About the project
The goal of driving more progress across the world—scientifically, politically, economically, socially, etc—is one shared by many. And yet, debates about the best way to maximize progress continue. After all, how, exactly, does progress happen? What are the best ways to measure progress? What should we prioritize? How do we nurture it and how are we stifling it?
Since Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison published their essay in The Atlantic a few years ago calling for “a more focused, explicit study of progress”, there has been an increased interest and discussion about how we better understand the drivers of progress and apply those findings to improve our world.
But, of course, there continue to be robust debates on where exactly to focus our efforts and what to prioritize. To better understand those current debates, we spoke with a handful of experts from a variety of disciplines and asked them the same ten questions about the nature of progress and what they see as the priorities that deserve our collective attention.
Historian and New York Times Bestselling Author
When you talk about this notion of the expanding moral circle, the obvious question is of obviously, why do we stop? We’ve abolished slavery. Women have the right to vote. More and more people care about animals’ rights, but where does it stop? Maybe we got to stop factory farming. I’m certainly very much in favor of that. Do we also owe our empathy towards insects? It’s philosophically hard to know where exactly you draw the line.
It may be the case that at some point we could arrive at really uncomfortable conclusions. For example, there are now people who are thinking about the problem of wild animals suffering. A lot of people have this rosy, maybe a little bit naive view about nature. That nature is itself a wonderful, beautiful thing, but actually the strategy of a lot of animals to survive in this world too, is to have as many kids as possible. To lay thousands of eggs, for example. What happens to most individuals is they live pretty terrible lives of suffering, and then they die. Maybe expanding this moral circle may lead us to really uncomfortable conclusions.
I guess that’s one thing I struggle with. It’s very hard to come up with a moral system that checks all the boxes and that’s completely, internally coherent. I think that no one has ever been able to come up with a system like that. Then again, maybe all this worrying is a little bit pointless. For example, we’ve got so much evidence right now that pigs and cows and chicken are so many ways so similar to us, that their intelligence is comparable to a human toddler. They can feel empathy, they make friends, et cetera, and we just torture them on a horrendous scale. Rather than worrying about these philosophical problems, I think I would just rather start with actually doing something about the pretty obvious crimes that are in front of us.
Dr. Hannah Ritchie
Head of Research, Our World in Data
I think arguably one of the strongest criticisms I’ve seen is about the speed of progress. I think when you step back to look at the data, I think it’s often hard to deny that there has been progress. You can just see it very clearly. I think a core argument is that that progress isn’t happening fast enough, or we could do it much faster. And I actually completely agree with that criticism. I think, especially in the environmental space, there are so many examples of progress, whether that’s a reduction in carbon emissions in rich countries or a fall in deforestation rates or dramatic declines in air pollution, there is progress happening. But I think a very valid criticism is it’s not happening fast enough and we really need to speed it up.
So I actually fully agree with that criticism. I think where we differ is in the response to that. I think some people see, “Well, it’s just not happening fast enough,” and they just throw in the towel, whereas I think we just need to reframe it as, “Okay, it’s not happening fast enough, but that is an opportunity for us to identify why it’s happening and how we can accelerate it.” I’ve actually, on many issues we just don’t have a choice. We can’t sit back and give up and just throw in the towel.
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development
I sit here as a white, cisgender, male, rich, Anglo-American. It’s hard to name the opportunity I wasn’t presented with, if you will and so I get the completely legitimate criticism that it’s all very well you talking about progress. I try very hard to use data and statistics at least to understand how things are going for people who haven’t won the birth lottery, if you will, in terms of opportunity. But, also, and I need to get better at this I think, listening to those people who’ve had other experiences and understanding why they might come to different conclusions about the state of the world and the state of progress, I think is really important, especially for people like me.
Co-founder and co-CEO of the Institute for Progress
I think the general most effective criticism or one that I think that really hits home the most with the current progress agenda, as most people are talking about it, is that it doesn’t deal with moral progress or social progress, which I think is if anything, at least or more important than the scientific technological and industrial progress we’ve mostly been talking about and that most people talk about on the progress agenda. I think that’s a correct thing to point out. The reason I think the community of people working on these issues hasn’t focused on that is mostly just because they seem much more intractable. It’s unclear what action policy wants can take today to concretely impact social and moral progress. Those are often more bottom up phenomena that we see in society. And so I think those grassroots movements are incredibly important, but some organizations like ours just don’t have a comparative advantage in working in those areas. So I think while it’s a very fair criticism, and I think that’s such a critical part of progress at large, it’s just not something that falls within our wheelhouse.
