Is Progress Bad?

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I saw this article on the Atlantic by Jeremy Caradonna, a professor of history at the U. of Alberta. It’s about whether “progress” is good for humanity. The article takes particular aim at “progress” as a concept associated with sustained economic growth since the Industrial Revolution.

The first point to make is that Caradonna mischaracterizes the conclusions that economic historians and growth economists make about the moral character of growth after the Industrial Revolution. None of them, at least the ones I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them, have ever suggested that humanity is morally superior for having achieved sustained growth. Here’s the quote he pulls from Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy

Material life in Britain and in the industrialized world that followed it is far better today than could have been imagined by the most wild-eyed optimistic 18th-century philosophe—and whereas this outcome may have been an unforeseen consequence, most economists, at least, would regard it as an undivided blessing.

And here is Caradonna’s reaction to that quote:

The idea that the Industrial Revolution has made us not only more technologically advanced and materially furnished but also better for it is a powerful narrative and one that’s hard to shake.

The only sense in which Mokyr means “we’re better for it” is precisely that it made us more materially furnished. We are superior in real consumption. Full stop. Nowhere does Mokyr make a claim that this superiority in real consumption implies any kind of superiority in virtue, morality, or ethics.

We are shockingly, amazingly, well off on a material basis compared to our ancestors not only 200 years ago even thirty years ago. This despite the fact that the population of the earth is now roughly 7-8 times higher than it was when the Industrial Revolution started.

So Caradonna has set up a straw man to take down. Fine, he’s hardly the first person to do that. What’s his real argument, then? Let me take a stab at summarizing it. After the Industrial Revolution, bad things happened in addition to good things. Caradonna thinks those bad things are particularly bad, and thinks we should give up some of the good things (gas-powered cars) in order to alleviate the bad things (global warming).

Okay. Great. I’m with you Prof. Caradonna. Seriously, I’m in for a carbon tax and expanded spending on alternative energy R-and-D. I want to drive around either an electric car, or one powered by hydrogen, or using gas produced by algae that actually pulls CO2 from the atmosphere.

But the idea that economic growth – progress – is somehow the enemy of that goal is misguided. To paraphrase Homer Simpson: “To economic growth, the cause – and solution – to all of life’s problems”. Economic growth created the conditions that allowed us to alleviate evils like starvation and infant mortality while at the same time giving us more clothes, better housing, faster ways to get around, means of communication, Diet Coke, and gigantic-ass TV’s. It also bequeathed us technologies that heat up the atmosphere. And that sucks. But it sucks less than starving.

Economic growth means we’ve got a new kind of constrained optimization problem to solve in the 21st century: how to maximize real consumption while minimizing environmental damage. Caradonna has a particular type of solution to that optimization in mind, one tilted more towards minimizing damage than maximizing consumption. But the world seems to be making a different kind of choice, and so he’s trying to persuade others to adopt his solution. More power to him. There is no one who can tell him (particularly me) that his choice of how to solve that optimization problem is wrong. It’s just about preferences.

But anything that alleviates the constraints in this problem is welcome, regardless of preferences. Innovations that mitigate global warming (or other environmental concerns) would help us regardless of our exact preferred solution. If we can invent hyper-efficient spray-on solar panels, that would be an incredible boon to humanity. Cheap, clean power. Everyone wins. You know what I would call something like that? Progress.

The underlying issue is not a concept like progress or economic growth, but the fact that constraints exist.


23 thoughts on “Is Progress Bad?

  1. I have issues with the idea that we need to “slow” progress because some of it is “bad”. Arbitrary limits to technology only further limits the use of knowledge. Whereas progressives could gain by embracing equality in time use for knowledge and services, which could generate more of the options for life that are actually desired. What’s more, equal time use would not place demands on production processes which some progressives already believe to be excessive.

    Also, by encouraging walkable communities – particularly for new community formations which do not already have NIMBY policies in place, the use of fossil fuels could be lessened in ways that are pro growth and also provide greater economic options for the poor. That is a far cry better than imposing arbitrary limits on everyone.

