Fifty thousand years ago, our ancestors lived at the mercy of nature, surviving by hunting and foraging, with no permanent shelter and only a campfire for light and warmth. Two hundred years ago, almost 90% of people still lived in what is today considered extreme poverty: many subsisted on manual labor in the fields, lit their homes with candles, cooked with wood or coal, and hauled their water in buckets from the well. But by the mid-19th century, per-capita incomes in the West started rising consistently for the first time in history. Soon ordinary people would have plumbing and electricity, own refrigerators and washing machines, travel in cars and airplanes, and live or work in skyscrapers.
This unprecedented progress engendered an optimism that lasted into the mid-20th century. The title of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was “A Century of Progress”; the 1939 fair in New York featured “The World of Tomorrow,” and people came back from it proudly sporting buttons that said “I Have Seen the Future.” In the same era, DuPont unironically used the slogan “better things for better living… through chemistry.”
In the 1950s and ‘60s, people looked forward to a future of cheap, abundant energy provided by nuclear power; Isaac Asimov even predicted that by 2014, appliances “will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes.” A 1959 ad in the LA Times sponsored by a coalition of power companies referred to “tomorrow’s higher standard of living”—without explanation, as a matter of course—and illustrated the possibilities with a drawing of a flying car.
Today, the zeitgeist is far less optimistic. A 2014 editorial in The Atlantic asked “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?” Jared Diamond has called agriculture “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” Economic growth is referred to as an “addiction”, a “fetish”, a “Ponzi scheme”, or a “fairy tale.” Some even advocate a new ideal of “degrowth”.
We no longer assume that tomorrow will bring a higher standard of living. A 2015 survey of several Western countries found that only a small minority think that “the world is getting better.” The most optimistic vision of the future that many people can muster is one in which we avoid disasters such as climate change and pandemics. Young people are not even that optimistic: in a recent survey of 16- to 25-year-olds in ten countries, more than half said that “humanity was doomed” from climate change.
What happened to the idea of progress?
The modern idea of progress
The idea of progress is a modern phenomenon. Many ancient cultures viewed history as a cyclical pattern of ups and downs, or even as a story of decline: the past as a golden age, from which we have fallen.
Europeans in the Middle Ages, looking upon the ruins of coliseums, aqueducts, and pyramids, understandably thought that their ancient ancestors must have been the greatest people ever to have lived. As they rediscovered ancient texts, some thought that those ancestors must have possessed all knowledge of consequence as well. They—the “moderns”—thought themselves unable to surpass those achievements or that learning. Economic historian Joel Mokyr, taking a phrase from historian Carl Becker, calls this “ancestor worship,” and it is the antithesis of the idea of progress.
Ancestor worship in Europe, Mokyr says, began to weaken around the end of the 1400s, with the voyages of discovery. An entire continent was discovered that had never been mentioned in the classic texts: apparently the ancients had not possessed all knowledge of consequence. Those ancestors also didn’t know about the compass, gunpowder, or the printing press.
Francis Bacon, for one, took inspiration from this: in Novum Organum, he wrote that “Noble inventions may be lying at our very feet”—that is, if these possibilities lay undiscovered for so long, what else might be out there, just waiting to be found? From these early examples, Bacon and his contemporaries extrapolated out a vision of a scientific and industrial revolution—perhaps the most powerful vision to ever come true, although its realization would take centuries.
If by the late 1600s there was any doubt about the ancients vs. the moderns, Isaac Newton laid it to rest. His theory of universal gravitation and explanation of the solar system were so clearly superior to anything that had been offered before that there was no question left: the moderns had surpassed the ancients. The pattern of history was neither endless cycles nor a long decline: it was an upward trend. Progress was possible.
In the era that followed, an unbridled optimism was expressed by leading intellectuals, such as the French Enlightenment thinker Nicolas de Condorcet. In 1794, he wrote Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, in which he forecast virtually unlimited progress in every dimension—not only in science and technology, but in morality and society. He spoke of the equality of the sexes, and peace among nations. And he believed that all forms of progress went together, saying that prosperity naturally disposes people to “humanity, benevolence, and justice,” and that “nature has connected, by a chain which cannot be broken, truth, happiness, and virtue.”
Amazingly, he wrote these words while hiding out from the French revolutionary government, which was hunting him down to execute him because he had dared to criticize the Constitution of 1793. Unfortunately, he could not hide out forever: he was captured, and died in jail soon after. Evidently the moral perfection of mankind was slow in coming.
