I’ve said that we need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. But why a new philosophy? Why can’t we just return to the 19th-century attitude towards progress, which was pretty enthusiastic?

In short, the view of progress that persisted especially through the late 19th century and up until 1914 was naive. It fell apart because, in the 20th century, it met challenges it could not answer. We need to answer those challenges today.

What follows is a hypothesis that needs a lot more research and substantiation, but I’m putting it forward as my current working model of the relevant intellectual history.

The 19th-century worldview

Here are a few key elements of the Enlightenment-era worldview:

  • Nature was an obstacle to be conquered. Nature was imperfect; human reason could improve it—and it was fitting and proper for us to do so. Kipling wrote, “We hold all Earth to plunder / All time and space as well.” Nature was a means to our ends.
  • There was a deep belief in the power of human reason both to understand and to command nature. Especially by the end of the century, the accomplishments in science, technology and industry seemed to confirm this.
  • As a corollary of the above, there was an admiration for growth and progress: in science, in the economy, even in population.

(I’m basing this mostly on writings from the time, such as Macaulay or Alfred Russel Wallace; contemporary newspaper editorials; popular speeches given, e.g., at celebrations; poetry of the era; etc. For future research: what were the historians, philosophers, etc. of the time saying about progress? I’m familiar with some of the thought from previous centuries such as Bacon and Condorcet, but less so with that from 19th-century figures such as Mill or Comte.)

On the face of it, at least, these seem very much in sympathy with the core ideas of the progress movement as I have outlined them. So what did the 19th century get wrong?

Mistakes

Here are just some examples of things that many people believed in the late 19th century, which would later be proved quite wrong:

  • That technology would lead to world peace. Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet had forecast progress in morality and society just as much as in science, technology and industry. By the late 1800s, this seemed plausible. The previous century had seen monarchy and aristocracy replaced by democratic republics, and the end of slavery in the West. Economic growth was making everyone richer, and free trade was binding nations together, giving them opportunities for win-win collaboration rather than destructive, zero-sum competition. The telegraph in particular was hailed as an invention that would unite humanity by allowing us to better communicate. Everything seemed to be going relatively well, especially after 1871 (end of the Franco-Prussian War), for over 40 years…
  • That “improvements on nature” would avoid unintended consequences. (This one may have been implicit.) It’s good to try to improve on nature; it’s bad to go about it blithely and heedless of risk. One striking example is the popularity of “acclimatization societies”, “based upon the concept that native fauna and flora were inherently deficient and that nature could be greatly improved upon by the addition of more species…. the American Acclimatization Society was founded in New York City in 1871, dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America for both economic and aesthetic purposes. Much of the effort made by the society focused on birds, and in the late 1870’s, New York pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin led the society in a program to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare.” (Emphasis added.) These importations led to invasive pests that threatened crops, and were ultimately placed under strict controls.
  • That progress was inevitable. The most optimistic thinkers believed not only that continued progress was possible, but that it was being driven by some grand historical force. Historian Carl Becker, writing about this period soon after it had passed, spoke of the conviction that “the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards,“ adding that “the doctrine was in essence an emotional conviction, a species of religion.”

20th-century challenges to the idea of progress

The idea of progress was never without detractors. As early as 1750, Rousseau declared that “the progress of the sciences and the arts has added nothing to our true happiness,” adding that “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection” and that “luxury, dissolution, and slavery have in every age been the punishment for the arrogant efforts we have made in order to emerge from the happy ignorance where Eternal Wisdom had placed us.” But through the 19th century, voices like this could barely be heard above the cheering of the crowds in celebration of the railroad, the light bulb, or the airplane.

What changed in the 20th century? Here are several factors:

The world wars. With World War I, it became clear that technology had not led to an end to war; it had made war all the more horrible and destructive. Progress was not inevitable, certainly not moral and social progress. By the end of World War 2, the atomic bomb in particular made it clear that science, technology and industry had unleashed a new and very deadly threat on the world.

The wars, I think, were the main catalyst for the change. But they were not the only challenge to the idea of progress. There were other concerns that had existed at least since the 19th century:

Poverty and inequality. Many people were still living in dilapidated conditions, without even toilets or clean water, at the same time as others were getting rich from new industrial ventures.

Job loss and economic upheaval. As technology wrought its “creative destruction” in a capitalist economy, entire professions from blacksmiths to longshoremen became obsolete. As early as the 1700s, groups led by “Ned Ludd” and “Captain Swing” smashed and burned textile machinery in protest.

Harms, risks, and accountability in a complex economy. As the economy grew more complex and people were living more interconnected lives, increasingly in dense urban spaces, they had the ability to affect each other—and harm each other—in many more ways, many of which were subtle and hard to detect. To take one example, households that once were largely self-sufficient farms began buying more and more of their food as commercial products, from increasingly farther distances via rail. Meat packing plants were filthy; milk was transported warm in open containers; many foods became contaminated. In the US, these concerns led in 1906 to the Pure Food & Drug Act and ultimately to the creation of the FDA.

