A foundational conviction of The Roots of Progress is that progress is a trend with definite, substantive causes, and that it can continue far, far into the future. Progress is not automatic or inevitable: it can slow, stop, even reverse. But the history of progress over the last 200+ years convinces me that much more is possible.

Not everyone agrees, however. To learn more about how people think about this, I posed a question on Twitter:

Do you think the last 200+ years of technological/industrial progress were…

… a trend with substantive causes, that we can expect to continue?

… a fluke, a stroke of luck, not to be repeated?

And why?

After discussing it with people all day, most of the “fluke” arguments were:

  1. Argument from failure of imagination: “I can’t see or imagine any big breakthroughs, therefore I don’t expect any.”
  2. Materialism: Progress is primarily driven by material resources (such as fossil fuels); therefore it will slow when those inevitably run out.

Failure of imagination is not a compelling argument to me, for both logical and historical reasons. The logical reason should be obvious. The historical reason is that the big breakthroughs of the past were not easy to imagine or predict before they happened. In a different context, Eliezer Yudkowsky points out that even the creators of inventions such as the airplane or the nuclear reactor felt that their breakthroughs were fifty years out, or even impossible, shortly before they happened. Now is no different. (This point seems exceedingly difficult to get through to people; no matter how much you point out the logical fallacy, or the historical precedent, they continue to repeat the same points. I don’t know if this is because the logical fallacy itself is unclear, or if it’s just a form of mood affiliation, or what.)

There’s a variation of this argument which goes: The universe is finite, so there’s a finite number of breakthroughs to make, so they have to run out eventually. But even granting this, why assume we have found even 1% of the big breakthroughs so far? Or 0.01%? If there are many more to be had, then progress can continue for a long time.

As for materialism, I disagree with the premise. I don’t think progress is primarily driven by material resources. When we think of the Industrial Revolution, we often think of steam engines, iron foundries, and locomotives, all run on coal. But there were equally important inventions, such as textile automation, that didn’t require any fuel at all. And the coal was sitting in the ground for all of human history, without any industrial revolutions happening for a very long time. So “natural” resources seem neither necessary nor sufficient for progress. (Indeed, there are no “natural” resources.) For more on this point, see Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity, especially chapters 20–21.

There were also people arguing an option I didn’t suggest, which is “a trend with substantive causes, that will not continue”—typically because of social reasons: we are abandoning the causes of the trend, or putting up blockers. This is more plausible to me. Progress isn’t natural; we make it happen through choice and effort, and we only do so when we believe it is possible and desirable. It depends on certain legal institutions, and it requires time, talent and treasure. If any of those are lost—say, if we stop celebrating progress, or turn against growth—progress may not continue.

But in order to care about progress studies, we have to believe that the last few centuries of unprecedented progress didn’t just randomly happen because of a lucky break, and they weren’t a short-term acceleration of growth that will soon inexorably return to pre-industrial levels. There has to be a goal: namely, the next 200 years of progress. This whole endeavor is premised on that.

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But in order to care about progress studies, we have to believe that the last few centuries of unprecedented progress didn’t just randomly happen because of a lucky break, and they weren’t a short-term acceleration of growth that will soon inexorably return to pre-industrial levels. There has to be a goal: namely, the next 200 years of progress. This whole endeavor is premised on that.

This feels backwards. Isn't one of the goals of progress studies to answer exactly this question? Seems like in order to care about progress studies, I need to have uncertainty about questions like these, and certainty would actually make me less interested in a field like progress studies. If I didn't have uncertainty about questions like these, then progress studies as a field is again really not very interesting.

I think this matters because I think the whole point of a field like progress studies is to set up epistemic processes that could (if that is actually the truth) could come to the realization that progress was indeed just a fluke. Understanding the dynamics of progress (including whether progress is a fluke or not) is the whole point of progress studies in my point of view! 

Good point. Maybe I should have said, we have to believe that there is at least a chance that it wasn't a fluke.

If you are pretty sure it's a fluke, then what is there to study, and why bother?

On the other hand, if you're certain it's a trend, there is still a lot to study: What caused the trend? How much control do we have over the causes? Etc.

I agree that, if progress was somehow a fluke, then progress studies would ideally find that out. We should follow reason wherever it leads, and be open to the truth whatever it is.

But I think the motivation for the field is the idea that it's not a fluke, and empirically it seems to me that most people interested in the field see it as a trend.

Isn't it both possible that it's a fluke and also that going forward we can figure out mechanisms to promote it systematically?

To be clear, I think it's more likely that not that a nontrivial fraction of recent progress has non fluke causes. I'm just also noting that the goal of enhancing progress seems at least partly disjoint from whether recent progress was a fluke.

Maybe, what would that mean exactly? Or what's an example of how that could be the case?

Sorry I was unclear. I was actually imagining two possible scenarios.