But technological progress was racing ahead. The century that followed saw a series of inventions that transformed the world, including the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, and the light bulb. Progress was no longer a possibility for philosophers to theorize about, but a reality being brought daily into the homes and lives of ordinary people.
The moderns had surpassed the ancients. The pattern of history was neither endless cycles nor a long decline: it was an upward trend. Progress was possible.
And the world started to laud as heroes those who discover, invent, and build. Samuel Smiles, a 19th-century biographer of industrial figures, said that although kings and warriors had so far monopolized the pages of history, “some niche ought to be found for the Mechanic… there is a heroism of skill and toil belonging to the latter class, worthy of as grateful record—less perilous and romantic, it may be, than that of the other, but not less full of the results of human energy, bravery, and character.” A statue of James Watt, who invented a more efficient steam engine, was erected at Westminster Abbey; the inscription read, “to show that mankind have learned to know those who best deserve their gratitude,” and called Watt one of “the real benefactors of the world.”
Great industrial achievements were met with ecstatic, jubilant public celebrations. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Sacramento and San Francisco held enormous parades and partied for three days. When Edison demonstrated his light bulb to the public in 1879, thousands of people converged on his Menlo Park laboratory to see it, and the New York Herald proclaimed it “The Great Inventor’s Triumph.” When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, more than ten thousand pieces of fireworks were set off, and speeches were given calling the bridge a monument to “enterprise, skill, faith, endurance,” a symbol of “peace,” and an “astounding exhibition of the power of man to change the face of nature.”
In 1899, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (who worked with Darwin on the theory of evolution) published a book, The Wonderful Century. In it, he attributed twenty-four “great inventions and discoveries” to the 19th century—as compared with only fifteen for all of human history prior.
The New York World expressed the sentiment of the era on January 1, 1901, with an editorial that stated: “The World is optimistic enough to believe that the twentieth century … will meet and overcome all perils and prove to be the best this steadily improving planet has ever seen.”
It seemed, then, that the optimism of the Enlightenment had been justified. And if the scientific and technological progress prophesied by Bacon could come true, maybe the moral and social progress prophesied by Condorcet could be realized as well.
After all, democratic republics and representative government were beginning to replace monarchy, slavery had been ended in the West, and new inventions such as the telegraph were connecting far-flung peoples, improving communication and hopefully promoting mutual understanding. The most optimistic thinkers at the time hoped that the growth of industry and prosperity, and the expansion of trade between nations, would lead to an end to war—a new era of world peace.
They were wrong.
The World Wars of the 20th century violently shattered those naive illusions. Technology had not led to an end to war: it had made war all the more horrible and deadly. It had given us the machine gun, chemical weapons, and the atomic bomb—the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen, a product of modern science, technology, and industry.
On top of the wars, the West had been through an economic crash and depression. Totalitarianism was on the rise around the world. It was getting harder and harder to believe in the rationality of human beings, or in the predictability and controllability of nature. By 1935, historians such as Carl Becker were saying that “the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited,” and asking “What, if anything, may be said on behalf of the human race? May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?”
What had gone wrong? How had the world reached such a state—just when everything seemed to be going so well?
How we lost our way
The idea of progress had always had 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.”
In the mid-20th century, though, attitudes like these became more influential. The critics of modernity pointed not only to war and depression, but to a whole host of problems associated with material progress.
The most optimistic thinkers at the time hoped that the growth of industry and prosperity … would lead to an end to war—a new era of world peace. The World Wars of the 20th century violently shattered those naive illusions.
New technologies cause 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, angry groups of workers such as the Luddites smashed and burned the new textile machinery in protest.
The new industrial economy was also seen as concentrating wealth and power in a new elite: Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie. Their wealth came from business, not inheritance, and their power was more economic than political. To many people, however, 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.”
At the same time as these magnates were getting rich from industrial ventures, however, poverty and inequality persisted. Many people were still living in dilapidated conditions, without even toilets or clean water.
And even the prosperity that had been created could not obviously continue, as it was based on consumption of finite resources. Long before “peak oil,” William Stanley Jevons was warning of peak coal. Others predicted the end of gold 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 soon be used up.