Concentration of wealth and power. The new industrial economy was creating a new elite: Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie. Their wealth came from business, not inheritance, and their power was more economic than political, but to many people they looked like a new aristocracy, little different than the old. In America especially, the people—who just a few generations ago had fought a war to throw off monarchical rule—were suspicious of this new elite, even as they celebrated rags-to-riches stories and praised the “self-made man.” It was a deep conflict that persists to this day.

Resource consumption. Long before Peak Oil, William Stanley Jevons was warning of Peak Coal. Others predicted the end of silver or other precious metals. Sir William Crookes (more accurately) sounded the alarm that the world was running out of fertilizer. Even as people celebrated growth, they worried that the bounty of nature would not last forever.

Pollution. Coal use was blackening not only the skies but the houses, streets, and lungs of cities such as London or Pittsburgh, both of which were likened to hell on Earth because of the clouds of smoke. Raw sewage dumped into the Thames in London led to the Great Stink and to cholera epidemics. Pesticides based on toxic substances such as arsenic, dumped in copious quantities over crops, sickened people and animals and poisoned the soil.

And there was at least one major new concern coming to the fore:

The environment, as such. The 19th century may have worried about pollution and resources, but in the 20th century these concerns were united into a larger concept of “the environment” considered as a systematic whole, which led to new fears of large-scale, long-term unintended consequences of industrial activity.

New explanations

Historical events can be a catalyst for change, but they do not explain themselves. It is up to historians, philosophers, and other commentators to offer explanations and solutions. Thus history is shaped by events, but not determined by them: it is partly determined by how we choose to interpret and respond to those events.

Those who stepped forward in the 20th century to explain what went wrong—especially (although not exclusively) environmentalists such as William Vogt or Paul Ehrlich—emphasized the concerns above, and added a layer of deeper criticism:

  • That we were becoming “disconnected” from nature and/or from our families, communities, and traditions
  • That progress was not making us happier or healthier; that people had been and were better off in less industrialized societies (even, some claimed, as tribal hunter-gatherers)
  • That there were inherent limits to growth, which we were exceeding at our peril

Underlying this analysis were some basic philosophical premises:

  • Human well-being was not consistently their standard of value. Some saw inherent value in nature, above and apart from its usefulness to humans; some even turned anti-human (such as David Graber, who wrote: “We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth… Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”)
  • They lacked the 19th-century belief in the efficacy of reason, and therefore in the ability of humanity to control our destiny. The world was too big and complicated for us to understand, and we were ultimately at the mercy of forces beyond our control, especially if we decided to tinker with complex systems.
  • As a corollary of the above, they adopted “sustainability” as an ideal, rather than growth, which was seen as an unhealthy “addiction.”

(If the above seems singularly focused on environmentalism, it reflects the incomplete state of my research. As I’ve noted elsewhere, progress is criticized from the right as well as from the left, for its “materialism” and “decadence.” Open questions for me here include the role of religion in this period, and the reaction of the liberal world to the rise of socialism and fascism.)

This new worldview did not take over immediately; it slowly grew in influence during the generation after the World Wars. But by the time the world was cheering the Moon landing and greeting the astronauts on a triumphant world tour, this philosophy had spawned the New Left and the radical environmentalist movement. The oil shocks hit a few years later; as Americans lined up for gas rations and donned sweaters, many people thought that perhaps the “limits to growth” were real after all.

Regrouping in the 21st century

The 21st-century progress movement must directly address the challenges that created skepticism and distrust of progress in the 20th century. Those challenges have not gone away; many have intensified: in addition to nuclear war, pollution, and overpopulation, we are now worried about climate change, pandemics, and threats to democracy.

Here are some difficult questions the new progress movement needs to answer:

  • Is material progress actually good for humanity? Does it promote human well-being? Or is it an unhealthy “addiction?”
  • Is progress “unsustainable?” How do we make it “sustainable?” And what exactly do we want to sustain?
  • Does progress benefit everyone? Does it do so in a fair and just way?
  • How can we have both progress and safety? How do we avoid destroying ourselves?
  • What are the appropriate legal frameworks for existing technologies and for emerging ones?
  • How do we address environmental issues such as climate change and pollution?
  • How do we deal with the fact that technology makes war more destructive?
  • How can we make sure technology is used for good? How do we avoid enabling oppression and authoritarianism?
  • How can we make moral and social progress at least as fast as we make scientific, technological and industrial progress? How do we prevent our capabilities from outrunning our wisdom?

Without answers to these questions, any new philosophy of progress will fail—and probably deserves to.

I don’t have all the answers yet—and I’m not sure that anyone does. I think we need new answers.


This is why we can’t simply return to the 19th-century philosophy of progress. First, it was mistaken. Second, there is a reason it failed: it foundered on the shoals of the 20th century. If it were revived, it would immediately run into the same problems, the same challenges it could not answer. In any case, there would be something odd and deeply incongruous about a movement dedicated to building an ambitious technological future that was stuck in a philosophic past.

Instead, we have to find a new way forward. We have to acknowledge the problems and concerns of the modern world, and we have to find solutions. Not the regressive proposals offered in the 20th century, but ones based on a humanistic standard of value, a belief in human agency, and an understanding of the reality and desirability of progress.