CEO, New America
The single most important lesson I’ve learned is to check myself every time I say we. And really to think, who do I mean by we? And so often of course, I mean, people like me. But now I understand, people like me isn’t Americans. It isn’t educated people. It isn’t women, it isn’t white people. There are people like me. I am speaking for people who are like me, but there are a tremendous number of people I’m not speaking for. And this simple recognition of, wait a minute, I think this, and I don’t know if I can speak for a larger we. It then opens up so much space in my own head, as well as for anybody that I am talking to or writing to.
And so that really has been, I think the touchstone of my own education as an affluent white American woman. I could add other things, a straight woman, a cisgender woman, an able bodied woman. But more importantly, it’s been that just wait a minute, who are you talking for? And if it’s just for you, then what are those other voices you need to hear? And to me, that has enriched my world, enormously.
Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap
Well, I’m a big supporter of globalization, writ large and globalization viewed as an overall source of progress in terms of how it accelerates the spread of knowledge and ideas or goods and services, capital and technology, people and talent. The criticism is that globalization is either peaked or that it’s destructive. On the latter, it isn’t globalization itself that destroys, but how we excessively exploit the opportunities that global connectivity creates. There, I think we’re obviously placing the blame in the wrong place.
On the notion that globalization has peaked, I respond by reminding people that in just the past 20 years, we’ve heard people speak about the death of globalization four times. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the global financial crisis, Trump’s election in 2016 and Covid. Each time the critics have been very wrong, because globalization continues to widen and deepen in many, many, many ways.
In some areas, in fact, that matter most, such as flows of people, flows of ideas and technology, globalization is very much either in or on the cusp of a Golden Age.
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University
Every regulation is there for a reason. So in the past when something goes wrong, we add a new regulation to make sure that that thing never happens again. And I think that that’s very true. And I think that individually a lot of these regulations are there for a good reason. And it makes sense that we’ve added them to avoid some past event that has really been clearly bad, right? But my response would be that at some point, the accumulation of all these rules is detrimental to our flourishing, even if every individual rule is a response to a very reasonable concern. So it might be that the individual regulation makes us more safe, but the accumulation of all these regulations makes us less safe.
Founding Editor, Works in Progress
So one criticism or maybe the best criticism I’ve received is that it’s too difficult to make progress happen anymore. That it’s harder to make new discoveries. I think it is difficult and it has been harder, but we should think about who is involved in the research and innovation process in the past and who will be able to in the future. So stagnation has happened in some countries and it’s those countries where scientific research is funded in large part and where scientific research tends to happen, but it’s not the countries that will necessarily happen in the future. And there are many countries that have only recently developed and become more democratic. And those countries might become much more involved in science and innovation. And that’s also the case for people within those countries. So for example, women in many countries have been largely left out of the workforce or are limited in how much they can contribute to innovation at the frontiers of science and research. And as more people are given opportunities to do that we could see big changes that break that trend of stagnation and accelerate progressive ways that people wouldn’t have expected.
Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Right. I think people will say economic growth cannot solve all problems. And I think that is a legitimate criticism. And I hope that is not the fundamental message that I’m giving, because I don’t think that, and I certainly don’t think that we’re going to create a problem-free utopia. As long as we have flawed people, imperfect people, the world they build will also be flawed and imperfect. What I want to do is make sure that we are creating the opportunity and giving people the tools to create better futures for themselves, their families, and their countries. I don’t feel like this will end up a utopia. There’s always going to be more things to do. I just want to get on doing those things.
Co-founder, Living Room Conversations
Well, a classic is those people won’t show up, and those people can be whatever other it is you’re talking about. And that may be true, but we have to start where people are at and it doesn’t have to be everybody. So we have to start with the folks that will show up and be very intentional about inviting in missing voices.
And that is the responses to just extend our web of caring, and tipping points do happen. I’ve experienced some of them. And there are punctuated equilibrium, however you want to look at this. It’s not that there’s a gradual going up the hill gradually. It’s like human nature and human relationships, there are tipping points, and that’s what I am hoping to help see in the direction we’re going of connection, taking care of each other and becoming functional because it’s in our collective best interest to engage in ways that allow us all to have a good environment with each other and with the earth.