The first would be deeper investigation reveals that recent progress mostly resulted from serendipity and lucky but more contingent than we expected historical factors. For example, maybe it turns out that the creation of industrial labs all hinged on some random quirk of the Delaware C-Corp code (I'm just making this up to be clear). Even though these factors were a fluke in the past and seem sort of arbitrary, we could still be systematic about bringing them about going forward.

The second scenario is even more pessimistic. Suppose we fail to find any factors that influenced recent progress - it's just all noise. It's hard to give an example of what this would look like because it would look like an absence of examples. Every rigorous investigation of a potential cause of historical progress would find a null result. Even in this pessimistic world, we still could say, "ok, well nothing in the past seemed to make a difference but we're going to experiment to figure out things that do."

That said, writing out this maximally pessimistic case made me realize how unlikely I think it is. It seems like we already know of certain factors which at least marginally increased the rate of progress, so I want to emphasize that I'm providing a line of retreat not arguing that this is how the world actually is.

the difference between a fluke (or a bubble) and a trend is simply timescale. There are intra-day trends that look like spikes on a weekly graph.

I suspect the rate of change of human institutions and typical experiences is likely to remain somewhat high - fluctutating, but not reverting to pre-Enlightenment rates. Whether it's "progress" or just "change" is a matter of framing. The fundamental drivers of connectivity and quantity of potential trading partners (intellectually as well as materially) won't go away.

And unsustainable situations will eventually stop. A precipitous drop in population and trust (war or other mass disruption) removes that primary driver, and probably reverts a lot of changes to systems more sustainable in more difficult resource situations. I hope it's a smooth increase until the heat death of the universe. But that's not the bulk of my probability estimate.

I think that progress is a trend, and its a strong trend. There is an incentive to invent new things in any kind of competition, because it gives you an advantage. The united nations couldn't pass a bill banning progress. The future will be higher tech. 

Of course, progress towards higher tech is not necessarily a good thing. We can guide progress towards the good outcomes.

I think that there is a lot of powerful tech waiting to be invented. We will see more progress in the next 200 years than the last 200. 

I think that progress is likely to end within 200 years. Because once you have superintelligent AI, anything that can be invented will be invented quickly. After that, material resources grow as a sphere of tech expanding at near light speed.

It seems like what you're calling "progress studies" is what was called "modern history" until about 1960 and is derisively termed "Whig history" in the field these days. The basic premise is that material wealth went exponential in Europe starting around the 17th century, that this process (called "progress") gave Europe the means to travel to and dominate the rest of the world, and that the central questions of modern history are what happened to initiate this "progress", how it works, whether it will continue, and what forms it will take. Despite the change in academic fashions, these questions remain crucially important.

I tend to agree with what you call the "materialist" position. A barrel of oil has more energy than a decade of manual labor; without fossil fuels it is expensive to smelt metals and all but impossible to make useful semiconductors. Progress as we know it today is entirely dependent on metal (e.g. wires) and semiconductor-based computers. In principle nuclear power may be sufficient, but that's an open question at this point.

The "materialist" position is very short-sighted. There's more than enough energy in both nuclear and solar. We have the technical foundations to run the world on nuclear just as effectively as fossil fuels, and nuclear sources are more abundant (in total usable energy) than fossil fuels, so there's really no open question about nuclear. It's purely a matter of supply and demand now (i.e., as fossil fuels become more expensive / get a worse reputation, we will naturally transition to nuclear)

As for solar, again, more energy reaches the Earth in the form of sunlight each year than the entirety of humanity uses each year (and that's not even counting the sunlight that doesn't reach Earth. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the sun's light reaches the Earth, so if we are able to utilize the entirety of the sun's energy, we have billions of times as much energy as we have now). We're right on the knife's edge of solar technology being viable, so it generally only gets deployed where it makes the most sense, but as solar technology gets cheaper, we will see solar be deployed in more creative and flexible ways, and will make up a larger and larger portion of our energy use

Everything you're saying fits the common narrative; I just think there's a roughly 80 percent chance that it's wrong.

I invite you to look at the Sankey diagrams for the US last year (2019). Despite decades of hard subsidies, solar power generated only 1.04 percent of the energy we used. Spain scaled up solar as much as they could, and despite significant advantages (sunny climate, lack of hurricanes) they only managed an EROEI value of 2.45 (for comparison, some estimates put the minimum EROEI for civilization as we know it at about 8-10, although optimists go as low as 3). Solar power has been ten years away for at least fifty years now, and it's starting to look like it always will be.

Nuclear power is more realistic, as you noted - it generated 8.46 percent of our energy last year. Still, the ability to scale that up to 100% is questionable. Fission power requires rare earths, and they're called rare for a reason. Fusion is great at generating neutrons* and high-level radioactive waste (when the neutrons impact the environment), but I've never heard of it coming anywhere near breakeven (EROEI=1) in energy terms (unless you count solar).

*There are aneutronic reactor proposals, but they're pretty unrealistic even by fusion energy standards.