Thanks to Tyler Cowen, Greg Salmieri, Clara Collier, and Michael Goff for comments on a draft of this essay.

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Thank you for an interesting read, but I want to push back on one of your questions for 21st century progress.

  • Does progress benefit everyone? Does it do so in a fair and just way?

I think you have accurately described a thought pattern which makes some people sceptical of progress. (To be clear, I'm aware you probably don't subscribe to this thought pattern yourself.) I also think that this question is deeply confused, and you can demonstrate that confusion just by replacing 'progress' with some specific good. It is better for progress theorists to dispel the confusion rather than politely agree with the importance of benefiting everyone.

We live in a world where a quarter of people don't have access to toilets. If progress means that more people get toilets, this is good, even if it doesn't benefit everyone. A world where 90% of people have toilets is just obviously better than a world where 75% of people have toilets. 

Similarly a world where 90% of women had access to contraception would be obviously better than our world, where the proportion is again about 75%.

 - I could go on: access to basic education, access to higher education, access to medicines, to electricity, to adequate housing... 

I'm pretty sure that you agree with me about which world is better. I'm also pretty sure that the kind of people who ask 'does progress benefit everyone?' will agree with me if you use examples like the ones above. But if you replace [specific item] with 'progress', suddenly a certain type of commenter starts worrying that someone else might get rich. This isn't a good argument, it's a confusion. I suggest that progress theorists ought to try and dispel the confusion rather than pander to it. 

I may be projecting here, but I suspect that the confusion comes from an implicit assumption of zero-sum behaviour: if someone is getting richer, someone else must be getting poorer. I would rather tackle that, or any other source of confusion, head on than quietly accept the question 'does progress benefit everyone' and then have to argue and make excuses for any kind of progress for which the answer is 'it benefits some people'.

Thanks. I basically agree with you.

I was trying to write this list of “challenges” in a close to neutral way, and perhaps erring on the side of the progress skeptics.

For clarification, I'll add:

  • not every specific advance has to benefit everyone
  • the sum total of progress does not have to benefit literally every last human before we judge it as good
  • the fact that many people are still in extreme poverty today is not an indictment of progress, considering the context that the number is decreasing
  • progress does not in my opinion have to benefit everyone equally (and I deliberately avoided phrasing the issue that way)

I do think that, if we lived in a world where progress had somehow accrued benefits to only a small elite, leaving most people as destitute as they were before 1800, even though everyone was participating in the system… well, at minimum that would raise a major eyebrow.

However, that's not the world we live in—in my opinion, the benefits of progress have been shared broadly (if not evenly), and that's a good thing.

I also think that this question is deeply confused

It is not. Whether or not it is well used, or applied where it is clearly important...

The critique also has a point.

Is everyone better off after understanding of nuclear physics advances? (And is that not progress?)


I bring this one up, because however 'things have turned out today', the concern that the world might come to an end...well, it's not just an:

assumption of zero-sum behaviour

Aside from that:

If progress means that more people get toilets, this is good

all else being equal. If 'progress' mean less people get toilets, this is bad, all else being equal.

Sure, use specific standards.

Job loss and economic upheaval. As technology wrought its “creative destruction” in a capitalist economy, entire professions from blacksmiths to longshoremen became obsolete.

Putting aside issues this quote may have (a capitalist economy), maybe this did make it harder for people to buy toilets. 'Progress' (whether it should be called that) where some people are better off, and some people are worse off, can exist. If you decide the question of 'are things better' by examining that, and tallying up 'are more people better of than worse off (ignoring magnitude for the moment)' then it may no more be assumed that 'progress is always good', than that 'progress is always bad'. And where 'progress' results in as many or more lose - say toilets - as gain, then this is, by your measure, not necessarily better, or is worse, respectively..


I think the concerns this article mentions may be worth addressing, not brushing aside.

Do I currently have to worry about nuclear apocalypse? Maybe not, or not a lot. That at some point, services I use will be disrupted by ransomware? A little bit. Hopefully that doesn't get a lot of people in hospitals killed.

That being said, I haven't responded to ransomware by saying "Progress has gone to far! The unification of software and cryptography has doomed us all!"

I’m using progress here as a stand-in for economic and scientific progress (which are not exactly the same thing but are closely linked so I’m going to continue conflating them). And the track record indicates that these things do almost always translate into more people get more nice things, be that toilets or education or anything else. (Digression: I highly recommend Factfulness by Hans Rosling for a global perspective rather than the rich-country-centric one of most commenters here.) Yes, there are a small number of cases like nuclear physics where progress risks serious harm, but let’s deal with those on a case-by-case basis and not use it as a reason to slow down progress in general. 
 

Re your concerns about job loss and structural upheaval, these are widely repeated in the press, but this is one of those cases where the press and elite narrative has detached from reality. The structure of jobs in the economy has been changing since the Industrial Revolution with workers moving from agriculture to manufacturing and later from manufacturing services. Jobs have been going obsolete for about as long as the modern concept of employment has existed. And the evidence is that the rate of structural change today is either normal vs history (the US) or slower than normal (the UK). 

