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And conversely, what do you see as the most important places we need to make progress (even if it’s going to be more difficult)?

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

I guess one of the big structural challenges is just human nature itself. For me, moral progress is all about zooming out, not just focusing on our own lives, on our own friends, on our own family members. Evolutionary psychology has taught as that empathy and xenophobia are intimately connected. It’s only natural for us to focus on the people we can see, on the suffering we can see, whether it’s in our own neighborhood or whether it’s in the news. We find it very hard to feel empathy or compassion for numbers.

There’s this line, I think it was Bertrand Russell who said that, “It’s the mark of humanity to be able to look at a row of numbers and weep.” The truth is that, very few people are able to do that. You need a lot of training. That’s I guess one structural challenge, just human nature itself. We find it very, very hard to zoom out and to look at a bigger picture. To give you one last example here, most people watching this video who probably live somewhere in the West and who are around the medium wage are maybe richer than that. Most people don’t realize just how rich they are. For example, I live in the Netherlands, and if you have a medium wage in the Netherlands, which is around, what is it, 30, $35,000 a year. You’re already part of the 3% richest in the world.

We remember Occupy Wall Street, the great protest movement that said, “We’re the 99%.” That may be true on a national level, but on a global level, we’re more like the 1%. That gives us, I think, an enormous responsibility. I’m personally a member of a group called Giving What We Can, people who pledge to donate at least 10% of their income to highly effective charities. I think that’s just basically a moral minimum, to be honest, because we live in extraordinary circumstances. People have no idea, throughout history the vast majority of the population was just sick, poor, hungry, afraid, ugly, sick. That’s the state of humanity most of the time. If you’re not, you’re the exception, and I think that gives you an enormous responsibility.

“Throughout history, the vast majority of the population was just sick, poor, hungry, afraid. That’s the state of humanity most of the time. If you’re not, you’re the exception, and I think that gives you an enormous responsibility.”

Dr. Hannah Ritchie

Head of Research, Our World in Data

I think the two big areas are global health and global education. In global health, there are just so many low hanging fruits of whether it’s vaccination, routine vaccinations, or treatments, or malarial bed nets, or proper nutrition, so vitamin supplementation. You can do a lot with very small amounts of money in global health. 

And I think the other core area is global education. So I think we’ve made massive progress in terms of getting kids into school globally. So most kids in the world go to school. There is just really large inequalities in terms of the quality of that education. So many kids, even though they’re in school in lower-income countries, they often leave school not being able to read and write, without really, really basic skills. 

And I think, again, it comes back to this slightly selfish reason for wanting to invest in global progress is that, I mean we frame it as the lost Einsteins or Marie Curies, but there’s so many kids that probably could go on to really, really make progress and change, but they’re being left behind because they just didn’t get the opportunity to do so.

“I think the two big areas are global health and global education.”

Charles Kenny

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

It comes back to this material and nonmaterial divide I was talking about. There’s an irony that we continue to be really good at solving material challenges. We continue to see huge productivity gains in manufacturing worldwide. We have better robots than ever, and so on and so forth. So when it comes to this physical stuff, we keep on getting better at solving those problems, but if you actually look at where people are spending their money and what they’re worried about, more and more it’s not on that physical stuff. So if you look at the percentage of people’s incomes they are spending on goods versus services, for example, they’re spending a lot more on services. They’re spending a lot more on education and care, restaurants, that kind of stuff.

We’re not nearly as good at making education more productive, getting more bang for your buck than education. We’re not very good at getting more out of a concert pianist than the last generation got out of a concert pianist. So when it comes to these things that we want more and more of, we aren’t actually very good at increasing their productivity and getting more of them. And so I think that’s where the challenge lies. And, again, I don’t really have an answer to it, but I think it’s the problem for progress in the future, is that the progress we’re good at delivering and the progress that people really seem to want seems to be moving apart of it.

Alec Stapp

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

So I think one big area that we work on a lot, but we’ve been disappointed with the progress recently is in bio security. How do we prevent the next pandemic? And we thought that COVID, one of the maybe rare silver linings would be that focus minds and help policy makers in D.C. take concrete action today to invest in preventing the next pandemic. We haven’t seen that yet, and we’re going to keep hammering away on it, but it seems like this is one of those types of issues that because the current elected officials would get no credit for a future pandemic that never happens. Most of the risks you’d be mitigating by investing in surveillance of new pathogens in the environment, or using government funds to advance PPE to protect people from future pathogens. You don’t get any credit for that. Most of those risks are in the far future. And so it doesn’t really fit as a policy area with how our current democratic institutions are structured. And so, unfortunately, even though the benefits are massive, COVID alone cost U.S. economy, an estimated $16 trillion. And the investments we need are in the tens of billions of dollars over a decade. We’ve seen almost no movement on that so far. And so I think key to a progress agenda is taking catastrophic and existential risks seriously.

“I think the key to a progress agenda is taking catastrophic and existential risks seriously.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter

CEO, New America

We need to save the planet. I mean, the triple planetary threat is climate change, biodiversity, and essentially material spoilage. I mean, just spoiling the environment with waste in so many ways, the oceans, water. And I think the key there again is understanding what positive change we could make. So much of the climate debate is just about mitigating disaster. First, it was saving off disaster, and then it’s mitigating, and adapting to the disasters that are already happening. If you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, it’s a very realistic book. I mean, it opens with the death of millions of people, but you suddenly imagine re-knitting wildlife corridors and seeing biodiversity come back.