Industrial growth also brought pollution. Coal was blackening not only the skies but the houses, streets, and lungs of cities such as London and 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 as well as cholera epidemics. Pesticides based on toxic substances such as arsenic, dumped in copious quantities over crops, sickened people and animals and poisoned the soil.
As the economy grew more complex and people were living more interconnected lives, new risks and harms emerged. For instance, households that once were largely self-sufficient farms began buying 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.)
New technologies also created unimagined and unforseeable hazards. For instance, no one expected that X-rays could be harmful to health, as they could neither be seen nor felt, and initially they were used as novelties at parties and carnivals. But within a few years, it became clear that they were causing burns and sickness, and that their use needed to be minimized.
Progress, it turns out, is messy. But instead of seeing poverty, pollution, and safety as problems to be solved through economic growth and technological development, the radical social movements that came to prominence in the 1960s were based on a deep distrust of technology and industry as such. Activists said that we were becoming “disconnected” from nature and our communities, that progress was not making us happier or healthier, and that there were inherent limits to growth, which we exceeded at our peril.
This view of progress as harmful was soon reflected in law and regulation. A 1971 court ruling enforcing the new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) against a proposed nuclear plant foresaw “a flood of new litigation… Several recently enacted statutes attest to the commitment of the Government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material ‘progress.’”
By 1991, historian Christopher Lasch was wondering how belief in progress was even still alive, writing: “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?”
In the face of both moral and legal opposition, it is unsurprising that in recent decades, material progress shows signs of slowing down. In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, economist Robert Gordon says that growth in the metric of output per labor hour has slowed from an average annual rate of 2.82% in the period 1920–1970, to 1.62% in 1970-2014.
Another key metric of progress is total factor productivity (TFP), a measure of the amount of output we can generate per unit of capital and labor inputs. Increases in TFP—getting more from the same inputs—are generally assumed to come from advances in technology, organization and management. Annual TFP growth was 1.89% from 1920-1970, but it has averaged less than 1% in every decade since.
Some areas, to be sure, have continued racing ahead, such as computers and the internet. But other areas have lagged behind: manufacturing, construction, transportation, and energy have seen no new general-purpose technologies since the 1960s. Nuclear power was stunted; the Concorde was grounded; the Apollo program was canceled. And the flying cars we were promised never arrived.
The way forward
The 19th-century philosophy of progress was naive, perhaps hopelessly so. But the 20th-century reactionary movement against progress was a mistake—and the fatalism and defeatism that arose in that era are not a way forward.
We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. One that reaffirms the reality and value of progress, and reminds that we possess the agency to shape the future.
But we must also avoid the mistakes of the past. First, progress is not inevitable: it does not, as some optimists once thought, unfold according to a divine plan or cosmic will. Progress depends on choice and effort. It is up to us.
Second, progress comes with costs and risks, which we must control: pollution, health hazards, economic upheaval, war. And future technologies, such as genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, may pose greater risks still. Safety must be considered a key goal of progress, even as it forces tradeoffs with development speed and cost.
Third, moral progress does not automatically go hand in hand with technological progress. One of the darkest lessons of the 20th century was how technology could be used to enable empire, wars of conquest, and totalitarian oppression. We must continue to fight against these evils, lest 21st-century technology be used to make them even worse.
We need a renewed vision of the future: a bold, ambitious, technological future, one that we want to live in and are inspired to create.
Above all, we need a renewed vision of the future: a bold, ambitious, technological future, one that we want to live in and are inspired to create. A future of cheap, abundant, reliable, clean energy from nuclear fusion. A future where we return to space and create permanent settlements, both for recreation and for industry. A future where we cure diseases through genetic engineering. A future where we cure aging itself, giving everyone as many years of healthy life as they choose. A future where we don’t just end poverty, but create new levels of wealth so fantastic that they make today’s wealth look like poverty in comparison—just as was done over the last two hundred years.
To reverse decades of anti-progress reactionism may seem daunting. But Francis Bacon inspired generations after him with a vision of useful knowledge leading to practical improvements in human life—and he had only a handful of inventions to point to as examples to prove his case. Today, the case is far stronger: progress is not a theoretical possibility for the future, but the established reality of the past and the living present. Its examples are literally all around us, from the paved roads and concrete foundations beneath our feet, to the steel girders and plate glass windows surrounding us, to the electric lighting overhead. And to communicate our vision, we have not only the printing press, but the internet. If Bacon did it, so can we.