I only have the UK data to hand but try this research from the Resolution Foundation, especially the summary and the graph on page 25. Assuming you agree that historic jobs going obsolete was net beneficial (the alternative is freezing tech at some past state) then there is no reason to be more concerned about job loss today. There may be a future time where AI makes such progress that we do have to worry about mass job losses and how to handle that transition, but despite what the mainstream media thinks, we are not there yet.

I have a suspicion you and I would agree on most important points, we just have somewhat different preferred responses to a certain category of left-wing concerns.

I have a suspicion you and I would agree on most important points, we just have somewhat different preferred responses to a certain category of left-wing concerns.

Probably. I'm somewhat curious about what those concerns are.

I think rules around 'intellectual property' are an issue. How things are in the U.S. around say, insulin, and copyright (for instance around Disney)...overall, the U.S. government seems to be in the habit of creating monopolies. This seems bad for progress and, at least on the margin, it seems things could be improved if that was done less, and pushed back, rather than advanced. In other words, you could say I think more progress, full speed ahead, is the way to go.

The obvious 'exception' I see to this stuff like Global Warming (though clearly not an exception in that progress is also part of the obvious ways out here). In general, otherwise, tech/etc. seems to make everyone's lives better. And the tech involved also does that, at the same time as causing other issues.


Yes, there are a small number of cases like nuclear physics where progress risks serious harm, but let’s deal with those on a case-by-case basis and not use it as a reason to slow down progress in general. 

True. After thinking on it more, something like warfare in general seems more like the issue. (Although getting nukes, but not a lot of nuclear power seems like as loss.)

There are multiple meanings of "progress" afoot here. Tabooing the word, my reading of your point is "moving toward any specific imagined future state of the world we all agree is good is good, therefore moving forward is good".

This is a very well-written piece that asks a lot of interesting questions. I probably won't be able to go through all of it right now, but I wanted to respond to a few initial points, and hopefully, my response is at least half as coherent as your original post.

I agree that the metric for 'progress' is mostly amorphic, but if we accept the simplified version of what's been described as 19th-century progress, I think we're mostly doing a good job. Some of what has been called mistakes here seem to be generally successful to me.

19th-century Mistakes?

That technology would lead to world peace

  • That technology would lead to world peace. Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet had forecast progress in morality and society just as much as in science, technology and industry. By the late 1800s, this seemed plausible. The previous century had seen monarchy and aristocracy replaced by democratic republics, and the end of slavery in the West. Economic growth was making everyone richer, and free trade was binding nations together, giving them opportunities for win-win collaboration rather than destructive, zero-sum competition. The telegraph in particular was hailed as an invention that would unite humanity by allowing us to better communicate. Everything seemed to be going relatively well, especially after 1871 (end of the Franco-Prussian War), for over 40 years…

Technology and economic growth seem to have generally led to more world peace, but they've also led to an increase in coordination and weapons technology. The world is generally more peaceful, in terms of the population proportion of the world that's at war at any given moment. Most countries also seem to find war less acceptable and start to lose public support for a given conflict when casualties; total casualties for each conflict seem to be trending downwards. 

However, in the rare cases where society actually approves of a conflict, we now have more ability to coordinate more advanced weapons technology to create more havoc in a shorter time. I think the world is more peaceful in terms of the average person, but the average person now has more destructive power, so bad apples are more apparent.

That "improvements on nature" would avoid unintended consequences

  • That “improvements on nature” would avoid unintended consequences. (This one may have been implicit.) It’s good to try to improve on nature; it’s bad to go about it blithely and heedless of risk. One striking example is the popularity of “acclimatization societies”, “based upon the concept that native fauna and flora were inherently deficient and that nature could be greatly improved upon by the addition of more species…. the American Acclimatization Society was founded in New York City in 1871, dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America for both economic and aesthetic purposes. Much of the effort made by the society focused on birds, and in the late 1870’s, New York pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin led the society in a program to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare.” (Emphasis added.) These importations led to invasive pests that threatened crops, and were ultimately placed under strict controls.

Even just sticking to plants and animals, we learned that there are a great many plants and animals that damage local ecosystems, but we've also discovered that there are many plants that can be safely transplanted to new areas to provide new foods or plant products. 

Examples

  • Potatoes and corn came from Central America and have become common foods around the world especially in poor areas
  • Genetically modified dwarf wheat designed to grow in harsh conditions has doubled to quintupled wheat production in many countries and provides a significant amount of total calories 
  • Many plant species not native to certain areas, like mint, dill, or lavender, can be planted with local plants and repel local pests that harm the local plants.

There are a lot of ways to mess up delicate systems, but just because there are ways to break a system, doesn't mean there aren't also ways to optimize it.

That progress was inevitable

  • That progress was inevitable. The most optimistic thinkers believed not only that continued progress was possible, but that it was being driven by some grand historical force. Historian Carl Becker, writing about this period soon after it had passed, spoke of the conviction that “the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards,“ adding that “the doctrine was in essence an emotional conviction, a species of religion.”