It imagines finding uses for so much of our waste that leads to cheap and abundant energy. It reimagines things like air travel and sea travel in a way that made me think, oh my gosh, this could actually be environmentally harmonious, so that it’s recovering a planet. It’s not just preventing things from getting worse. And there too, when I think about democracy, I think about, we could have a multi-party democracy that would let many more people run, and many more people feel heard and represented, and be more effective.

So those are the big challenges for me really are environmental, because we’re going to go under. But also because the world I know and love is visibly disappearing before my eyes. But I also think in terms of political terms, and creating, the last thing I would say, I think for the United States in particular. We are moving from a white majority country, a white massively dominant country for 400 years.

Certainly, since Europeans arrived on America’s shores to a plurality nation where there will not be one majority group. I see that as hugely positive, but that is something that we must make progress toward a different self-understanding of ourselves as Americans, or we’ll tear each other apart.

“We must make progress toward a different self-understanding of ourselves as Americans, or we’ll tear each other apart.”

Parag Khanna

Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap

Well, at first, identify barriers to more efficient human mobility as the most significant inhibitor to all civilizational progress. Migration policies today are primarily based on nationality, rather than on skills or humanitarian grounds. Yet it’s widely demonstrated that the surest pathway to social or economic mobility is physical mobility.

I would propose an emphasis on large skills-based migration from young to old societies, and that would enhance the material well-being instantly for a very, very large number of people, particularly the young who comprise most of the current and the entire future population of the world is effectively today’s youth given low birth rates. Migration is not centrally coordinated, and it probably never will be. I’ll add that to a wishlist of things that I would like to see happen in terms of the progress agenda, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get there without centrally coordinated migration. We can, because more and more countries are looking at this pragmatically and seeing the labor shortages that they have and the need to reduce frictions to skills-based migration from societies that have larger young populations.

“It’s widely demonstrated that the surest pathway to social or economic mobility is physical mobility.”

Eli Dourado

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

I think that attitudes around safety are very hard to change. We just had a global pandemic and we saw the failures of the FDA system on public display in a very high profile way, refusing to allow challenge trials, being slow to approve the lifesaving vaccines, then being slow to approve them for children, being slow to approve the new therapeutics. And it’s amazing to me that after these highly visible policy failures, we have seen almost zero public outcries for reform. Has there been one bill introduced to significantly restructure how we do drug approvals? I haven’t seen it. So I think this is important because biotech is one area where the gap between what we can do in the lab and the products that are available on the market is the biggest. So in the lab, we can regrow animal limbs, we can reanimate complex mammals that have been dead for an hour, and we have made artificial wombs work. But there’s a long time to go before we can take these game-changing innovations and use them on humans.

“We just had a global pandemic and we saw the failures of the FDA system on public display in a very high profile way. And it’s amazing to me that after these highly visible policy failures, we have seen almost zero public outcries for reform.”

Saloni Dattani

Founding Editor, Works in Progress

So I think the main area to make progress in is pandemics. So the risk of pandemics has been increasing due to climate change, which changes the distribution of mosquitoes, for example, but also because of travel, factory farming and urbanization. There are two different ways that these are usually tackled. One is by focusing on specific diseases and trying to get vaccines and drugs ready for them quickly. Another is using tools to reduce the transmission of groups of diseases like using sanitation to prevent the spread of diseases that are spread by water or ventilation to reduce those that are spread by air. Both of those different approaches are difficult, but they’re each very worthwhile because pandemics can make huge disruptions to our lives and can cause so many deaths. And a lot of that disruption and damage can be either avoidable or reduced by having the right tools at the right time.

“I think the main area to make progress in is pandemics.”

Jim Pethokoukis

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

I think across the policy spectrum, it’s really hard right now to get a bipartisan consensus on pro-progress things, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s R&D, whether it’s making changes to regulatory policy to make it easier to build. So much of that stuff ends up really getting bogged down in daily politics, or if you want to call it culture war. And I think we just need stronger element in both the two political parties here in the United States that are pro-progress elements. I don’t think just a thing of the right or just a thing of the left, I think you can be pro-progress on both sides. But it seems to me that right now American politics are dominated at people who are very… I think they’re pessimistic about the future. Whether that’s because they’re overly pessimistic about the environment, whether they’re pessimistic about the benefits of progress, all they see is disruption. But I think having those elements in both parties be stronger is super important. And it’s also going to be super hard to achieve in this environment.

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Joan Blades

Co-founder,  Living Room Conversations

Well, for me, when I think about progress, I’m often thinking about human relationships and that we have become so distrustful of each other and seeing the worst in each other, in fact. And progress for me is when we can connect and care about people that we disagree with. And the faith community has really put it in a way that speaks to me, which is seeing the divinity in everyone. I may not be a part of the faith community, but there is a ring of deep truth to that for me.

Well, the thing that is difficult that I’m looking at is the thing that I’m trying to do because as we get more polarized, we are less likely to ask our friend, our neighbor, our colleague to have a conversation. So we talk less, we do more self sorting. And inviting people to show up with an open heart and vulnerability, that’s a big ask and that’s the starting place that I’m coming from. And it’s wonderful. I should also say it’s really gratifying and it makes life richer, but it is something not everyone’s ready to do tomorrow.


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