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People seem to be more pessimistic about the potential for progress moving forward than they have been in the past. Do you think that’s true and if so, why?

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.

Click here to browse all the questions »

Rutger Bregman

Historian and New York Times Bestselling Author

The idea of progress is a very modern religion. Throughout history, most people, pretty much everywhere, didn’t believe in progress. They looked at history as a circular phenomenon. Things grow, and then they decline. That’s how the ancient Greeks looked at it. That’s how the Orthodox Christians looked at it, how the Buddhist and the Hindus looked at it. It’s this circular view of history. The idea that history progresses that you go from stage to stage and that actually you build on the achievements of your ancestors. It’s a very, very modern idea.

Modern assumption of, I would say the last three, four centuries, really originated, I think with the enlightenment. Initially, by the way, it was mainly an ideology. Francis Bacon, for example, the great scientists really bought into this idea of progress. If you look at the economic data, actually in his time, there wasn’t all that much progress. Back then it was mainly an ideology. In the last 200 years, it’s become a reality. Even though still there’s an enormous amount of poverty and suffering in the world. That’s really important to remember that the idea that every generation has a life that’s a little bit better than the previous generation is a very modern idea. It’s not a given at all.

“The idea that history progresses that you go from stage to stage and that actually you build on the achievements of your ancestors. It’s a very, very modern idea.”

Dr. Hannah Ritchie

Head of Research, Our World in Data

I’m not sure I agree with the opinion that pessimism is new. I think pessimism has kind of been our default. I think from a historical point of view, it kind of makes sense to have a pessimistic default. And I think for most of human history we probably did. So I don’t necessarily agree that it’s a new thing, but I do think it’s a significant barrier to progress. I think how large the pessimism issue really depends on the point in time and place in the world. I think I would probably expect that pessimism is a bigger issue in richer countries. And one of the core reasons I think for that is that I think pessimism often comes from seeing or not seeing progress. So seeing a lack of tangible progress.

So if you haven’t seen it really dramatically change, you might be cynical that it can change. And if you look at the rate of change and the speed of change across the world, often for richer countries some of the fastest change has been quite far in the past, so maybe even prior to my lifetime. So maybe within my lifetime, I haven’t seen really, really, really fast progress, which would then make me maybe more cynical that progress can actually happen. I think the situation is probably very different in low to middle-income countries where things actually, at the moment, are changing really quickly. So in the last decade, lives have completely changed and the [inaudible 00:12:35] have completely changed. And if you’ve seen that happen within the space of years, you’re probably actually pretty optimistic that that could continue. So I think there’s this really kind of stark divide in the world where I think richer countries are unfortunately probably more pessimistic about progress than poorer ones.

“I think how large the pessimism issue really depends on the point in time and place in the world.”

Charles Kenny

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

Yeah, I do feel that, and I think probably this disconnect is part of a story. I do want to caveat though and say in some ways it’s a sign of success that the progress we’re worried about used to be, will I have enough to eat tomorrow? Will my child die in infancy? So those problems thankfully are getting rarer and rarer and rarer and so we are left with these other challenges. I think we’re as good at dealing with them, but they’re problems we’d rather have. And so I don’t want to be too down on progress, and I think people are too down on the possibility of progress.

I think even if it’s not necessarily going to be as rapid as we would like in these areas that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. It means we’ve got a challenge to figure out how to make it continue. So I do think there is some legitimacy in concerns that the progress we want might be slower than we’ve got used to over the last 100 years or so, at least in lucky, richer countries. But that’s not a reason to be ultimately pessimistic or depressed. It’s a reason to try harder, if you will.

“I do think there is some legitimacy in concerns that the progress we want might be slower than we’ve got used to … but that’s not a reason to be ultimately pessimistic or depressed. It’s a reason to try harder.”

Alec Stapp

Co-founder and co-CEO of the Institute for Progress

Yeah, I think in the U.S. context, one, it’s highly volatile. I think from month to month, people vastly are wildly between being optimistic and pessimistic for most of this year, people were very pessimistic that nothing was getting done in Washington D.C. And that was indicative of broader problems with our bureaucracy. I mean, we have so many points in our government where checks and balances can be good, but also if dozens of people have a veto over every policy decision that could happen, you very quickly get in a situation where nothing ends up happening. But then again, in the last couple months, we’ve seen a flurry of action in Washington, D.C. where major bills, many of them that estimated a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars have been passed in Washington D.C. Major investments in climate mitigation, in reshoring semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. And so things are happening both publicly and behind the scenes. And so I think really when it comes down to it, Congress waits till the last minute to get things done. But this session of Congress has shown that big things are still possible in policy and politics related to making progress. And so this month, I’d say people are optimistic, but a lot of the other times people are pretty pessimistic.

“This session of Congress has shown that big things are still possible in policy and politics.“

Anne-Marie Slaughter

CEO, New America

I would say again that the kind of social change, and demographic change that the United States and many other countries are going through, means a lot of voices are finding power, are finding audiences. And what they have to say is deeply uncomfortable, and there’s going to be turbulence. This was true when women found our voices too. Is something in my own lifetime. At first, as a woman who was allowed to play in male spheres in a way that my mother and grandmothers had not been, I played the game. And I essentially conformed. I would object over sexism, but I wouldn’t challenge the underlying premises of foreign policy or law wherever I was.