This gets down to semantics about what exactly progress is, but society and civilization seem to allow a good record of past failures and successes,  so it does seem to be generally inevitable that people will try to fix problems (personal or societal) that they think can be fixed. Others can see what did and didn't work and continue to make further small improvements. Humans as a group seem to like solving problems/puzzles, so it does seem that as long as humans have some solution that doesn't wipe us all out, we're probably going to keep progressing. The only question on that progression is which environments allow slower or quicker progression.

20th-century challenges

I think many of these things may have changed society, but I don't think they did, or logically should have, changed our ideal of progress.

The world wars

The world wars. With World War I, it became clear that technology had not led to an end to war; it had made war all the more horrible and destructive. Progress was not inevitable, certainly not moral and social progress. By the end of World War 2, the atomic bomb in particular made it clear that science, technology and industry had unleashed a new and very deadly threat on the world.

The wars, I think, were the main catalyst for the change. But they were not the only challenge to the idea of progress. There were other concerns that had existed at least since the 19th century:

Humans will always have some conflict, and greater technology and coordination between groups will allow those conflicts to be more destructive,  but humans are individuals less prone to violence and less approving of the deaths of others. A world government that could collectively exclude or punish state aggressors, for example, could reasonably mitigate the world war problem. 

The atomic bomb could end civilization at any moment, so I tend to agree that despite the large possible benefits of nuclear technology, it was probably a bad thing.

Poverty and inequality

Poverty and inequality. Many people were still living in dilapidated conditions, without even toilets or clean water, at the same time as others were getting rich from new industrial ventures.

Technological (food, power, healthcare) progress and economic progress, is generally improving conditions around the world, but it also improves conditions enough that poor countries tend to have more children, and those children are more likely to survive, so there are still a great many people in poverty. However, it also seems like at a certain point in education/economic prosperity people tend to have fewer children. We may just have to wait for progress to complete that cycle in some areas.

Job loss and economic upheaval

Job loss and economic upheaval. As technology wrought its “creative destruction” in a capitalist economy, entire professions from blacksmiths to longshoremen became obsolete. As early as the 1700s, groups led by “Ned Ludd” and “Captain Swing” smashed and burned textile machinery in protest.

New technology destroys old professions and creates new ones. Machine learning engineers, social media managers, or professional e-sports gamers didn't exist a few decades ago. It generally seems that we create new niche needs once technology fills one of our basic needs. If AI actually does end up destroying old jobs without any new jobs to replace them, that seems more like an argument for modifying current forms of government than needing different measurements for progress.

Hars, risks, and accountability in a complex economy

Harms, risks, and accountability in a complex economy. As the economy grew more complex and people were living more interconnected lives, increasingly in dense urban spaces, they had the ability to affect each other—and harm each other—in many more ways, many of which were subtle and hard to detect. To take one example, households that once were largely self-sufficient farms began buying more and more of their food as commercial products, from increasingly farther distances via rail. Meat packing plants were filthy; milk was transported warm in open containers; many foods became contaminated. In the US, these concerns led in 1906 to the Pure Food & Drug Act and ultimately to the creation of the FDA.

Most new developments seem to have early problems and further developments allow us to identify and correct those problems. There are certainly problems in areas like industrial agriculture, but we have to choose between having problems that we try to identify and mitigate and dropping total production by an order of magnitude by switching back to more local systems. This at least partially depends on whether you think that more people are good, bad, or neutral. I generally think that larger populations create a more interesting environment and produce more of the things that I enjoy in the world.

Concentration of wealth and power

Concentration of wealth and power. The new industrial economy was creating a new elite: Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie. Their wealth came from business, not inheritance, and their power was more economic than political, but to many people they looked like a new aristocracy, little different than the old. In America especially, the people—who just a few generations ago had fought a war to throw off monarchical rule—were suspicious of this new elite, even as they celebrated rags-to-riches stories and praised the “self-made man.” It was a deep conflict that persists to this day.

Concentrations of wealth and power seem to be endemic to any system where strict coordination of a large group can produce more than a smaller less coordinated group. This is generally why people go through the effort to form larger groups at all, or why military structures have extremely concentrated, hierarchical power structures. 

I'm skeptical of the idea that people generally distrust the inherent power of business elites, but rather that they correctly recognize that the interests of business elites don't necessarily align with their interests. Continually improving regulations seem to be improving this problem over time, though we seem to be at another high point in power concentration, and we likely need to strengthen anti-trust regulations to dissipate the individual power of some corporations and business leaders.

Resource consumption

Resource consumption. Long before Peak Oil, William Stanley Jevons was warning of Peak Coal. Others predicted the end of silver or other precious metals. Sir William Crookes (more accurately) sounded the alarm that the world was running out of fertilizer. Even as people celebrated growth, they worried that the bounty of nature would not last forever.

Further technological progress in energy will likely solve the types of resource consumption problems we have now, although we will likely consume more energy as we are able to produce more, but critically, we're more focused on energy production that doesn't have as many negative environmental trade-offs. Most of the other resource consumption problems just require different strategies. Precious metals for aesthetic purposes are dumb, and most precious metals in tech can be substituted for other elements that produce slightly worse technology or can likely be replaced as new technology is developed.

