Why do we need a NEW philosophy of progress?

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I’ve said that we need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. But why a new philosophy? Why can’t we just return to the 19th-century attitude towards progress, which was pretty enthusiastic?

In short, the view of progress that persisted especially through the late 19th century and up until 1914 was naive. It fell apart because, in the 20th century, it met challenges it could not answer. We need to answer those challenges today.

What follows is a hypothesis that needs a lot more research and substantiation, but I’m putting it forward as my current working model of the relevant intellectual history.

The 19th-century worldview

Here are a few key elements of the Enlightenment-era worldview:

  • Nature was an obstacle to be conquered. Nature was imperfect; human reason could improve it—and it was fitting and proper for us to do so. Kipling wrote, “We hold all Earth to plunder /​ All time and space as well.” Nature was a means to our ends.

  • There was a deep belief in the power of human reason both to understand and to command nature. Especially by the end of the century, the accomplishments in science, technology and industry seemed to confirm this.

  • As a corollary of the above, there was an admiration for growth and progress: in science, in the economy, even in population.

(I’m basing this mostly on writings from the time, such as Macaulay or Alfred Russel Wallace; contemporary newspaper editorials; popular speeches given, e.g., at celebrations; poetry of the era; etc. For future research: what were the historians, philosophers, etc. of the time saying about progress? I’m familiar with some of the thought from previous centuries such as Bacon and Condorcet, but less so with that from 19th-century figures such as Mill or Comte.)

On the face of it, at least, these seem very much in sympathy with the core ideas of the progress movement as I have outlined them. So what did the 19th century get wrong?


Here are just some examples of things that many people believed in the late 19th century, which would later be proved quite wrong:

  • That technology would lead to world peace. Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet had forecast progress in morality and society just as much as in science, technology and industry. By the late 1800s, this seemed plausible. The previous century had seen monarchy and aristocracy replaced by democratic republics, and the end of slavery in the West. Economic growth was making everyone richer, and free trade was binding nations together, giving them opportunities for win-win collaboration rather than destructive, zero-sum competition. The telegraph in particular was hailed as an invention that would unite humanity by allowing us to better communicate. Everything seemed to be going relatively well, especially after 1871 (end of the Franco-Prussian War), for over 40 years…

  • That “improvements on nature” would avoid unintended consequences. (This one may have been implicit.) It’s good to try to improve on nature; it’s bad to go about it blithely and heedless of risk. One striking example is the popularity of “acclimatization societies”, “based upon the concept that native fauna and flora were inherently deficient and that nature could be greatly improved upon by the addition of more species…. the American Acclimatization Society was founded in New York City in 1871, dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America for both economic and aesthetic purposes. Much of the effort made by the society focused on birds, and in the late 1870’s, New York pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin led the society in a program to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare.” (Emphasis added.) These importations led to invasive pests that threatened crops, and were ultimately placed under strict controls.

  • That progress was inevitable. The most optimistic thinkers believed not only that continued progress was possible, but that it was being driven by some grand historical force. Historian Carl Becker, writing about this period soon after it had passed, spoke of the conviction that “the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards,“ adding that “the doctrine was in essence an emotional conviction, a species of religion.”

20th-century challenges to the idea of progress

The idea of progress was never without 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.” But through the 19th century, voices like this could barely be heard above the cheering of the crowds in celebration of the railroad, the light bulb, or the airplane.

What changed in the 20th century? Here are several factors:

The world wars. With World War I, it became clear that technology had not led to an end to war; it had made war all the more horrible and destructive. Progress was not inevitable, certainly not moral and social progress. By the end of World War 2, the atomic bomb in particular made it clear that science, technology and industry had unleashed a new and very deadly threat on the world.

The wars, I think, were the main catalyst for the change. But they were not the only challenge to the idea of progress. There were other concerns that had existed at least since the 19th century:

Poverty and inequality. Many people were still living in dilapidated conditions, without even toilets or clean water, at the same time as others were getting rich from new industrial ventures.

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, groups led by “Ned Ludd” and “Captain Swing” smashed and burned textile machinery in protest.

Harms, risks, and accountability in a complex economy. As the economy grew more complex and people were living more interconnected lives, increasingly in dense urban spaces, they had the ability to affect each other—and harm each other—in many more ways, many of which were subtle and hard to detect. To take one example, households that once were largely self-sufficient farms began buying more and 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.

Concentration of wealth and power. The new industrial economy was creating a new elite: Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie. Their wealth came from business, not inheritance, and their power was more economic than political, but to many people 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.” It was a deep conflict that persists to this day.