  2. Pingback: Is Progress Bad? | Gaia Gazette

  3. This is a great post. As a progressive who understands economics, I am stuck between a rock and a hard place on the idea that too much economic growth is good. On the one hand, you see growing inequality of income and wealth, but on the other hand, as you mention, we are much better off than we were centuries ago. Even the poorest are better. Unfortunately it appears this progress hasn’t benefited all nations such as parts of Africa.

    • That’s the thing – economic growth brings both good and bad consequences. My stance is that the good things have, on balance, outweighed the bad. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t try to alleviate or deal with the bad things. So the fact that economic growth hasn’t benefitted all isn’t a reason to roll back economic growth, it’s a motivation to ensure that it does benefit more people.

  4. There is, in fact, a veritable technical panacea for global warming already under development; it is fourth-generation nuclear reactors in which the nuclear fuel is dissolved in a molten salt. Such reactors are dramatically safer than those we use today. In addition, they are cheaper and can consume existing nuclear waste. Such reactors were invented and tested in the 60’s, but were set aside by those for whom weaponry was more important than safety. Several startups, including Transatomic Power, Flibe and Terrestrial Energy, and especially the Chinese are developing this technology. The use of such reactors to store hydrogen in the form of ammonia eliminates CO2 produced by transportation fuels. The bad news is that the US government is doing much less than it might to accelerate the development and deployment of this panacea.

    • Arthur – the interesting thing is that this kind of technology, if/when regulatory/political hurdles are removed, would alleviate some of the bad consequences of growth (global warming), *and* would stimulate more economic growth. New industries, etc.. The idea that there is some fixed growth/environmental tradeoff is, I think, flawed.

  5. I came here off the Utopia link and am impressed by the site.

    I do need to quibble though. I think it is possible to create an extremely sound argument that we are morally superior too as explicitly detailed in Pinker’s recent book on violence and Payne’s book on a History of Force. With technological and economic progress we (the advancing societies) are also seeing historically unpredented reductions in just about every conceivable form of violence and oppression including war, murder, capital punishment, genocide, crime, political violence, civil wars, racism, sexism, violent revolutions, slavery, etc.

    Both Pinker and Payne attribute some of these gains to economic progress, and also to broader trends which co-evolve along with economic prosperity (freedom, education, communications, open dissent, open political orders and so on).

    Humans in modern developed nations do act substantially more virtuously and ethically than did our ancestors in many and probably most ways.

    • Thanks for reading. Fair enough – one could absolutely make a case that in fact humanity is “better” than 200 years ago. If so, that just reinforces the argument that economic growth has been a good thing. The point with respect to Caradonna’s article is that even if we are not “better”, we still would want the benefits of economic growth.

  6. In the middle of the article, he basically says that markets and technology are not sufficient to improve our society and that they might have had some side effects. Sounds reasonable enough.

    But then suddenly his argument becomes more radical- that technology and the Industrial Revolution are downright harmful, destroying ecosystems, causing “rampant population growth” (of course, this population growth is partly due to longer lifespans, which I guess are a bad thing in this guy’s narrative), the extinction of species, “disruption of global ecosystems” (wow!), etc.

    How can stuff like this get published in a magazine like The Atlantic?

    He says pollution has created filthy cities and toxic industrial sites.

    Okay, so what? Do people live longer, healthier lives today than they did when they lived in those pristine, organic, unpolluted mud huts of the 10th century? Yes. Yes they do.And that’s what matters.

    He then says that the Industrial Revolution has caused the extinction of many species.

    Okay, but nature also causes the extinction of species. So once we dismantle our factories and retreat to our mud huts are we then supposed to devote our energies toward halting evolution and preventing nature from driving species extinct as well?