Pollution

Pollution. Coal use was blackening not only the skies but the houses, streets, and lungs of cities such as London or Pittsburgh, both of which were likened to hell on Earth because of the clouds of smoke. Raw sewage dumped into the Thames in London led to the Great Stink and to cholera epidemics. Pesticides based on toxic substances such as arsenic, dumped in copious quantities over crops, sickened people and animals and poisoned the soil

Pollution was bad and has been a consistent problem, but the visible forms of pollution peaked and are now on a downward trend. Our normal ideal of progress created a new problem but also created a better overall solution to that problem. Newer forms of energy are likely to further decrease pollution and its byproducts.

The environment

The environment, as such. The 19th century may have worried about pollution and resources, but in the 20th century these concerns were united into a larger concept of “the environment” considered as a systematic whole, which led to new fears of large-scale, long-term unintended consequences of industrial activity.

Environmental problems, seem to be following a similar trend as many of the other problems here. We identify a problem, we create a solution, that solution creates other problems, we create solutions to those problems, and the process continues, recursively refining itself as necessary.

 

Regrouping in the 21st century

  • Is material progress actually good for humanity? Does it promote human well-being? Or is it an unhealthy “addiction?”

Material progress is close to objectively good concerning increased access to food, shelter, and medical care. It's also very likely good concerning for most technologies that entertain us or make our lives more comfortable, and possibly bad concerning technologies that ultimately seem to make us less connected to friends and family--like computers or smart devices where many shallow relationships seem to displace fewer, but more meaningful relationships.

  • Is progress “unsustainable?” How do we make it “sustainable?” And what exactly do we want to sustain?

This depends on how one defines progress. If progress is recursively solving problems then solving the problems that those solutions create, then progress is sustainable almost by definition. If we define progress as just making more things and using resources until we run out, then progress is definitionally unsustainable.

  • Does progress benefit everyone? Does it do so in a fair and just way?

Capitalism generally solves this over time if there is a way to solve this. Most extremely expensive goods of material progress (e.g. better housing technology, better medical care, etc...) are usually eventually made available to everyone over time.

  • How can we have both progress and safety? How do we avoid destroying ourselves?

We usually solve problems after the fact, so we should have as much caution and regulation in questionable areas as possible (e.g. nuclear power, AI, gene modifications, etc...), but there will always be a significant risk that some new unpredictable development will destroy humanity, or at least destroy the current human civilization.

  • What are the appropriate legal frameworks for existing technologies and for emerging ones?

Most countries already have legal frameworks to guard against the most obvious existential risks to humanity (e.g. extreme genetic manipulation, nuclear power), the bigger issue is incentivizing countries that have a large potential upside in experimenting with these technologies to not do so, in the interest of the general human good. This would be much easier if a more central world government made the power and prestige of individual countries less relevant, but any sufficiently large carrot or stick would do.

  • How do we address environmental issues such as climate change and pollution?

We just have to convince people to recognize that the issue is real and to trade a little bit of current progress for better long-term expected progress. I think this is primarily an education and technology problem.

  • How do we deal with the fact that technology makes war more destructive?

Seems like a game theory question. The only solution to less frequent, but more deadly wars, seems to be some sufficiently strong central body that can moderate conflicts between nations and punish nations who don't comply with those agreements.

  • How can we make sure technology is used for good? How do we avoid enabling oppression and authoritarianism?

Like the question before this, some central body needs to be able to punish bad actors. There is unquestionably a huge risk that this central body might abuse its power and treat some people unfairly, but weighing that risk against the possibility of dictators and authoritarians, I think the strong central body would generally produce better outcomes.

  • How can we make moral and social progress at least as fast as we make scientific, technological and industrial progress? How do we prevent our capabilities from outrunning our wisdom?

I don't think humans are able to make that much individual moral progress, but we strongly respond to better external structures. For example, I don't think humans are instinctually less violent than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but once we have a structure like laws and the enforcement of those laws, violence is less necessary to live your life, and I think humans have a general dislike of unecessary violence.  Similarly, since we have more information and connection to far away humans, it's harder for us to imagine that they are an "other" in the sense that they aren't humans in the same way that we are. All of this to say, structures that inhibit violence and increase empathy are functionally equivalent to moral and social progress. On the technological side, we often don't understand how a new technology fits into larger societal structres, so there will always be a learning period where we adapt to new technology and there are many initial unpredcited secondary harms, so greater caution around dangerous technology needs to be enforced globally.

This response went very long. Thank you for your excellent post.

Pollution was bad and has been a consistent problem, but the visible forms of pollution peaked and are now on a downward trend. 

Microplastic pollution seems to be growing and not on a downward trend. Carbon nanotubes and similar new materials are creating new forms of pollution that are growing. 

PFAS as described by John Oliver would be another pollution challenge. There are likely a lot of materials where we just use them but don't fully understand the problems.

Thanks! I am more wary that you seem to be of centralized power (world government?) But overall, many good points here and much that I agree with. Now all of this needs a lot more substantiation and elucidation.

