularly among black people, but over the course of a generation, industrialization and social changes made it possible for children from families that had been in poverty for generations to achieve economic prosperity.

Their bodies, however, were adapted for hard work and scarce resources, so they were not biologically prepared for a more sedentary lifestyle combined with access to lots of processed foods.

It’s another case of progress being good, but also tainted by negative consequences.

If we’d known, we could have taken steps to prevent the harm. But we do know now, so doctors and educators and families can take early steps to make the transition from poverty to prosperity less perilous.

Here’s something else that material progress has changed in a way that poses risks. A study of language use finds changes over the past 200 years that are adaptations to urbanization and that indicate changes in our collective values.

The study was authored by Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA psychology professor, and published in Psychological Science this past summer. It says that between 1800 and 2000 there was an increase in the frequency of words that are markers of individualism and materialistic values, (“choose” and “get,” for example) while the use of words that are markers of social responsibility, such as “obliged” and “give,” has decreased.

Knowing that (and I think we knew where we’ve been headed before the study), we can work harder to compensate and bring the balance of perspective we’ll need to address our modern problems.

Early humans didn’t have to worry about who was hanging out at Westlake Park, just about lions and snakes and stuff. But we can fix most of what’s gone wrong if we really want to.

According to a study you may have read about in summer, big U.S. cities are a lot safer than rural places. A person is more likely to be murdered in a city, but more likely to die by accident in rural areas. And far more people die of accidental injuries than homicide. the study said.

We can make cities even less dangerous and healthier places to live. We can make modern life better for more people and for the planet if we act on what we know and what we are continually learning about the good and the bad parts of change — and if we recognize an obligation to each other, which would be the best kind of progress.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com5

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346

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