Once I got older and stronger, and more women in the room, those conversations became much less comfortable I think for the men and for women, and that’s happening across the society. That said, I remind myself all the time that the loudest voices are generally not the majority voices. But people are cowed, easily cowed because they’re the loudest voices. And now there’re voices that can be amplified by social media, and you can be mobbed, silenced, exiled, canceled, all of that.

So I think all of us have to keep remembering. Yes, just because you are defining the outer parameters of the debate, you are not the majority. And if we can find the courage to speak up, we will find many, many people with us. Speaking up in a way that is sensitive to change debates and different voices. But that where we still say progress depends on truth. Truth is never absolute, but it is possible to identify greater truth versus greater falsehood.

Parag Khanna

Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap

I do see a lot of pessimism around areas like government performance, and that’s particularly in the West right now, and of course on climate change. But I also see attainable solutions in each of these areas on the environment. No doubt for again, all of the interlocking pieces of the climate puzzle, there are specific interventions and solutions that we could much more readily deploy at scale than we presently do.

When it comes to government performance, well, it’s particularly in times of political failure that thinking around the science of governance rather than just the performance of government, meaning performative nature of government evolves rather than presently the way in which we’re just kind of winging it. I hope, I find in a sort of nation movement to balance the data toolkits that we have and the growing utilitarian ethos that people have, which I would sort of lump together under the rubric of technocracy, blending that with the demands of democracy, which include of course, participation, accountability, and feedback.

Right now, again, these things are being treated like they’re antithetical concepts, democracy and technocracy. In the work that I do, I frame them as being highly, highly complimentary, and it’s precisely given with our sort of back against the wall in terms of low performance, low credibility, low public satisfaction in Western governments today, that I think people will embrace this new approach to governance. Again, treat political science as a science, which is to say focus on the mechanics, the frameworks around what delivers good governance, rather than being complacent and self-satisfied, sort of on the notion that democracy alone delivers progress.

“Treat political science as a science, which is to say focus on the mechanics, the frameworks around what delivers good governance, rather than being complacent and self-satisfied, sort of on the notion that democracy alone delivers progress.”

Eli Dourado

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University

Well, I think we’ve seen our past mistakes come back to bite us. So first we had Covid, which we sort of muddled our way through with a fair number of mistakes. And then that’s been followed up with all these additional shortages, energy shortages, baby formula shortages, bottlenecks at the ports, et cetera. And so I think our failures are on display in a very public way. And if people are pessimistic about the potential for progress, they probably should be if we keep going the way we’ve been going, right? We need to change something if we’re going to have a more optimistic future.

Saloni Dattani

Founding Editor, Works in Progress

I think there are big differences in how pessimistic people are. In countries where people have experienced massive development in their own lifetimes people tend to be more optimistic and that’s especially true when they’re able to see how things have changed for their children. In other countries where there’s been stagnation, people tend to be more pessimistic. And I think that’s because of which costs and improvements are noticeable to people. So everyday costs like housing, energy and education have become more expensive in many countries. And those are big costs that are easily noticeable. Other improvements like the Internet and all the products and services that we gain from that like music streaming, movies, or even connecting people across countries and allowing people to work in different ways that wouldn’t have been possible before those connections, the Internet tends to be cheap or free. And it’s hard for people to take those into account and notice how much that’s changed our lives.

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And a third thing is that it’s hard to notice progress and risks that you only experience rarely. So for example, it’s easier to notice changes in pollution because we walk through the places that would have pollution every day. But it’s hard to notice in risks that only affect you once or later in life because you don’t have something to compare it to. So for example, cancer treatment has been gradually improving over the years, but many people would not have experienced that multiple times or over very long distinct periods. So they wouldn’t have something to compare to notice those changes.

Jim Pethokoukis

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

I think people being pessimistic about the future is not an irrational conclusion. I think we tend to underplay a lot of the good things that happen. For instance, we hear so much about, here in the United States, that the wages have gone nowhere forever. That’s certainly not true, but you hear politicians say it all the time. But things could be better and things probably haven’t been as good as what many expected. So I think it’s not irrational to be somewhat pessimistic. “Boy, if we have all these problems making change and things haven’t been as good as what we thought now, why should tomorrow be different?” I think the burden is on people who are optimistic about the future to make that case.

Joan Blades

Co-founder,  Living Room Conversations

Well, I think it’s real. We’ve seen political functionality plummet and our trust is so low in our institutions, in government, in the media, in each other. I mean, and progress that one administration makes has sometimes been wiped out by the following. So we kind of have this wrecking ball going back and forth. And as people self sort into more and more like-minded communities, our ability to understand what’s going on and to have a feeling of connection with each other. I mean, the first thing is we keep thinking that people are rational beings first, and we’re emotional beings first. So we care about what the people we care about are concerned about. It’s just human nature. So when we divide ourselves like this, then bad things happen.


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