Thanks for all the excellent writing on economic progress you've put out. I completed reading "Creating a Learning Society" by Joseph Stiglitz a few days ago, and I am in the process of writing a review of that book to share here on LessWrong. Your essays are providing me with a lot of insights that I hope to take into account in my review :D

The failures of communism must also have soured a lot of people on "progress", given that it fit really well into the old philosophy of progress and then turned out really badly. (See this related comment.)

How can we make moral and social progress at least as fast as we make scientific, technological and industrial progress? How do we prevent our capabilities from outrunning our wisdom?

This seems to be the key to everything else, but it may just be impossible. It seems pretty likely that moral and social progress are just inherently harder problems, given that you can't do controlled experiments nor have fast feedback cycles from reality (like you do when trying to make scientific, technological and industrial progress).

I would say there were two distinct "progressive" worldwiews in the 19th century. The symbol of the bourgeois progressivism may be Exposition Universelle of 1889, the symbol of the proletarian progressivism the Paris Commune. Two events, same place, 18 years apart. The former with all the wonderful machines etc., the latter with the barricades and soldiers shooting the survivors. The two worldviews, being that distinct and held by different people, it's not clear to me whether the failures of the social progress school led to the souring towards the technical progress.

It seems pretty likely that moral and social progress are just inherently harder problems, given that you can't [...] have fast feedback cycles from reality (like you do when trying to make scientific, technological and industrial progress).

We can't? Have we tried? Have you tried? Is there some law of physics I'm missing? What would a real, genuine attempt to do just that even look like? Would you recognize it if it was done right in front of you?

The thing you are missing, I think, is the nature of common knowedge which underpins the society. Thanks to how it works, people can't achieve moral/societal progress individually. If you live in a violent society you can't get less violent by yourself. If you do, you'd get killed. If you live in a corrupt society you can't get less corrupt all by yourself. If you do, you'd be in disadvantage to all the corrupt people. The society can progress only as a whole, thus the limit on the speed of progress is determined by the speed in which the majority is able to change their attitude (get less violent, corrupt etc.) And given how unlikely an average person is to change their attitude the social progress may move one funeral at a time.

Yes, I'm aware of all that, and I agree with your premises, but your argument doesn't prove what you think it does. Let's try to reductio it ad absurdum, and turn the same argument against the possibility of fast technological or scientific feedback cycles. 

If you live in a technologically backwards society (think bronze age), you can't become more advanced technologically yourself, because you'll starve spending your time trying to do science. The technology of society (including agriculture, communication, tools, etc.) needs to progress as a whole. If you live in a scientifically backwards society, you can't have more accurate beliefs, because you'll be burned at the stake by all the people believing in nonsense. Therefore, science and technology can only progress as fast as the majority can adopt it.

And all of the above is true, actually, up to a certain point in history. But once the scientific understanding of society advances to the point where it understands that science is a thing and has a basic understanding of how science works, it can basically create a mesa-feedback-loop. Similarly, once you have technologies like writing and free market capitalism, suddenly it's possible to set up a tech company, sell something worthwhile and in exchange not starve.

And that's the frame for my original comment. I didn't mean to imply that a fast moral feedback loop would involve a single person going on some meditation retreat that is somehow a clever feedback loop in disguise and then come back more moral or whatnot. I think it is possible that there is some innovation, moral or social or otherwise (e.g. a common understanding of common knowledge), that would enable the creation of fast moral and social feedback loops.

So the question, again: what are the necessary conditions for such a feedback loop? Are they present? What would it look like? How would you recognize it if it was happening right in front of you?

(EDIT: spelling)

If the above is true, an interesting consequence would be that social progress may slow down as the average length of life increases.

If you live in a corrupt society you can't get less corrupt all by yourself. If you do, you'd be in disadvantage to all the corrupt people. 

Yes, but you can change systems to make it harder for people to be corrupt.

You can fund investigative journalism. You can push for organizations to adopt structures that increase transparency.

Here are some difficult questions the new progress movement needs to answer:

Try 'What is progress?'


This was a pretty good essay.

I have a friend who rails against progress and her main point is that progress erases indigenous culture. A progress-believer looks at a pre-Colombian Native American type culture and thinks how this culture could be improved with sanitation, compulsory education, rational thinking, modern medicine and a progress denier wants to protect this culture from the “dirtying” effects of modern culture. I see the point. Progress-believers have been overly zealous in their proselytizing in the past. Tribes have been pulled off their lands and the children indoctrinated in modern schools.

Here is a thought experiment. What if a new continent appeared in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean populated by a hunter gatherer type people. What is an ethical way to interact with them? Should we interact with them at all? How could we offer them progress today better than Europeans ago centuries ago. This is a question progress-believers need to answer. I believe in progress but it is wrong to impose progress by force.

Good point, and interesting question. I agree that past efforts to bridge civilizational gaps like this have not gone well. See also Seeing Like a State for more examples. IMO this is not a refutation of progress itself, but it should be a major warning to those who think they can impose it on anyone.

I have a feeling that it would be useful to integrate thinking about bureaucracy into a new philosophy of progress. When organizations create needless complex bureaucracy it feels similar to those organizations creating environmental pollution.