    Also, everything has a cost. Yes- the Industrial Revolution has directly and indirectly caused species extinctions… And frankly it may well have been worth it if the benefits outweigh the costs. There is no law which says that the survival of a certain type of insect is a priori worth more than anything and everything the Industrial Revolution gave us.

    If he is wants to be serious about the subject, he may want to consider actually weighing those cost and those benefits instead of ranting about global ecosystems.extinctions, and so on.

    That’s an article I’d love to read- a serious and honest treatment of the costs of species extinction. That would be interesting. This though is nothing more than a directionless rant.

    Finally, he spends the last two paragraphs praising as visionaries people who have been clearly wrong about nearly everything.

    The Luddites were wrong about machines putting people out of work. Malthus was wrong. Engels may want to think about how the working classes live today and compare it to those Medieval era farmers that worked 70 hours a week to eke out a few potatoes to eat in their shacks that had no plumbing, no running water, and were cesspools for rats, viruses, and bacteria.

    • Gerhard – my general reaction to these kinds of pieces is similar to yours. Economic growth has brought lots of both good and bad things to the table. If you want to argue for slowing down economic growth, or rolling it back, then you have to make a good argument for why the “bad” things outweigh the “good” things. But the Atlantic article doesn’t do that – it simply says that “bad things happened”. Which is not sufficient to make any kind of assessment.

    • @Gerhard
      While it is true that society is much better today due to technoogical developement, the side effects are very important and cannot be forgotten.

      The disruption of global ecosystems is a huge thing and I can’t believe how selfish you are saying how unimportant these things are. We are guests on this planet, but our selfishness is killing the other guests (animals, trees, etc). So many forests are wiped out and oceans polluted because of the selfishness of people like many americans who only care about they tank of gas and bank account and don’t give arat’s ass about the rainforest and oceans.

      Nature too causes extinxtion of species, but much much slowly….hundred of thousands of years…..not like us, who killed 47% of insects in less than 200 years. And many of these animals and insects are usefull to us, keeping the nature balanced, pollinating flowers, etc.

      I don’t mean to say that we should live like 200 years ago, but we could live like today consuming much less, and polluting the environment much less.

      Also many technoligies like solar pannels, electric cars and many others were boycoted by rich companies so they can sell natural resources and this is very bad for the long term.

      No wonder Stephen Hawking said we only have 200 years to live if we don’t change our attitude towards the nature, or find other planet to destroy

  7. “It also bequeathed us technologies that heat up the atmosphere. And that sucks. But it sucks less than starving.”

    That, of course, depends on the wishful thinking assumption that climate change won’t ultimately disrupt world food production and result in mass starvation. You may be surprised to learn that food production depends on a suitable range of climatic conditions.

    • Meanwhile, in Kashmir (real news),

      “Climate models predict that India will be hit more and more by extreme rainfall events”

      New Delhi, September 10, 2014: “As Jammu and Kashmir continues to reel under its worst floods in 60 years, which have stranded over 6 lakh people and killed about 200, the attention is slowly veering towards the reasons and causes behind this unprecedented natural disaster. An analysis by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) suggests that this could very well be another manifestation of an extreme weather event – induced by a changing climate.

      “The Kashmir floods are a grim reminder that climate change is now hitting India harder. In the last 10 years, several extreme rainfall events have rocked the country, and this is the latest calamity in that series,” said Chandra Bhushan, CSE deputy director general and the head of its climate change team.

      “CSE researchers have compiled a list of such extreme events – these include the Mumbai floods of 2005, the Leh cloudburst of 2010 and the Uttarakhand floods of 2013. In each of these disasters, thousands have died and the economic losses incurred have run into thousands of crores of rupees.

      “As was the case with some of the previous extreme rainfall events, the scale of disaster in J&K has been exacerbated by unplanned development – especially on the riverbanks. In the last 100 years, more than 50 per cent of the lakes, ponds and wetlands of Srinagar have been encroached upon for constructing buildings and roads. The banks of the Jhelum river have been taken over in a similar manner, vastly reducing the river’s drainage capacity. Naturally, these areas have suffered the most.