Everything you're saying fits the common narrative; I just think there's a roughly 80 percent chance that it's wrong.

I'm happy to bet on this. I propose the following operationalization:

Solar energy will be said to be successful if there is at least one year prior to (or including) 2040 where the total solar energy generated (excluding indirect pathways [which includes fossil fuels and wind], but including all forms of directly turning sunlight, or the sun itself, into human-usable energy, including by photosynthesis-based agriculture) is equal to the entirety of energy consumption in 2017 (113,000 TWh according to wikipedia).

If solar energy is "successful" according to this criterion, then you would pay me $30, if not, then I would pay you $15 (this ratio should be more than fair if you believe there is an 80% chance my analysis is wrong - especially since there are scenarios where my analysis is still valid, but the bet resolves in your favour)

Since my side of the bet implies that the internet is not likely to exist by 2040 and I'd never find you if I won, this bet is not appealing. It is not possible to take a short financial position on civilization. However, if settlement could be arranged and the stakes weren't chump change, in principle I'd take the bet.

If you believe that your side of the bet is highly correlated with civilizational collapse, an alternative would be for me to pay you $X upon agreeing to the bet, and then for you to pay $3X (= X + 2X) conditional on the bet resolving in my favor. Realistically, the amounts would be adjusted for the risk of not collecting, plus economic growth and inflation, so not exactly a 3x ratio.

As for stakes, what stakes would you consider to be "not chump change"?

I'm not a gambler by temperment, so I'm just not very interested in betting.

The current profile of where our energy comes from has nothing to do with the long term prospects. There's a lot of progress to be made with solar, especially regarding the price of modules (but also in light-to-electricity efficiency), while we're already near the peak of what we are able to accomplish with fossil fuels.

Edit: I'd also be remiss if I didn't emphasize what the 2.45 EROI (Energy return on investment) means - assuming that it is accurate and representative of the actual situation (which the nature of the source you provide doesn't inspire confidence that it is correct). That means for every joule of energy used to manufacture and install a solar panel, 2.45 joules are returned over the lifetime of the installation (nb: it's not clear to me that the source measured lifetime energy output). That means that in terms of energy, the panel represents a net gain, and even using nothing but solar panels as a source of energy, and assuming the figure you cite is correct, a civilization can easily bootstrap itself from a small civilization to a great, powerful civilization- and certainly being forced to fall back on a 2.45 EROI is far from causing a collapse of civilization as we know it (as some of your comments have implied). For things to get dicey, EROI would have to fall below 1 (arguably a value very close to 1 would cause a lot of turmoil, which might lead to destruction of value-generation, leading to a long-term decrease in welfare, but 2.4 is more than enough to recover from short-term setbacks)

The only reason why a 2.45 EROI would seem disappointing is from an economical perspective- oil rigs provide an EROI around ~10, so (ignoring externalities and potential benefits that may not be easily measured in terms of energy) it would be a stupid idea to invest in an energy source that offers 2.45 EROI when you have a 10x return available instead. But of course, externalities are a thing, and the externalities caused by fossil fuels are worse per joule than the externalities caused by solar; and the EROI of solar is expected to only go up, while the EROI of fossil fuels will be going down as they become more scarce- so at some point, there will come a point where the EROI of solar will be a good deal (and remember, 2.45 is still a good deal if the alternative is nothing- good enough to continue to improve the quality of our lives, build colonies on other celestial bodies, radically improve our transportation networks, and solve world hunger)

We've been trying to make solar work for a very long time. I can remember when there were solar panels on the White House roof (Reagan had them removed). Things that have underperformed for decades almost never take off.

Things that have underperformed for decades almost never take off.

That is pretty much the exact opposite of how technology actually works.

"We've been trying human flight since Da Vinci, but after decades of trying, we can conclude humans will never fly"

"We've been trying to cure smallpox for decades, but it's still endemic, so we will never eradicate smallpox"

"We've been trying to turn lead into gold for centuries, so it must not be possible" (granted, this one is only physically possible now, I don't think it's economically viable, but my point stands)

In each of those cases, what worked was a fundamentally new approach. We didn't breed leeches to the point where they could cure smallpox. Photovoltaics have been around since the 50s; if they were going to work at scale they'd have worked by now.

I think we've uncovered the basic disagreement and further discussion seems pointless.

I wondering if an hint of answer could be found by exploiting the fact that economic growth (which should be closely related to progress?) has been differential across the world over the past century. For example, you might argue that China and India are experiencing the same levels of economic growth as did Europe earlier in the 20th century. If this is the case, I would study how different indicators varies with the economic growth in Asia and Europe to find out if these indicators can explain the growth (or are explained by the growth). You could say look at whether energy (oil/gas/electricity/coal etc) usage is a leading or lagging indicator, and do something similar with "ideas" (patents/degrees/companies/advanced products). This should give some indication of what the most important factors of growth have been historically, and if they have been consistent in different parts of the world.