Why is Progress a Problem?
Announcing an exciting new 17-part project...
Hi everyone, I hope you’re all doing well out there, as the bookends of the days edge ever-closer together. A while back, I said I’ll have news of an exciting new project starting in September. Well, it’s October now, so I’m running a bit late, but here comes the exciting news nonetheless!
In my book, The Happiness Problem: Expecting Better in an Uncertain World, published last November, I argued that we predominantly think about our personal lives in terms of control – having and getting things to make our lives better. The problem with this way of thinking is that it blinds us to deeper connections and understandings of the world. The book has three parts, and in the final part I showed how we think about our social lives in the same way. The way we think about progress, like happiness, is steeped in control. We tend to think that, if only we had better politicians, adopted the best policies, had more advanced technologies, etc, then everything would be okay. I showed how this way of thinking is not only illusory – we will always have more problems to solve – it also blinds us to the underlying causes of our social issues and the systems we are a part of. Social progress, like happiness, is not something we can control. Our attempts to do so – as evidenced by increasing levels of inequality, the mental health crisis, and potentially runaway climate change – can be catastrophic.
Since the publication of the book, and throughout the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot more about all the social stuff. I launched my YouTube channel in August, which included two video series: one on the idea of Post-Happiness and another on the idea of Post-Progress. I’ve also been thinking about writing another book, focusing exclusively on “The Progress Problem”.
But I’m not sure the world needs another book. Or, more to the point, I don’t think that writing another relatively academic book is the best way to communicate these ideas. I want to continue writing blog posts and making short videos, but also to start talking to more people – whoever is interested! – and writing more stories, both fiction and nonfiction. So, before penning the next epic manuscript with a 20-page bibliography, expect a range of material from me on the subject of “The Progress Problem” and “Post-Progress”. I don’t know how it’s going to work at the moment – figuring that out is part of the journey. Hopefully we can figure it out together!
I do, however, have an initial direction – one that could take us quite a long way down this journey. By far the most influential writer on human progress over the past few years have been the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. In particular, his book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, has set the tone for thinking about the merits of human civilisation, past, present and future. Bill Gates even called it his “new favourite book.” In it, Pinker argues that, despite all the problems and tragedies we see on the news, life is in fact generally getting better. He reviews an astonishingly large amount of evidence showing that the Enlightenment – with its principles of reason, science and humanism – has ushered in an unprecedented amount of progress, which is likely to continue, if only we let it.
Enlightenment Now has received considerable praise, but is, of course, not without its critics. Many commentators have argued that Pinker cherry-picks his data, or that he isn’t skeptical enough in his bold and sweeping assertions, or that he underestimates the huge existential threats we face if our current rate of progress continues (climate change being the obvious one). Pinker is seen by many as being in support of the political status quo, which is not radical or progressive enough for his critics. This may well be true. But I’m not interested in providing another long critique of Prinker’s work. Instead, I want to see if we can agree with most of what Pinker says and still understand why we should be worried – and ultimately reject – the kind of progress he thinks is so wonderful.
So the plan is this: Enlightenment Now has a lot of chapters on some big topics – Life, Health, Sustenance, Wealth, Inequality, the Environment, Peace, Safety, Terrorism, Democracy, etc. He takes on 17 major social issues in all. I’m going to look at each of these issues in detail, summarising the evidence that Pinker presents and then showing what he might have missed out – not how what he says is wrong, but instead how it forms only one part of a bigger picture.
In general, I hope to show that the kind of progress advocated for in Enlightenment Now is exactly the kind of progress we can achieve through an ethic of control – from using whatever means we can to make as many people’s lives as better as possible. This kind of progress gets phenomenal results, as Pinker rightly shows. But it can also blind us to three very important opportunities costs – crucial issues concerning our collective past, present and future:
1) The Past: Progress based on control can overly focus on productivity and the Improvement of Everything at the cost of equality and fairness. Does global economic growth, for example, make up for the injustices of slavery and colonialism, or the destruction of the environment?
2) The Present: Progress based on control can overly focus on surface problems, and temporary distractions, at the cost of underlying causes. Increases in wealth and freedom may help us live longer and happier lives, for example, but do they make our lives more meaningful?
3) The Future: Progress based on control can overly focus on short-term gains (for humans) at the cost of long-term sustainability (for all living things). Can we justify increasing material prosperity, for example, in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change?
These are all massive issues, which I’ll explore in more detail when looking at each chapter of Enlightenment Now in turn. This is big undertaking – at least 17 blog posts and short videos in total, plus an introductory one and a conclusion/summary. I have no idea where it will go. But I’m excited about finding out! Looking forward to taking you on the journey with me.
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