      “The tragedy in J&K, says Chandra Bhushan, is that the state has not been prepared to handle such extreme rainfall events. In fact, J&K does not have a flood forecasting system. Its disaster management system is also rudimentary.

      The climate connect

      “Heavy and very heavy rainfall events in India has increased over the past 50-60 years. A study done by B. N. Goswami of Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, shows that between 1950 and 2000, the incidence of heavy rainfall events (> 100 mm/day) and very heavy events (>150 mm/day) have increased and moderate events (5-100 mm/day) have decreased.

      “Most climate models also predict that India will be hit more and more by extreme rainfall events as the world continues to warm in the coming decades.

      “According to the latest analysis by the Working Group II of the IPCC Assessment Report (AR5), floods and droughts are likely to increase in India. India will get more rainfall but in lesser number of rainy days. Increase in extreme precipitation during monsoons is also predicted.

      “The IPCC’s 2011 Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation – abbreviated as the SREX report – presents projections for the period 2071-2100. It points to increasing incidents of more frequent and intense heavy precipitation over most regions.”

    • It does? I thought that hamburgers just appeared magically somewhere on the plains of Nebraska.

      Yes, food production depends on climate conditions. Yes, climate conditions are changing. So yes, the distribution of food production across the globe will change. I will take modern technology – GMO’s, fertilizer, mechanization, better weather/soil information – *and* climate change over the agricultural technology of 1800 and *no* climate change. Our better technology means that we are capable of adapting rapidly (over decades rather than centuries) to climate changes. Which means that no, I’m not worried that climate change will cause some kind of mass starvation event. Which is not the same thing as saying that I think climate change is not important/relevant/painful/costly/a problem.

      • Too true.
        The problem is underutilisation of land and technologies appropriate for agriculture. If you take Africa, it is still farming like 1800’s, so it is clear a massive increase of production is possible.
        Historically very little inorganic fertiliser has been used in comparison to the rest of the world but people are told it has ruined the soil.

  8. “The only sense in which Mokyr means “we’re better for it” is precisely that it made us more materially furnished. We are superior in real consumption. Full stop. Nowhere does Mokyr make a claim that this superiority in real consumption implies any kind of superiority in virtue, morality, or ethics.”

    Are you being deliberately obtuse? The whole mythic narrative of the Progress of Man (capital letters required) from the sodden fields of the Dark Ages through the Enlightenment to the glorious sun-drenched slopes of late Anglo-Saxon turbo-capitalism is absolutely soaked in a moral vision. It’s a vision of redemption – and, yes, it is exactly that, in all its Christian awfulness – which is even reproduced in the comments on this post. Of course, to the congregation kneeling in the pews, the faith’s moral vision just looks like a accurate reflection of how the world is but then that’s exactly the point of these beliefs.

    • Dan – I agree that there is a tradition of “Progress” meaning “we are becoming more enlightened/moral/better people”. But that’s not what Mokyr is claiming, nor would economic historians or growth economists in general make this claim. He isn’t working in the “Progress of Man” tradition. He’s working in the “economic growth has, on net, been beneficial in material terms” tradition (which needs a better name).

      • Dan R. is right. You are being deliberately obtuse. The claim is so deeply embedded in the methodology and assumptions of growth economists that they don’t have to actually say it any more than they would need to point out that they are speaking prose.

      • “economic growth has, on net, been beneficial in material terms”

        Even this is questionable. The balance sheet doesn’t include subtractions from the non-renewable natural resource stock. You are assuming that technological improvement occur in the absence of population increase and an increase in the monetary value of exchange transactions.

        There may indeed be less need for technological innovations to solve problems caused by the unintended effects of previous technological “progress” — but whether this would result in less NET improvement is not an answerable question. You are ASSUMING one answer to a question that can’t be answered.

      • Correction: You are assuming that technological improvement CAN’T occur in the absence of population increase and an increase in the monetary value of exchange transactions.

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