The pitfalls of “progress.”

Harmondsword is a small, quaint village hard under the approach of planes heading into Heathrow. That would be quaint not in the Disneyland or tourist sense, but in the “good heavens, people actually live in seventeenth century houses!” sense. (Not all houses are that old – some are modern.)


Harmondsword Hall Guest House is reasonably priced inn (85 euros/night) in a lovely sixteenth century building, with large, American-sized rooms and a full English breakfast included. The Five Bells is a comfortable English pub about two short blocks away. (The Crown and Rose is even closer.) I strongly recommend anyone traveling to London who wants to stay near Heathrow for convenience’s sake consider this place.

I suggest you do so soon, however. In a few months almost all the houses – including the inn – will be demolished to make way for Heathrow’s third runway.

The night I stayed there, a local news crew did their broadcast from the garden of the Five Bells. The villagers were told that day which houses were to be demolished. The last piece the newsman did was asking the villagers what they thought about the Heathrow expansion.

Several villagers thought the expansion a good idea. They trotted out the same reasons as the government. It will be good for the economy. We can use the jobs. Not only newcomers: one of the supporters who looked like he was about fifty had lived in the village since he was born.

More opposed the expansion: in some cases, people who had lived there their entire lives, including a ninety-three year old man who lived in a sixteenth century house that his parents and grandparents had lived in before him. One woman, whose house was not going to be demolished, spoke of her well-loved garden that would become unusable. “They said they would soundproof my house, but I would still need earplugs to go outside!” I spoke to several of the more ardent activists afterwards in the bar and wished them the best of luck in their campaign.

Being driven into Heathrow, I saw the flip side of the coin: signs telling passersby: “Heathrow Expansion: Good for Heathrow. Good for Britain.”

Even supposing this were true (and the economic benefits of things like these are almost always overstated) little to none of those benefits will accrue to the villagers. They will lose their houses, some in which their families have lived for generations, and will be forced out into a brutal real estate and rental market. The London metropolitan area, like San Francisco and New York, has taken off, with the result that high costs have become a barrier to entry for home ownership, and rents have rocketed skyward.

On our side of the Atlantic, Congress has just given the President fast-track approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This means that Congress will not be able to change or amend any part of the treaty – a treaty that they have not seen, partly because it is still being negotiated. From what I have read, though, it is much like NAFTA, the free-trade agreement Bill Clinton signed into law.

When NAFTA was being debated, one of the refrains I remember hearing was “sure, maybe we’ll lose manufacturing jobs, but we’ll gain technology jobs.” People espousing this position didn’t stop to think about the logistics of such a transfer: the workers displaced by the loss of manufacturing jobs lived, by and large, in Rust Belt and South, while the tech jobs were mostly in California. What should a textile worker in North Carolina do when their job disappeared? Move to Silicon Valley, where they would be unable to compete? (And increasingly these days, tech support and coding jobs are moving overseas anyway.) Pulling up stakes and moving is incredibly disruptive to people’s psyches, as is staying put and struggling to keep your head above water.

There seemed to be no plan to help people whose jobs headed south. It seemed as though the people didn’t matter, just the numbers. But, as in so many things in life, there are people behind those numbers; failing to take their welfare into account, including intangibles like sense of place, will only lead to unnecessary suffering.

After all, how do you measure a sense of community? Love for the place where you were brought up? Having friends that you can call on when lightning strikes and you need a hand? The color the sky turns on an autumn day? The way the pine trees line the ridgelines? Randy Travis wrote an entire song about this sort of thing.

“Progress,” however you want to measure it, always has victims. People lose their jobs to robots and treaty-encouraged offshoring, their homes to public works projects. That’s inevitable. But we need to do a better job of assessing intangible human costs when determining whether a project is worthwhile.

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