Resource consumption. Long before Peak Oil, William Stanley Jevons was warning of Peak Coal. Others predicted the end of silver 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 not last forever.

Pollution. Coal use was blackening not only the skies but the houses, streets, and lungs of cities such as London or 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 and to cholera epidemics. Pesticides based on toxic substances such as arsenic, dumped in copious quantities over crops, sickened people and animals and poisoned the soil.

And there was at least one major new concern coming to the fore:

The environment, as such. The 19th century may have worried about pollution and resources, but in the 20th century these concerns were united into a larger concept of “the environment” considered as a systematic whole, which led to new fears of large-scale, long-term unintended consequences of industrial activity.

New explanations

Historical events can be a catalyst for change, but they do not explain themselves. It is up to historians, philosophers, and other commentators to offer explanations and solutions. Thus history is shaped by events, but not determined by them: it is partly determined by how we choose to interpret and respond to those events.

Those who stepped forward in the 20th century to explain what went wrong—especially (although not exclusively) environmentalists such as William Vogt or Paul Ehrlich—emphasized the concerns above, and added a layer of deeper criticism:

  • That we were becoming “disconnected” from nature and/​or from our families, communities, and traditions

  • That progress was not making us happier or healthier; that people had been and were better off in less industrialized societies (even, some claimed, as tribal hunter-gatherers)

  • That there were inherent limits to growth, which we were exceeding at our peril

Underlying this analysis were some basic philosophical premises:

  • Human well-being was not consistently their standard of value. Some saw inherent value in nature, above and apart from its usefulness to humans; some even turned anti-human (such as David Graber, who wrote: “We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth… Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”)

  • They lacked the 19th-century belief in the efficacy of reason, and therefore in the ability of humanity to control our destiny. The world was too big and complicated for us to understand, and we were ultimately at the mercy of forces beyond our control, especially if we decided to tinker with complex systems.

  • As a corollary of the above, they adopted “sustainability” as an ideal, rather than growth, which was seen as an unhealthy “addiction.”

(If the above seems singularly focused on environmentalism, it reflects the incomplete state of my research. As I’ve noted elsewhere, progress is criticized from the right as well as from the left, for its “materialism” and “decadence.” Open questions for me here include the role of religion in this period, and the reaction of the liberal world to the rise of socialism and fascism.)

This new worldview did not take over immediately; it slowly grew in influence during the generation after the World Wars. But by the time the world was cheering the Moon landing and greeting the astronauts on a triumphant world tour, this philosophy had spawned the New Left and the radical environmentalist movement. The oil shocks hit a few years later; as Americans lined up for gas rations and donned sweaters, many people thought that perhaps the “limits to growth” were real after all.

Regrouping in the 21st century

The 21st-century progress movement must directly address the challenges that created skepticism and distrust of progress in the 20th century. Those challenges have not gone away; many have intensified: in addition to nuclear war, pollution, and overpopulation, we are now worried about climate change, pandemics, and threats to democracy.

Here are some difficult questions the new progress movement needs to answer:

  • Is material progress actually good for humanity? Does it promote human well-being? Or is it an unhealthy “addiction?”

  • Is progress “unsustainable?” How do we make it “sustainable?” And what exactly do we want to sustain?

  • Does progress benefit everyone? Does it do so in a fair and just way?

  • How can we have both progress and safety? How do we avoid destroying ourselves?

  • What are the appropriate legal frameworks for existing technologies and for emerging ones?

  • How do we address environmental issues such as climate change and pollution?

  • How do we deal with the fact that technology makes war more destructive?

  • How can we make sure technology is used for good? How do we avoid enabling oppression and authoritarianism?

  • How can we make moral and social progress at least as fast as we make scientific, technological and industrial progress? How do we prevent our capabilities from outrunning our wisdom?

Without answers to these questions, any new philosophy of progress will fail—and probably deserves to.

I don’t have all the answers yet—and I’m not sure that anyone does. I think we need new answers.

This is why we can’t simply return to the 19th-century philosophy of progress. First, it was mistaken. Second, there is a reason it failed: it foundered on the shoals of the 20th century. If it were revived, it would immediately run into the same problems, the same challenges it could not answer. In any case, there would be something odd and deeply incongruous about a movement dedicated to building an ambitious technological future that was stuck in a philosophic past.

Instead, we have to find a new way forward. We have to acknowledge the problems and concerns of the modern world, and we have to find solutions. Not the regressive proposals offered in the 20th century, but ones based on a humanistic standard of value, a belief in human agency, and an understanding of the reality and desirability of progress.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen, Greg Salmieri, Clara Collier, and Michael Goff for comments on a draft of this essay.