What would a thriving progress movement look like?

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In recent essays I’ve outlined the intellectual-historical need for a progress movement, and the core ideas that I think the budding 21st-century progress movement is based on.

What would a thriving progress movement look like, in terms of activities, programs, and institutions? Here’s what we might see within the next decade or so:

Dozens of public intellectuals writing books and giving talks about the history, nature, and philosophy of progress.

  • Academic recognition of “progress studies” as a valuable interdisciplinary field. As Collison & Cowen said when they coined the term, this wouldn’t mean reorganizing academic departments, but “a decentralized shift in priorities among academics, philanthropists, and funding agencies,” including journals and conferences.

  • School curricula to teach the history of progress at the K–12 and undergrad level. I’ve created a high-school progress course; a curriculum like this should be at every high school in the world.

  • Art & entertainment that sounds themes of progress, such as optimistic science fiction, or biopics about great scientists, inventors, and founders. (I would start with Norman Borlaug.)

  • More journalism about progress, and more journalists exhibiting industrial literacy.

  • Political debates framed in terms of progress and growth, rather than primarily or exclusively in terms of redistribution.

  • Experiments in new models of funding, organizing, and managing scientific and technological research, such as the efforts covered recently in Endpoints and The Atlantic (see also the Overedge Catalog for a broader list).

  • Scientists, engineers and founders drawing inspiration and courage from this movement, and seeing their work as having the potential to be part of a grand and noble quest to improve the human condition.

The foundation of all of this is intellectual work: a lot of hard research, thinking, writing and speaking. The philosophy of progress has barely begun to be elucidated. To succeed, this movement will need much more than just “yay progress!” or “look at this hockey-stick graph!” Those notions are the beginning of this body of thought, not the end. As I wrote recently, we need to answer the challenges that arose in the 20th century and caused many people to sour on the idea of progress. Without more serious intellectual work here, we risk falling back on the naive 18th- and 19th-century notions of progress that proved wrong and led the world to start questioning the entire enterprise.

I see at least four major areas for progress intellectuals to work on:

  • History: The story of progress has never properly been told for a general audience. History is the motivation for this entire enterprise, and it is the empirical foundation that the whole thing rests on. Examples in this genre include the first two parts of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the bulk of Enlightenment Now, and most of this blog.

  • Theory: addressing the questions I outlined as making up a “philosophy of progress”. Examples here include The Beginning of Infinity, A Culture of Growth, the last three chapters of Enlightenment Now, and McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy.

  • Solutions to problems of the modern world: climate, pollution, job loss, safety, etc. This is necessary as a proving ground for theory, to overcome the objections of skeptics and opponents, and most importantly because many of these problems are real, and solving them is part of progress itself. One example on my future reading list is Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.

  • Vision for the future: What kind of world do we want to create? This complements history, taking the arrow of the past and extending it into the future. Futurism serves as motivation and inspiration: both for those working to promote progress generally, and especially for those working on the front lines of science and technology to advance it. A prime example here is Where Is My Flying Car?

My main contribution to the above efforts is the book I’m working on, The Story of Industrial Civilization: Towards a New Philosophy of Progress for the 21st Century. But as an organization, The Roots of Progress will be working to help make all of the above happen, both by empowering intellectuals and creatives who want to advance this program, and by building community, both online and off.

This is the work of a generation. In large part this is a program to change a culture, and cultural change is slow. But the goal is worth it, and we are in for the long haul.