Great writing, Jayson. This is my favorite piece of yours yet, as I think it gets to the heart of the issue. By the way this is the Roger you met in San Diego in December at the informal meeting. 
 

I agree completely with your comments on the naïveté of early writing on the philosophy, especially on the myth of inevitable progress. In his review of the great writers on the topic, —The Idea of Progress,—  J.B. Bury saw inevitability as fundamental to "The Idea." Other naive beliefs that were common included the belief that progress was the same as Natural Selection, that progress was utopian, and that progress is primarily a matter of rational, top down master planning.

Addressing your specific points…

  • Is material progress actually good for humanity? Does it promote human well-being? Or is it an unhealthy “addiction?”

I would suggest we first start with the question "What is progress?" Until it is properly framed and we agree on the definition, my experience is that people tend to talk past each other. The problem is that philosophical progress has at least two somewhat overlapping but sometimes contradictory definitions.

First, is that progress is "the cumulative advance over time of a population in capability and knowledge". This can be applied to science, technology, and even evolution. The second definition is "cumulative advance over time of a population in outcome or welfare. "  This applies to outcomes such as lifespan, education, freedom, equality and living a meaningful or fulfilling life. 
 

Let’s call these type 1 and type 2 progress. The problem is that advance on type 1 progress, though usually necessary for type 2 progress, is by no means sufficient, and can actually work contrary to type 2. (See World War II and Climate Change). In interviewing countless people about their views of progress they usually think of the term as the advance in technology leading to uncomfortable change, in other words, they often frame it in terms of advances in type 1 leading to a perceived regress according to type 2.

Once we clarify this, I think we start to answer these questions — progress in capability is necessary but not sufficient for progress in outcome. The focus needs to be more in type 2 than type 1.

  • Is progress “unsustainable?” How do we make it “sustainable?” And what exactly do we want to sustain?

Unsustainable progress isn’t progress by definition. It is short term progress leading to long term stagnation or disaster. At a broader level, I would suggest that whether it is sustainable or not is a subset of the question of whether it is inevitable. The answer is no, it is not inevitable, which leads to a huge topic of how to keep it sustainable, which really is the entire point of the philosophy of progress.

  • Does progress benefit everyone? Does it do so in a fair and just way?

Considering that there are countless potential qualitative dimensions to progress (either type), and everyone weights these differently, and not every dimension is likely to advance at the same time, I would suggest that expecting uniform or universal progress is itself an emasculatping view of the concept. Progress is more of a large scale, statistical property of multiple dimensions. We can make progress on education and still have someone drop out. The key is fewer drop outs proportionate to the population over time. 

As for justice, there are also countless paths to progress. I would suggest that fairness is one dimension to evaluate the paths we take, with the caveat that there are again multiple definitions of fairness and they often are contradictory (equal opportunity rarely leads to equal outcomes, and the absence of either can be called "unfair"). I guess I am saying we have a vast canvas ahead of us and we can try to influence what our final painting looks like, including weighing the priority of fairness (however defined) against other goals. 

  • How can we have both progress and safety? How do we avoid destroying ourselves?

This is addressed by separating progress into types 1 and 2. Progress without safety or that destroys us is clearly not progress of outcome. This is the dilemma of technology and science vs well-being.

Thanks Roger. Your type 1/2 distinction is very interesting, just in the way you've drawn the boundary between them. I think the core question is exactly: does type 1 tend to get us type 2? And that is fundamentally a question of agency. Are we smart/wise enough to use our capabilities (type 1) to produce better outcomes (type 2)?

Thanks for the reply Jason,

I would explain the distinction as such.  Progress requires greater problem solving capability. This is measured in Type 1. Improved outfomes/welfare (Type2) requires greater problem solving in a way which is coordinated so that we work together rather than at odds with each other. 
 

An obvious example is evolution/natural selection. Clearly, problem solving activity has seen long eras of improvement in ability to solve problems such as metabolism, locomotion, memory, and so forth. However, what we don’t see are comparable improvements in welfare or well being. Cheetahs got fast and so did antelope with no net gain in outcome despite clear gains in performance. What is missing in evolution is the ability to coordinate these improvements in a way which is positive sum — where cheetahs and antelope work together for the common good (due to obvious reasons). Four billion years of evolution led to amazing breakthroughs in capability, yet arguably little or no breakthroughs in average welfare. 
 

Thus one critical aspect of progress is Coordination. The ability to cooperate and use our technology and knowledge for mutual gain, as opposed to mutual destruction or dead end arms races. 
 

Thoughts and feedback appreciated….

Thanks. I agree that coordination/cooperation is one (although not the only) key thing here.

I agree. Progress ought to be seen as a project that humanity collectively works towards, not an inevitable consequence of Natural Law nor a corrupting addiction to be resisted.

For a new vision of progress, I think we need something like a Gaia Initiative, like the Gaia Hypothesis except that instead of presuming that the Earth functions like a giant superorganism, we frame that as a goal that humanity should strive to achieve. To that end, if we could solve alignment, I think that AGI could be used primarily as a tool for solving coordination problems, aiming to maximize sustainable cooperative harmony, both for humanity and for the global ecosystem.