Problem With Progress

There is an idea underlying much social discourse in our society. Progress is a good thing.

Defining progress is tricky though. All too often it seems to be a synonym for “new” and new is assumed to be better. Which isn’t always the case.

I could discuss social engineering and progress here, but instead today let’s turn our eyes instead on engineering progress. Such as using geothermal energy for heating.

It isn’t really new technology, and I understand you can save a considerable amount on your heating bill by switching to geothermal. Which, I presume, was why someone decided it would be a good idea to switch Staufen’s city hall to such a system.

Staufen is a picturesque tourist town with a popular ruined castle and an even more popular cafe. Tourists by the thousands roam its quaint streets. They take lots of pictures.

One of the things that shows up in a lot of the pictures is a sign of progress, or a sort. On many buildings in the village core there is a sticker, painted on the walls with the words Staufen darf nicht zerbrechen! I(n Engklish that is: Staufen must not break!

You quickly notice that each one of those messages is painted over a crack in the building. It does indeed look as if Staufen is breaking.

Apparently when they drilled to create the geothermal system to heat city hall they managed to bring together groundwater and anhydrite (a substance I had never heard of before). This caused some parts of the downtown to rise, and other parts to sink. Five-hundred-year-old (and older) buildings aren’t designed to withstand such upheaval. They began to crack, quite noticeably.

I don’t think any of them are about to collapse, and the cracks don’t seem to have gotten any worse since I first visited Staufen in 2015. But to me they stand as a reminder that “progress” shouldn’t be something we accept without considering all the possible consequences.

Whoever came up with the idea for geothermal heating for Staufen’s city hall probably thought it was a good idea to save some money, and provide an environmentally friendly heat source. It didn’t work out that way.

With problems like that in what should have been a simple engineering problem, you would think those engaged in social engineering, which can have far greater and longer lasting consequences, would think twice before implementing their plans. Do you see that happening?

I don’t either.

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